Who: Hoàng Thị Thẩm and Nguyễn Đình Đạt
Where: Bac Ninh Province, Vietnam
Growing rice might sound like an easy, straightforward process, but a lot of thought and work goes into taking care of the soil, irrigating the fields, and getting the most out of a rice crop.
Dat shares some of the challenges he works against every season and every day in the field.
Growing rice takes a hard toll on the field its grown in. A rice crop raises the pH of its soil, making the soil more basic and less hospitable for growing more rice. Because of this, nurturing the field between rice crops is key. Dat and Tham can harvest roughly four crops per year in each of their six fields, and they raise rice twice — once in summer and once in winter. They alternate rice with vegetables, especially peanuts, which help acidify the soil and get it ready for more rice.
The field also gets a dose of protein and NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) fertilizer before the rice goes in the ground. Some of this fertilizer is simply chicken, duck, and pig feces, as well as old rice husks. Fertilizer can make soil too acidic, so Dat and Tham add lime as well; it's a balancing act. In the past, they used a water buffalo to mix the nutrients into the soil, but now they use a machine.
Throughout the Season
The most obvious challenge for growing a water-based crop is, of course, water. Rice is a thirsty plant, and the varieties Dat grows fare best in about 10 centimeters of water. Each kilogram of rice requires about 1,400 liters of water to grow, and as much as 30 percent of the world's fresh water goes into rice production. In north Vietnam's wet summers, water isn't an issue, and villages dig ponds and use water pumps to ensure a steady supply. But the winter crop sometimes requires water to be pumped from a nearby river or even trucked in by the local government. Usually for Dat's village, that's necessary two or three times every winter, and more in drought years.
Keeping the balance of soil pH continues during the season, too. The rice gets fertilizer one month in, when the rice grains start to form, and more if the field's productivity seems too low to Dat's experienced eye.
Pests and diseases cause farmers to lose about 37 percent of their crop, so minimizing damage is hugely important. Golden apple snails, brought over from South America as a potential food source, harm the rice stalks and can be hard to find in muddy water. Rats and insects also harm the rice stalks, and worms are especially bad since they're hard to detect. Dat uses pesticide sprays and a powder against the snails, and he also lays rat traps.
Other animals make their homes in rice fields as well. Some farmers raise fresh- or salt-water shrimp along with the rice, although Dat doesn't. So-called rice paddy snakes can be an issue for farmers working in cloudy water. The day I visited, Dat found a bird's nest nestled into a bunch of rice (see above), and carefully harvested around it: Some birds eat insects, worms, and even snails, and so are a rice farmer's friend.
As for weeds, Dat attacks them with herbicide sprays and his hands. It's certainly not organic farming, but Dat knows when to use which tool for the greatest effect at the lowest cost.
After the Harvest
Once the rice is out of the field, every part of the plant is used. The rice husks, the thin dried skins that cover the rice grains until they're separated off, make great soil-softening fertilizer. Cows, ducks, and water buffalo are allowed to glean the field after the harvest.
Until the 1990s, when gas cooking took over, people burned rice stalks to cook over. My translator, Thu, who is from the same province as Dat and Tham, said that rice cooked over a fire of rice stalks tastes like the countryside to her. Nowadays, the stalks are burned on the fields or smolder in big piles to be used as a fertilizer and lower the pH of the fields. In Hanoi, twice a year there's a two-week stretch at the end of the harvest when the wind brings smoky air into the city from the burning rice fields.
Selling the rice isn't a problem for Dat. He combines the three varieties of rice he grows into a mix that's wet, aromatic, and a little sticky when cooked. Eating the fresh rice is, of course, the best and easiest part.
Thanks, Dat, Tham, and translator Thu!