More seeds

After transplanting, we realized that we might not have enough seedlings of 2 varieties for the traditional plots, and we needed to sow more seeds of these 2 varieties. In addition to the 24 plots we have so far, there are 2 plots (6m x 21m in size) in the middle of the field that were already puddled and leveled. It would be wasteful if they were left there, and meanwhile we have some seeds of a Philippine variety, so we decided to try them with the spare plots, of course with both traditional and SRI methods. 

On Wednesday, we built a couple of more raised beds for nursery. This time we made sure that the place is free of any ant nests. In case that ants would be carried by the dry leaves, we did not cover the beds with leaves, instead, we spread a very thing layer of mud to prevent direct solar radiation. However, next morning, the staff who took care of the nursery reported that there were a lot of birds eating the seeds. When we got there, the first scene we saw was a large flock of birds taking off from the nursery beds. The thin layer of mud was not enough to cover all the seeds. There were many empty rice husks on the nursery beds. Before this, I thought birds would eat the whole grain. To my surprise, they actually cracked the husks and ate the kernels. It seems that the large amount of empty husks in the first nursery were not caused by just ants. We had to sow more seeds on Friday, and this time we covered them with a thicker mud layer to make the seeds invisible. 

Progress!

So we eventually made some progress after getting into so many difficulties–we finished transplanting SRI rice on Tuesday afternoon (March 25)!! We’ve being encountered a lot of problems since we started this SRI Pilot Project. The land preparation was delayed due to malfunction tractor and drought. After that, we lost more than half of the seeds to ants and birds, and at the same time hit by another dry period. By the end of last week, we were only able to get 16 out of 36 plots puddled and leveled. It has been difficult to get water into the other half of the land due to the long lasting drought. And we have had problem with our walking tractor and were not able to hire enough people working on the land, because every other farmers need labor for helping planting, too. The seedlings are reaching the age of 12 days (they germinated at the weekend of March 14), so we had to arrange them in the plots we have finished so far. Thus I changed the design of the experiment, as shown below. ImageImage It is now more like a demonstration rather than a real experiment. However, this is all what I can come up with as a make up plan given all the difficulties we facing. On Monday and Tuesday, we transplanted the seedlings into the SRI plots. We used ropes with marks on it. The marks are 25cm away from each other acting as grids, and 2 stakes are tied on the 2 ends of the rope. When transplanting, 3 ropes were set up along 3 jointed sides of a plot. People lined up behind one of the ropes, and planted seedlings into the mud according to the marks on the rope. After finishing 1 row, people on the 2 ends of the row took out the stakes attached on the rope, moving the rope in front of them backward along the one beside them, and inserted the stakes at the next mark. Then they planted another row. ImageImage   (Transplanting along the ropes)

Next transplanting activity will take place in the week of April 7, for the comparison plots in which rice plants will be transplanted around the age of 25 days, as the traditional practice in the village.

Enemy found

After close observation, our agronomist Lynhe found that our seeds have been destroyed by ants. I have noticed that there were a lot of empty husks earlier, wondering if there were something eating the seeds or they were just shed when the seeds germinated. However, there are too many of them compared to the number of seedlings we have. We added 4 more nursery beds on Wednesday, sowing more seeds so we could have enough seedlings for transplanting. The staff carefully put a thin layer of mud and then plantain leaves on top of the seeds, to protect them from birds, sun, and drying out. When we were checking these new seeds this morning, we were surprised to see that there were some empty husks on the top, yet no sign of germination. After removing all the leaf covers, we found groups of ants carrying some white particles. After examining the other nursery beds closely, we found many partly destroyed seeds that have holes on the husks and the kernel inside were fragmentary with the remained part kibbling or even powdery. And there are ants running around on the nursery beds. Lynhe pointed out that it was probably the ants that have been eating our seeds, which explained what the white particles those ants transporting–small pieces of rice kernels! 

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Tons of ants carrying broken kernels away!

 

 

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(empty husks left behind)

We are not sure where the ants came from. There are a couple of ant nests in the field, but they are all on the bunds, and the nursery beds were surrounded by water. It is possible that they were on the leaves, but there are too many of them. There is really not much we could do to stop this. 

