Sustainable Agriculture Project Sangthong

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Project Overview:

The Sustainable Agriculture Project Sangthong (hereafter, SAPS) is a joint project of the Sangthong District Agriculture and Forestry Extension Office and the Mennonite Central Committee. Project planning and implementation are carried out jointly between staff of both institutions in a co-operative effort to promote long-term sustainability of agricultural production and ecological conservation throughout Sangthong District. SAPS seeks to accomplish this goal primarily through technical trainings, farmer-managed demonstration gardens and micro-lending. In accordance with the wider ethos of the Mennonite Central Committee, SAPS intentionally works in those communities most economically (or otherwise) disadvantaged, by empowering local farmers to carry-out technically appropriate, low-external input agricultural projects which promote long-term food security and viable products for sale. The project seeks, through all activities and trainings, to promote practices which properly recognize principles of the agroecosystem including, but not limited to, water and nutrient cycling, soil organic matter, and the role of beneficial insects, arthropods, and soil fauna. In addition to this, the project seeks to promote those practices which have a beneficial or neutral impact on the natural ecosystem. The project recognizes and seeks to engage the complex interaction of the these ecosystems to promote agricultural development which is truly sustainable, both for the human organism and for the vast array for non-human organisms involved in these interactions.

Organisational Structure

The Sustainable Agriculture Project Sangthong has targeted the 8 poorest villages in Sangthong District. In two cases, the focus of project activities has centered in a ‘group’ (an administrative entity lower than a village, but which is under the jurisdication of the village authority) of a wider village to reflect the reality of the present situation where minorities often live in enclaves outside of the larger village. These groups tend to be considerably more disadvantaged than the wider village. Traditional methods of targeting villages in Laos has been based on administrative maps, generally ignoring this reality. Disadvantage was, in part, determined through child nutrition surveys conducted by the Sangthong Primary Health Care Project and in consultation with DAFEO staff and local authority.

The following villages were selected:

Ban Gua

Group Sumpay (of Ban Gua)

Ban Mai Pak Sang

Ban Hoi Dtom

Ban Vangma

Ban So

Group Hoi Sa Gan (of Ban So)

Ban Hoi Kham

In addition, Ban Nahoi Bang, though not particularly disadvantaged, was selected at the behest of local government, as it is a ‘model cultural village.’

In each project village, one or two farming families were supported to develop and maintain a demonstration garden based upon an Integrated Garden model, where a small area (generally 1 lai, where 6 lai comprise a hectare) was grown as a polyculture of fruit trees, vegetables, annual fruits, and medicinal and herbal plants. These Demonstration Gardens are the property and responsibility of the project farmer, who receives support from the project in terms of fruit tree seedlings, vegetable seed, training and advice. The arrangement, composition, and implementation of the garden is the sole province of the farmer, who may adopt or ignore advice of project officers at his or her discretion.

The Demonstration Gardens serve several purposes within the project:

  • to provide a tangible plot in which to demonstrate principles taught in technical trainings
  • to provide a practice and experimentation area in which local farmers can test project advice and methods
  • to provide an area in which practicum-based trainings can be carried out
  • to provide a source of new cultivars for the village
  • to provide a food resource for project family

Selection of Project Farmers:

Project farmers were selected in consultation with DAFEO staff and, primarily, the village chief. In accordance with local practice and the local political system, all decisions, especially at the outset of new projects, must be made by the village chief. SAPS determined that of greatest importance was the selection of project villages in terms of the degree of disadvantage. Selection of project farmers was, in part, secondary to this for a variety of reasons. SAPS stipulated that the project farmer which was selected must be someone with time in which to work in the demonstration garden, must have demonstrated some level of agricultural ability and interest, and must have land near a year-round source of water. While it is inevitable that these qualifications are more likely to be met by families with somewhat more means than the poorest segment of the village, it was determined that a viable demonstration field was a priority. SAPS has made alternative arrangements to specifically target the poorest families in these communities.

Situation of Demonstration Gardens:

Generally speaking, this was most constrained by the ability of the selected farming family, on whose property the Demonstration Garden was located. SAPS stipulated that the Demonstration Garden had access to a year-round supply of water, had approximately 1 lai in area, and was easily accessible to the community.

In most villages these conditions were met in the site chosen by the project farmer and the village chief. In one or two cases, the site was poorly selected, resulting in two demonstration gardens being located approximately 1 km from the village.

