Getting started

So eventually the rice cultivator was fixed and we started plowing yesterday afternoon. Of course we could have hired local farmers to work on the land, but the labor here is expensive, which would have exceeded our budget.

The land preparation for rice here involves these procedures: 1. cleaning the weeds and straws from last season (usually in the form of slash-and-burn); 2. building bunds in the field for retaining water; 3. flooding the field to soften the soil; 4. overturning the soil (manually or by a rice cultivator); 5. letting the field to dry so the weeds will be dried out, or leaving standing water there to suffocate the weeds; 6. manually puddling the soil, incorporating weeds (and ash) into the soil. The slash-and-burn practice does not seem to be sustainable to me. All the plant materials could have been turned into the soil as a good source of soil organic matter, or used for compost. Burning is easy, but it releases much carbon to the atmosphere and the nutrients become mobile and easy to lose. Other than cleaning the field, people tend to burn everything that is not wanted. There are many brewers in this region producing alcohol with sugarcane juice. The fibers remained after pressing juice are called “bagas” which will be burned.  While they are set on fire, there is always a hint of caramel-like smell in the air. To me it is so wasteful–the fibers seem to be great materials for mulching and composting.  I think it will be a good idea to introduce compost and mulch to farmers, but it could take quite a while for them to understand and actually adopt these strategies. Farmers here tend to follow conventions–easier to do and the outcome is predictable. One of the reason that our last SRI trial did not turn out well is that the farmer switched back to the traditional method in the middle of the season. SRI requires a few drying periods throughout the season, but the farmer was concerned that the crops would fail, so he still kept 5-8 cm standing water in the field. This time, the foundation purchased its own land and plans to closely manage the crops, in the hope of convincing them that new ideas and strategies can be beneficial.

Image

This is a traditional brewer. After pressing the juice out, people boil the juice, and then ferment it in huge containers (they added some yellowish liquid to the juice for fermentation). Afterward, the liquid is to be distilled. The product is colorless and transparent. It gains great favor among local people. It is said that sometimes temporary farm workers will be paid in the form of a big jar of liquor. Sugarcane needs 1 year to mature. In this area, farmers grow 2 kinds of sugarcane–pale green skin type and blackish purple skin type. The later is called “pineapple sugarcane” and is super sweet. It is common to see horses loaded with sugarcanes heading to the brewers. Although the liquor is very popular, sugarcane brings little profits. Many farmers grow sugarcane because they and their fathers have been doing so. Also, sugarcane is easy to grow and requires much less care than other crops like beans, rice, and cabbage. Below are photos showing each step of brewing alcohol from sugarcane: Pressing juice, fermentation, distilling. The fermentation and distilling generate a lot of effluent which is simply discharged.

ImageImage

The past Friday, we ran our rice mill to process last season’s harvest. The head rice yield (the amount of intact grains) was quite low and almost half of the grains were broken. Varieties, moisture content at harvest, and moisture contents at milling are common factors influencing milling quality, but in this case, the way people thresh rice accounts for another important factor. Farmers have no access to any kind of threshers, so once they harvest the crop, they beat bunches of panicles on a hard surface to knock off the grains. This can create cracks on the kernels before milling, and then lead to the breaking of kernels when experiencing pressure in the miller. 

Threshingthreshing

We plan to do an experiment later after harvest to examine all the possible factors affecting rice milling quality and hope to find out the optimal harvest and storage condition for a high head rice yield. 

The first month

I just realized that I have been here for exact 1 month. This time, my mission is to lead and manage an System of Rice Intensification (SRI) project in Milot area, Northern Haiti. We’ll establish some SRI plots to demonstrate local farmers this new cultivation system, while comparing it to the traditional method.

The weather has been nice–sunny but not hot, cool at night, breeze from time to time, except that we haven’t had any rain for almost 1 month. January has always been the raining season for this part of the country and is often the beginning of a crop season. Many rice farmers seem to have postpone their planting schedule. I saw some farmers started with bean, corn, cabbage, and sweet potato. Farmers here use various intercropping system: bean-sweet potato, plantain-bean-taro, plantain-corn, cassava-bean, cabbage-bean, etc. It seems that intercropping is the universal strategy of smallhold farmers in many countries.

Anyway, our SRI experiment is just about to be implemented. We had some problem with our rice cultivator so we couldn’t plow or puddle the land, but we should be able to get it fixed this week. Hopefully we can finish preparing the soil by the end of this week. In order to save us some time, I suggested to start the nursery at the same time of land preparation.

Speaking of the SRI plot, besides comparing the yield of SRI to that of traditional rice cultivation method, we also collected 6 different rice varieties to compare their performance. 3 of them are from Madagascar (X265, X360, FOFIFA160), and the other 3 are Haitian (Leonard, TCS10, Schela). Hence the experiment will have 12 treatments: 2 cultivation method (SRI and traditional) x 6 varieties.

We investigated and mapped the fields in mid-January. There are 4 pieces of land: Field 1 (73m x 70m), Field 2 (46m x 42m), Field 3 (31m x 83m), and Field 4 (21m x 52.7m), locating in a village named Dubre. They all have easy access to irrigation channels that connect to a pond in the village. We were to plant all of them, but later decided to use Field 1 only. It will be easier to manage if we assemble all the plots together, and Field 1 is big enough. We will put 3 replicates in the field. In each replicate, there are 12 plots, 6m x 23m each in size, where the 12 treatments will be randomly assigned. We plan to dig a water channel between every 2 replicates and connecting to the irrigation channels around, so every plot will have access to water control. Once the land preparation is done, we will measure out the plots and start building bunds.

Farmers here usually don’t fertilize their field. They let their animals roaming on harvested fields or pastures, never collecting manure. They don’t make compost either. Understanding the benefits of organic matter and its importance in building better soil, the iF Foundation here in Coronel, Nord Haiti, has a compost project. They have 5 wooden boxes for vermicompost. The boxes were filled with alternating layers of chopped corn stalk fibers and soil, each layer thoroughly sprayed with water. The earthworms were then put into the boxes and the surface were covered by slightly moist cardboard. These vermicompost boxes are placed on a wooden shelf which is hung onto the beams of a shed. This is for keeping ants out. We just harvested 4 boxes of vermicompost last week, each counted for about 70 kg! The foundation also has a large chicken coop with woodchip beddings. Every once a while, the mixture of chicken manure and woodchip were collected. Last week, we made a new compost pile with this mixture and chopped sugarcane fibers. The ratio of manure-woodchip : sugarcane fiber was 5:1. They were carefully mixed and soaked, and the pile was then covered with dried coconut leaves. The pile has been active that sometimes we could see steam coming out from the top, although it was quite stinky for the first couple of days. We have sticked some pvc piles into the pile to help aeration and aerobic decomposition.