Rural Training Center, Thailand (RTC-Thailand)

RTC-TH Programs: G.R.A.S.S.

Mar 20, 2010

G.R.A.S.S. (Getting Realistic Assessment StatisticS) was developed to enable small rural farm families to better manage their farms. Effective small family farm management requires recordkeeping and analyses. This is something most people might do in their heads or very informally. Without records and data it is sometimes difficult or impossible to make effective decisions to attain sustainable performance. Most rural family farmers lack training in this area but have a wealth of practical experience. However, memories tend to be selective and variable in terms of consistency and reliability. Many agricultural students have academic training but may lack practical experience. GRASS strives for a balance between theory and practice that is better suited for small rural family farms. Records of water, soil, and crop production are key data sources for GRASS.

Getting realistic measurements depends on knowing what questions to ask and what measurements to record. For example, a common weather statistic is the average temperature and average annual rainfall. Many of you may have read planting instructions on seed packets indicating a certain average temperature and rainfall for proper germination. However, the Geographic Systems Model reminds us that Location, Scale and Time are important considerations.

The Geographic Systems Model uses both ?“absolute?” and ?“relative measurements.) Generally absolute measurements involve higher costs and more specialized equipment. For most RTC-TH field measurements, we tend to use relative measurements. They may be crude, but the key point is rural farmers can learn them faster and use them to spot trends (i.e. improvement or degradation) relative to the starting point of the measurements on their farm. For example, the typical soil engineering study uses a cone penitrometer to measure soil compaction (and other parameters). The RTC-TH makes a simple ?“compaction?” gauge using bamboo stick, a spring scale, and a ruler. The instrument is pushed down on the soil surface using a force of 1-5 kg. A ruler measures how far the stick indented the soil surface. If the same weight / force is used to measurements on other places on the farm (or the same general place over a period of time), we have quantitative measurements of the soil compaction. This is better than subjective memory and permits finer scales of comparison/contrast. If we add compost to the soil, and over time, take repeated soil compaction measurements (always using the same amount of force), we can detect changes over time. These measurements are crude and can never replace a fully equipped soils engineer survey. But we have a low cost alternative that provides meaningful data for the local farmer. Farmers can use this method to determine if adding compost (or other action) affects soil compaction on their farm.

Farmers know the terrain details of their farms. Local farm conditions of slope orientation, solar angle, etc. can create microclimates affecting the ?“average?” temperature and precipitation data from a distance government weather station. What they need is knowledge and skill to make better use of any available weather data. More specifically, they need to know the limitations of those data. [Note: And this is why the RTC-TH created the GROW program to empower farmers to gather real weather data for their farm.]

Soils are always being eroded. It is a natural and inevitable process. Some forms of soil erosion are imperceptible because they occur so gradually or remove soil so uniformly from a slope. This can happen very slowly over long periods of time. Often the long term degradation is noticed when it is too late to do much about it. In the RTC-TH SOS program, farmers can learn various field methods to detect and measure different forms of soil erosion on their farms. Keeping these records provides quantitative data that can be used to plan practical and effective actions to deal with soil erosion.

Measuring farm productivity also involves record keeping for comparison / contrast over time. The measurements can be very detailed and time consuming. Simpler methods of gross counts and weights can be done. These crude measurements provide a general overview of farm productivity. As with any kind of study, general measures enable general comments and statements. More detailed measures allow more specific comments and statements which in turn can result in more specific recommendations for improvement. The time and effort a farmer is willing to spend in record keeping is an important factor in determining how successful GRASS may be. Another way to look at it is to find an appropriate balance for the individual farmer / farm and the level of detail of the GRASS methods and tools.

When learning to use any tool or method, people are often focused on the power and advantages of using the tool. There is an old saying that if the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to look like nails. RTC-TH training strives for a balance. So we also make people aware of the limits of the tools and methods. This is one way to try to keep us from over selling any particular tool or method. The ultimate success of using any tool in doing work is to select the most appropriate tool for the job.

Statistics are often used in studies and reports. Many rural farmers lack sophisticated educations. And the ?“experts?” tend to bombard people with numbers and statistics. As a student, I remember reading a quote from a businessman (whose name I cannot recall now). He said ?“Statistics a like a bikini. They show a lot, but they hide what?’s vital.?”

Farmers see the world via their personal experiences and do not always have quantitative data to support their views. They may have subjective, qualitative facts from their personal memories. They may recall getting more bags of rice one year than another from their paddies of various sizes. But they may not be able to tell you the exact volume or weight of each bag. And they may not be able to tell you the size of all of their paddies. Thus the statistic of 300 kg / rai is not in their vocabulary.

The RTC-TH tries to work in a way that is meaningful to farmers. In our family, we tend to store our annual rice harvest in bags. They may not all be the same size. As we dry the rice, we scoop it up using whatever basin is available. Each bag is filled with the same count of ?“full?” basins. The bags are tied shut and stacked in the kitchen store room. We record the total number of bags of rice for the annual harvest. We have a rough idea how many bags we need to get through the year. Any number over that is kept in reserve for communal food security. Relatives and friends who need rice usually come and borrow from our reserve. It is a cultural tradition of mutual assistance. The next year, after the harvest, the families repay the ?“loan?” by replacing the borrowed bags of rice. At the end of the year, as we approach the next planting season, we can see how many bags of rice we have left. [Note: Interestingly enough, in our family, we have been able to "increase" our rice reserves without additional planting or production. We found over the past 2 years that our family is eating less rice, leaving more rice in storage.]

