It's 8 a.m., and the sun over Madagascar is already etching shadowy grooves across the landscape in the small village of Tsinjorano. Farmer Patricia Suzy Razafindrafara, 42, shades her eyes with her palm and surveys her rice fields. Thick stalks sway in the gentle breeze as crickets sing a morning lullaby. She carefully kicks off her black plastic shoes, hefts her metal weeder over her shoulder and scrambles into the shallow paddies below.
Suzy's raffia hat forms tan-and-brown concentric circles against a horizon of green as she tilts her head down and pushes her weeder. The spurlike wheels churn through the evenly spaced rows, uprooting weeds and aerating the soil.
When Suzy first began planting rice the way Catholic Relief Services' partner Caritas Antsirabe recommended, her neighbors laughed. It's common practice in Madagascar to flood rice paddies. Some are so deep, children dive into them in search of crayfish. Conventional wisdom dictates flooding the fields to kill weeds. Suzy didn't flood her fields.
By their accounts, she was doing everything wrong. She transplanted seedlings only 12 to 15 days into their growth. She planted them one by one rather than in clumps of six. And she arranged the seedlings in 10-inch by 10-inch square patterns rather than in closer and more haphazard rows. When harvest time rolled around, though, Suzy's fields yielded more than one and a half times the rice her neighbors' did.
Suddenly, "they were no longer laughing," says Suzy. "Instead, women at the market were stopping me to ask me to teach them the method."
Jesuit Studies Rice Production
That method is called System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, an innovative way of planting rice pioneered by Jesuit priest Father Henri de Laulanié, a French agricultural missionary who worked in Madagascar for more than 30 years. Although Father de Laulanié had no experience in rice production, he chose to focus his work on Madagascar's staple food—the Malagasy eat more rice per capita than any other people in the world.
Priest Devoted to Rice Farmers
Jesuit priest Father Henri de Laulanié spent more than three decades of his life working with small-scale farmers in Madagascar to improve their crop productivity. He first arrived in Madagascar from his native France in 1961 as an agricultural missionary with no experience in rice cultivation.
Recognizing the Malagasy dependency on rice—they eat more rice per capita than any other people in the world—Father de Laulanié focused his energies on rice production. His goal: to discover new ways of cultivating rice that would not require additional costly tools or other monetary investment for subsistence farmers.
At the time of his arrival, the Malagasy, like most rice producers in the world, planted their crops closely together and flooded their fields to help prevent weed growth. Father de Laulanié later discovered that such methods were counterproductive and that, with a few modifications, farmers could nearly double their crop yields.
With careful experimentation and keen observation of the results attained by farmers who departed from traditional planting methods, Father de Laulanié developed the System of Rice Intensification. This method, although more time-consuming than traditional practices, vastly increases harvests while requiring 25-50 percent less water and 80-90 percent fewer seeds.
Since its introduction, SRI has been recognized by more than 30 countries, including Indonesia, China and India, three of the largest rice-producing nations in the world.
Father de Laulanié died in June 1995, and his legacy lives on in the millions of acres of SRI rice cultivated each year.
SRI adheres to a "less is more" approach to rice cultivation. Years of observation, experimentation and collaboration with farmers in the Antsirabe region taught Father de Laulanié that farmers could cultivate more rice with fewer seeds, less water and no costly fertilizers or pesticides. Together, they adapted each new discovery, which helped improve the SRI approach to agriculture.
A drought revealed to Father de Laulanié and farmers that SRI-cultivated rice plants, especially their roots, proved to be heartier when water was drastically reduced. Although flooding rice fields does kill weeds, it also rots root systems and depletes oxygen supplies to plants. Farmers experimenting with nontraditional planting methods helped Father de Laulanié realize that earlier transplantation with single seedlings spaced for easy weeding fortifies and expands root systems. When the government stopped subsidizing commercial fertilizers, Father de Laulanié turned to composting and manure to add vital nutrients to the soil. Over time, SRI resulted in unbelievably bountiful harvests.
More Farmers Become Believers
Even Suzy was skeptical when Charles Rakotondranaivo of Caritas Antsirabe approached her church group about adopting SRI. The numbers didn't add up. How could fewer seeds and less water really equal more harvest? "When I first heard about it," Suzy says, "I thought it was a little crazy."
Each season, however, her family was unable to produce enough rice on their 15-acre farm to get through the year. Invariably, they would have to purchase a 1- or 2-month's supply of the cherished grain just when stock was running out and rice prices were spiking. Charles promised it would only require a half pound of seed, rather than the usual 5 pounds, to plant an acre.
That year, Suzy allotted 2 of her 15 acres to test the method. When her SRI crops produced several more bags than her non-SRI fields, she was sold. Over the years, she expanded her SRI rice fields, first from 2 to 6 acres and then, eventually, to all 15.
SRI is more labor intensive than traditional planting methods, yet most agree the results are worth it. A key concern, though, is the time needed to weed fields. "If my 15-acre rice field is weeded by hand," Suzy says, "it requires four women working over 2 days to get the job done." But the metal weeder, provided by CRS and Caritas Antsirabe through funding from the Better U Foundation, drastically cuts that time. "With the weeder, it requires only two people to get the job done in 1 day's time," Suzy says.
On mornings that Suzy chooses to weed alone, neighbors often stop by to admire the plentiful grains growing on the thick stalks of her rice fields or ask her questions about how to apply her methods.
Through farmers like Suzy, Charles hopes to spread the use of SRI to every family in Antsirabe. Although progress may be slow, every initially reluctant family in Suzy's village has now tried the method. Word has spread—people in countries as far off as Indonesia and China are adopting what began with the Church in Madagascar. Throughout the world, SRI results in millions of cultivated rice acres each year.
More Food, Higher Income, Small Luxuries
After a few hours' work, Suzy comes home to prepare the midday meal. She stores the weeder in a shed and climbs the stairs to the two-story walkup she shares with her family and her fellow SRI farmer, mother-in-law Valerine, 70. While Suzy's husband, Vincent, 44, stokes the fire in their wood-burning stove and prepares some of the green beans he has harvested from a separate plot of land, Valerine spreads freshly picked rice on their rooftop to dry. She'll be taking it to market the following day to have the husks removed.
Suzy looks over their courtyard and gently tosses rice onto a large metal disk. The perfectly white grains lightly tap the silver surface as she searches for and removes small rocks and pieces with husks. SRI has substantially changed her family's life. Not only do they now have enough rice to last them all year, they often have extra to sell to help pay school fees for their three children or purchase little luxuries like a battery-powered television set.
When the meal is served, the family sits around a long, wooden table. A soft breeze rustles their lace curtains as they bow their heads in prayer. Valerine sings grace in sweet melodic Malagasy, and the family gives thanks before digging into a feast of rice, green beans and salted fish.
Sara A. Fajardo is CRS' regional information officer for eastern and southern Africa. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.