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Bugs & Flowers

On a typical day in Cai Lay District, about 90 KM outside Ho Chi Minh City, farmers toil in the field tending to their rice paddies. But today is special, and like any special day in Vietnam it will end with rice wine and feasting. It begins, however, with bugs and flowers.

About three months ago, with funding from the International Rice Research Institute, Dr. Ho Van Chien, Director of the Southern Regional Plant Protection Center, and Dr. Le Huu Hai, Vice President of Tien Giang University, delivered seeds and fertilizer to local farmers as part of a project designed to reduce the use of pesticides. The farmers planted sesame, green beans, okra, marigolds and wild flowers along the borders of their fields. These flowers, previously considered weeds, now serve an important function.

They attract bees and spiders and other “good” insects that eat pests. The goal of today’s event is to find out if the farmers have any questions and if they will continue to practice farming with flowers as opposed to toxic pesticides.

All the farmers listening to Mr. Chien’s lecture sit in small, red plastic stools on the tiled porch of a traditional Vietnamese farmhouse. All are women. They are barefoot, wearing polyester suits or polo shirts or matching long-sleeved loose pajama-like outfits. One has sparkly purple toenails. Another has her hair pulled back in a curler. Another wears crystal earrings. A few of the older ones still wear the nong la, the traditional Vietnamese hat.

This year’s project involves five hundred women from thirteen different villages. They chose women, explains Mr. Chien, because women like flowers. He’s kidding. They chose women because they tried this project with male farmers and found that the men often drink too much to follow the timeline necessary to achieve the project goals. Not to mention, it’s quite common in Vietnamese families for the women to hold onto the money, so it makes sense that they should be the ones to hold onto the seeds and the fertilizer for the flowers.

Mr. Chien reminds the farmers that they must plant the flowers before they plant the rice, and they must make sure that the flowers are on higher ground than the rice so that the roots won’t be in water and so that the flower border can be seen over the rice paddies in order to attract “good” insects. The farmers only need to water the plant border for the first month, and after that they’ll take care of themselves. After the season, the farmers should collect the flower seeds, rather than let the seeds scatter in the wind, and replant them so they can deliberately plant another flower border and continue the project. The farmers were given flowers and fertilizer and guidance for this season’s crop but next season they won’t receive the same support.

There are three crops per year, and this one determines their economic outcome for the entire year. If their crop does well, they will make money, and if it doesn’t, they will struggle financially.

At the beginning of the season, the farmers worry about leaf rollers, which live in the leaf and roll it up. They damage the rice plant by destroying the leaf, and by the time the farmers detect the problem because the leaf has turned white, it’s too late. Planthoppers are even more threatening because they eat the stem from the base. Now, only two weeks away from harvest, the farmers have noticed butterflies in the fields, and they’re worried the butterflies will get to the rice before they do. They’ve never relied on flowers in this way.

One woman raises her hand and asks if she can spray her field now as a preventative measure. Her family is going to be leaving the rice fields to celebrate Tet, the Lunar New Year, and she doesn’t want to worry about her rice during the holidays. “No,” Mr. Chien says. “Don’t spray.” He reassures her that the butterflies won’t hurt her crop because they’re male butterflies and therefore can’t produce larvae.

Many of the farmers are in the habit of mixing their seeds with pesticides as they plant, believing that they will kill pests before they appear. Spraying pesticides as a preventative measure kills the bad insects, but it also kills the good ones so the farmers will have to keep spraying or the pests become immune to the pesticide. Mr. Chien explains the problem this way: “You don’t go to the doctor and buy medicine for diarrhea the day before you get diarrhea, do you?” Everyone laughs at his crude analogy, but they get the message: create an ecosystem where the good guys cancel out the bad guys.

As with much of the world, Vietnam has a bee problem: there aren’t enough of them. In order to learn more about the bees visiting his field, Mr. Chien put dried bamboo shoots in plastic tubes about the size of a coffee can. He places these handmade contraptions at strategic intervals throughout the fields so that the bees will nest in the bamboo shoots.

He can easily remove one shoot once a bee has settled in, take it to his lab and conduct tests to determine the species.

A feast follows the main event: boiled bananas with scallion sauce, fermented tofu and okra (from the fields), snails and lemongrass, shrimp and green beans, and fish prepared in a hotpot. As with most traditional Vietnamese celebrations, there is also rice wine.

When Mr. Chien drinks enough rice wine, he performs magic tricks with his chopsticks and his hankie and a little balled up piece of paper from his pack of Marlboro reds. He tells a joke that goes something like this: A male cow leaves his wife and many children at home. He goes out in the rice fields to work all day. When he comes home, he sees his beautiful cow wife and beautiful cow children. “One MOOOOOre,” he says, thrusting his cow hips. “No MOOOOOOre,” she says. If he doesn’t get a laugh, he tells it again.

“One more,” seems to be Mr. Chien’s mantra. If they plant one more flower, attract one more bee, kill one more leaf roller, then perhaps one more farmer will say, “no more” to pesticides.

(To learn more about this project, please visit: http://ricehoppers.net/)

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