On a recent morning, Ananta Ram Majhi was getting ready to transplant another plot of paddy in this tranquil, green village 30 km east of Biratnagar.
The monsoon was late and other farmers had delayed replanting but Dan Bahadur was ready. He is one of a dozen farmers in Morang trying out a new method of rice planting that doesn't need flooded fields, produces stronger plants that don't need artificial fertilisers and pesticides, and yet yields bigger harvests.
It's almost too good to be true. This skeptical reporter wants to find a hole in the story to shatter the myth of this miracle rice. But the miracle is that it's no miracle.
This is not a high-yield genetically engineered rice but the normal mansuli variety of local seed. Only the method of cultivation is different: instead of waiting six weeks, the seedlings are transplanted when they are only two weeks old. The field doesn't have to be flooded, in fact it needs to be drained of excess water. The seeds are planted farther apart so that while a normal paddy field needs 50 kg of seed per hectare, the new method uses less than 10 kg. And the harvest? It is more than double.
"I thought, how can this be?" recalls Rajendra Uprety, agriculture extension officer for Morang when he first read about the technique on the Internet and decided to test it out. "Since 2002, we've achieved double and triple harvests on test plots. It's just amazing."
Ananta Ram admits he was skeptical. "Initially, I thought to myself if this is such a great idea why didn't my ancestors think of it," he tells us, wading ankle-deep in mud to prepare his next field, "but I decided to take the chance and this is the third year I'm using the new method." Ananta Ram used to harvest five tons per hectare in his fields, now he is getting at least 10 tons. More importantly, he has achieved those yields with only one-third of the seeds he used before and with less water.
News of Morang's amazing harvests have spread quickly by word of mouth. This year, farmers in Sunsari, Dhankuta, Chitwan, Dang and Jhapa are trying out the new method. Uprety brings many of them on inspection visits here. "Actually, it has been more difficult convincing the agronomists and officials than farmers," he laughs.
It hasn't been easy to convince international scientists either. Ever since a French Jesuit in Madagascar, Fr Henri de Laulanie discovered the new method in 1983, agriculture research institutes have been skeptical. It was only after the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development in the United States started pushing the idea that it was taken seriously.
The System of Rice Intensification (SRI), as it is now called, has been tried in Tamil Nadu where it has been shown to increase rice production by 28 percent for 53 percent less water. In arid Hyderabad, farmers have reported 85 percent less seed use for double the harvests. In Sri Lanka, farmers earned 44 percent more and in China and Laos there were harvest increases of 35-50 percent. The German aid group, GTZ is pushing SRI in Cambodia where harvest have increased by 41 percent.
However, field trials at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines weren't as successful. To be sure, SRI demands skilful farming, conscientious planting, good timing and careful drainage. Since the traditional method of planting on flooded paddy fields was a weed-control technique, the drier SRI fields need to be weeded several times during the harvest cycle.
But the benefits far outweigh these obstacles and Uprety says the main challenge is training. In Morang, he has turned local farmers like 28-year-old Kishore Luitel, who are now total converts to SRI, into trainers. Dan Bahadur Rajbansi thought Luitel had gone mad a few years ago for adopting the new technique. But earlier this month, Luitel was in Dan Bahadur's field teaching him how to replant his seedlings the new way.
The tiny two-week-old seedlings look fragile in Luitel's hands as he picks them one by one and plants them 20 cm apart in the pasty mud, not 10 cm apart in slushy muck needed for normal rice planting. Luitel shows us his own field where April rice now grows in thick tufts with more than 80 tillers from one seed. "In the old method, you plant three or four seedlings in one spot and you only get about 10 tillers per seed," he says.
Uprety and Luitel are happy farmers now and don't need any convincing because seeing is believing. They are convinced that no part of Nepal need be food deficit anymore if SRI is promoted as a national campaign. Every year, Nepal needs 93,000 tons of rice seeds but with SRI it will save 80,000 tons and in addition, harvests nationwide could be doubled. Kathmandu Valley farmers presently grow 5.2 tons of rice per hectare, with SRI they could grow up to 12 tons, save most of their seeds and use less chemicals and water.
Uprety sums it up: "Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest solutions."