Chapter 13: ADAPTATION OF SRI IDEAS AND METHODS TO
GROWING UNIRRIGATED RAINFED RICE
Some of the first questions that arose once farmers and others started working with SRI ideas was: Does this innovation, developed to produce more irrigated rice, apply also to unirrigated rice cultivation? And can it adapted to other crops? The answer, based on more than a decade of experimentation and evaluation, is yes, to both questions. These results showed the value of regarding SRI as a matter of ideas rather than as a material technology, and as a set of ideas that should be kept open, not closed.
The results also showed the merit of treating these ideas as non-proprietary, making them accessible to anyone and everyone. Widespread ownership of these ideas (in effect, non-ownership) encouraged outside-the-box thinking. The expanded thinking started with SRI ideas and experience being extrapolated first from irrigated lowland rice production to unirrigated upland cultivation, discussed in this chapter. The chapter that follows then reviews how SRI thinking and practices were extrapolated to a variety of crops beyond rice.
In a technical paper on SRI written about 1992, Fr. Laulanié asked: Can SRI be used in rain-fed rice cultivation in the uplands? His response to this question, which he must have been asked frequently, was cautious, characteristically detailed, and empirical. It focused on the effects of having water control or not. Given the challenges that he was facing in introducing and spreading SRI for irrigated rice production, rainfed applications of SRI ideas probably did not warrant much attention at the time.
Shortly after I had concluded, after three years of evaluation, that SRI offered significant and valid ways to improve irrigated rice production, I happened to meet in an Antananarivo hotel a recent Cornell graduate who was serving as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar. Joe Schaeffer told me about the methods of a Malagasy extension worker in the Zahamena area where he was posted, experimenting with the adaptation of SRI principles to upland rice.
On land that had been cleared without burning off the vegetation (the usual practice), farmers had applied compost and then planted young single rice seedings at 25 × 25 cm spacing, doing manual weeding as necessary during the season. The yield that the farmers obtained was about double what they usually got with their slash-and-burn cultivation, and for this they needed to sow only one-eighth as much seed as usual. Subsistence households like these must make the difficult choice of using their limited supply of rice either for consumption or for sowing.
What was most impressive for farmers was that the adapted SRI methods enabled them to achieve seed multiplication 16 times greater than with their traditional methods. One kilogram of rice sown with SRI methods brought them 16 kilograms at harvest time. For upland rice producers, land is not their most binding constraint, so this seed-to-seed increase was a the most relevant measure of factor productivity.
The next season, Joeli Barison whose research on SRI was reported in Chapters 4 and 6, together with a government rice specialist Bruno Andrianaivo, introduced in Chapter 10, undertook some on-farm experiments around Ranomafana. Below is Joeli’s summary of their results that he contributed to CIIFAD’s 1998-99 Annual Report. Replicated trials of the respective treatments showed that SRI methods adapted to upland areas with no irrigation could produce 2.5 to 5 times more rice than farmers were getting from their traditional shifting cultivation methods, and more than from irrigated fields with their usual practices.
That mulching was the most productive method to increase yield was welcome because it eliminated farmers’ need for weeding. However, much labor was required to cut up the available vegetative matter into small pieces for mulch material, to accelerate its decomposition by microbial activity. So, until mulch-cutting could be mechanized, this method of crop management would not become popular, even with substantial gains in productivity.
Because SRI is not a technology, not a fixed package of practices but rather a suite of practices that promote the growth and functioning of root systems and enhance the abundance, diversity and activity of beneficial soil organisms, it turned out that adapting SRI methods to rainfed rice production was easier and quicker than Fr. Laulanié (or anyone) anticipated.
The first documented adaptation of SRI methods to rainfed rice production was done in the province of Negros Occidental during the summer 2002 season by an NGO, Broader Initiatives for Negros Development (BIND). Working with the provincial department for agricultural research and extension and using a popular aromatic local upland rice variety known as Azucena, BIND worked with cooperating farmers to evaluate four different spacings of SRI under rainfed conditions: 15 × 40 cm, 20 × 40 cm, 25 × 40 cm, 30 × 40 cm, and 15 × 40 cm, with 4 replications of each spacing.
Given the limited and unreliable rainfall in upland areas, transplanting SRI was not an option. With their upland rice production, farmers usually planted 8-12 seeds in a hill. This gave an initial impression (illusion) of profuse plant growth, but the yield was only around 1.5 tonnes per hectare. The version of SRI that BIND evaluated started by planting 3-4 seeds per hill, at the different hill spacings indicated above. Then at 12-15 days after planting, all but the most vigorous seedling in each hill were pulled up, leaving just one plant per hill.
