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A Farmer's Primer on Growing Rice: Author Interview, Part II

Ben Vergara gives background on the world's most popular agricultural book. The Primer was published in 42 languages.

by Tom Hargrove, PlanetRice Editor-in-Chief

Dr. Ben Vergara (right) showing the Primer
to a farmer in the Philippines
January 10, 2001

Editor's note: One of my most rewarding experiences during 19 years as editor at the International Rice Research Institute was working with Dr. Ben Vergara, author of "A Farmer's Primer," and helping colleagues in national rice programs copublish translated editions in 41 languages. TRH.


What is the background of publication of A Farmer's Primer on Growing Rice. What motivated you to write the book?

Dr. Ben Vergara: During the early days of IRRI [the International Rice Research Institute, Philippines], the senior staff gave lectures to our trainees, with all levels of education. I realized that most of the trainees, even though many were college-educated, and agriculture graduates, did not understand the basic principles of growing plants.

How can they evaluate problems and make recommendations in the field if they don't know the "why" and "what" and finally the "how" of rice production? I thought. So I started listing their questions. That served as the Primer's framework. I published the first draft as a handout for my training course.

PlanetRice: Is it true that IRRI, at first, decided against publishing the Primer, because it was "too basic"...that the attitude was "everyone knows that..."?

Vergara: The chief IRRI editor then told me that IRRI does not publish such "extension material." Also, that it was too simple.

PlanetRice: So what stimulated IRRI to publish the Primer?

Vergara: Burma first asked for permission to translate and publish the training handout. I first saw a mimeographed edition of the Primer while visiting a Burmese research and extension station.

PlanetRice: Didn't Premier Fidel Castro of Cuba say some insulting words about the Primer, during the early days?

Vergara: That was about the AGRIX edition [a local Los Baños, Philippines, publisher's version, with advertising].

Dr. Nyle C. Brady [IRRI director general 1973-81] took a copy to Cuba, and showed it to Premier Fidel Castro.

"Why is this book full of capitalistic advertisements?" Castro asked.

Dr. Brady then started thinking that IRRI should publish the book.

PlanetRice: A plagiarized edition then came out as President Marcos' Primer for Rice Farmers--even before the IRRI edition. Could you comment on that?

Vergara: Yes, that happened, and Dr. Brady was unhappy about it. He thought it was unfair...especially for me.

I told Dr. Brady that I was happy and proud that the book was considered good enough for Marcos to use for his campaign for re-election. After all, the purpose of the book was to help farmers.

The Marcos version was distributed free and, I'm sure, reached many farmers. It served my purpose well.

But that did it. Dr. Brady called a meeting to speed publication of the Primer.

PlanetRice: What about the edition that was serialized in a Philippine girlie magazine?

Vergara: Tom, you know more about that edition than I do. No comment. Except that I was happy about it.

PlanetRice: What is it about the Primer that has captured the imagination of so many people?

Vergara: I'm really not sure. I certainly never imagined that the Primer would be so popular.

PlanetRice: Why was the Primer so widely translated?

Vergara: That was definitely your work, Tom, not mine. But apparently, many people thought that the book would be useful.

PlanetRice: What is your most memorable experience with the Primer?

Vergara: I really have no remarkably memorable experiences with the Primer--except when President Marcos plagiarized it. Except things like when I visited China and found that one rice research station was training Chinese scientists in English, using the English and Chinese editions of the Primer as teaching materials.

PlanetRice: Do you remember that I told you, several times over coffee, "Ben, if you'd published that book commercially, rather than through IRRI--which grants no royalties--you'd now live in a huge mansion with a swimming pool?

"But if I'd been the commercial publisher--I'd have a bigger mansion, with several swimming pools!"

Vergara: Yes. I never got anything material from publication of the Primer. No awards, no recognitions, no money.

But I do have that sense of satisfaction that will never die...that my book has helped a lot of people...especially rice farmers.

Related Links:
Rice Primer is World's Most Popular Ag Text: Part I International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)

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