Surrounded am I! No matter where I look, there it is – RICE. Whether glancing at a plate of mouth-watering morsels of the finest local cuisine, or looking out my window to the fields beyond my fence, rice takes a most prominent place. Even my “Breakfast Joy” from Jollibee presents garlic-fried rice for my pleasure. To say rice is a staple here in the Philippines is an understatement. Just about everyone eats it and, if available, eats it in large quantities.
My adventurous nature took a slight twist toward curiosity regarding this grain. I needed to find out more. No, I HAD to find out more – feeling my OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) kick in. Instead of taking my medication today, I think I’ll go on both a virtual and a physical trip to help satisfy this newfound fascination. There are so many questions to answer. Where do I begin?
A definition should help start things off. Rice is a cereal grass. Most often, rice grows in paddies, or fields, flooded with about 8cm of water. The white rice we see on the dinner table is the starchy portion of the cereal grass’s seeds. Hulled and with its “bran” layer and “germ” milled away, it appears polished to a bright white. Most rice eating populations enjoy white rice, with quality measured in milling and length, and many will refuse any rice other than white.
Health-minded individuals may be thinking of “brown rice” and wondering about its origins. Well, for the most part, brown rice is the same seed as white, just hulled and cleaned but not milled or partially milled. The bran layer and the germ remain intact, giving the rice its brown color. These two also provide additional nutrients, vitamins and dietary minerals to the consumer.
Brown rice is difficult to store, however, as it becomes rancid much quicker that white rice. It’s also a bit chewier than white. Still, I must admit it is my choice whenever it’s available. The nutritional benefits, as well as that of the rice bran oil helping to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, more than outweigh the choice of color argument.
As mentioned before, flooded fields or paddies are where rice is most often grown. This “wet” method of rice production has been around for centuries. Not only is it grown on the flat lowlands, rice can be grown on the sides of mountains. A good example of this is the famous rice terraces of Banuae in Ifugao province.
To the surprise of many, however, rice is NOT an aquatic plant. The principle reasons for planting rice in water-filled paddies are for weed and pest control. This method, however, has its drawbacks. It does not allow the rice plant to reach its full potential of production.
This “wet” method of growing rice starts by thrusting three to five individual seedlings as a group into the flooded, muddy muck very close together. Such groups are spaced approximately ten centimeters from other groups. Plants fight each other for sunshine, air and nutrients in the soil. Fertilizer and insecticide are usually applied a couple of times during the growing season, as well as periodic clearing or cleaning the paddy of any weeds or dead plants. Resulting yields of rice grown in paddies average around two to five tons per hectare, depending on environmental and physical conditions.
Another method of growing rice – a “dry” method – is starting to be popular around the world. There is still some hesitant experimentation in the Philippines, but I am sure the results of the experiments will turn a few heads. Called System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, this method is quite interesting in concept and practice. Reporting harvest yields double of that obtained via the “wet” method or higher (six to ten tons per hectare), farmers in Asia and Africa employing this method swear by it.
During the second half of the Twentieth Century, a Jesuit priest in Madagascar, Fr. Henri de Laulanié, S.J., developed SRI in an effort to allow the Malagasy farmers he worked with to have happier and more secure lives. SRI starts with the philosophy that farmers respect and support the rice plants as living creatures that have great potential. Realization of this potential occurs only when a farmer provides the plant with the best conditions for growth.
Prior to planting, the soil is prepared with compost or other non-chemical enriching agents and, perhaps, used for a season to grow crops such as legumes that put nutrients into the soil. A farmer plants individual seedlings that are younger than those used in the “wet” method and spreads them out rather than grouping and bunching them, giving the plant more room to grow. During the growing season, the farmer doesn’t flood the soil but keeps it moist through limited irrigation. Additionally, weeding between the plants occurs about four to six times during the growing season.
The object of this method is to have each plant develop a larger root system that, in turn, results in a fuller plant above ground – more tillers, more leaves and more seeds. The net result is a larger harvest from fewer, better-maintained and grown plants.
This “dry” method of growing rice is fascinating and may very well lend itself to this area during the dry season. I think I’ll do a little more research and present my findings to the local farmers’ co-op. Who knows? It could make a difference here as it did in Madagascar. You can find a neat little handbook from WASSAN (Watershed Support Services and Activities Network) about SRI here.