Other than checking the nursery beds, we puddled and leveled the plots yesterday and this morning, getting prepared for transplanting next week. The mud is pretty deep and my boots are not tall enough to keep the water out, so I went in with bare foot. It was actually easier to balance myself with bare foot than wearing boots, because my toes could stretching out and grab the ground. The plots were flooded in advance. We crushed chunks of mud, threw out roots of weeds and hard branches, blended the mud with water, and even the surface, all done by hand. There were 8 of us, and we finished 11 plots in two mornings. After working, we had some sugarcanes. The sweet juice is always an awesome rewarding. 

 

A bit frustrating…

We are having some problems with the nursery.

We have 1 staff who lives in the village taking care of the nursery beds. He removed the covers last weekend when some seeds had their first true leaf coming up as what we usually do, so their growth would not be suppressed. However, there were still many seeds that have not germinated by then. When we went to check the nursery beds on Monday, it seemed that some beds have dried out. As mentioned in the last post, some of these raised beds were built a couple of days earlier than the others. They have drained more. Although our staff watered all the beds every day, it seems that they were still not moist enough. This got worse once the cover was removed, because the seeds that have not sprouted have been exposed to the sun and dried out. We put the cover back on the driest 2 beds and observed that seeds under the cover starting sprouting. This proved that it would be important to remain the cover on the beds until the majority have germinated. It is difficult to say how many more seedlings we will get. The staff also reported that after removing the cover, there have been birds coming and eating the seeds. He was not sure where they came from. This is unexpected because such accident did not happen in other SRI plots planted last year. I learned from the staff that local farmers usually cover their nursery with a thin layer of soil which will keep the seeds moist and invisible to animals. I wish I could have realized this earlier. I am so regretted that underestimated how fast the nursery beds would dry and failed to foresee the risk of losing seeds to animals. We should have left the covers on the nursery beds for longer time. Anyway, we feel very upset. On the other hand, we still have not finished puddling and leveling due to many reasons: the land is too big; the tractor is not working again; we could not find enough people to work for us because now all the other farmers need labors to help planting, etc.

We came up a plan of reducing the scale to only half of the land, and sowing more seeds to make sure we will have enough. The original plan consists 3 replicates, 72m x 21m each. Now we are going to divide the first 2 replicates in 4 halves and use 3 of them, which means each replicate in the new plan will be 72m x 10m.

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(photo taken 1 week after sowing, only a small portion of the seeds had germinated)

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(low germination rate)

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(strong sun radiation might be one of the reasons–those remained under the cover seemed to be doing well)

 

Seeds in beds

On Tuesday we sowed the rice seeds into the nursery.

On Monday, we added 6 more raised nursery beds to keep a lower seeding density, so it will be easier to separate the seedlings when transplanting. We soaked the seeds in salty water, and discarded those floating on the surface of the solution. We then rinsed the seeds with clean water and bagged them when they are still wet. The seeds were then put in plastic buckets.

When sowing seeds, we first wetted the beds to make the soil soft. Then we spread a thin layer of sand to make it easy to uprooting seedlings upon transplanting. We sowed the seeds on the top of the sand. Every variety has 2 nursery beds. After sowing, we applied a thin layer of vermicompost on the seeds, and then covered the nursery beds with wet plantain leaves. To make sure the seeds have enough moist to germinate, we slightly watered the beds with a watering kent.

Image(raised nursery beds)

Image(spreading sand)

Image (sowing seeds)Image(applying compost)Image(covered with plantain leaves)

While waiting for the seeds to grow, we will continue working on land preparation. We have plowed all the plots, and need to puddle and level the soil. We will work on the SRI plots first, because the seedlings for SRI need to be transplanted within 12 days after germinating.

