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Innovation of the Week: Researchers find farmers applying rice innovations to their wheat crops

The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) is an innovative method of increasing the productivity of irrigated rice with very simple adjustments to traditional techniques. It involves transplanting younger seedlings into the field with wider spacing in a square pattern, irrigating to keep the roots moist and aerated instead of flooding fields, and increasing organic matter in the soil with compost and manure. The SRI method of crop management has been shown to increase yields in over 40 countries, while simultaneously reducing costs, labor, and the need for inputs of chemical fertilizers and water.

By allowing the roots of wheat crops to develop more fully, farmers are seeing higher yields with less water, fertilizer, and labor. (Photo credit: Cornell University)By allowing the roots of wheat crops to develop more fully, farmers are seeing higher yields with less water, fertilizer, and labor. (Photo credit: Cornell University)Lead SRI researchers, Norman Uphoff and Erika Styger, are spearheading new research on applying SRI methods to wheat cultivation. The methodology—dubbed System of Wheat Intensification (SWI)—is improving wheat yields for small-scale farmers in India and Mali, while reducing costs and labor. In Mali, wheat farmers can increase their yields by 15 to 20 percent, and Indian farmers have seen yields 2 and 3 times higher than those from conventional methods. SWI practices have spread quickly in India, and farmers have spontaneously begun applying the principles to other crops, such as millet, mustard seed, soybean, eggplant, and maize. Collectively, these practices are becoming known as System of Crop Intensification (SCI).

“Two years ago there were 400 farmers—most of them women, and most of them illiterate and landless—who used SWI,” says Uphoff. “The next year it was 25,000, and this year it was 50,000. To go from 400 to 50,000 in two years is unprecedented.” Uphoff believes that this is because the methodology is well-suited to the needs of small-scale farmers in India, and that it is making big improvements to the food security of farming families. “[The state of] Bihar is where we’ve seen the most excitement generated by farmers who say that between SRI in the summer and SWI in the winter, they’ve gone from producing three months’ supply of food for their families to 6 or 7 months.”

Uphoff says that the method is about managing the crop, soil, and nutrients to promote a vibrant soil system that, in turn, promotes larger root systems. With adequate spacing and loose soil, the roots of the crop can grow deeper than from conventional cropping methods. “The extra root activity keeps the soil from compacting,” he says. “It’s really a less is more strategy.” By using fewer plants and reducing the amount of inputs, each plant is hardier and can grow to its natural potential.

“What’s more is organic matter,” he explains. “By adding plenty of organic matter to the soil, you get a lot more bacteria, fungi, mites, and earthworms. That makes the soil a well-aerated system, allowing more air and water to penetrate the roots.”

Uphoff says that a big part of the success of SRI and SWI comes from the roots of the crops. More fully developed root systems make crops more resilient in times of drought, because the plant can access moisture deeper in the soil. This could be important for coping with climate change. “In terms of drought resistance, having deep roots that are tapping residual soil moisture are really critical for getting plants through the heat stress,” says Uphoff.

Uphoff reports that in Bihar, India in 2010—a serious drought year—researchers compared the yields from adjacent plots of SRI and conventional methods from 74 farmers. SRI plots had an average of 100 percent higher yields than conventional plots from the same farmers. “They can get twice the yield with the same varieties, in the same soils, and in the same drought conditions,” he says. “We’ve seen the same kind of yield increases in places as different as Bihar on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, Himachal Pradesh in the foothills of the Himalayas, Tigray Province in the highlands of Ethiopia, and Timbuktu in Mali on the edge of the Sahara Desert.”

Uphoff and Styger say that it was the farmers—in both India and Mali—who thought of testing SRI methods on wheat after seeing the positive results on rice yields. “They took the blueprint from SRI and did exactly the same thing with wheat,” says Styger, who has been working on SRI with farmers near Timbuktu, Mali. “But because wheat does not grow as quickly or as thick as rice, the spacing they used was too wide, and the yields were about the same from the conventional way of doing it. So the next year we did some spacing trials and played around with how to establish the crop. The yields were then almost double. The same happened in Northern India. SRI projects were working with farmers who don’t have much land. Wheat is a staple there, so farmers adapted the practice to the wheat crop.”

Styger says that it was initially the endorsement of an elder farmer named Mahamoudou Abdou that made farmers open to her SRI methodology in Mali a few years ago. Abdou spoke up from the crowd of farmers during an SRI presentation saying that it reminded him of an experience he had many years before as a younger man farming with his father. One season, many of the rice seedlings had been eaten by grazing animals in the nursery just before transplanting. With fewer seedlings to plant, Abdou’s father spread each one further apart to fill his field. At harvest time, his yields were much higher than usual. As he told the story, other farmers listened intently. Abdou has become a strong advocate of the method and encourages farmers to make all of the suggested adjustments.

“The interesting thing about [this method],” says Styger, “is that it reverses the way that agricultural technology is developed. Before, the researchers and the extension agents were the experts. But with SRI and SWI, we share the principles of how to adjust the management of the plant with the farmer. But then the farmer adjusts it to his field. By adjusting it to his own field and labor conditions, the farmer is the one who becomes the expert.”

Decades of input-intensive farming and agricultural policy have caused many farmers to forget the complex knowledge and practices regarding their crop and soils that they otherwise would have used. “Farmers got weaned off their earlier fertility management practices by the convenience of fertilizer, and often with the help of heavy government subsidies,” says Uphoff. “Farmers have been persuaded that chemical fertilizer is superior to their compost.” He explains further that SRI and SWI go against conventional logic. “It’s counterintuitive to think that by cutting your plant population by 80 or 90 percent, cutting water inputs by 70 percent, and reducing fertilizer inputs, you get higher yield.”

The researchers do not discourage the use of improved seeds or some amount of chemical fertilizer—as long as it is coupled with organic fertilizer. The key, they say, is to pay closer attention to what is happening below the ground with roots and soils. “The principles are a more knowledge-based system, and the farmer has more control,” says Styger. “We, the outsiders and technical people, need to learn from farmers. Maybe the farmer has already found the solution, but we don’t know about it because the agricultural research system is not usually set up for us to learn from them.”

Do you think SWI methodology has potential on large-scale farms and with other types of crops? Let us know in the comments!

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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