Wan's Wonders

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By | January 13, 2010

Wan’s Wonders

How one farmer with little education and no tools developed (and named) two prize-winning rice strains.

© Tatree Saengme-Anuparb

Most farmers would only dream of growing a rice variety that is both scrumptious and robust. But that’s not enough for farmer–rice breeder Wan Ruengtue, who has developed new strains and had them named after him.

Among the small-scale farmers in Thailand’s northern and northeastern regions, the names of Wan 1 and Wan 2 have in recent years become a trustworthy brand for glutinous rice, a staple crop consumed in every household for generations. Wan 1, a mix of government-promoted jasmine rice known as Kor Khor 6, and an indigenous variety named Hom Thung, is known for its chewy, fragrant grains and resistance to blast, a common rice disease. Wan 2, boasts the breeder from Nan province, has even surpassed the Kor Khor 6 in its aromatic appeal. In two local taste competitions, both varieties have beaten the prevalent Kor Khor 6 without much difficulty, he quickly adds.

For all his efforts, Wan seeks no patent rights for his “inventions” and even offers to teach fellow farmers how to breed the varieties of their choice.

“I just want to share [knowledge] more than to make money out of it,” says the 40-something-year-old farmer. “It is a [source of] pride for breeders if their works have been used by others who take a liking to them.”

Wan’s achievement is intriguing, considering that he has only 6 years of formal schooling and has received neither state funding nor state-of-the-art technology to help in his experiments. In 1998, a nongovernmental organization named Hak Muang Nan sponsored him and two other farmers for a study trip to the Philippines, where Wan learned a simple rice breeding technique from a local NGO. Back home, the enthusiastic man immediately tried it out on his fields at Ban Had Khed.

The breeding process, says Wan, is actually very simple. You need a pair of scissors, a needle, a piece of white porous paper, and dexterous hands. For Wan, the best time of the year for the “rice matching” is October 20 since the crops will usually be flowering simultaneously then. (He has, however, set up a special demonstration site at his farm where he can show the technique to visitors all year round.)

The first step is to cut open the “Mother” flower and remove the stamen, leaving only the solitary pistil inside. Next, the “Father” inflorescence flower is introduced, gently brushing off the stamen’s pollen so that it falls right onto the “Mother.” The pollinated flower will then be wrapped up in the white paper. Usually the germinated grain will come out in about a week or two, but it may take as long as a month and a half before the new seedlings are ready for transplant.

More daunting and laborious, says Wan, is the process of sifting and screening the subsequent generations of rice grains. It takes about seven to eight seasons—and a tremendous amount of patience and determination—before he manages to achieve the stable, desirable traits of his choice. According to Suksan Kantree, technical specialist of Kwao Kwan Foundation, which promotes sustainable agriculture in Thailand, Wan is one of the country’s extremely few farmers who have been successfully breeding their own rice seeds.

Wan’s efforts have apparently paid off, though not in the material sense (he does not sell his seeds). His bitter experiences from growing maize commercially—when the seed prices controlled by agro-conglomerates jumped from $0.09 to a hundred baht ($3.03) per kilogram—are another factor that prompted him to seek ways to be self-reliant in seed supply, especially in rice, which he says is far more important than maize.

“I personally don’t think much about GM [genetically modified] rice,” Wan adds. “I was once invited to give a talk to officers from the Rice Department, and I raised questions about why they even had to bother with introducing GM varieties when we have so many indigenous varieties that we could develop further here. Everyone in the room just went quiet.”

With about 20-plus indigenous varieties at his nonchemical farm, Wan says there are countless possibilities for future breeding. Over the last few years, he has been working on Wan 4, which will address the problems of drought, a more worrying concern due to climate change, he notes. At any rate, Wan is not in a hurry. “Even the fully fledged researchers cannot release new varieties every year. I want to make the utmost certainty of my ‘variety’ before I let her walk onto the public stage,” he says with a laugh.

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