In the final year of my biology degree we had to do 2 projects as well as our dissertations, and I did one of these on sustainable rice paddy farming in Southeast Asia. Because of this I had always planned to try and work on a rice paddy once I got to that part of the world. I wanted to see how paddy farming actually worked, beyond the stuff I’d read about in scientific articles. I wanted to understand the life of a paddy farmer and the reason they farm in a certain way. I wanted the context beyond the narrow and distilled down viewpoint of academia. I found the perfect workaway on a sustainable rice farm in Malaysia and luckily the farm accepted me even though I could only spend one week there. But wow was it an impressionable week. The life and community on the farm was blissful. The rice farming aspect was eye-opening. Let me tell you about both.
The farm was located deep in the jungle, down a narrow track that crossed over little bridges to reach its destination. There was a big structure near the entrance which was an open sided common room, with a big communal table and a little kitchen attached. There were detached wooden bungalows along a pond, each with its own bathroom (cold showers and toilets to be flushed with a bucket of course). There was a secret path through disused paddy fields down to the river where I would go to sit in the morning and to wash off the mud from the paddy in the afternoon. There was a vegetable garden and opposite this an open sided prayer room turned yoga shala. A little further along the track were the 3 in use paddy fields. The owners of the farm are Captain and Kakak, a truly lovely couple who treat all of the volunteers like family. Kakak would cook most of our meals, conjuring up the most wonderful malay feasts of curries, fried chicken and fish, rice and veggies. For breakfast they would often deliver us goodies from the local stalls, my favourite being roti canai which was thin bread/pancakes served with a delectably sweet tomatoey dahl. I loved the traditional nasi lemak (coconut rice, chilli and garlic sauce with anchovies, fried chicken and peanuts) we had one morning, and Kakak agreed to teach us how to make it the following evening which was great fun. There were several other volunteers who were all wonderful. Together we made jam from roselles found in the garden; Noa and Yannic made a comforting pasta meal one night; and Ali made a banana cake every time someone left. We would all do yoga together each morning, and sometimes again in the afternoon. Each evening would end with several rounds of card games. I could’ve spent months there, it felt like the outside world didn’t exist. There wasn’t much volunteer work at the time, just weeding the paddies on some days and the odd other job, so we had a lot of downtime. I spent this writing, reading and revising my law notes in preparation of my return to the real world. I had a lot of less fun life admin to do too, with all of the pre-job stuff coming through and securing a house in London.
Life was slow and intentional and wonderful. I felt a calm motivation there, fostered by interesting discussions on food security and climate change with Captain and the other volunteers and just the general environment. It was especially interesting to speak to Captain about why he’d chosen to start the farm and use sustainable methods. He told me he had learnt everything from the Quaran, an answer that did cause my eyebrows to raise. His whole outlook on farming was built around his religion it seemed, and it led to a very different approach than I’ve come across in the west. For example, when I asked what he did when there were pests eating the crop he replied “let them eat it, they are as entitled to it as I am, they are part of nature”. As lovely as the sentiment is I’m not sure how helpful it will be in tackling food security. The answers given in these discussions were sometimes strange to me, but always interesting. There would be visitors to the farm which would add to these conversations: a Doctor who had come to look at the stingless bees because he was trialing their honey to help treat neurological disorders, a group from a muslim charity who wanted to start a sustainable rice paddy to help a poor community. Captain gave a talk to this charity group about the farm’s sustainability practices and I even helped out in this, explaining how soil fertility and the cation exchange capacity of the soil interact. Never in a million years did I think I’d be giving a talk on biology during my travels! Thankfully I’d remembered more than I thought from my biology degree…
On our day off a local family invited us all over for tea and to pick fruit in their garden. They took us to the local market where we tried all sorts of delicious food and bought oat milk for our coffees back on the farm. We visited a big reservoir and they took us out on their boats to watch the sunset. It was such a wonderful and unexpected day. The people in Malaysia, and especially around the farm, are some of the most kind and friendly people I’ve ever met.
