Old update: First ADA/LAP rice harvest 2009

01 April, 2011 • Viktor Bengtsson • 10 minutes to read

(Post from old blog.)

This post describes the first rice harvest of ADA/LAP in Foya, Liberia. It is the second of three blog posts describing activities I undertook in 2009. The photos are old (courtesy of ADA/LAP) but the text is new.

I came back to Foya in September 2009, now as the head of all field operations. One of my first duties was to plan and prepare for the first harvest, which by then was about two months off. We had never run our brand-new combines and there were no operators trained on them. You can't really run a combine unless you have something to harvest.

Also, the fields were uneven, badly drained, and the rains, which should by this time have ceased completely showed no sign of abating. Furthermore, we had no facilities to receive the rice: no rice mill, no dryer, and no silos. I had to decide quickly on a workable solution. Lastly, in a fit of productiveness, my predecessors had decided to plant by hand those areas that were not accessible by machine (due to steep slopes or tree stumps), but no one had thought to mark these areas in any way, and no one could remember where they were.

Field of rice in Liberia

The tree line is an international border, and the hills beyond lie in Guinea.

Note: The ADA/LAP farm outside the town of Foya is located right on the border between Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The tree line visible on the edge of our fields in the photo above is actually the Makona river, the international border between Liberia and Guinea. So the tree covered hills you see beyond is Guinea. This fact has led to some confusion but relatively few actual problems (such as theft). At one point the authorities in Guinea became convinced that the green (John Deere) machines they saw moving on the other side of the border were military equipment (rocket launchers, tanks etc.) positioned as a prelude to invasion. A few visits by various delegations were enough to dispel this misconception, but we've enjoyed frequent visits by Guinean military personnel ever since.

Guinean red beret soldier visiting

Red beret from Guinea visiting the farm (in military footwear).

So we had a few practical challenges to overcome, and progress was hampered by additional, human, challenges. It turned out to be quite time-consuming to transform the people involved in operations into a large-scale farming mindset. No one in Liberia had experience of large-scale cereal farming simply because it had never been done before. And it turns out that solutions on the small family farms don't scale all that well. (One of this example was proposal handed to me for controlling birds around the farm. The proposed solution had an annual cost of 5.5 million dollars.)

Agriculture technician in rice field

One of our agriculture technicians on his way to becoming a calculating technician.

Among the many things that I love about agriculture is the fact that there is no arguing with nature's deadlines. No amount of meetings, focus groups, or time for study was going to change the fact that rice was ripening fast. We had to get the job done. So while I spent my nights digesting John Deere manuals in preparation of instructing my two hand-picked combine operators (literacy and machine handling being the two main criteria), our agricultural technicians (Varney and Nathan) were devising a system for drying the rice. We really had very little choice on drying the rice, we would have to do it the traditional way, by using the sun.

Closeup on green rice

Still too green but getting there.

After some calculations, using data that we estimated from Varney and Nathans own, significant, experience of sun-drying rice, we concluded that tarpaulin would make the best drying board and that we would need about 2 acres worth (about 8000 m^2) to dry all the rice in a short enough time. The agriculture guys made their first "Viktor standard" report with time, cost, and personnel nicely estimated.

While they were having fun with area and volume calculations, I was having fun working with the two combine operators-in-waiting. We ran John Deere 9860's with 30-foot draper headers, for those of you who have never been in the cab of one of these beasts I can tell you that it's not like driving your old Honda to the mall. There are three different screens to keep your eye on while driving this house-sized lawnmower to within about 10 cms precision. It becomes easier as the machine is properly calibrated and it is established that it's running fine, but in the beginning it was a lot of work.

I was only planning to use one combine harvester since our farm was only a few hundred hectares at this point. This simplified calibration and data collection. We were also very lucky in picking that particular combine from the three we had available in Foya, since the other two turned out not to be properly equipped for harvesting rice. Rice is what's called a "tough-feeding crop", meaning that it is extra hard to get it through the internal machinery (the separator) of the combine. Primarily this is due to the fact that the rice stalk isn't completely dry when you harvest it, the plant can still have quite a few green leaves. The variety of rice we had planted, LAC23 Red, which is bred in Liberia, is even more tough-feeding as the plant is quite big when compared to newer hybrid varieties. When we tested one of the other combines it got completely clogged after 10 minutes.

The last couple of days before harvest started in earnest we did a bit of hand-harvesting. Data collection became a top priority for us, and nothing is more important than yield data. I wanted a reference number to compare to the combine's own sensor, and since we didn't have a heavy scale the best way was to harvest a reasonably representative sample by hand. The results were good, in the first half of our fields yielded about 1.7 metric tonnes/hectare which is close to the maximum yield measured under optimal condition for upland LAC23 red. The ideal varieties to plant for us would be the new NERICA hybrid rice varieties (NEw RICe for Africa, which can yield above 7 tonnes/hectare), and the fact that we planted LAC this first year was only due to poor planning.

Hand-harvesting rice in Liberia

Hand-harvesting rice to get reference data on yield.

Measuring an acre of rice field

Measuring is a frequent tasking of mine to the agriculture technicians.

We also managed to get some PR photos of the combine in the field for the press in Monrovia. Indeed all the pictures presented here was intended for the newspapers and TV in Monrovia. In Liberia we often talk of "dey say" as the phrase of choice for unattributed gossip and rumors. There had been a fair amount of "dey say" surrounding ADA/LAP down in Monrovia. Everything from rumors that we are training a rebel force, to some fairly serious commentators claiming that we never harvested any rice in Foya. It was claimed, instead, that all the rice was flown in (probably to the inoperable airfield) and then stored in the warehouse to be showed as ADA/LAP rice. No one is immune to "dey say" it seems, as I heard a lot of politicians, western UN personnel and NGO staffers saying the same things. Rice has a reputation as a highly political commodity in Liberia, as the first coup was preceded by rice riots after the price of rice went up.

