Sticky situation

Sunrise over a hom naga rice paddy in Hang Chat, Lampang.

The rice paddy of Daeng Dee Farm in Lampang’s Hang Chat district turns golden yellow. Within a week, the farm owner Saman Supukkawanich, 55, will harvest a new glutinous rice variety known as the hom naga.

“I like trying new things. When I learnt about the new sticky rice strain, I did not hesitate to grow it on my 20 rai plot of land. The plant is strong. I do not need to use any pesticides. Each rice panicle looks healthy and I am sure the yield will be high,” he said.

Hom naga is a hybrid rice variety jointly developed by a research team at the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (Biotec) and the National Science and Technology Development Agency, Kasetsart University and Rajamangala University of Technology Lanna.

The initial aim was to help farmers overcome major plant diseases such as rice blast caused by a fungus and bacterial leaf blight. Another objective was to find a rice variety that can survive unpredictable weather such as floods and drought — the impact of climate change. 

“Before we kicked off the R&D project, we conducted a field study with farmers to learn about their problems and to realise their needs,” said Srisawat Khanthong, 33, an assistant researcher at Biotec.

For personal reasons, Srisawat chose to improve the quality of glutinous rice because he likes to eat sticky rice.

 

Assistant Professor Nongyao Udomvong, second right, enjoys hom naga rice with her neighbours.Photo: Karnjana Karnjanatawe

“I was born to a farmer family in Si Sa Ket. I have eaten sticky rice my whole life, so I wanted to develop a new glutinous rice variety that has fragrance and a soft texture,” he said. “I also wanted my parents and other farmers to have an alternative rice variety. I wanted them to grow rice that has a higher yield than other varieties so that the farmers can have higher income,” he said.

He applied a technique of molecular marker-assisted breeding from two types of rice varieties. One is a rice variety that can withstand rice blast disease and the other is a glutinous rice variety that can resist bacterial leaf blight, survive submerged in water, and also have fragrance. 

In 2013, the research team planted the first version of the hom naga rice in a paddy field at Kasetsart University in Kamphaeng Saen, Nakhon Pathom. They kept improving the quality and quantity over the past six years until they were satisfied with the result.

Hom naga is photoperiod insensitive, so it can be planted two times a year or during the cropping season and offseason. The period from sowing to harvest is 130-140 days depending on weather conditions. The plant has short and sturdy stems and its height is 126cm, shorter than the two popular glutinous rice varieties. The height of the san pa tong variety is 150cm and kor kho hok’s is 154cm. The short stems of the hom naga make it easier for machine harvesting. Another benefit is that hom naga will not be easily damaged by strong winds or a sudden downpour.

 

The size of polished hom naga rice is 6.88mm in length, 1.89mm in width and 1.66mm in thickness.

“The new variety can survive flash floods when the rice paddy is submerged in water for up to two weeks,” said Srisawat. It can also withstand a short-term drought. Above all, it can resist rice blast disease and bacterial leaf blight.

In 2019, the team started distributing the hom naga variety to farmers in Lampang, Chiang Rai and Phayao. Thirty-one farmers joined the pilot project to grow hom naga rice on a total of 95 rai plot of land. The total yield was 76 tonnes. An average yield per rai was 807kg. The highest yield was recorded at 1.2 tonnes per rai.

Hom naga has a much higher yield than the san patong and kor kho hok varieties which can produce 500kg-600kg per rai. This is the important factor to help farmers to earn more while their investment remains the same,” said Srisawat.

The research team is also holding a workshop to train farmers in how to select healthy rice grains for the next farming season so that the farmers do not need to buy grains for planting, which helps them save up to 25% of the investment.

 

Srisawat Khanthong.Photo: Karnjana Karnjanatawe

For farmers who already tasted the hom naga rice, they liked the fragrance and texture.

Hom naga rice has a pleasant smell when cooked. When I let my neighbours try, they also wanted to grow the new variety too,” said Bandon Aiduang, a farmer who joined the pilot project in Chiang Rai’s Phan district. He has already harvested the sticky rice from his 10 rai plot of land. 

Based on a sensory evaluation test, the research team at Biotec found that hom naga had a more pleasant aroma than typical glutinous rice varieties and was closer to jasmine rice varieties.  

“The texture of hom naga is soft. Any leftover rice does not dry out or become hard,” added Assistant Professor Nongyao Udomvong, who tested it after becoming a farmer post-retirement. She planted the rice variety this year in Lampang’s Mae Tha district. Living in Ban Kio, she and other farmers organically grow rice and vegetables. 

Nongyao and her neighbours have already made some snacks from the hom naga rice such as khao tom mat (steamed sticky rice snack wrapped in banana leaf) and khao lam (glutinous rice mixed with coconut milk and baked in bamboo trunks). The hom naga desserts are chewy and the rice does not stick to fingers.

 

With the success of the first pilot project last year, 309 farmers in 36 provinces in the North and the Northeast grew the hom naga variety this year. The total land is 250 rai. Some farmers have already harvested the rice while others will do so within a week or two.  

To encourage farmers to grow the rice strain, Hang Chat Agricultural Cooperative in Lampang is offering 10 baht per kilogramme for unhusked hom naga rice compared to eight baht for other glutinous varieties, said cooperative manager Teerapat Khamsom.

“I want to support variety and create more supply for consumers,” he said.

On Oct 12, the Department of Agriculture announced the registration of hom naga as the new glutinous rice variety, meaning the rice can be planted for retail sale.

The cooperative will be among the first distributors of hom naga to consumers in January. The market price for milled rice is 35 baht per kilogramme, the same price as kor kho hok rice.

In the future, Biotec plans to promote hom naga to farmers along the Mekong including farmers in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, said the R&D project leader Theerayut Toojinda, an expert in rice genes and acting deputy executive director of Biotec.

“The hom naga variety is the climate-resilient aromatic glutinous rice. It will be one of the solutions for food sustainability for farmers not only in Thailand but also the (lower) Mekong region,” he said.

 

Photos courtesy of The National Science and Technology Development Agency

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