Farmers get help to cultivate rice in a sustainable way.
THE unrelenting heat from the blazing sun scorches the expanse of paddy field where ripened stalks have turned into hues of gold. With almost zero rainfall in recent weeks, the dry earth is all cracked up.
Despite the arid condition, the golden grains are ready for harvest. Favourable weather or not, the crop has been able to grow so long as the stalks are partially submerged in water.
For the longest time, the conventional method of farming rice is the “submerged method” where paddy stalks are immersed in flooded fields. There are now exceptions, like at this farm in Matang Mahang in Kerpan, Kedah, which employs semi-aerobic cultivation. Here, the paddy field is kept moist but not inundated under the Semi-Aerobic Rice Intensification (SARI) method pioneered by Nestlé (Malaysia) Berhad.
The farming method is used in 860ha of contract farms involving 333 farmers recruited as members of the Nestlé Paddy Club. The technique was developed out of a responsibility towards the environment as it uses irrigation water more efficiently, with a saving of 30% to 40% from the conventional wet farming method.
“SARI necessitates the farmers to only release the water on the 50th day of each planting season. That will substantially lessen the time period of the field being flooded. The soil need only be saturated and not inundated in two inches of water that is typical of conventional farming, where water is normally released in the last one to two weeks before harvest,” explains Nestlé agricultural services manager Yong Lee Keng.
He chanced upon the semi-aerobic system in Taiwan, where farmers make use of alternate wet and dry approach for their paddy lands.
“When water use is reduced, the paddy roots are forced to work harder and go deeper in search of water, which in turn strengthens the crop. We introduced this method to help control the growth of weeds in the early stages of paddy cultivation. But most importantly, a semi-aerobic method goes a long way towards reducing methane gas emission compared to anaerobic farming. In the agriculture industry, cow and rice farming are the two biggest contributors to greenhouse gases that bring about global warming.” (In water-logged rice farming, the decaying of submerged organic materials releases methane gas.)
Yong says the new farming practice has raised average yield by 25%. The contract farms produce an average of five tonnes per hectare, compared with the national average of 3.7 tonnes.
“Minimising the environmental footprint is what we do and aim for in line with our business integrity and philosophy. It’s all part of our effort to bring about benefits in the 3Ps – people, planet and profits,” says Yong.
The approach helps increase the farmers’ yields (people) while conserving water and the environment (planet), and ensuring profits for the farmers through Nestlé’s purchase of their rice.
In 2010, 20 farmers joined the programme to grow rice using the newly-developed SARI method. The Nestlé Paddy Club was started two years later and now has 333 farmers. Apart from the compulsory use of SARI, these farmers spray the fields with live microbes called Agri-Organica to enrich the soil. The Japanese formulation is 100% natural and contains no genetically-modified organism.
“The Agri-Organica helps unlock the nutrients in the soil for release to the crops. Soil is the base of a building block, so we conducted unorthodox research on how the earth can be regenerated naturally against the mainstream preference for chemicals and fertilisers,” says Yong.
At the Nestlé paddy experimental and demonstration farm in Sik, boxes of paddy plants are grown for various trials. For instance, to tackle rice blast, a fungal disease that can wipe out the whole field, tests are carried out to produce a special organic fertiliser. Another project will look at how rice husks can be recycled back to the fields since they can no longer be sold to sugar factories that previously burnt the husks for fuel.
Farmer Abdul Wahab Jusoh of Kerpan, who produced last year’s highest yield of 17 tonnes per hectare, observes improvements in soil fertility and growth after switching to the SARI method.
“When I was first asked if I would like to join the Paddy Club, I hesitated as I was scared. But in the end, I gave it a shot. That decision was probably my best by far as the returns are greater than what I had in the past at almost the same input cost,” says the 65-year-old, who toils on 30ha of land.
Farmer Mohd Hisyam Hashim, 38, of Sanglang, concurs: “The application of Agri-Organica and other minerals have brought about changes for the better. Now, I even ask my farmer friends to join the Paddy Club.”
The contract farmers must send their grains to either the Ban Eng Hin or Chuan Huat mill for processing. The de-hulled rice is then sent to the Ninamaju factory for polishing and cleaning. This collaborative partnership is to provide quality assurance and ensure compliance with food safety rules.
Ninamaju managing director Tan Swee Huat attests to Nestle’s standards for the raw rice. “There is lower content of heavy metals as the farmers do not use chemicals unnecessarily. With the use of Agri-Organica, the yields have increased too. Nestlé demands that its rice goes through a double-polishing process which we do for them.
“Thereafter, we send the packed rice packets to the Nestlé Quality Assurance Centre in Singapore for lab testing of heavy metals before it can be used for manufacturing,” shares Tan during a tour of his factory in Jitra.
To further promote green farming practices, Nestlé has teamed up with Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) for a two-year research programme. The research will cover water savings and methane emission reduction through the SARI rice farming method; minimising absorption of heavy metals by rice plants through the use of mosquito fern supplanting, activated carbon applications and microbe digestors; and the use of microbes to nurture healthy soils. The company will provide a RM58,200 grant for the purchase of research materials, equipment and miscellaneous expenses.
UTAR vice-president (internationalisation and academic development) Prof Dr Ewe Hong Tat says the partnership will enhance practical learning for the five students involved. “They will get to learn much from the Nestlé Paddy Club model, especially on effective agricultural practices and eco-friendly planting methods which boost the farmers’ livelihood.”
Nestlé Malaysia and Singapore region head Alois Hofbauer says through the collaboration, they hope to identify measures that will help sustain the availability of agricultural raw materials for food security.
“Our commitment to supporting farmers is something we could do because we possess a wealth of knowledge and expertise in this area with the largest R&D facilities in the food and beverage field. Through these initiatives, we have proven that it is possible to do well as a company, by doing good for the community and society at large.”
Addressing the issue of water makes sense for a company whose business operations are dependent on water resources. The concern for water and environment is embedded in one of the three pillars of focus under the company’s corporate social responsibility approach called Creating Shared Value, which advocates that businesses can only be successful in the long term by creating value for both the company and the society it operates in.
The focus area of “water and environment” also sees the company restoring riverine vegetation along the lower Kinabatangan River in Sabah under its Project RiLeaf.
Elaborating on the second focus area of “nutrition”, corporate responsibility manager Immy Ooi points to various initiatives to promote awareness on proper nutrition and wellness. These include the Healthy Kids programme which promotes healthy eating among schoolchildren and the Healthy Lifestyle Programme targeted at secondary students, teachers, wardens and food operators of 100 day-boarding schools. In the third focus area of “rural development”, the company works with farmers worldwide to produce raw materials for its manufacturing needs.
“Our Creating Shared Value philosophy is to provide value not only for shareholders but also the community we operate in, as their overall well-being is key to our continued success,” says Ooi.