Tuesday, December 16, 2008

the field trip to Peradeniya amd Gannoruwa on 11th December 2008

I must say at the outset that I did not go on this field trip but 25 from the Gamidiriya society of our village did go along with a similar number from the equivalent society in Minneriya, who were all female also went in a hired bus. The total cost of the journey was borne by a state body that had allocated funds for the education of farmers from all parts of the Island. I gleaned information from a friendly farmer who talked about it afterwards.

Whilst the intention is honorable the whole organization is self-defeating. I was told that there were people from all parts of the country in attendance and the program on offer was extensive. Apparently topics covered include, raising goats, chicken, dairy cattle, mushroom farming, beekeeping, along with the regular fruit and vegetable farming. This is of no use to farmers who are going to improve their knowledge about a specific interest that they may have, rather than be confused into pursuing something that at that moment sounds very interesting.

I therefore feel, advance notice should have been given of all the programs available, with each participant permitted to chose from a series of alternatives in advance. Then upon arrival at the location, they can then be sent to their area of interest to study the program in depth, and obtain the necessary literature in that field of interest. General knowledge in the whole sphere of agriculture and animal husbandry is not the intention of this plan.

I learnt that true to form, the government shops were closed at 3pm, so that none of the people were able to purchase seeds or any other items on offer, as their program finished long after. It is most absurd when they know that there are so many people from all parts of the island present to close the shop at that hour just to keep to the timetable of the government service and not satisfy the critical service to the people they are paid to serve.

Farmers including myself are inundated with different possibilities we can pursue some of which are totally unsuited to the prevailing conditions in our area. We have an incredibly heavy bureaucracy assigned to assist the farmer increase their output and become more efficient and cost effective. No wonder none of the intentions are carried out because of the lack of planning in presenting all available possibilities to the audience. Some simple logical and thoughtful modifications must be made to produce better results. Lets stop the wastage of public funds and hold the officers responsible for results.

a usually overlooked fact of paddy farming

While we concentrate our energies on the cost of fertilizer and various insecticides in agriculture, and the need to minimize their use by gradually turning to organic solutions, the need to protect the young paddy plant from weeds is often overlooked. The theory is that we constantly immerse the paddy plant in a centimeter of water, so preventing the growth of weeds due to their inability to sprout in water. In fact all it takes is a couple of days where the water does not stay stagnant for the seeds to germinate and sprout, and if they are numerous can almost suffocate the paddy plant. Manual weeding of this is not an option, and the only practical solution at the moment for the hybrid varieties of paddy we use, is the use of pre-emergent and post emergent herbicides.

In places where I have not applied herbicides, I have not been able to harvest my paddy as the weeds had suffocated and taken over the fields. I have now used a variety of these under different trade names with mixed results. It is difficult to get the solution, as sometimes, the weed the herbicide does not cover, can take over and do as much damage. I have used Satunil, from Hayleys, I have used Nominee from Lankem, Solito from CIC, and Tgermax from Harrisons. It would be of interest to the reader that the cost of this herbicide, which has to be used in the stipulated proportions to be effective, exceed the cost of fertilizer I obtain from the state in a subsidized form. In addition one adds powders to the solution to cover specific weeds not covered by the particular product.

An alternative weed control requires tilling the soil after harvest letting dormant seeds grow and before they grow long enough to seed themselves, one is supposed to till again to kill them so by process of germinating and killing the weed plants, one is able to prevent weeds from sprouting after sowing. The problem is often there are weeds that somehow do not get eliminated, and a herbicide needs to be used anyway with the farmer having to bear the additional cost even after a process of double tilling.

I do not expect the layperson to immediately understand what I am saying, but once one has had experience in this one is wiser than the intentions one goes with at the outset. I have always wanted to reduce the amount of insecticides I use on my fields to the bare minimum, at a cost to my harvest, however there are no alternatives methods of preventing weeds in my fields that suffer from significant element of water shortage.

I have no option, but to use herbicides. Speaking to farmers who even own good fields where there is constant water, and upstream from the canal to me so they can always keep their fields submerged, they too use a herbicide. If this is the case, then the trade cumulatively has an income of more than Rs15B just from this. Despite the drop in crude oil prices, I have not seen any drop in the price of this but an increase. I can only say that the companies marketing this must make a tidy profit as the chemicals that go into the production of these are not expensive, and there is some payment for the use of the trade names to overseas chemical giants such as BASF but broadly is an extremely profitable business to be in, with the relatively impoverished farmer, their life blood.