At this time, each hill was side-dressed with some chicken manure. Also short lengths (5-10 cm) of a leguminous shrub (gliricidia) that grows well in the area were cut up and put around the rice plants as mulch. Below we see a member of the farmers’ organization that carried out the trials, Mario Magsalin, laying down madre de cacao (Gliricidia sepium) between the rows.
The results were impressive as seen below. Most yields from the replicated trials were over 7 tonnes per hectare, more than quadruple the usual upland yield. Spacing of 20 × 40 cm (12.5 plants per m²) was the optimum both agronomically and economically. The benefit-cost ratios calculated, pesos of income per peso of expenditure, were all very favorable. The results made clear that spacing is something to be optimized, neither maximized nor minimized. The densest and sparsest spacings gave poorer results than those in the middle range, although all of the yields and benefit-cost ratios were quite respectable.
Below is a picture of Mario counting the number of tillers on an SRI-grown upland plant, and of mature Azucena rice plants raised with adapted SRI methods, showing their long and full panicles of grain which though heavy were not causing the plants to lodge.
While the Philippine results reported above were carefully and purposefully obtained from replicated trials using rainfed SRI methods, the situation was quite different in Cambodia. Little of this country’s rice area is irrigated, so any significant use of SRI ideas required experimentation and adaptation for rainfed production. This was not a matter of choice. In the monsoon season, there was ample, even often too much rain. In the dry season, only irrigated rice could give some assured harvest. So, it was a matter of figuring out how to adapt practices to the vicissitudes of weather when irrigation facilities were not available.
The NGO that championed SRI in Cambodia understood that SRI was not some kind of set formula to be followed. Grasping the significance of SRI’s basic principles, CEDAC and its director Y.S. Koma took up the challenge of modifying SRI practices to suit local conditions. As noted in Chapter 24, at CEDAC initiative, then with assistance from Oxfam America and the German agency for technical cooperation (GTZ), and then with Cambodian government support, use of SRI methods in this country was taken from 28 farmers in 2000 to probably over 250,000 within 15 years.
As reported in Chapter 7, a thorough evaluation was carried out in 2004 under the auspices of GTZ, studying SRI and its impact in five provinces. Because the methods were being used mostly under rainfed conditions, the average yield improvement documented was only 41%, not as great as in situations where there was both more water control and less crop exposure to water stress.
However, with a 40% reduction in the average costs of production per hectare, farmers’ net income per hectare was boosted by 74% within a large sample of SRI and non-SRI farmers (N=500). This economic impact helped to explain the widespread uptake of the new ideas. Below is an SRI farmer in Chibal village, Srey Santor district of Kampong Chan province.
About the time that CEDAC began working with rainfed SRI in Cambodia, a similar NGO in Myanmar, the Metta Development Foundation, began introducing SRI methods in the Kachin and Shan states in the northern region of the country. It used farmer field school (FFS) methods for extension. As in Cambodia, the SRI methods relying just on rainfall were based on transplanting young seedlings at wide spacing, with enhancement of soil organic matter, and with soil-aerating weeding when possible.
One of the difficult ideas to get accepted was that when the monsoon rains came, farmers should not hoard this water in their fields but should keep only enough water to maintain desirable levels of moisture in the soil to support plant growth. Keeping standing water on rice fields for a long as possible will stunt and suffocate rice root systems. When there is water stress later in the growing season and the soil’s top layers dry out, SRI plants with their roots reaching down deeply into the soil will have enough access to water to sustain their growth.
Each year from 2002 to 2004, ten FFSs in which farmers were getting SRI training were randomly selected for intensive monitoring. Members of these 30 FFSs (out of the 258 FFSs that were conducted over the three years) were studied. These 612 farmers were followed through the succeeding years to see what was the impact of SRI methods and training over time. The yield on the FFS plots that were managed by the farmers averaged 6.5 tonnes per hectare, compared with 2-tonne yields that farmers obtained using usual methods.
The average yield of these 612 farmers who used SRI methods on their own fields (although not as rigorously as on the FFS demonstration plots) was also monitored. It was 4.2 tonnes compared to their usual yield of 2 tonnes. This was just a doubling of yield rather than the tripling that could be achieved with more careful and thorough use of the new methods. Still, because their usual yields were quite low, creating chronic food insecurity, this doubling was very beneficial for the participating households.