My work in the paddy: weeding
Before I go into the details of rice farming I’ll tell you about the work I did on the farm, so you can skip the rest if you’re less interested in the science. The farm only has 3 in use rice paddies at the moment, and all 3 had been planted several weeks ago. This means they’re in the weeding phase. Every 5 days we would weed each paddy in one direction, horizontally or vertically. What this entails is us wading barefoot into the flooded paddy with a big wooden brush-like device, with metal nails acting as the brush hairs. The brush is pushed and pulled in between the lines of rice plants (tillers) and it rakes up the weeds that are growing there. As we walk behind the brush we use our toes to pull out any weeds that are too close to the tillers to get with the brush. It’s fairly physical work but quite meditative and I found it very enjoyable.
Captain told us there were 5 reasons for weeding:
- To remove the weeds which compete against the rice plants.
- To provide fertiliser, by dropping the weeds back into the water they are broken down and nutrients are returned to the soil.
- Walking in the paddy loosens the soil which makes it easier for the roots of the rice to grow.
- Walking mixes up the soil and oxygenates it, reducing anaerobic microbes (microbes that are active when there’s no oxygen). It’s these microbes that are responsible for the high methane emissions from rice, so a reduction in them results in less methane.
- It’s labour intensive which provides work for local people. The mud is good for the skin and being in the field provides vitamin D from the sun.
The importance of rice
Rice is arguably the most important crop in the world. It provides the majority of calories to over half of the world’s population. Overall, it accounts for over 21% of all human caloric requirements. It is especially important in Asia, making up 75% of the calorific intake in the continent. One fifth of the world’s population rely on its cultivation for income. So yeah, it’s pretty important! It also has a huge impact on the environment. It uses 35% of the world’s irrigated water. It contributes 12% of global methane emissions, and 1.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions which is crazy! The way that rice is farmed is incredibly important in tackling both climate change and food security.
The rice crop cycle
There are two species of rice crop in the world: African rice (Oryza glaberrima) and Asian rice (Oryza sativa). Asian rice is by far the more widely grown and eaten, and the species I’m familiar with. It has four varieties and all the rice you’ve ever eaten is likely one of these. Within the varieties there are lots of different strains and these all take different lengths of time to grow and are suited to different environments.
For any of the varieties the cycle is the same:
- Rice seeds are planted and allowed to germinate and grow into seedlings. After 5-12 days the seedlings are moved to the flooded paddy.
- Weeding is done every 10 days until the rice tillers form a canopy. At this point, no sun reaches the soil so no weeds can grow.
- Once the crop has matured (95 - 250 days depending on the strain) it is harvested.
- The harvested grain is stored and dried. It’s milled to get just the white kernel which is the part we eat. Further processing may occur, such as polishing or parboiling.
System of Rice Intensification
The type of sustainable farming used on the farm is called System of rice intensification (SRI). It’s a method of rice cultivation that can be used in smallholder farms to improve yields, reduce environmental impact and have a positive effect on the local community. It’s truly a win-win scenario. It has four main aspects:
- Younger seedlings are planted. The younger seedlings have more potential for growth and resilience than the older ones. This leads to better establishment, higher yields, and reduced pest and disease. It decreases seed requirements by 90%.
- Single seedlings are planted in wider spaces. This is in contrast to planting a larger number of seedlings covering the whole paddy. It avoids transplant shock and reduces competition between the plants.
- Organic fertilisers are used rather than chemical ones. Chemical pesticides are also avoided with ecological engineering being a common alternative. This is where you create a paddy environment that naturally keeps pest levels under control. Plants that are the habitat for predators and parasitoids (smaller insects that act as parasites) of the pests are planted around the paddy, these keep the pest levels down.
- Alternative wet drying is used rather than having the paddies continuously flooded. This reduces water use by up to 50%. It also reduces methane emissions by reducing the activity of the methane producing anaerobic microbes which like the flooded paddy best.
The benefits of SRI:
- Increased yields. For example, the farm had an average yield of 7.77 tons per hectare and the average in Malaysia is 3.7 tons.
- Reduced environmental impact in terms of less water use, no chemical fertilisers and no pesticides.
- Positive impacts in communities with increased labour requirements providing more jobs and better yields providing more income for farmers.
The farm is the first and only SRI farm in Malaysia but Captain has helped set up several other projects in neighbouring countries. It’s undoubtedly the way forward for smallholder rice farming in Southeast Asia.
I valued my time on the farm hugely. It was amazing to see the science I’d researched in practice. It was eye-opening to understand the wider context of rice farming in communities and understand all of the nuances that academia misses. It was also so wonderful to feel like part of a family after being on the road for so long.