In the hills and river valleys north and east of Hanoi, rice farming is on my mind. But I am also thinking about my uncle Henry, who served as
a corpsman (medic) in the US Marines here in Vietnam,where he was badly wounded.
“It’s a beautiful country,” he once told me. He would know, as his recon unit spent a lot of time (sometimes two weeks straight) out in the countryside. And I am here to say that he was right.
I am much farther north (about 250 kilometers north and west of Hanoi) than Henry ever was. I spent the last two days talking with farmers learning a different way to grow rice, Vietnam’s most important food crop. They call it SRI: System of Rice Intensification. The local office of the Plant Protection Sub Department, with help from Oxfam, is running farmer field schools, going commune by commune to teach techniques that help farmers increase yields, reduce diseases and pest infestations (and the need for pesticides), while using fewer seeds, less water and labor. The farmers I spoke with said they are making more money on the paddy land with the right soil that allows them to grow SRI rice.
In Dae Phac commune, Vuong Hoang Kim, a 28-year-old mother of two, said SRI is helping her family improve their standard of living. “We can buy things, and pay for my [eight-year-old] son’s education expenses, like books and clothes,” she told me outside her modest but comfortable home on a hillside overlooking the green rice fields, where her plants are gracefully arched with the weight of maturing grains of rice. “We can also invest in different types of fertilizer for our next crop.”
This province, called Yen Bai, is one of the poorest in the country. The poverty rate is something like 20 percent, so many farmers are enthusiastic about the potential benefits of SRI.
Farmers in Dae Phac are also happy with what they have learned in the farmer field schools. Hien Mai Thi, a woman in her 40s, said farmers here are constantly helping each other. Graduates of the farmer field schools feel a special responsibility. “We are all farmers,” she said, “so we see each other constantly, at the market, in the fields, and I help teach what I have learned at the workshops to those who could not attend.”
Farmers teaching other farmers – sometimes as they work together in the fields – is common in this commune and it’s one of the most effective ways to transfer knowledge and spread information, and puts rice growers themselves in charge of defeating poverty.
Just after dawn the rice fields in Dae Phac are tranquil; there is not even any wind to stir the plants. I wonder what my uncle Henry would have thought about this place. He died 10 months ago from some rare forms of cancer. Henry (like many others here in Vietnam) had been exposed to the toxic defoliants sprayed over the country during the war. He did not think his cancer was a coincidence.
Perhaps he would have been pleased to see activities focused on promoting plant growth here, and the green rice plants leaning over, dripping with silver dew in the morning light.