It is interesting that the problem of weeds sprouting in the paddy fields is swept under the carpet in any discussion of paddy cultivation in the various fora that I have looked at. It is serious enough to warrant farmer education on alternative methods, without holding the farmer hostage to the agrochemical companies who thrive on this necessity.

It is no doubt from this discussion, that the fertilizer subsidy has a direct benefit on the Agrochemical companies who know the farmer will utilize the saving from the fertilizer to spend on the herbicides and later on pesticides, which they would be more circumspect about if they had to bear a heavier cost of the fertilizer. I know I certainly would be more cautious.

The solution to this catch 22 of fertilizer subsidy, need for necessary herbicides and optional pesticides with the correct variety of seed to suit one’s fields along with the costs of preparation of the land and some of the outdated means of preparing the soil needs to be addressed as a priority. The correct option is not chosen as the state intervention in the fertilizer subsidy creates a degree of dependence and expectation, as well as a preponderance to be inefficient in paddy cultivation. I have addressed previously how the shortage of labor has not resulted in labor saving techniques due to their inapplicability on some of the marginal lands. One area where substantial yield benefits are not pursued is that of transplanting, due primarily to a shortage of labor. In Japan however everyone transplants and they use machines. I have yet to see a transplanting machine in operation here.

I hope we can address this topic in future when discussing paddy cultivation methods and practices to improve productivity of the land.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


An appreciation of Sri Lanka in my view is not complete without the appreciation of its waterways, tanks and waterfalls as well as the abundant flora and fauna seen everywhere. Accordingly, I feel very strongly that all schools must include the basic aspects of the above in every curriculum, so that all the people in this country appreciate this treasure worth protecting and enhancing as part of being environmentally aware and responsible.

The variety and abundance of trees in the Island are worthy of note. My personal favorites are Kumbuk, Kohomba, Karuwala and Kalumediriya. Kithul, Kos and Coconut should not be forgotten in this sentence either but for different reasons. I will give my reasons at another time, as I digress.

Trees grow without human effort and others are planted. One must bear in mind that we plant for others, not for ourselves. We reap what others have sown. We must give back to ensure those who come after us benefit from what we have left for them, no matter if we receive thanks for out effort.

Humans though they try to be in control of their surroundings rarely have control over their ultimate destiny. Cataclysmic events upset the best-laid plans. We must therefore go about the task of planting be it a Coconut seedling or an Ebony plant for the satisfaction it would give us to take care of it for as long as it is under our care and not contemplate harvesting it.

There is no reason for action without satisfaction, so a tree nourished and pruned under our care so it grows to its full potential should give us a degree of pleasure. The benefit of the final product is incidental. Looking at an upright Neem or Kohomba tree appropriately pruned and trained so that one day it may yield a substantial amount of wood for someone’s use should be satisfaction in itself. I currently benefit so much from the fruit of other people’s labor, I am eternally grateful to them, without whom I would not be able to live like I do or carry on the activity I am currently in.

It is important that we understand our responsibilities for posterity and act accordingly in our daily lives, without which future generations would find it much harder to survive. We have destroyed much of the world’s forests and we must do something to rectify this situation. We have a duty which we must fulfill if we can rightfully justify our existence and the sooner we teach this to all our future generations the faster we can ensure a peaceful passage.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Is Agriculture a luxury for the wealthy?

As I am in subsistence agriculture, I now firmly I believe that the enjoyment of agriculture is only for the wealthy and is a luxury few can indulge in.

This last week, I visited a highly respected and extremely successful ayurvedic physician in Piliyandala, a suburb of Colombo. He has his own pharmacy in addition to his clinic and hospital where there is always a stream of patients, and when he discovered what I was doing, called me into his consulting room and while the patients were lined up waiting to see him, he wanted to know what I was doing and wanted to visit me on my property.

He has a 50 acre coconut estate in the Kurunegala District and he was unabashedly saying that he is pouring money into the property with no return in sight or prospect in the near future. He is experimenting with planting cinnamon under coconut as he maintains that when the Europeans landed in Sri Lanka, they discovered that cinnamon was grown in the Kurunegala district. It has now shifted to the South, so he has decided to revive its presence in Kurunegala.