To evaluate the economic impacts of SRI use and to avoid distortions that fluctuating market prices and exchange rates could introduce, all of the farmers’ costs of production were denominated in terms of the physical amounts of rice (in kg) that the inputs of labor and purchased inputs represented. The comparisons made were in effect: how much rice was invested to produce how much rice? Rainfed rice production in the Kachin and Shan states using traditional methods was not much more than a break-even operation, which kept farm households at subsistence level. So, the net gains achieved were quite spectacular.
Farmers’ net production of rice per hectare using their usual methods of rice cultivation was 296 kg on average. On SRI plots, their net production averaged 2,584 kg per hectare, almost 10 times more. Farmers’ costs of production increased somewhat under SRI management, but this doubled their output, with a huge net economic gain. Such huge improvements were particularly appreciated because they benefited some of the poorest households in the country. And they showed that even without irrigation, by making certain changes in cultivation methods, poor households could get much more productivity from their available resources.
When visiting India in November 2002, my wife Marguerite and I met with staff of the national NGO known as PRADAN to share with them what we were learning in other countries about SRI opportunities. The only field team leader who happened to be in New Delhi at the time, and thus ablef to meet with us in person, was the head of PRADAN’s program in Purulia district of West Bengal. This was a very poor, drought-prone area with a largely tribal population and very little irrigated area. Dinabandhu explained that he thought the circumstances in Purulia were not very favorable for SRI, but he would see what SRI ideas with appropriate modifications could produce there. (See his mini-memoire.)
In the first year 2003, only four farmers in Purulia were willing to try out the new SRI methods, but their results were good enough that in the next year, 150 farmers followed suit. This attracted the attention of the International Water Management Institute’s India program, which sent a small team to evaluate that season’s results (Chapter 7).
Even though one of the two villages selected for the study had experienced severe drought, the average yield improvement for the 100 farmers surveyed, selected randomly, 50 in each villages to evaluate the impact of SRI methods, was 32%. Their average net economic return per hectare from their rice production increased by 67%. Surprisingly, these gains were achieved with an average 8% reduction in the amount of labor expended per hectare. Farmers reported to the team that the labor they saved was being used for other activities that improved their income or quality of life.
PRADAN’s experience with rainfed SRI was already commented on in Chapter 7. Two things that its staff learned from working with Purulia farmers should be noted here. At first, the staff found it difficult to get farmers to stop a practice that they used to cope with the irregularity of the monsoon rains; when the rains came, farmers ‘stored’ as much water as possible on their fields. This seemed like a wise precaution against subsequent water shortages. But as seen in Chapter 4, keeping standing water on rice paddies causes rice plants’ roots to degrade.
Purulia farmers had to be persuaded to monitor the growth and health of their rice plants’ roots by inspecting them periodically. Seeing their plants’ roots degenerate under flooded conditions made it clear to them that they should not be impounding water on their fields. Instead, they should even let their plants experience some water shortage (stress) early in their growth cycle to induce the roots to grow larger and deeper. This was important learning for rainfed rice farmers. Keeping their rice fields flooded during the first part of the growing season made it more difficult to sustain their rice crop toward the end of the season.
Second, because the onset of the monsoon rains was unpredictable, varying over a range of about six weeks, it was hard to know exactly when to plant SRI nurseries in order to have young seedlings between 8 and 15 days old available for transplanting from farmers’ nurseries into their fields when the rains came. And climate change was making the monsoon onset more and more erratic. If farmers transplanted seedlings that were more than 15 days old because the rains arrived late, this could cause farmers to lose out on a tonne or more of attainable yield, the amount depending on the size of their rice farm and the age of seedlings.
Farmers figured out how to work around this problem by each planting several nurseries in succession, rather than just one, starting each nursery a week or 10 days after the other. This stratagem gave them for an extended period of time when young seedlings between 8 and 15 days old would be ready for transplanting when the monsoon came. By planting a series of three or four small nurseries, farmers were able to have ‘young seedlings’ available for a whole month or more.
Since SRI nurseries require only about 10% as much seed as with conventional practice, planting three or four nurseries would reduce a farmer’s SRI seed-saving by 60-70%, rather than by the 90% that was possible if one nursery was sufficient to provide young seedlings. By using as 10-20 more kg of rice for seed than the minimum needed with SRI, farmers could produce an additional tonne or two of paddy rice per hectare. This was a phenomenal return in benefit-cost terms.
