Got them into the field

The seeds we started last time was not doing well due to a couple of reasons: ant damage, not enough seed-soil contact, lack of sunlight, etc., so we restarted a nursery, with the same two varieties: TCS10 and Leonard.

This time, we hung up a metal frame with mesh outside of our compost shed in the office complex, in order to avoid ant or bird, as suggested by Magnus, the director here. We laid some cardboard on the mesh and watered it to wet. Then we put a 3 cm thick layer of seed-starting mix, which contained soil, fine sand, vermicompost, ash, and fine sawdust, and was watered thoroughly. The seeds were sown on the top of this and then covered with another thin layer of the mix. After watering the nursery again, it was covered with wet plantain leaves. 

The seeds germinated during the weekend of 6/21-6/22, 1-2 days after setting up the nursery, with over 90% germination rate. And there was no ant or bird damage at all!! We removed the plantain leaf cover to allow sunlight shedding on the nursery. It was watered twice a day to maintain the moisture. To avoid possible damage from too-strong direct sunlight in the early afternoon, we put up a west-oriented shade for the nursery. This is the most beautiful nursery we have ever had. The seedlings grew fast and evenly, which was super exciting. I felt that they became taller every coupld of hours.

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(Left: the new nursery; Right: Magnus watering the nursery)

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(Left: Seedlings have healthy and nice root systems; Right: Moved into a bamboo tray the evening before transplanting)

Soil in the new plots were puddled, leveled, and drained early this week. The leveling tool and effect are shown in photos below. We have 10 plots, 5 for each variety. For each variety, we have 2 plots fertilized with vermicompost, 2 with 20-20-10 synthesized fertilizer, and 1 without any nutrient amendment. Since farmers here do not have the habit of fertilizing their fields, neither access to large amount of fertilizer or compost, we wonder how SRI would work for them without much input. Fertilizers were placed into the plots the day before transplanting. The seedlings were moved as a sheet from the nursery to bamboo trays. We started before 7 am this morning transplanting, and finished at noon. It was a 12-people team, 3 of us uprooting seedlings and the others planting. We still used the rope system this time: 2 longitude ropes along 2 parallel sides, and 1 latitude rope perpendicular to them. All of them have marks at 25 cm intervals. People stand behind this rope, planting according to the marks, and the 2 people at the 2 ends will move the rope along the 2 side ropes, till the latitude rope meets a mark on the longitude ropes.

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(Left: leveling the soil; Right: after leveling)

From land preparation, nursery, to transplanting, everything was done nicely and quickly this time, which is not only attributed to previous experience, but also, to a large degree, to Magnus’ contribution of many good ideas and thoughtful suggestions.

 

 

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Restart

Just got back to Haiti this Monday after one and half month break in upstate New York. It was so nice to be warmly welcomed by people here.

We went to see the SRI plots Tuesday morning. The SRI plots seemed very sad. Weed turned out to be a primary obstacle, same as previous experiments we had in Dubre last fall. Many plants just did not make it due to high weed pressure. The two plots with the Philippines variety were totally wiped out, not a single rice plant remained in the plot but only lush weeds (These Philippine rice started weak. They began to die about 2 weeks after transplanting when the weed pressure was still low. The actual factors causing the failure of these 2 plots are still unclear).

The cono weeder we had did not work well in these plots because the soil is heavy clay. Both iF staff and farmers reported that it was difficult to push the weeder forward or turn or get the weeds at the base of rice plants. The conoweeder is kind of heavy and they got tired very soon. It was very slow and exhausting to weed with the cono weeder in our field. We did weed twice but failed to weed on time. We hired some local farmers to help weeding manually and some plants got pulled out accidentally. The SRI plots are extremely thin although individual plants are bigger in shape than those in traditional plots. The SRI plants also have bigger leaf angles since there is more spacing between each of them, compared to the traditional ones.

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(Front: SRI; Far end: traditional)

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(Left:SRI, Right:Traditional)

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(SRI plot. Bottom of the photo is a traditional plot of the same variety)

We recently bought some garden weasels so we brought them to the field to test and compare with the cono weeder. It turns out that these garden weasels work better in our field than cono weeder. They are lighter and smaller, so it is easier to push, reverse, or turn them around. Even weeds that are at the base of the rice plants can be reached without hurting the crops.

Other than the weed issue, I heard from my colleagues that water control could be another cause of this unexpected result. It came to the wet season in May and there has been pouring rains almost every day. Also, the fields down-stream of out plots were planted in May, which added to the difficulty of managing water. Water has to come into and fill our field before getting into the one downstream, while there was no other water channels that delieves water to his field directly from the irrigation trench. The foundation staff and farmers tried their best to drain the water, only to avoid long-lasting standing water. For most of the time, the soil in most SRI plots were soaky wet.

In order to see how SRI will work when everything is under control, we decided to start over again. We selected 6 plots to try SRI again. These are all 6m x 10m plots, and the first round of land preparation was just finished this week–weeds are cleaned and soil surface is broken into chunks. We also started the nursery this week. Instead of building nursery beds, we tried portable dry nursery this time.

