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Rice Primer is World's Most Popular Ag Text: Part I

A Farmer's Primer on Growing Rice was designed to facilitate easy and inexpensive translation and copublication of local editions

by Tom Hargrove, PlanetRice Editor-in-Chief

Some of the 53 translated editions of the Farmer's Primer
January 10, 2001

Editor's note: I spent 19 years, from 1973 through 1991, as editor, then communications head of the International Rice Research Institute. One of my most rewarding professional experiences was working with Dr. Ben Vergara, author of "A Farmer's Primer", then helping colleagues in national rice programs in the Philippines, China, Kenya, Haiti...and at least 16 other countries..."copublish" translations of the book. TRH.

A Farmer's Primer on Growing Rice is easily the world's most widely published agricultural text. I doubt that anyone can challenge that. The simple, easily readable book has been published in English and 41 other languages in more than 20 countries. That includes 53 separate translations. Ten editions are in Philippine dialects (see list at end of this article).

There's quite a saga behind the ag book. Former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos plagiarized the Primer, and Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro attacked it as "capitalistic propaganda." The Primer was once serialized in a soft-core porn magazine.

The author is Dr. Benito S. Vergara, former plant physiologist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Baños, Philippines. The soft-spoken scientist is now project leader of the Philippine Science Heritage Center.

Vergara wrote the book to explain to extension agents and progressive farmers not only how but also why to use improved production techniques such as proper timing of transplanting and how and when to incorporate fertilizer.

The first--and plagiarized--edition of the Primer appeared unexpectedly as President Marcos' Primer for Rice Farmers, in both English and Tagalog or Pilipino, in central Luzon, Philippines, during a 1979 election.

Vergara had circulated draft copies of his text to elicit feedback from fellow rice scientists. One apparently showed the draft to President Marcos and his colleagues--who were impressed enough to "steal" the book.

I'll always remember the reaction of Ramiro Cabrera, IRRI communication production manager, when we first saw the Marcos Primer. "Gosh, Tom," he said, "Marcos can steal anything!"

In the late 1980s, the Primer was serialized in three issues of Pinoy Playboy [Filipino Playboy], a girlie magazine published in Central Luzon. That really upset me...on the surface...

Enough time has passed, I guess, that I can now tell the story. The publisher had visited my office at IRRI, and showed me samples of the magazine.

"A lot of our readers are rice farmers, and the Primer can really help them," the publisher said. "How would IRRI react if I serialized the Primer in my magazine?

My reaction was, "Absolutely not, we're a respected scientific institution."

I then asked, "What's your circulation?"

"About 300,000 copies per issue," the publisher responded. "And the magazine has a long shelf life."

Three hundred thousand copies...that's a lot of exposure, I thought, then poured us coffee. How should I handle this?

I finally made a decision...sort of.

"Look, you haven't requested permission to serialize the Primer in Pinoy Playboy," I said. "At least, not yet.

"So don't ask me. I haven't authorized anything.

"But if a serialization appeared in >Pinoy Playboy...I wouldn't make any trouble...

"Let's not talk about this any more."

The "girlie" edition of the Primer appeared a few weeks later.

Extra-large type was used for the Khmer edition, published and distributed to Cambodian farmers who survived the maniacal Pol Pot regime--because the Khmer Rouge had systematically killed anyone who wore glasses as an "intellectual." Thus, farmers with poor vision had destroyed their glasses to survive.

Why did the Primer catch the imagination of so many people, worldwide?

The main reason for the Primer's incredible popularity is that it filled a need: to explain, in simple, easy to understand language, basic rice production technologies.

But the Primer was also designed to facilitate its easy and inexpensive translation and local publication.

Vergara used minimal text, and worked closely with IRRI artists to make B&W illustrations convey as much of his messages as possible.

Ample "white space" was left around the illustrations, because translated text is almost always longer than the original English text.

IRRI then typeset the captions, stripped or pasted them onto the illustrations, and published the original English edition in 1979.

IRRI then blocked off the text portion of the pages and printed sets of the illustrations, including a B&W cover, and artwork for printing a color cover, if desired.

Local publishers then arrange translation of the Primer, and request complimentary sets of the B&W illustrations from IRRI. The publisher then typesets the translated text, pasts it onto the illustrations, and prints the local edition on any press.

IRRI published a revised edition of the Primer in 1992.

"We are happy to provide complimentary sets of the Farmer's Primer illustrations," says Eugene Hettel, head of IRRI's Communication and Publications. "IRRI does not request royalties for translations published in developing countries--nor do we subsidize those local editions."


Appendix I. Some of the 53 translations in 42 languages in at least 20 countries of A Farmer's Primer on Growing Rice. These numbers reflect only print runs that IRRI can verify; the actual numbers are far higher. For example, the table shows only one "Chinese" edition, but at least two Chinese editions were published, in Mandarin in the north and Cantonese in the south. Similarly, only one "Spanish" edition is listed--but two Spanish editions were published in Mexico, another in Colombia, and another in, I think, Peru. Also, at least two Bahasa Indonesia editions were published. Bengali editions were published both in Bangladesh and in West Bengal, India. Note that two Vietnamese editions were published: one for the north, and one for the south.

Arabic, 7,000 copies; Bahasa Indonesia, 18,000 copies; B. Malaysia, 15,000 copies; Bahasa Sunda, no data; Bengali, 45,000 copies; Chinese, 18,500 copies; Creole, 3,200 copies; English, 18,000 copies; Edisi Jawa, no data; Farsi, 10,000 copies; French, 3,000; Gujarati, 3,000; Hindi, 4,000; Kannada, 4,000; Khmer, 30,000; Kiswahili, 2,000; Lao, 10,000; Malagasy, 2,000; Marathi, 1,100; Myanmar, 10,000; Nepali, 4,000; Oriya, 8,000; Oualoff, 2,000; Sinhala, no data; Spanish, 13,000; Tamil, 1,500; Telegu, 5,000; Thai, 8,000; Urdu, 1,000; Vietnamese (North), 2,000; Vietnamese (South), 10,000; and 10 Philippine dialect: Bikol, 3,500; Cebuano, 6,000; Ilonggo, 8,000; Iloko, 3,500; Maguindanao, 2,000; Pampango, 6,000; Pangasinan, 2,000; Tagalog, 11,000; Waray, 6,000; Waray (North), 6,000.

In Part II, PlanetRice interviews Dr. Benito S. Vergara on the background of the Primer.

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