However, this was not an easy tradeoff to get accepted. For very poor and hungry people, the idea of ‘wasting’ rice was really hard to agree to. When rice grains are food for the family if not used for seed, getting subsistence farmers to deliberately sacrifice rice seed for several extra nurseries was a hard sell. It took several seasons for farmers to accept the idea that forfeiting a few kg of seed could enhance their harvested yield by a hundred times this amount.
This idea of planting several small nurseries in sequence gradually gained acceptance, even if acceptance was reluctant. This was one of the more important lessons learned for adapting SRI to rainfed cultivation. Good results have meant that rainfed SRI could begin to be used and adapted in other parts of India which is important because about half of India’s rice is grown under rainfed conditions.
SRI got its start in the Timbuktu region where most rice is grown with irrigation using water diverted from rivers or pumped from groundwater. But there was also farmer experimentation with rainfed SRI in the Sikasso region of southern Mali starting in 2009-10. This initiative was instructive in part because rainfed rice-growing in the region was mostly done by women, in a customary division of labor where they had to give priority to providing labor for their husbands’ farms, which constrained their own agricultural activity. It became quickly evident that introducing and adapting SRI had to take gender issues and differences into account.
Erika Styger worked with women’s associations in the Sikasso region to evaluate four different variations of rainfed SRI, ranging from upland areas where the soils were very well-drained to lowland areas that ranged from higher to medium to lower. Soils in the latter category had to contend with the constraint of waterlogging. SRI principles had to be adapted for both soil and water management where there was no water control or where excess water could be a problem.
Women liked SRI’s idea of planting in rows because this made their weeding easier. But establishing the crop through transplanting of young seedlings was not feasible, because the women had little or no time to raise nurseries and also because the timing and amount of rainfall were unreliable. Planting a succession of nurseries as done in Purulia district of India to address this latter problem was out of the question because of the limitations on labor time.
So, a direct-seeded version of SRI was introduced, planting several seeds in a hill and then after 10 to 15 days removing all but the best seedling in each hill, similar to what was done in the Philippines. Hills were spaced at 25 × 25 cm, the usual SRI recommendation, instead of the more familiar distance of 10-20 cm.
Previously, compost was applied only to the men’s fields, but for rainfed SRI here, the women started putting organic matter on their own fields, and saw dramatic improvements in the health and yield of their crops. As there was no abundance of vegetative growth in this semi-arid area that could be applied as compost or mulch, it was concluded that growing a green-manure crop before the season would be a desirable practice.
The variety of rice that was planted in the upland trials was Nerica-4, developed by WARDA, now the Africa Rice Center. Unfortunately, this variety does not respond very well to SRI management because it does not tiller profusely. In the high to middle to low lowland plots, where the topography channeled water runoff into soil depressions and lower horizons, there were 42-72% increases in yield.
A local variety that had no particular name responded very well to unirrigated SRI practices, giving yields of 6.6 tonnes per hectare, a yield remarkable even for irrigated rice fields in the region. In the control plots with farmer methods, this variety gave only 3.6 tonnes per hectare.
In controlled trials, the women farmers found that transplanting gave 20% higher yield for both SRI and farmer methods compared with direct-seeded crop management. However, farmers had to decide for themselves whether the additional labor required for transplanting was worthwhile, or even available. Below is a picture of an SRI farmer in rainfed Sikasso region showing the difference in panicle size that she could see in conventionally-managed vs. SRI rice plants.
That farmers in Mali and other countries could make the ideas and methods of SRI, developed for irrigated rice cropping, so productive under rainfed conditions was a welcome surprise. It had been thought that a large part of SRI’s effectiveness came from stopping the continuous flooding of rice paddies, converting soil conditions from anaerobic (hypoxic) to aerobic. Surely that was part of the effect, but the dynamics of SRI are holistic in that they are not attributable just to any single practice.