Selection of Crops and Cultivars:

All planting material used in the Demonstration Gardens was selected by the respective project farmer, although SAPS encouraged farmers to think in terms of production of year-round food supply for family consumption, rather than sale per se. SAPS sought out sources of improved cultivars for project farmers as a way of improving local stocks of improved varieties. Project Garden planted between 20 and 50 fruit trees, depending on the area of land and the needs of the particular farmer. Vegetable seed and other planting material was provided jointly through the project and through the surrounding community. The project provided seed only from open pollinating varieties to ensure a long term supply of harvestable seed. In each Demonstration Garden, project farmers planted between 15 and 25 different species and cultivars, varying from fruit trees to vegetables, to herbs, etc. Fruit trees supplied by the project were provided on terms of repayment in kind. Each project farmer received the fruit trees on the understanding that within two years, each fruit tree would be repaid with two trees of the same variety, which could in turn be given to the poorest families in the community, as selected by community members. This system provided several benefits:

  • the project farmer received improved cultivars without the outlay of cash at any time, which is a scarce resource
  • the project farmer was given a specific goal for the practicing grafting and plant propagation techniques which were taught by the project
  • cost effectiveness and exponential impact—resources supplied by the project were ensured of multiplication- every tree given results in three trees supplied to the community
  • provision of fruit trees for the poorest segment of the community
demonstration- community members able to witness the productive benefit of grafting and plant propagation techniques.

Implementation of Demonstration Gardens:

The implementation of Demonstration Gardens was carried out by project farmers in consultation with the project. In general, the project offered counsel on ground preparation, plant spacing and situation. Care was taken in all project involvement to offer counsel when requested by farmers, with deference to farmer needs and understanding. During implementation of Demonstration Gardens farmers also had opportunity to attend workshops in their respective villages on techniques of planting, soil improvement and conservation, etc, as detailed below, which supplemented their traditional knowledge of agriculture.

Farmers were encouraged to prioritize fence construction as prior to planting, to prohibit animals from destroying planting materials.

Implementation of Technical Trainings

Following the implementation of Demonstration Gardens, the primary activity of the project has been to hold technical trainings on topics selected jointly by the project and by local farmers.

Trainings usually take place during the dry season as the rainy season is dominated by rice cultivation which consumes the majority of the working day. Trainings typically take place either in half days, or as whole day sessions with long a lunch break for communal eating and non-formal discussion. Often, the morning will be devoted to formal training in a village office or the home of the village chief, with the afternoon being used for practical demonstration and practice by participants.

One to two weeks before each training a date and time is arranged between the village chief and project officers. All members of the community are invited to attend each session. Commonly, participants are equally divided between men and women, but generally with little involvement of youth or the elderly. Participation varied from 24 to 97, but averaged closer to 32 farmers per training. Through the course of the year, the project witnessed an increase in participation with successive trainings, which indicated that farmers considered project trainings beneficial.

All training materials are prepared by the project in advance of the session, usually involving writing and production of folded leaflets explaining topics and basic principles in an easy-to-understand fashion, heavily relying on diagrams and images rather than text. These leaflets provide a valuable source for information for other family members and to remind the participants of the principles and techniques which were learnt during the training.

The project has selected topics in keeping with the aims and objectives of MCC and the Lao Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, specifically, the promotion of settled rather than swidden agriculture, non-burning of crop wastes, the promotion of non-chemical pest management, and the sustainable utilization of natural (forest and aquatic) resources.

Topics selected by farmers have often been similar to many of those held by the project. In the initial planning stages of the project, care was taken to focus on those areas which project officers felt were pressing concerns in other parts of Laos. In some cases it seems that these topics were well chosen in for the local context. There were, however, some divergence which will discussed in greater detail in the Discussion section to follow. In brief, however, the project has sought to promote sustainable food production for home consumption. The project farmers (men and women), however, felt a greater need for increased capacity to produce marketable agricultural products to increase family income. Project activities and training topics were altered accordingly to reflect the felt needs of all stakeholders. The methodology for assessing topics of interest to farmers included informal discussion with village farmers and village chiefs in part, but primarily by requests for farmers at the end of each training session, where the group would discuss topics for future trainings. The limitations of this method are discussed later.

Training Topics

Integrated Pest Management: Prior to the implementation of the project, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) supported training in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) through the FAO Inter-Country IPM Programme. Two DAFEO staff had successfully completed residential trainings in the principles and practice of IPM and were certified as Farmer Field School Facilitators. At the beginning of the project, funding for the programme had been discontinued in the district. The project undertook to continue and extend this work, by selecting two villages (ban Hoi Dtom and Ban Gua Sumpay) in which to implement Farmer Field Schools.

Soil Conservation: one of the principle drawbacks of swidden cultivation is the impoverishment of soil fertility through burning, and exposure of the bare soil to intense solar heat, as well as erosion from heavy rains. In settled agriculture, many of the principles learnt from years of swidden cultivation are still dominant, including burning of all wastes and plant material, and denuding of soil. In project trainings, emphasis is placed upon mulching and shading of soil through plants. Much settled agriculture takes place during the dry season, when water needs are at their peak. Mulching serves to conserve soil moisture as well as protect valuable nutrients from solar degradation. Topics in soil conservation also included alley cropping for hillside agriculture and other techniques of Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT).