He was talking about the expense of upkeep and the increasing running costs. I know other people who have sold their 50acre properties as they found it too difficult to run as absentee owners, due to the unreliability and dishonesty of their staff. I have referred to earlier in this blog about how, many people lose a high percentage of their crops to theft, and how there are many in the village who are known rogues and operate with impunity while also getting protection from the police.

I have noted earlier in the blog on the level of risk a farmer takes, and that the reward does not even come close to a decent return, and that it is suicidal to be a peasant farmer and also for the government to protect them by way of subsidy and handouts as it is only a form of welfare and not a means to increasing productivity. It is therefore even more surprising when large landowners also say the same thing on profitability except in the case where they are either a large corporate entity or are on site running their property.

We must therefore take a leaf from this book and take into account how we can improve productivity in agriculture, reduce the number of subsistence farmers, and speed the inevitable process of larger mechanized working farms, like in the developed world. That is the future in a laborless sector.

Forced acquisition of uncultivated paddy land

I have about half acre of land, which from time to time had been cultivated, and as one half of it gets waterlogged when it rains, has been difficult to profitably cultivate. We were approached recently by a state officer who investigated, why we aren’t cultivating this with a view to taking it over and probably giving it to someone else who would promise to cultivate. It is in line with the stated government policy of acquiring uncultivated property as part of the “api wawamu”program.

There are many reasons why land is not put to productive use. I know that due to the small parcels of land people have, it is uneconomical to cultivate, unless it is part of a larger expanse of land that can be done together. Due to the division of the land amongst families and generations the land holdings divide into very small portions. Each piece of land needs to be evaluated according to the possible uses. I know for a fact that some of the paddy land in my area is uncultivable, due to serious drainage issues that have arisen recently out of new housing developments, where the run off floods the low lying paddy lands, and makes any sort of cultivation impossible. It is grossly unfair for the paddy land owner who cannot use this for development to pay the price of other people’s gain, due to the expense of much needed storm drains to take care of the cutting down of trees and building new homes.

Recently a neighbor spent a fortune trying to drain his fields and plant paddy in this time of increasing paddy prices, and he lost all his money, as the paddy was not even harvestable and we cut the paddy to give to our cows.

I also have spent a few years experimenting, and hence losing money trying to figure out how best I could use this land. My latest project is to grow a variety of leaves that require a lot of water, after cutting deep trenches around the beds for the water to run-off. However the cutting of the trenches is not a permanent solution, as a heavy rain can fill it in.

Most landowners especially in paddy lands, which are prevented from being filled in, have to make this decision. It is morally wrong to use the threat of acquisition to get them to waste money on worthless cultivation. A more reasoned approach must be adopted. I can assure you that those making these rules, do not have troublesome land that requires a lot of preparation expense prior to cultivation, and have no idea of the issues that need to be addressed. We want to use our land productively, advice is more useful.

The planting conundrum of leaves for the table

It is no accident that this blog is meant to be my musings as well as my frustrations as a farmer and here is one close to my heart. I was at the Padukka Pola, (farmers market) about 5 km from the farm today, and the Gotukola bunches were being sold there at Rs30/- each which is the same price I sell mine at for home delivery. In addition to Gotukola, I had the following for sale in this week’s delivery. Mukunuwenna, Thampala, Gus Nivithi, Beheth Sarana, Kathurumurunga, and Kalawampala.

In fact I sell all my various fresh leaves, plucked in the morning, to Colombo homes the same day at this price. Needless to say all my leaves, are grown or grow wild, without the use of Pesticides or Chemical Fertilizer and in the case of grown leaves, have to weed the beds manually. It is most likely that the leaves one buys in the markets, and even the farmers markets have pesticides and chemical fertilizers added.

Many people in Colombo would rather buy my leaves, than buy from the shop, as they do not know the source of the leaves, as there have been various scares of diseases being contracted from uncooked food. I do get complaints from customers from time to time that the prices of my leaves are high, but they should really try and source them elsewhere to realize they really do get value for money. I know how much I struggle to grow this and sometimes wonder if I actually make any profit from so doing, unless I do it in a much larger scale.

It was interesting that the staff of a customer complained that the leaves had been eaten by insects, while the usual ones they buy are perfect. I reminded her that it is possible that the latter have pesticides sprayed, and hence the insects avoid or die on impact! This was not the case with mine.