Last Thursday, we went to an SRI plot in a village called Grison-garte to collecting yield data. People in this village use cows to plow their land. The plot was planted early November in 2013, so did many other traditional rice plots in the village. It is 42m x19m in size. The variety used was Leonard, planted 1 plant per hill, with the spacing of 25 cm. By the time of harvesting, it was weeded twice and fertilized 3 times with chemical fertilizer (due to the lack of organic matter) at the rate of 150 Kg/Ha. There was few weed in the plot, and the top soil was dry with a few cracks. Yet the subsoil was wet. The unexpected long-lasting drought hit during the flowering and grain filling stages of the rice, which greatly impacted the yield. Many farmers have lost a lot. Our SRI plot survived well because the plants tolerated the drier condition better than those planted in the traditional way. This might be a good implication about the potential of SRI helping farmers responding better to climate change. However, the SRI plot was severely damaged by birds and goats, about a quarter of the plot had almost no grain left on the plants. For data collection, we chose 10 random hills from the plot, pulled out the plants, measured their height (cm), root length (cm), number of tiller and number of panicle per hill. Then from these 10 plants, we randomly chose 5 panicles for their length (mm), number of grains per panicle, and number of empty grains per panicle. Afterward, we used a wooden square frame which was 1m x 1m in size, putting it on the ground at 5 random location in the plot and harvesting the plants inside the square. We then weighed the grains from every square and measured the moisture content (%) at the same time.

Here is a summary of the data from this plot, followed by some photos.

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(left:SRI plot; right:traditional plot planted about the same time as the SRI plot with the same rice variety, it is not mature yet)

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(top soil is dry and with cracks. not a lot of weeds)

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(panicles, some grains are still green)

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(many leaves have such spots. is this rice blast?)Image

(empty panicles…all grains eaten by birds)

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(technician of iF Foundation harvesting crops inside the wooden square)

Belated rain

Finally we had a good precipitation last weekend. The rain was gentle and lasted 3 days in a row, thoroughly relieved everyone, especially rice farmers because their need to flood the field to soften the soil for land preparation.

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(slash-and-burn)

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(plow with a rice cultivator/walking tractor after flooding the field)

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(flooding the field after plowing–this is a traditional plot belong to a farmer in Dubre. The bright green patches are nurseries)

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(field manually overturned with hoes without being flooded in advance–it is let to be exposed to the sun to kill the weeds. Later it will be flooded and puddled to become a very fine and goey soil, as shown in the next photo)

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(staff from iF Foundation setting up nursery beds for the SRI project)

The foundation has been busy pumping water for farmers to irrigate their beans and plantains before the rain. Now all the irrigation trenches are filled with water, and ponds are all full. The iF Foundation contracts with a couple of rice cultivator operators who help the farmers plow their field. So far, most of the rice farmers in the village Dubre have their land prepared, some already started nursery. Farmers contracting with the foundation get seeds from the foundation as credits, and they have given good feedback–the seeds have higher germination rate and germinate earlier than their self-saved seeds. The foundation also supervises the farmers and provides technical support. In addition, they coordinate farmers when they need to work on some project together. On the other hand, farmers are expected to be open to any instruction and suggestions. For example, irrigation channels often run through several fields, and farmers dispute on the order of using water. Some will complain to staff of the foundation  who will then let those downstream to use water first.

We measured and marked out all the plots and channels last Thursday, and then hired 9 farmers to help build bounds and dig channels. The nursery beds are set up in a plot in the middle of the field, in order to reduce the travelling distance to all the plots when transplanting. We have 6 nursery beds, each 1m x 3.2m in size. We plan to sow the seeds around March 6. Once the seedlings come to the 2-leaf stage, some will be taken out and transplanted as SRI rice. The rest will remain and then transplanted at about 28-day-old into the traditional plots. Of course, the plot containing the nursery beds is designated to be a traditional plot.

On Friday morning I helped with grafting avocado seedlings. These seedlings will later be distributed to contracted farmers who are interested in growing avocado. Image

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(successfully grafted seedlings from last month–this photo was taken about 2 weeks after grafting)

In Haiti, there are several varieties of avocado. Some has light green skins, and some has brownish red skins. Most avocados are 1.5-2 times bigger than those we saw in the States, and they all taste sweet.

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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.

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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.

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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.