Onion farmers in Seik Phyu Township, about an hour outside of Bagan in the Dry Zone of Burma (also known as Myanmar), are participating in a competition to see who has the best onions. Onions are judged primarily on color, weight, and yield, and the competition is fierce.
These farmers have been using organic practices recommended by volunteer Howard Prussak (via the USAID Farmer-to-Farmer program) to improve the quality and yields of their onion crop. When given the chance to participate in the Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) training, farmers were very interested. “I wanted to learn how to grow better onions and earn more money,” said U Hla Myo, the current frontrunner in the competition.
U Hla Myo grows his onions on five acres of land which he works with his wife and his five children when they come to visit. He is a member of the newly formed growers association (formed as a result of Prussack’s recommendation) that has 76 members, including nine women, most of which are smallholder farmers. This association shares information regarding organic farming among its members and works to promote organic farming in their communities. The members sell their onions together, which helps them earn higher prices in the market.
U Hla Myo’s onions have an excellent sweet taste, good golden color, and his yields have steadily increased as a result of organic practices he learned during the F2F training, like crop rotation to improve soil fertility and using natural fertilizer (cow manure mostly). Prior to the training, U Hla Myo was using traditional agriculture practices, like most smallholder farmers in Myanmar, which deplete soil nutrients quickly and do not facilitate high yields.
The competition will be judged by a committee comprised of representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, Trade Ministry, Land Record Development, Onion Wholesale Center, and the Myanmar Business Coalition of Aids. The purpose of the competition is to raise awareness of the benefits of organic farming, like improved color, taste, size, and yield. Farmers have noticed that their onions last longer in storage now as well. Other onion farmers in their community are noticing their neighbors’ improved onions and now there is significant interest in earning organic certificates. “We want to get the organic certificates now so we can sell to more markets and earn higher prices,” said U Tin Myint, member of the executive committee that manages the growers association. “There is a lot of interest in the certificates.”
The committee is currently collecting samples from the participating farms: they randomly select test areas of 6ft2 to determine average yield, weight, and color. After collecting the samples, the committee will decide on who wins the 300,000 kyat cash prize (about US$300). U Hla Myo already decided that he’s going to spend his winnings on investing more in his farm and making donations, which is very important in Burmese culture. “I am going to use the extra money I am making from my onions to make a donation. I could not do this before and now I am very excited.”
U Hla Myo’s story is common in Burma where over 70% of the country is engaged in agriculture. Small-scale farmers depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, but often lack the knowledge of best practices that can increase the quality and yields of their crops. It is seen as a profession without advancement, without success. These onion farmers are changing their stories and motivating others in their community to do the same, using the information they learned from Farmer-to-Farmer.