One of our ongoing efforts is to try to forecast various scenarios to try to estimate the food security reserves we should stock pile. For example, this year, the Thai government is forecasting a severe drought. They are urging farmers NOT to plant a second or a third crop of wet rice due to water shortages. [Note: In our area, we can only get 1 crop of wet rice each year. Also we do not have access to irrigation water.] The major dams in Thailand have already dipped dangerously deep (70%-90%) into their reserve water supplies (AND THE HOT/DRY SEASON HAS JUST BEGUN!).

This situation makes the coming rainy season (the time when we can plant wet rice) a very big unknown at the moment. So there are various options to consider: 1) buy more rice now to build up a reserve in anticipation of a reduced rice harvest; 2) reduce rice consumption now to stretch existing supplies; 3) plant alternative starch crops that use less water than wet rice; 4) gradually introduce alternative starch foods to the family diet; 5) build up cash reserves in anticipation of buying more rice and locating possible supply sources from which to purchase additional rice. Any combination of actions can be better determined by having detailed quantities to use in estimates and calculations. This is the essence of GRASS.

One of life?’s biggest challenges is facing the ?“unknown.?” And since few of us are capable of knowing or predicting the future, many have good reason to ?“fear?” the unknown. It is often said the humans make plans, and God laughs at them. Another saying holds that ?“the best made plans of mice and men oft times go awry.?” At the RTC-TH we tend to make plans, then a series of alternative plans, and then, in the best traditions of Sun Tzu, be ready to adapt to the changing conditions facing you. Planning for us is a matter of examining the full range of possibilities, contingencies, and being open to using available resources to take actions consistent with the integrated systems on our farm. We accept that no plan is perfect and that no plan can be perfectly executed. But we also know that if we don?’t try to plan and consider the facts, we may greatly reduce our chances for success.

We once heard a story about a very successful business man. At a conference, many were eager to get his advice as to how he was able to make so many good business decisions. He replied, ?“By having made a lot of bad decisions.?” Part of education is learning from your mistakes. For us, farmers who are in debt and struggling to keep their farms have made mistakes. If they fail to learn from those mistakes, they risk losing their farms. As educators, we stand ready to provide learning opportunities for those who desire to learn. GRASS helps farmers find appropriate ways for them to quantify certain aspects of their farm operations. Record keeping is essential to detect patterns and trends significant to effective management.

Simple, low cost field measurement techniques from SOS, SOW, COMPOST, GROW and other RTC-TH lessons can be used to create the necessary records. Many of these can be done by the farmer?’s children. The lessons use basic math and science. Traditional school lessons are reinforced by practical use in running the family farm. Many of the methods used in GRASS lessons rely on making charts and graphs to visually show the relative change over time in the various data sets. This is based on the idea ?“a picture is worth a thousand words.?” Show the same chart to a number of people, and they often come up with a wide range of words and thoughts as to the ?“meaning?” of the chart. This facilitates discussion and analysis. If done well, the resulting synthesis and synergy opens the way to alternative solution sets that may not have occurred to any one individual working on their own. This is a way to begin to train the next generation of Thai farmers to strive for self-sufficiency and sustainability. The methods can be appropriately scaled and applied to home gardens or small family farms.

In the past, there have been government training programs held in rural areas. These were conducted by government experts and faculty from leading Thai universities. The trainees were selected from various local district farmers. As an incentive, those completing the training were offered scholarship opportunities for their children to attend some of the leading national universities. The Thai government recognized that most students attending their best universities to study agriculture were not from farming families. They also recognized that all of the best university training and education did not guarantee producing a core of educated farmers. They wanted a way to recruit rural students. Their hope was to be able to better educate students who came from the farm. One big stumbling block to this plan was the quality of education in rural areas was not always sufficient to prepare students to enroll in the top universities. And the existing challenge of getting well educated graduates to return to rural farm communities still remains. We know of many farm families whose children have graduated from universities in Thailand. Most have sought high paying jobs based on their college education. They have little desire to return and live in their rural home villages.

The RTC-TH programs provide opportunities for learning which do not set limits on the learners. Our goal is to empower small rural farm families to implement the first stage of the King?’s Theory of the Self-sufficiency economy---a self-sufficient and sustainable family farm. We help to empower young students to be active participants in helping their families achieve this goal. We do not advocate commercial agriculture, but we do not restrict the choices of the learners. We do hope they will pursue commercial agriculture in a sustainable way with minimal negative impact to the environment.

[Note: This was a brief description of GRASS. For the lessons to be meaningful, they are all adapted to local site conditions prior to training. A typical scenario for off-farm training involves time to pre-view the area for the training (about ?½ to 1 day prior to the training). This lets us tailor the lessons to be as site specific as possible. Relevance is critical to making the lessons useful. Thus, there isn?’t a ?“standard?” lesson booklet as such. Included with the training is the ?“teach back?” model. This encourages the participants to share the knowledge with others, just as we are freely sharing our knowledge with them. Payment for the training consists of covering our costs to get to and from the training site, and room/board for the duration of the training. Although we are not a formal / legal non-profit organization, we conduct ourselves in that manner. We are not doing this to make a profit. This is primarily a ?“give back to the community?” activity.

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