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Planting on the straight and narrow

Changing agricultural methods to increase yields sustainably in Vietnam

When his neighbors first heard about La Lay Ha’s new farming methods, they thought he was crazy. He was planting rice in straight rows, coming back weeks later to hand-insert fertilizer pellets near the plant roots. That’s too much work, they told him. Then they saw how nicely the rice grew and how much additional rice Mr. Ha harvested from the same size plot that they worked—and wanted to know where they could get fertilizer pellets and learn to farm the same way as Mr. Ha.

iDE Hero Vietnam Planting On Straight and Narrow

La Lay Ha stands along the edge of his rice paddy. With guidance from iDE, Mr. Ha implemented Fertilizer Deep Placement, increasing his harvest with less effect on the environment. (Photo by Morgan Kelly Cowles/iDE)

The traditional method of planting rice in Vietnam is to use water buffalo to plow the field, spread dung on the field to fertilize it, and then smooth it down by dragging a log. This softens up the soil to enable the transplanting of rice seedlings, which are placed by hand in the fields, which are then flooded by rain or river water. The only change in the last decades has been the application of chemical fertilizer in place of dung, which is spread by casting the fertilizer into the air by hand, letting it settle on the plants and water.

Much of the  climate change discussion has focused on increased carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. But a third potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, has also risen dramatically since the Industrial Revolution. While carbon dioxide increased by double the rate of nitrous oxide in the same period, nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas. The main contributor of additional nitrous oxide? The overuse and misuse of nitrogen-based fertilizer for agriculture.

Mr. Ha lives in a remote Vietnamese village called Ang Cong, near the border of Laos, with his wife, mother, and three children. He grows rice, cassava, and bananas on a plot of land roughly the size of a football field. As he grew older, he found farm work more difficult to do, and wasn’t providing enough to feed his family, forcing him to find jobs as a laborer. Mr. Ha's situation is not unique—60 percent of Vietnam’s population works in agriculture, with up to 40 percent of families in the country’s upland regions poor and malnourished, unable to grow enough to feed themselves.

Mr. Ha’s sons are benefiting from the application of Fertilizer Deep Placement by having more and better food to eat. (Photo by Morgan Kelly Cowles/iDE)

But then Mr. Ha found iDE, and we introduced him to Fertilizer Deep Placement (FDP). Manufactured locally and without additives, FDP consists of fertilizer compressed into pellets or briquettes, which the farmer is instructed to place beneath the soil at the rice plants’ roots, spaced out between groups of four plants, so that the nutrients are released gradually over time. Compared to mainstream fertilizers and airborne applications, FDP produces 40 percent less chemical runoff and 30 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions. This means that farmers like Ho can increase the quantity and quality of their rice without harming the environment. 

Mr. Ha was unsure of FDP at first, as he’d never seen it used anywhere. What if his crops failed? But he decided to take the chance, based on the training he received from iDE, which made the process easy. He was able to buy the FDP on credit, something that he couldn’t do with other types of fertilizer. He initially applied it to only half of his rice crop, but after seeing the difference in his harvest, he was ready to use the new system on all of his land. He estimates that using FDP increased his yield by 50 percent; before, he was only able to grow enough rice to feed his family for six months, and with FDP he was able to stretch that to nine months. This enabled him to save money previously spent on food to buy a motorbike. 

Mr. Ha is so proud of his accomplishments that he wants to show others the benefits of FDP. He tells iDE to tell other farmers, “Go see Mr. Ha to see success.” 

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