I can increase the market for my leaves by having a larger selection and more quantity, like having three different types of Gotukola, Kankun, Kohila and Nivithi to name a few notable absentees from my line-up. Then there are some other medicinal leaves that grow easily which I can add. My problem then is the means by which I transport this while keeping the leaves fresh. I cannot do this satisfactorily until I have some sort of refrigerated transport. However that is a hurdle for the future, the current struggle is to get my staff on the same plane with me to get a bigger crop, as I have the land and the water, just the lack of dedication to the project.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Timber and myths

The retail prices of products made out of wood fetch astronomical prices. Timber is fast proving to be an uneconomical for construction and concrete pylons and cross beams are the preferred alternatives. Aluminium door and window frames are now common in new home construction.

As a grower of wood, it is pure imagination to believe one can receive a fair price, and accordingly many people are being fooled into believing timber to be a better alternative to food production, due to rich rewards in the harvest.

Today, I sold a very large, mature, ready to harvest lunumidella tree for Rs4,000.(not even US$40) In the past the wood was primarily used for ceiling rafters but is now increasingly used for furniture and doors as a cheaper alternative to the very expensive woods like teak. The retail value of furniture made from the wood from this tree can easily exceed Rs200,000, with the hinges alone for a door costing more than the price paid for the tree.

It is a tree I have to harvest soon as this timber deteriorates, and I am not at present able to make use of it for the purposes I had in mind, due to the expense, I have no option but to sell. The purchaser will spend more to cut the tree down than he paid for it, then he will need to hire an elephant to pull the logs up the slope to an area to load on to a tractor trailer to take to a sawmill. He will therefore incur about Rs30,000 to get it to the mill before the substantial cost to have planks cut to the sizes he wants for his purposes.

What I want to illustrate here is the farmer’s valuable contribution, in growing the tree, so the economy and gross national product can increase by approx Rs150,000, when discounting the import element of items used in the value addition process. It is a salutary lesson for the reader to understand how the price of a piece of furniture is made up, and that without the grower, none of this economic activity can take place resulting in the final product.

I am not envious of the man who takes the rest of the risk, and puts up the money up front so he can make a good profit. That is capitalism at play. If I want to make full use of this I have to then take all the risks, and put up money from borrowings and either hope to sell the items after designing and making them, or use them myself. I was free to choose, and under my current circumstances made the correct choice. If I spent a week getting other offers I may get a further thousand or two but it is not worth the effort.

Rice subsidy economics

A few days ago TV news reported that the Minister of Agriculture Development said that the government rice subsidy, has resulted in a 15% increase in the amount of paddy produced. Please tell me that this report was not correct. If our annual production is 2million tons and it has increased by 300,000 tons at a market price of Rs9billion(Rs30kg of paddy) then the cost of a Rs50billion subsidy all of it from imported fertilizer, has been a colossal waste. It would have been cheaper for us to import the milled rice at a fraction of that cost, and used the money saved on more productive areas.

We have total imbeciles in power making incredulous statements and no one, especially the media is questioning the facts, and secondly, its deduction and pointing out the flaws and assumptions.

I have noted earlier, that I am also a recipient of this subsidy, and like 90% of the farmers who receive this subsidy are subsistence farmers, barely making a return, despite the subsidy and without it would probably make a loss, not even covering ones own manual input if current paddy prices persist. In my experience only rice farmers who own extents exceeding 10 acres seem to be prosperous taking account of the subsidy they also receive.

On a more serious note, the government is still only playing politics with this subsidy that vegetable farmers do not get, and are reluctant to reduce the subsidy, for fear of provoking the rural vote bank. No real steps have been taken to try and change the format of the subsidy from chemical to organic fertilizer, nor to advice, encourage and incentivize increases in productivity, by reducing both inputs and increasing outputs in a concerted manner.

They are instead involved in a multitude of programs run by different sections of the ministry, with no overall goal or aim in mind, and with numerous specialists in different fields going their separate ways. The farmer is also confused by this lack of assistance and is left to do it alone.

The government is smug that they have not needed to purchase any paddy due to the market prices being higher than their guaranteed minimum price. The big government millers control the paddy purchasing. The smaller miller is effectively shut out or his costs of purchase have increased due to inspection taxes per bag at police checkpoints when paddy is transported, that are not applicable to Nipuna and Dudley the govt. reps.

Monday, September 22, 2008

a third rice crop for the year

I am the only farmer in the whole of the Polonnaruwa District to grow a third rice crop in a year. I am trying this for the first time and it is simply an experiment using water pumped from the river running alongside my property. If the experiment is successful then investing in a high-powered solar powered pump or a windmill used for pumping water may be a worthwhile proposition to guarantee low cost water.