We used bamboo trays and laid fabric bags inside, then filled in with vermicompost-soil  mix, with a layer of fine sawdust on top. We then sprinkled seeds in and watered. The trays were covered with wet paper and will be watered twice a day to keep the moisture.

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Weeding

Last week we weeded all the SRI plots for the first time. Traditionally, farmers here do not weed their rice fields because keeping a layer of standing water in the field can help suppress some weeds, except aquatic species.  Since SRI plots are not flooded and there is plenty of space between the rice plants, weeds are able to establish and have much access to sunlight. These plots are soon populated by weeds.

Apparently, we have got a lot of weeds in the SRI plots:

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While in the traditional plots, weeds have not come out yet:

 

 

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One thing to notice is that the traditional plots were planted 2 weeks later than the SRI plots. This means that the soil in the SRI plots has not been disturbed for longer time than in the traditional plots, which favored weed seeds germination and growth as well.

To minimizing manual labor and herbicide input, many SRI farmers around the world use mechanical weeders to keep the weeds down. These are mostly simple equipments that are invented by innovating farmers and are easy to use and maintain. Here is a manual of some popular weeder models. We have bought a cono weeder from the Taiwanese and then tried it in our SRI plots last week.

Details of a cono weeder:

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How it works:

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other than rice

Although my major task in managing the SRI experiment, I also participated in many other activities of the iF Foundation.

Making compost: we collected corn stalks, rice straws, and bean hays from farmers who are the foundation’s beneficiaries, mixing them with chicken manure from our chicken coop.  

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Calculating the ratio and amount of each portion. 

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Weighing

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Mixing materials

 

Planting corn: some people digging holes and the others sowing seeds. The holes are not necessarily lined up. We planted 3 seeds in each hole. 

 

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Maintaining weather stations and collecting data: the foundation set up 3 HOBO weather stations in village of Dubre, Coronel, and Grison-garte to collect weather data. Once we have enough data, we might be able to understand the weather pattern and better planning planting schedules.

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Cleaning the sensors

 

The school breakfast program (I’m not involved in this): the foundation prepares and gives free egg sandwiches to kids in 6 nearby schools. The eggs come from chickens raised by the foundation. 

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Bread. A group of chef and food preparing work is hired to make the sandwiches early in the morning.

 

Grafting fruit trees: the foundation bought grafts of good varieties and grafted them. The project includes avocado, mango, and citrus. The young trees will then be distributed to farmers. I have helped grafting avocado last time, using top grafting. This time we grafted mangoes with side grafting, because mango saplings are not woody enough. 

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After grafting on the side, the entire grafted part was wrapped to avoid rain water getting into the cut. The wrap would be taken off after 10-15 days.

 

Collecting bagas compost from Kleren work-shops: bagas is sugarcane leftover after the juice being squeezed out for making an spirit called Kleren. The workshops usually just pile them up and burn them afterward. Some piles can sit there for months, and the bagas at the bottom starts to decompose. We collect these half-decomposed bagas for our compost piles at no cost. 

 

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Digging out the bottom part. They are already in a loose, black, and moist condition. This pile has been sit for almost 1 year. 

 

Peanut trials: the foundation starts a peanut project this spring, and the agronomist is leading an experiment on how compost and planting method can affect peanut yield. There are treatments of different amounts and kinds of compost, and raised beds/flat surface.

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Building raised beds

 

Inoculating mushroom: Bryan Sobel from MFK cooperates with the foundation to experiment artificially raise “djondjon nwa”, a black mushroom which is a high-value food in Haiti. It has unique pleasant aroma and is usually used for making delicious rice pilaf. All the mushroom sold in Haiti is foraged in the wild. We hope to be able to artificially raise it. Image

“djondjon nwa”

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Building raised beds

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Mulch the beds with bagas. We blend the mushroom with water and then dress the solution on the beds. 

 

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Cover with soil

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Water the beds to provide moist

 

More transplanting

We finished transplanting almost all the plots by last Wednesday. It took 11 people 5 hours on April 8 and 9 people 4 hours on April 9. We coded all the plots and the layout is now like this:

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The numbers correspond to the 7 different rice varieties we planted. 1~3 are varieties known and grown by the local farmers: Leonard, Schella (a low-yield but high-market value Haitian variety), and TCS10 (a high-yield variety developed by Taiwan). 4~6 are Madagascar varieties that the iF Foundation purchased from USAID: X360, X265, FOFIFA160. 7 is a Philippine variety the foundation have, but the staff do not know which exact variety it is. We decided to conduct some trials for it, but independent from the others, as shown in the picture. These 4 “Philippine” plots are each 6m x 21m in size. The plot that was supposed to be “3-Tra-B” (traditional TCS10 plot B) has a big mound taking over about 2/3 of the area. It was too difficult for people to remove it, so we did not plant in that plot. However, most farmers in the village are planting TCS10 this year, so we plan to collect yield data in some of their fields as another comparison in addition to Plot 3-Tra-A. As mentioned earlier, we have sowed extra seeds in the nursery for a couple of times to make up the loss. Most seedlings upon transplanting were at the age of 25~28 days. However, the last sowing was about 2 weeks later than the first, and seedlings developing from the latest nursery were not old enough yet to be transplanted into the traditional plots. The “Philippine” was planted at the last sowing and the seedlings were 11 days old on Wednesday, so we also transplanted its 2 SRI plots. By Wednesday afternoon, all the plots were filled except Plot 1-Tra-B, 7-Tra-A, 7Tra-B, which will be transplanted later when the seedlings for these plots are old enough.