PR photo of combine in rice field

PR photo of on of our combines.

A couple of days after the hand harvest we got started with the real harvest. As a rule, Liberians are very positive and adhere to the "don't worry it will work" school of thought. This holds true for everything except, it would seem, harvesting rice. The doom and gloom predictions started before the combine ever moved into the fields. I had groups of concerned employees come to me to tell me that we had to speed up harvest or all the rice would spoil in the field. My customary reply to this would be to smile and point to my spreadsheet which told me that everything was going fine. I think the fact that we did complete the work with time to spare was the single most important factor in turning the agriculture technicians towards using and relying on calculations in their work.

Our first day of harvest was a very short one. We ran the combine for about an hour, with frequent stops to adjust the calibration, before the clouds started gathering for yet another dry-season rain and we had to stop. Still, everyone felt pretty good about the 300 kg or so of rice we'd harvested; we had worked a lot of hours to see this happen.

The internal machinery of the combine, the separator, consists of multiple adjustable components. Each of these have to be adjusted just right so as to produce a "clean grain tank", meaning just the rice without bits of weed etc. This is done at the expense of grain loss, so the goal of calibration is to find the ideal balance between grain loss and clean grain.

Emptying first grain tank of rice

Emptying the first grain tank.

A small pile of rice

A small catch, and not very clean.

It took us half of the next day to finish calibration. With a clean grain tank and minimal grain loss we went ahead full steam in the next few days. The pace was set less by the combine and more by how fast our drying boards could handle the rice. We ended up harvesting about 10-12 tonnes per day and putting it on 6 pieces of tarpaulin (the were a mighty 5x40 meters).

Emptying a full grain tank of rice in Liberia

Easily the best part of the day.

Combine harvester in rice field

On the flat parts of our fields we were able to move quite fast.

I spent every day in the combine for the first couple of weeks, to monitor but mostly to help the combine operators. There was still quite a lot of tweaking left even after the first calibration was done, and we experienced a host of small problems with the combine that nonetheless took time since we'd never troubleshooted the machine before (a faulty pressure sensor on the gear case, faulty connector to header etc.). The most skilled mechanic on the farm turned out to be yours truly, and I had never even set foot on the ladder of a combine before. We never really got the yield sensor (or mass flow sensor) to work properly for any length of time. We also had an easily remedied problem when the tank-full sensor malfunctioned one day. This was the second or third day and with our variable yield we didn't catch it until the grain tank started overflowing. Suffice to say the combine both felt and looked a little heavy.

Overfull grain tank in Liberia

A very full grain tank.

The system for drying the rice also required a fair amount of tweaking. We tried unloading the rice while driving the combine but the level of precision needed and the number of simultaneous tasks turned out to be a bit much for the combine operators so we ended up just dumping the rice in one pile on the board to be distributed evenly by the people that worked on drying the rice. The rice then spent one day spread on a fairly thin layer before being shifted to a thicker layer in order to make room for more rice.

Combine harvester by drying boards in Liberia

The ground is starting to dry up.

Viktor Bengtsson on combine harvester

Yes, I sometimes wear a hat. The sun is hot... get over it.

Management team by pile of rice in Liberia

There is no job satisfaction that compares to this.

We had a huge number of onlookers (not counting the official visits) each day. After a couple of days I had to issue an instruction that employees working in other parts of the field could no longer come to the drying boards during their lunch breaks as they invariable stayed there for a couple of hours watching the combine work. The combine harvester is, without competition, the machine that has raised the most curiosity and amazement. This is hardly surprising, as the combine does in minutes what takes weeks by traditional methods. A pile of rice as seen in these photos will probably take about two months to produce for a normal sized farm. The rice has to be cut, then left to dry on the stalk for a few days. After this a pile of stalks is beaten, often for hours, to separate the rice from the stalk. The rice is then fanned to separate the trash from the rice before it goes to the mill.

Workers by rice pile in Liberia

Justified excitement!

All the rice was bagged by hand in 100 kg (approx. 2 cwt) bags. The 100 kg bags turned out to be a bit of a mistake as 100 kg is quite heavy and handling becomes an issue. About half-way in when all the drying boards were up and we were bagging the rice we had 100 persons working on the drying boards. Another large group of employees were at work hand harvesting the rice planted in areas that were inaccessible to the combine. This rice we collected in a huge pile for later cleaning. I had the carpenters build a ramp where we could feed the rice smoothly into the header of the combine. We then just parked the combine below the ramp, started the header and the separator and in this fashion we cleaned a fair few tonnes of rice.

Workers spreading rice on drying boards

Field workers spreading a pile of rice on a drying board.

Harvester operators in grain tanks

Two rightfully proud combine operators (and my favourite photo).

The workload, which was pretty heavy from the first, sort of climaxed in the last few days when we had to move all the rice by truck from the field to the warehouse. I made the trip between town and warehouse 10-15 times a day to ensure that the truck driver didn't stop for naps along the way. Finally, the bulk of the work done, most employees went on Christmas break. I had done more than 100 consecutive workdays at this point, working 12-16 hours almost every day. I took an afternoon off, went to the field and just sat there, enjoying the harvested fields and the fact that I was alone.

Viktor Bengtsson in rice warehouse

100+ consecutive workdays (12-16 hours), very very tired.