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Growing Against the Grain: Boosting India Harvests

By Steve Cunliffe

Most villagers laughed at Niranjan Pradhan, a 38-year-old farmer in India, when he said he was going to try something different with his rice crop. Catholic Relief Services teams in his area had described innovative farming methods that would help villagers grow more rice with the same land, but the techniques sounded very strange.

Farmer Niranjan Pradhan dramatically reduced his costs and increased his rice yield

Farmer Niranjan Pradhan dramatically reduced his costs and increased his rice yield by more than 50 percent using a system promoted by CRS India's Jeevika Project. Photo by Stephen Cunliffe for CRS

Despite his neighbors' skepticism, Niranjan decided to try the new method—called System of Rice Intensification, which uses fewer seeds spaced farther apart—on one of his farm's 3 acres. "Even if this new idea to increase paddy production failed, I would still have 2 acres under old paddy techniques," he says. "That would yield enough rice to ensure I could feed my family."

In the early stages, it seemed like the skeptics were right. "Initially, my plot was completely barren; it looked like a wasteland, and this put most people off experimenting with the new technology," says Niranjan. "But later, the 8-inch spacing between seedlings and the planting in rows specified by SRI resulted in a lush green field that generated a 50 percent increase in production," he says.

Using traditional rice farming methods, Niranjan would sow around 77 pounds of seed per acre of rice paddy. With SRI techniques promoted by CRS India's Jeevika project, though, he reduced that to a mere 4.5 pounds. And, not only did SRI increase productivity in Niranjan's field, it reduced his production costs from $155 to $89 per acre cultivated. He saved even more money because, with SRI, the farmer does not apply pesticides or chemicals to the paddies. The increased space between rice plants made his crop considerably easier to weed, maintain and harvest—further reducing labor costs.

Although traditional paddy techniques require 145 days of cultivation before harvesting, SRI takes 120 days. This shorter cultivation period allows farmers to use fields for a second crop of seasonal vegetables.

Niranjan threw out some impressive stats: "In 2010, I harvested 9,500 pounds of rice from my fields. The 2 acres under traditional paddy techniques supplied about 5,500 pounds, while the single acre under SRI produced a whopping 4,000 pounds." Of the total harvest, Niranjan and his family set aside 3,400 pounds to meet their annual food requirements. They sold the remaining 6,100 pounds in the local market.

"SRI earned me an extra 8,000 rupees [$178] profit this season," Niranjan says. "I put this money aside to invest in my three daughters' education and for dowry payments when they get married."

CRS India's Jeevika project improves food production for vulnerable families in 108 villages across the Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Thousands of impoverished Indian people have more food and can earn a better living, thanks to the project.

In recent months, a number of farmers from neighboring villages have visited Niranjan for advice about SRI. "They saw the results of this new farming method with their own eyes," Niranjan says. "Now they too want to reap the rewards of this exciting technology during the coming paddy season."

Steve Cunliffe is a freelance writer based in India.

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