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Sheets cut rice costs


New technology improves yields while cutting fertilizer, herbicide costs


By RICHARD SMITH


For the Capital Press


HWASEONG, South Korea -- A new rice farming technique being tested here would drastically reduce labor and fertilizer use and eliminate the need for herbicides, proponents say.


The technique would also increase yield and, being organic, allow the crop to garner higher prices, they said.


Rice farmers in Asia traditionally scatter rice seeds on paddies. About a century ago, they started to instead grow rice seedlings, which they transplanted into paddies by hand, until around 30 years ago when mechanized rice planting gained traction.


With the new technology, a machine rolls out a 6-foot-wide black sheet made of a thin vinyl-like biodegradable material called "Pra-Zero" on a wet paddy.


Rice seeds, stuck to the bottom side of the sheets, start sprouting after seven days and grow through small holes in the sheets.


The sheets prevent weed growth until they degrade after three months, said Choong-Man Lee, the technology's owner.


"Since the sheets are black, they block sunshine, preventing weeds from growing around the rice," Lee said.


In addition, the sheets increase the surface temperature by 4 to 8 degrees, making the rice plants' roots stronger, which increases yield 15 percent, Lee said.


South Korean farmers have used this technique for 30 years to grow vegetables, Lee said. "And now my company is producing the sheets to which the seeds are attached," he said.


Lee is president and CEO of GNC Technology, which produces the materials used in the sheets, and BioAT, which makes the sheets.


Lee said he came up with the idea for this new technology after thinking of a way to help farmers reduce labor and herbicide use.


"I also wanted to allow farmers to make more profits using environmentally friendly techniques," he said.


About 150 farmers are trying out his technology throughout South Korea, Lee said. Among them is Jong-Kyu Lee, who cultivates rice outside the Gyeonggi Province city of Hwaseong, about 40 miles south of Seoul.


The 49-year-old said he heard about the technique from a Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries local official. "I am very interested in advanced and environmentally friendly technology," Lee said.


Lee said farming 75 acres of paddies requires a lot of hired help, and the new technology saves 80 percent on labor, 40 percent on fertilizer and does away with herbicides completely. Total costs are reduced by about 70 percent, he said.


"As this is an organic farming method, my rice can increase market value by 30 percent," Lee said.


At $111 per 448-yard roll, the sheets are somewhat expensive, Lee said.


"If our government helped Korean farmers buy those sheets at low cost, the technique would spread widely," he said.


Hwaseong Agricultural Research Center agricultural engineer Dae-Hwee Lee said as the technique is new, it was too early for him to evaluate it. "But another farmer in the area wants to try it out," Lee said.


Choong-Man Lee said he plans to spread his technique to 2,500 acres next year.


"In 2015, this technology will cover about 15 percent of Korean rice paddies," he said.



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