Photos:

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(Transplanting traditional rice)

We hired some local farmers to help transplanting. They said that they planted 4-6 plants per hill in their own field. Since we do not have tons of seedlings available, we requested to plant 3-4 plants per hill, so we did not run out of seedlings.

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(Seedlings of “Philippine” variety, 11 days old)

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(Transplanting SRI rice)

Transplanting SRI plot of the “Philippine” variety. The Groundswell International Haiti has shown great interest in out SRI project, and an agronomist from the organization joined us learning and helping transplanting (the young man wearing orange-white-strip shirt in the photo).

After transplanting, we checked all the plots and found out that we seemed to have insect problems.

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Many seedlings have such strips on leaves, and I suspected that the scars are caused by the insects shown below:

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Almost every plant have 1-5 such insects sitting on the leaves, and we are trying to identify them.

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Some seedlings have brownish spot on leaves, which looks like rice blast, but we are not sure.

And the weeds have come out. We scheduled to weed by next week. We have got 8 weeders of different types and will test how they suit the local condition.

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Fertilization can be tricky

Almost all the seedlings survived so far , many of them starting developing the third leaf. We noticed that in some rows of a couple of plots, there were 2-5 seedlings planted together. We separated every individual seedlings when uprooting them from the nursery, so it was definitely not due to difficulty of taking them apart. Our transplanting team was a mix of iF Foundation staff and hired local farmers. It is possible that the farmers did not completely follow the “single seedling” transplanting technique because they might not understand SRI concepts. We went through all the plots to thin the seedlings and replace a few weak ones.

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(3 seedlings planted at the same hill, 2 of which were removed later.)

I was planning to incorporate compost during land preparation, but after learning how people prepare the land, I figured out that it might not be a good idea. The land preparation includes overturning soil, flooding, puddling, and leveling. The soil is 30-40 cm deep. There would be a big chance that the compost would be washed away or stirred deep down that the young roots could not reach. We were to apply compost around March 28th, right after transplanting. Yet we got heavy rain over the nights of March 26 and 27. The plots were a bit flooded. We spent much time opening more drainages for the plots on the 28th. We left the field to dry over the weekend.

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(Draining the plot)

We came back to the field on Tuesday, April 1, to check the soil moisture condition. It was kind of trick. The soil seemed to be very dry as there were cracks on the surface. I stuck my finger into the soil, and it was actually moist inside. The water table did not fully drop back. The surface was kind of firm, like a soft crust, and it was not really difficult walking on it. The soil was diagnosed as a heavy clay vertisol by USDA scientists in an earlier soil survey. The surface cracks easily once it starts drying. I think it is actually beneficial for the SRI plots to have this cracks because the openings allow soil aeration and create a channel for nutrient absorption. Otherwise the compacted surface will block out oxygen and slows down the diffusion of additional soil nutrients from compost into the soil.

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(Soil cracks when it starts to dry)

The majority of the seedlings looked yellowish, and they really need some nutrient. We decided to slightly water the plots to soften the surface so that it would be easier for nutrients to get into the soil. We were planning water them Wednesday morning, but there was a thunderstorm on Tuesday night. We were worried about flooding, but we found that the water drained well. All the plots were moist but not submerged. Considering the fact that it has been 10 days after transplanting, and compost releases nutrients slowly, we agreed on putting some nitrogen fertilizer for them to facilitate establishment. On Wednesday afternoon we spread 2.5 kg nitrogen fertilizer (40:0:0
) to the SRI plots, about 3.5 g per square meter, as a bit “fast food” for them. We planned to apply compost soon afterward as a continuous nutrient supply. A major challenge for soil fertility management here is that there is no weather forecast service in this area, probably even no such thing countrywide. We have no idea when there will be a precipitation, how much it will probably rain, how much area it will cover, and how long it might last, etc. We completely rely on observation of cloud and assumption. A medium to heavy rain can wash away any kind of soil nutrient amendment, which is our biggest concern. We have been postpone applying compost because there have been nimbus every afternoon.This is another reason why we drizzled just a little bit N fertilizer–compost and extra chemical fertilizer will be gone when water draining out from the plots. We hoped that the chemical can dissolve and be taken up fast enough before the field hit by another heavy rain. Fortunately there was not much rain that night.

This morning we eventually applied compost to all the SRI plots. It did not rain last night and the sky is clear today. All the plots were moist, and soil has been softened.  We used vermicompost produced at the iF Foundation, and spread 10 kg on soil surface in each plot.

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(SRI plot fertilized with vermicompost)

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(seedling at 3-leaf stage)