All the experiments I have undertaken to date have not been particularly successful but I have learned a lot and also why some of the expected benefits did not materialize. I have grown 4 different varieties of rice in the 4 seasons I have had the land and this fifth crop is a high value rice that I am planting which I expect to retail at Rs100/kg. Therefore the risk of pumping water at the current cost of kerosene is worth taking so I can at worst brake even on this experiment. None in this whole area has tried different varieties of rice in this small extent of land in such a short time frame. I now have first hand experience of some of the issues that even the so called experts in the land will be hard pressed to count on. My intention is to develop a plan based on practical experience that will with little additional effort, increase the rice production in the country by a third.

I hope this blog will also be useful to a person keen on rice farming at every level and take into their evaluation some of the problems I have had to grapple with. In the current context, I now find that even in my small extent of land my fields vary substantially in quality and soil type. This means that adjacent fields have very different water holding patterns, which is a very important factor in rice cultivation and more so when one is pumping all the water. This is a further example of why our yields are so low. Understanding the soil composition in each section of one’s property is vital in choosing which crops to plant in each section, something the average farmer does not think too much about when he decides to plant as he has numerous other factors to take into account.

Drainage is another factor, as sometimes hand tractors can get water logged in some soil conditions, making is very difficult to till the land using mechanical means. In others the soil can get so hard that the very same tractors cannot plough the same soil and only a large tractor can do an effective job on that.

In performing experiments one has face the ridicule especially from the farmers who have been on the land all their lives. In a kind of way they don’t like to see you succeed either, as you can show them something from being here such a short while, which they were not willing to contemplate doing.

All this practical experience has taught me one salutary lesson. Namely, not to heed the advice of those who extrapolate from figures and numbers in calculating what you should earn or produce in terms of yield. Reality is far different as the factors that can upset theory are many and are often not even contemplated in a theoretical calculation of the possible.

This year has been a particularly bad year as far as agricultural production is concerned, however the opening up of land in the East due to the clearing of the terrorism problem has more than made up for shortfalls in other places.

The hot sun now is the best planting season of the year, however few farmers plant now due to the high cost of irrigating at their expense, and the closure of all tanks which are only providing water to rice farmers during their traditional planting periods. Now all anicuts, sluices are closed and no water flows along the canals, so anyone wishing to cultivate land has to pump from wells or other sources to cultivate and irrigate. Prices of vegetable traditionally rise due to this shortage and the government slaps a temporary import duty on onions to help the local farmer whose onion harvest has just begun, the only time local onions are harvested due to seasonal growing conditions.

Returning to the main point above of being able to cultivate three seasons of rice as opposed to two in the year, the main requirement is the supply of water for cultivation. A well thought out method of ensuring water availability at some areas that are high yielding can both increase the overall yield of the land and also the incomes of the farmers, as well as of course increasing the overall yield. I don’t get subsidized fertilizer for this cultivation and am using some left over from the last season.

I have yet to come up with a resolution of how one deals with very different soil conditions in a small area as it makes it very difficult for a farmer already space constrained in having to make choices of different crops for different fields, as the average yield can be as high as a half less even with the same amount of fertilizer being used. No one it seems to me has even addressed this issue and are surprised when I raise it as it seems a first!

the recent rice/paddy harvest

I just harvested my latest paddy crop of white samba variety BG358, which is a 100day variety. The yield was not as good as I had hoped for, but as noted in an earlier segment we did suffer the ill effects of rain at the wrong time and I was additionally affected by a very dense weed that showed itself for the first time this season, for which I had obviously not bargained for.

Of course I will sell all my rice to my customers, and I have already milled three bags of paddy to take back with me and given two bags to my neighbor to par boil for me so I will have par boiled samba also to be sold to my customers. The kekulu samba retails at 75/-a kg and the par boiled for 80/-

At present our main topic of discussion is how our harvest went whether our paddy got caught to the rain, what price we are holding out for and when we expect to reach that price etc. A very farmer type talk. Some people had a very good harvest others, a lousy one. There are so many factors that determine if it is good or bad. Those who planted ‘bala vee’ that of less than 100 days got affected by the rains and mine also fell so I had to hand cut instead of machine, which added to the cost of harvest. Those who planted ‘vadimal vee’ usually between 115 and 135 days to harvest enjoyed a bumper harvest as the rains came with up to a month to harvest and the tank water had also stopped so the later rainfall ensured that the fields got as much water as necessary before the stalks fully ripened.