Soil Improvement: Improvement of soils through the addition of green manures and compost was taught, with practical sessions on compost making and application. This is particularly important in the local context as external inputs come at a high costs for farmers with little liquid cash. Composting methods utilized locally available resources, while also provided a viable alternative to the common practice of burning crop wastes.

Fruit Tree Planting and Care: Principles of fruit tree management including pest and disease management, pruning, mulching, and fertilization (by means of compost and manure rather than purchased fertilizers) were taught, followed by practical demonstrations in the Demonstration Gardens where trees were planted, fertilized and mulched.

Fruit Tree Grafting and Propagation: The project conducted a one-day training session in each project village on techniques of fruit tree grafting and propagation. Techniques included bark and shield grafting, air-layering (marcotting) and budding. This training, in particular, relied heavily on practical demonstration and practice by participants.

Fish Pond Construction and Fish Raising: Typically, fish are allowed to grow ‘wild’ in temporary ponds or paddies and then are harvested near the end of the dry season in bulk, or harvested periodically throughout the year. The project conducted trainings on specifications for fish pond construction (including low-labour methods of improving existing ponds for fish raising) and techniques of improving food sources by the addition of decaying plant material and manure to the water. The practicum of these sessions were enhanced by the existence of fish ponds beside most Demonstration Gardens, which have provided valuable demonstrations for fish raising techniques.

Chicken Raising and Vaccination: Chickens, like other animals, are typically raised in a non-formal fashion. Newcastle and other diseases, including suspected cases of Avian Flu often devastate flocks in rural areas. The project conducted trainings on techniques of vaccination and symptoms of fowl disease.

Production and Use of Bio-Extract (BE): farmers were trained in the techniques of produce bio-extract from fruit and vegetables, and instructed in the uses of BE as an additive for compost and for pest management. Farmers were also trained in similar techniques for producing water-based extracts for use in pest management and soil improvement.

Conservation of Wild Fish Populations

Traditionally, those villages which fish from waterways for consumption or sale often have had village-managed systems for conserving natural populations of fish. Today, many villages no longer have such a system for a variety of reasons. In the target villages of the project, one village, Vangma, has maintained such a traditional system. Other villages in the project area, specifically those villages bordering the Nam Sang River, have approached the project with requests for assistance in developing a system. The project has begun, in consultation with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, to implement a system of village-based fish conservation which seeks to ensure a sustainable supply of economically important fish, while at the same time promoting the conservation of ecologically-important species.

Micro-lending for Fish Raising:

Following the completion of the seminars on fish raising and fish pond construction, many farmers expressed the concern that technical knowledge was only a part of the impediments which they faced in terms of viable fish production. Many farmers felt that start-up capital was a more significant hindrance than a lack of technical ability. Accordingly, the project began a programme to supply interested farmers with a short-term (9 months) loan of 300,000 kip (US$30) per fish pond for the purchase of fingerlings, on the condition that the farmer would construct a pond according to specifications advised by the project (where possible), and that the amount would be repaid without interest at the end of the fish production season, which runs roughly from July until April, when fish are harvested toward the end of the dry season. During the loan period, the project continued to provide follow-up visits by the DAFEO Animal Husbandry Division to monitor fish growth and to provide technical assistance for problems which arose during the period.

Capacity building amongst District Agriculture and Forestry Extension Office Staff and Volunteers:

During the year of 2006-7, capacity building amongst DAFEO staff took place primarily in the context of project activities, which were generally carried out by the staff themselves, with significant support from recent agriculture college graduates who work voluntarily with the project and Sangthong DAFEO. In all project activities, decision-making and project implementation is directed jointly between MCC service worker and DAFEO employees, ensuring a co-operative, mutually-constructive environment which allows for a shared sense of ownership for activities and outcomes. Particularly in the context of technical trainings, DAFEO staff and volunteers prepare and deliver seminars on a variety of topics, as well as leading local farmers through demonstration and practical sessions. While all trainings are supported materially and informationally through the project, there is a strong emphasis on a utilization of local resources and knowledge, seeking to ensure the possibility of sustainability after the termination of the project. There are some realistic limitations, however, to the sustainability of these activities without outside funding, which will be discussed later. It is also worth noting that the distinction between DAFEO staff and local agriculturists is rather arbitrary. All staff persons are themselves part-time farmers in the local community, and thus all capacity building at this level also serves to benefit educated farmers and, by extension, the local agriculture sector.

In addition to this on-the-job capacity building, DAFEO staff have been supported to attend conferences on Commercial Rubber Tree issues and opportunities, production and use of EM (in Thailand), implementation and monitoring of micro-finance.