There are benefits from each of the respective practices that can be evaluated, other things being equal, to determine what are the effects of changing each practice when all the other practices are kept the same (Chapter 7). SRI practices can each be seen as having some positive effect. But the value of using them together, to activate potentials within the respective plants and within the soil systems that support them, became ever more evident as farmers in many countries, and the NGO staff and researchers who worked with them, began to extend SRI thinking also to a range of other crops as reviewed in the following chapter.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
 “In the midwest of Madagascar, it is common to sow 40 kg of seed per hectare for growing rainfed rice, which equals 48 to 50 seeds per 1 m². When sowing with 40 × 15 cm spacing, 16 to 17 seeds per 1 m² are required. To make sure that one has successful sowing, one has to pregerminate seed and sort it, because of the problem described above … Afterwards, one has to make sure that seeds are put one by one in the right place. This is very hard work if done by hand. There is no monograin sower available, although one could be manufactured. One would have to set the manufacturing specifications and find purchasers. This is a very difficult technological problem given present circumstances.”
“The main problem comes from a lack of reliable meteorological forecasts,” Fr. Laulanié wrote. “Rice paddy soils retain humidity for a longer time than hill soils. Drought is thus a more acute risk in the uplands. A rice farmer can use SRI principles in the uplands, but he has to do this on his own responsibility. The situation is less acute on the east coast, but rainfed rice is much less common there. There one finds mostly upland rice grown on cleared and burned forest land (tavy). It is far from probable that this technique can get adopted and expanded there, unless it is already used in rice paddies. The spread of SRI is closely related to water control in this region, which has problems of drainage in low-laying, often swampy areas. The advantages of drainage have been known for a long time, but its application has not been well-recognized so far.” In his article on SRI published in Belgium in 1993, Laulanié was even more cautious about the prospects for rainfed SRI.
 By sheerest of coincidences, Joe happened to have been a member of the fraternity to which my son Jonathan also belonged when both were studying at Cornell. Small world.
 Growth and Yield Response of Traditional Upland Rice on Different Distance of Planting using Azucena Variety, report for Broader Initiatives for Negros Development (BIND), team headed by Robert Gasparillo with cooperating farmers R. Narangdao, E. Judilla, J. Nana and M. Magsalin, Bacalod City, Philippines (2003). Gasparillo had attended the Sanya conference in China in April, 2002 representing the SRI-Pilipinas network which was just getting started in his country.
 CEDAC is the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture.
 Jürgen Anthofer, Potential of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) for Cambodia, report to the Food Security and Nutrition Policy Support Project, and the Rural Development Program, Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Spaichenge, Germany, April, 2004.
 The Metta Development Foundation was established initially to support development and reconciliation in some of the more disadvantaged part of Myanmar, but its program has subsequently spread.
 Humayun Kabir, a Bangladeshi agronomist who assisted in this initiative as the agricultural advisor for Metta, had learned about SRI while serving as the rice specialist for the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), an international NGO headquartered in the Philippines. In 1997, IIRR convened a national workshop on improving rice production, to which CIIFAD sent Justin Rabenandrasana from Association Tefy Saina in Madagascar to introduce SRI experience. Humayun conducted SRI trials in Cambodia in 2000, without much success. But the rainfed methods adapted to Myanmar conditions starting the next year worked better.
 H. Kabir and N. Uphoff, ‘Results of disseminating the System of Rice Intensification with Farmer Field School methods in Northern Myanmar,’ Experimental Agriculture, 43: 463-475 (2007).
 PRADAN, an acronym for Professional Assistance for Development Action, is one the most respected NGOs in India, subsequently undertaking SRI activity in a number of Indian states.
 S.K. Sinha and J. Talati, Impact of System of Rice Intensification (SRI) on Rice Yields: Results of as New Sample Study in Purulia District, India. IWMI-Tata Water Policy Program, Research Highlight 20 (2005); and S.K. Sinha and J. Talati, ‘Productivity impacts of the system of rice intensification (SRI): A case study in West Bengal, India,’ Agricultural Water Management, 87: 55-60 (2007).
 Little is written about rainfed SRI apart from the IWMI evaluation, but there is an assessment of its introduction in Karnataka state of India by the Agriculture-Man-Environment Foundation (AMEF). A. Balamatti and N. Uphoff, ‘Experience with the system of rice intensification for sustainable paddy farming systems in India,’ Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, 41: 573-587 (2017).
 This was planned and documented by Erika Styger while she was living in Mali (Chapter 44). See her consultancy report, Introducing the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) to Irrigated Systems in Gao, Mopti, Timbuktu and to Rainfed Systems in Sikasso, 2009/2010, written for Abt Associates and USAID/Mali, Bamako, Mali (2010).
PICTURE CREDITS: BIND (3) (Philippines); GTZ (Cambodia); Erika Styger (Cornell).