Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Planting Rice - In January?

My Sister-In-Law Planting Rice on her Land
I have photographed people in Southeast Asia planting rice many times but those times have always been in July or August.  Last week we received a phone call from Duang's older sister telling us that they would be planting rice on Friday, 4 January.  She has a small farm just outside of Tahsang Village where she and her family grow rice, sugar cane, corn, and vegetables along with raising one cow and one water buffalo. They used to have pigs raised on their land but now cultivate mushrooms. The pigs were actually being raised by a poor family from their Christian Church.  Duang's sister let the family borrow the land.  Generosity is very common in the Lao Loum culture of Isaan.

Duang's two cousins and their families have joined their parents in living on the farm now.  That is how it is in Isaan, many children take care of their parents by helping on the farm. In return they have a place to live.

We were going out to the village to bring our grandson to our home to spend the weekend so it worked in perfectly with our plans.  The truth be known, we often accommodate family activities into our plans.  Besides the enjoyment of spending time with the family, there are always plenty of interesting people as well as activities to photograph.  We quite often will get phone calls informing us of something that people think that I would be interested in taking photographs of.  The fact is that there is very little that I am not interested in taking photographs and eventually writing about.

Duang's Cousin Brings A Rack of Rice Plants Out to the Paddies
Rice planting in January?  That was going to be a first for me to photograph.  Rice is typically planted here in July.  The reason that it is typically planted in July is because of the rainy season, the monsoons and has nothing to do with temperatures.  We are now in our "cold" season.  Night time temperatures typically get down to 65 F and there have been a couple nights when it has been down to 58 F.  The day time high temperatures are around 85 F.  This is my favorite time of the year - no air conditioning, no ceiling fans, no sweating or rather "much less sweating" for me.  It is also the time of no rain.  I like that too but then again I do not grow rice.

Planting Rice Seedlings In A Prepared Flooded Paddy
Here in Isaan, rice is grown using the wet cultivation technique.  Rice seed, saved from the previous harvest, is broadcast over a prepared and flooded paddy.  The seeds sprout and form a thick green carpet.  Insecticides are used to protect the seedlings.  After about one and one half months, when the sprouts are approximately 24 inches long (61 cm), the seedlings are pulled up from their mucky bed.  About four inches (10 cm) of the top of the seedlings are cut off.  The harvested seedlings are then transplanted in a final prepared flooded paddy.  In clusters of 3 to 4 seedlings, they are pushed approximately five inches (13 cm) into the 12 inch (30 cm) deep muck of the flooded paddy.  The rice grows in the flooded paddy for three months.  The rice paddy is allowed to dry out before the rice is harvested.  The cut stalks dry in the sun for three day before they are removed from the paddy.  Rain and water are detrimental to the harvesting of the rice.

Because of the need to have water to keep the paddies flooded during the growth stage of the rice, most farmers in Isaan produce only one crop a year.  Here in Isaan the rain falls from May until late October so the growing season is from July to late October.  Farmers do not have access to the large amount of water, cheap water, to grow during the dry season from November to May.

I had not been out to my sister-in-law's farm in two years.  I was shocked at some of the changes.  The farm is located at the edge of a large floodplain. Over the past two years a slough has been constructed along the back end of the farm.   I checked with Duang and she told me that her brother-in-law hired a company to dig the big ditch and that other land owners had paid for the work done along their property lines. No building permits, environmental impact studies, or permits were required prior to doing the work.  Now there is apparently a source of water as well as a source of fish year around for those property owners.  Duang's family is taking advantage of the new supply of plentiful and cheap water to grow a second crop of water.

My Brother-In-Law Planting With New Floodplain  Berm In the Background

For me besides the opportunity to take some family photos of rice planting, the day offered opportunities to do some experimentation with my photography.  Since it is "cold" season, I was taking late afternoon photographs. There was no need to avoid the heat of the day.  Since the shortest day of the year was less than a month ago, the late afternoon Sun is also lower in the sky than it is in July.  The quality of light now as well as the brilliant blue sky give elements for more interesting photographs of an activity that I have photographed many times before.

Working Together In the Late Afternoon
The great opportunities for photographs also presented challenges - especially for the automated functions of today's high tech digital cameras.  Modern cameras can take acceptable photographs by determining the aperture based upon the selection of  "film" speed and shutter speed, or by determining the shutter speed based upon the selection of "film" speed and aperture.  Many times this automation is not effective do to conditions outside of the "norm".

On the afternoon that I was going to photograph the rice planting I knew that automated functions would not work.  The bright background would cause the foreground, the people, to be too dark.  If I metered so that the people would be properly exposed, the background would be much too bright i.e. "blown out".  The background would have no detail.  There would be no blue sky, green vegetation, or rice stalks in the background. I was hoping for more dramatic effects in my photographs.

The solution to get more dramatic photographs was to go back to basics and taking the photographs the old fashioned way - manually.

I put my camera into "manual" mode, set the shutter speed high enough and aperture high enough to keep the background on the darker side and used an on camera flash with a Flashbender light modifier set to 1/4 power and also on "manual" to provide fill light for the foreground thus providing a more balanced exposed photograph.

Isaan Gothic

My Brother and Sister-In-Law

Posing Time Is Over, Time to Go Back to Work
As wonderful as modern technology and automation are, they do not always provide the best solution for every set of conditions or circumstances.  They will often provide "acceptable' results but not very often will they provide "exceptional" results.  For "exceptional" results and especially for conditions that are not "norm", the old time tested methods need to be used. Having been raised in a time and place where we were taught to seek and produce "exceptional" results, I am grateful that I still know the old ways.

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