Saw Htoo Baw, aged 33, is a young farmer from Tha Bite Kone village, Hle Gu Township in Myanmar. He is also a member of the Agricultural Farmer Federation of Myanmar (AFFM) at the township level.
In 2015, the AFFM took a field trip to Hle Gu Township and met Saw Htoo Baw who expressed his concern about the increasing use of synthetic and chemical inputs amongst farmers in this region. He had already realized the dangers of these practices that were damaging the environment, destroying soil structure and also an increasing financial burden on the farmers. “I see the life of the farmers in our area is so poor and miserable. They are struggling just for their day to day needs. I would like to promote their level of living,” he said.
While Saw Htoo Baw was aware that returning to natural traditional farming was the long term sustainable solution, he was looking for learning opportunities. He expressed there was lack of information and training on these subjects, especially alternative farming techniques. The AFFM team recognised his potential and selected him to attend a ten-month residential intensive training program at NEED-Myanmar, an Eco Village Farm School (one of AFFM’s main partner).
At the end of his training at NEED, this is what Saw Htoo Baw had to say about his experience: “The ten months I spent at Eco Village Farm School is unforgettable for my life. I got a lot of hands on experience and knowledge that provide solutions to various aspects of farming as well as social change. I feel I have the tools for changing destructive agricultural practices and enhancing the lives of my fellow farmers”. He continues, “I will apply all the knowledge and techniques of farming at my farm. Now I feel confident to start organic agriculture practices and low cost farming techniques”.
In March 2016, Saw Htoo Baw wasted no time upon graduation and immediately got to work on his family land that largely consists of rice paddy. The first major change and foundation for the future was creating and using high quality organic compost on site. This method was combined with SRI (System of Rice Intensification) for cultivation. The SRI was extended to 3 acres (of about 30 acres) of family farm land.
Saw Htoo Baw did not keep his newfound knowledge a secret and had discussed his plans with 5 neighbouring farmers. Out of these, 4 farmers adopted certain SRI technique in the first year itself bringing a total of 20 acres of paddy cultivation under SRI method. Even with these modest changes, Saw Htoo Baw was able to earn a reasonably higher income than he normally would, though the production output did not increase much. Other farmers were also happy with the success of their trials.
U Ba Aye, one of the farmers that adopted SRI techniques said, “I am really grateful to Saw Htoo Baw who brings us good luck. We will be trying to develop this method, learning from our experience. I believe that SRI method will solve a lot of the problems we are facing”.
These results are promising and would be of interest to many farmers and also to government agricultural departments since it is low input, easy to learn, and improves income in a relatively short time without burdening the system or the environment.
Saw Htoo Baw also encourages farmer groups to learn his experience in composting, using all available raw material and by products from the cultivation. He has trained multiple farmer groups, even beyond his village.
Now in 2017, only in his second year of farming since graduation, the number of farmers using SRI techniques increased from 5 to 7 in Saw Htoo Baw’s village and area of cultivation from 20 to 70 acres. The farmers all follow the organic composting aspect and its application for cultivation, however not all of them strictly practise the SRI method. Instead, they adopt certain techniques to be able to compare and see the benefits. Saw Htoo Baw feels this is a positive healthy transition for farmers to slowly make changes without risking too much of their crop and thus gaining confidence to make bigger changes.
Another very important part of his farm management is the introduction of animal systems to be able to achieve the goal of being a fully organic and natural farm. Saw Htoo Baw is realistic in his understanding of a slow transition to organic for existing cultivation that has used synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. He practices a steady reduction in use of synthetics while consistently increasing the output of organic compost and farmed areas. He feels confident that in 3 years, the land would be regenerated such that it will not need much input even in the form of organic compost due to the natural techniques being adopted now.
Saw Htoo Baw feels that due to intensive chemical farming, a lot of the beneficial predators disappeared with a huge increase in crop damaging pests like snails. Therefore without some form of pest control, farmers would lose their entire crop. To address this, Saw Htoo Baw has steadily increased the number of animal systems on the farm. Currently, in July 2017, he has 150 ducklings that are very young and will grow in relation to the growth of the crop as well. Ducks are the best control for snails in a garden and with this system, he can demonstrate to other farmers that there is no need for chemical pesticides once the animal systems are in place. Additionally, he also has 30 turkeys and a mix of geese and chicken that roam the farm and deposit nutrient rich manure all over while also turning the soil and consuming pests. Saw Htoo Baw wants to emphasise that partnering with animals can be done without the need of investing in commercial animal food and in turn animals provide food, labour, manure, and even income.
While most farmers in the region today have sold off their cows, Saw Htoo Baw has bought 8 cows and hopes to encourage the traditional way of farming paddy instead of using machines. He has approached farmers that already own machines for cultivation (e.g. for ploughing) so that they maintain at least a pair of cows even if they don’t use them for ploughing. Saw Htoo Baw understands the importance of cows in an agricultural environment and the multiple benefits they provide such as manure, milk and labour for maintaining grasslands and that without this, farmers will not be able to progress beyond a certain point.
Besides paddy (rice) cultivation, he is also using techniques like no-till beds to grow organic vegetables during the winter (non rainy season). He is sharing these techniques like using rice husks, biochar etc with other farmers as well to encourage their participation and improving their off season yield.
Saw Htoo Baw also ensures that farmers begin maintaining records of their activities (including financial) so that they can reflect and understand their progress and position as compared to other years and techniques.
Seeing his success, he is further motivated to continue improving and using these natural techniques learned at NEED and also shares with the community. He feels that small changes on the community level like his should be supported by the government through education initiatives.
According to Saw Htoo Baw, his next challenge is that of marketing and presenting the produce to consumers. The farm to customer logistics is important to ensure that more farmers can adopt and succeed in natural farming, otherwise farmers will not have the final incentive to make the change to alternative farming.