One DAFEO staff person was supported to participate in a three month-long course in written and spoken English in Vientiane. This has been part of wider objective of English language acquisition at the DAFEO level, and parallels office-based language training for DAFEO staff. Within this year, the implementation of formal English-language classes has been slow to start. In part, this has been due to an inability to allocate time which can accommodate the work schedules of various staff members.

Capacity building amongst local agriculturists:

Throughout all technical trainings, significant emphasis has been placed upon farmer participation in learning and demonstration, and selection of topics. The empowerment of farmers to choose topics and to direct the course of their own learning is fundamental to local capacity building. Top-down selection o topics and modes of delivery has, in the past, communicated to farmers that there are recipients, rather than participants, in the development of the agricultural sector. The project has sought to assimilate innovative techniques of farmer-led agriculture extension and training, particularly those of the FAO IPM Inter-Country Programme and the Lao Extension Approach, both of which promote similar pedagogies. In the coming year, the project aims to deepen and extend the level to which farmers direct project activities and implementation.

In each training topic, the project has sought to promote techniques which utilize resources that are both locally-available and cost-effective, and which do not require outside expertise beyond the training itself and short-term follow-up which will be supplied through the project. In particular:

  • methods of soil conservation and improvement have not advocated the use of purchased inputs, but rather have relied upon animals manures and plant matter, and cultural techniques.
  • Pest management has focused on the use of non-chemical control, including cultural techniques and the use of farmer-produced bio-extract
  • Plant propagation techniques were taught with a view to facilitating the use of locally-available refuse plastic as an alternative to purchased plastic bags, and did not promote the use of rooting-hormones. Techniques of coconut-fiber processing for marcotting were also taught during the training.

The Project Farmers participated in a three-day training course in Phialat to further develop and reinforce skills learned during the village-based trainings. In the coming year, the project aims to utilize the Project Farmers local agricultural experts (Village Extension Workers in the Lao Extension Approach) to implement ongoing trainings in their respective villages.


Throughout project activities there have been some lessons learned, both through failures and successes. Any project is limited by the quality of the implementing staff. Project activities have, on the whole, benefited greatly from an invaluable group of staff from the DAFEO office, who have shown themselves to be exemplary in their technical ability and their willingness to engage and work together with local farmers. Amongst DAFEO staff there is a general feeling that there is a need for updated training. DAFEO Sangthong would benefit from a more rigorous plan for updated staff training through outside agencies, study tours, and internal seminars, which could be facilitated by the project. During this year, the project has sought out such opportunities but not, perhaps, as much as it could.

In terms of topic selection for farmer trainings, there are some limitations of the techniques heretofore employed. At present, at the close of each village training, project staff ask farmers what topics they would be interested in learning in future. It is not unlikely that this method elicits the response of the more senior or more vocal farmers in the group, but may exclude younger members, women, or those less likely to answer directly in a group setting if there idea is contrary to the ‘leaders.’ In addition, such a technique would exclude those farmers who did not come to the training in the first place as the topic did not interest them, were not informed, or were unable to come for some other reason. In the future, other techniques could be employed which would quantify a more balanced group response, alongside focused questioning of potentially-marginalised groups.

At the outside of the project, initial training topics were decided primarily by the project with involvement by Sangthong DAFEO. Admittedly, this was an outdated (though all-too-common) method for project initiation. In particular, the project felt that a focus on improved food security through the development of family-gardens was of highest priority. Accordingly, the project focused on teaching techniques relating to subsistence-level agricultural production. Through the course of the year, the project began to be aware of an overriding interest on the part of the farmers to develop cash crops and agribusiness. While many techniques are applicable both of family-consumption gardens and in market-oriented agriculture, there are some fundamental difference. In particular, the project focused on a minimum of cash inputs, discouraging the use of purchased synthetic fertilizers (or even purchased natural fertilizers, such as bat guano), or of other purchased (though perhaps cost-effective) tools, etc. In future, this needs to be explored further along two lines of inquiry. First, is this concern for the market-oriented products representative of the whole community? Conventional wisdom suggests that women are more concerned with family food security, where men may be more concerned about marketable products. Secondly, how can the aims and objectives of the project (namely, supporting sustainable agriculture with particular reference to the disadvantaged members of the community) be worked out through an agribusiness approach? Likely, such a solution would involve greater work in the area of micro-lending, without which those community members with capital inputs would continue to advance beyond poorer neighbours as a result of project activities.

Finally, there is a greater need for the co-operation between the project and other organizations, projects, and offices. Communication (particularly vertical) is often irregular and non-participatory. Lack of communication is a pervasive problem at all levels of work, both within and without the District, which impedes project implementation and efficiency.