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Is Rice Security Food Security?

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Guided by a local nongovernmental organization, members of a women’s self-help group in Bihar, India, take up open-drum threshing. The women tend to their own families’ threshing first, then hire out their services to earn income.

A lifelong interest in Asia propelled international studies major Alfred Schmidley ’85 into a meaningful career as a consultant on food security. He helps farmers in the developing world devise ways to safeguard their crops after harvest.

His high school counselor suggested he study science or engineering, but Schmidley was in no rush to make such a decision. “When I went to college, the world suddenly got a lot bigger,” he recalled with a laugh. “I wanted to explore my horizons.”

A native of Beloit, Wisconsin, Schmidley transferred as a sophomore from a state university to Bradley, where he found class size and faculty contact conducive to new pursuits. Interested in global issues, particularly in Asia, Schmidley soon met the late Dr. John R. Howard ’53 MA ’54, professor emeritus who was then-director of the international studies program. “He was approachable and supportive,” Schmidley said. “When I met with him, I learned that Bradley offered great options for academic exploration, and international studies seemed right for me.”

Another favorite teacher was Caterpillar Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies Dr. Robert Fuller. “He brought new perspectives on people and culture into the classroom. ‘Religions of the East’ was one of my favorite courses,” Schmidley said. “It influenced me to backpack my way across Asia after graduation before taking up Asian languages and related studies in graduate school.” 

Schmidley also plunged into dormitory life, eventually becoming a resident assistant. He supervised freshmen first in Lovelace Hall, then in Sisson Hall, at the time both all-male dorms. “Freshman floors were seen as more challenging assignments,” he said with a smile. “Looking back, I realize this provided me with a lot of formative experience in people management.”

Working with Rice Farmers in Asia

Alfred Schmidley ’85 works with local machinery suppliers to help expand farmers’ access to vital equipment. Through participatory learning platforms, fabricators and suppliers strengthen connections with farmers and improve technology to meet the needs of end users.

Today, as a business model and value chain specialist for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in the Philippines, Schmidley happily combines his interests in Asia, business management and rural development. Since joining IRRI in 2009, he has worked to help farmers in developing countries improve food security, particularly in rice. Established in 1960, IRRI championed the scientific advances in rice research that would ultimately reduce poverty and hunger, then especially prevalent in much of Asia.

Since rice is the main staple food for most countries in Asia (and increasingly, Africa), any threats to this cereal crop jeopardize global food security and put millions at risk of malnourishment or starvation. A growing world population means rice production must increase by 114 million tons by 2035, and farmers must achieve this on a decreasing amount of agricultural land and under significant threats from climate change, according to IRRI. 

Schmidley’s specialty is working downstream to develop sustainable business models for adoption and delivery of new technologies for farmers. This includes postharvest, when preventable losses of 25 percent or more result from not getting rice and other crops out of the field and processed in time, robbing farm families of food and income.

The research institute’s participatory learning approach begins with community engagement — enabling villagers to identify postharvest problems of interest and crafting possible management solutions for them.

After Harvest, Risks Continue 

A labor-intensive crop, rice grows on panicles held on fibrous stalks similar to other cereal grains. Once the paddy (or “raw rice”) is ready for harvest, it should be cut and removed from the field for threshing, drying and safe storage, ideally within 24 hours. But too often, there’s a shortage of labor or efficient technology to achieve this goal. In many developing countries, harvest and postharvest operations are done by hand, often by women. Because it’s difficult to accomplish the required steps in such a short time, harvested rice often gets wet, deteriorates or is eaten by pests due to delays and improper storage.

Before joining IRRI, Schmidley worked for Briggs and Stratton, a Wisconsin-based small-engine manufacturer. In Asia, he found that the great need for agricultural mechanization provided opportunities for business growth. China and Southeast Asia became his major focus, aided by his post-Bradley Chinese language studies and an MBA from the University of Queensland, Australia. “Asia is an extremely diverse region,” Schmidley explained. “Finding market opportunities and devising strategies to help farmers mechanize really captured my imagination.”

Typically, marketing in Western countries is often linear — products and services are offered to customers through established distribution networks. In developing countries and newly emerging markets, this structure doesn’t exist or is immature. In addition, farmers and end users may not even be aware of their options. As a result, more creativity and harnessing of knowledge and resources from government agencies, research institutes, universities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to raise awareness about new opportunities in agriculture are required.

Lessons learned during his 16 years at Briggs and Stratton — particularly on the need for cross-sector cooperation — helped prepare him for his current role, Schmidley said. His business model approach at IRRI involves platforms called “learning alliances” — groups of public, nongovernmental and private-sector interests who work with farmers to improve food security and livelihoods in agriculture. The typical client is a smallholder rice farmer, someone who farms a hectare (roughly 2.5 acres) or less of land.

‘Resourceful and Innovative’

Online 

Visit IRRI.org for more information about the organization.

In India, a primary target for Schmidley’s business model approach has been women’s self-help groups (SHGs). As more men find work in cities or in nonfarm occupations, women are increasingly involved in farm work. They are organizing into village SHGs to garner resources to address problems they’ve identified. For example, in one of the country’s most impoverished states, Bihar, several options for addressing bottlenecks and delays in threshing were tested with local machinery fabricators, government extension agencies and NGOs. Moreover, by adding a winnowing fan, wheels and a handle to locally produced technology, the group came up with an improved threshing machine that was not only many times more efficient but could be moved from farm to farm to aid in income-generating services as a business model for women. 

“These farmers are resourceful and innovative. They’re a joy to work with,” Schmidley said. “Empower them with knowledge and access to technologies, and they’ll take it from there. 

“Our goal is to help poor farmers get more rice out of their fields and into rice bowls around the world.”

Ultimately, the father of two knows his work comes down to helping the next generations of poor families in developing countries attain food security — and, released from the drudgery of postharvest activities — be able to attend school and thrive. “That’s why we do what we do,” he said.

— By Mary Brolley
— Photography courtesy International Rice Research Institute