Other factors like the soil condition just to quote one example also affects the harvest and some of my neighbors planted more than one variety and did well on some and badly on others. So all in all I still have not worked out the best formulae for my soil conditions, as I have been faced with other factors beyond my control that have affected yield and therefore the evaluation of the result of the trials.

When farmers who have done the same thing for generations still don’t have an answer to their ideal product mix, it is no surprise that I don’t either, but it also brings to light the difficulty faced by farmers and the paucity of advice based on experience and scientific knowledge as well as market dynamics that we farmers can count on. It is that we all take different routes and come harvest sit around discussing who got lucky this time!! There has to be a better way of doing this, with speculation now being on price movement. Some expect it to rise and will hold stocks to sell later.

where are the young men in the village?

I define young men as those who are no longer schooling or undergoing a full time educational course and fall into the ages 16 to 30. I cannot find anyone in this age category wanting a job. I have been asked to find people to fill a numerous range of vacancies for women and men of all ages but I cannot find any who want to leave the comforts of their village to do a job. All those who want to work elsewhere have already gone.

This is why I seriously hold the view that we do not have an unemployment problem, where all those who want to work can find some sort of employment. A young neighbor who has some paddy land is now off to join a construction team in the Colombo South harbor project as the pay there is Rs1000/- a day. How can anyone compete with that for an unskilled job?

Those that remain want to work the tractors, the tsunami threshers or the new combined harvesters that are coming into these towns. Some have trishaws funded by their mothers who work overseas and so wish to do nothing very disciplined and are part of the youth here who are drunk, like the three who crashed the said vehicle on Monday night and then crashed a motor bike on the way back from outpatient treatment for wounds the next day, both times under the influence.

The serious need of the day is the fanciest bike to draw the fanciest chick and it is amazing how many powerful new bikes many of the youth have bought on credit, and the occasions in which they are involved in accidents are too numerous to mention. The quality and state of the roads and the darting of dogs makes it only safe to ride a bike at no more than 50kmph.

Getting back to the youth, their aspirations in the village seem somewhat a mystery, but it seems to make as much money as possible in as short a time as possible to get what they want. Some have joined the army, as the pay there is the best for the level of education and age. Others have found employment in construction jobs in Colombo paying as much as Rs1000/- a day. Still others have organized into small businesses locally.

There is some need to get married at a very early age here, as it is frequent that a man is betrothed before he is 19 and the girl a little younger, and like my neighbor is cutting into paddy land to build their first home at a age of little over 20 when most people in the west cannot dream of owning a home.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A solution to the rice subsidy issue as suggested by my neighbor

It is interesting that my neighbor with a very small piece of land made this suggestion, which will not doubt affect him also, but he was thinking of the national good and I credit him with having a lot of common sense.

He suggested that the government grant the current subsidy to half the acreage and offer unsubsidized fertilizer to the other half. They already have the records of those who have received subsidies and will therefore be able to reduce the cheating. By this method only those promising to cultivate all the land will receive the subsidy so the acreage under cultivation will remain the same.

What he also said was that if they could not afford the extra, at full price, they will use all they receive on all their land and will be careful not to waste any. Those who pay full price for the other half will know the true value of the fertilizer, subsidized and not, and so wastage that occurs now will be eliminated.

What he said and I concur, there is a lot of wastage of fertilizer, that gets washed into the rivers and streams due to overflow. This suggestion will also reduce the waste of water. Currently people take all their water allotment and any excess for their fields flows out of their fields along with the good fertilizer. If his proposal is taken up, then each farmer will only allow in only as much water into his field as he wants and not allow overflow. So he will shut his water supply from his canal and by default allow people like me at the end of the canal to have the water I want, which at present I don’t get due to people taking up entitlements whether they require it or not.

Full credit to him who puts country before person; He would be lynched by his neighbors for even making a suggestion of this nature. It is hard to take away a freebie that is given due to politically expedient decision making not in the long term interest of the nation, and accordingly of all its people. This is where fools elect fools to long-term ruin.

This husbanding of fertilizer along with water will have a double whammy benefit and the saving of a further Rs25billion can be used instead for rural infrastructure development, which should only be what the government should really get involved and not social engineering by means of subsidy and political favors and grandiose irrigation projects of limited value.

Colonization schemes the current result

People would take me to task for my opinion here, but it is one which should be evaluated so that some action can be taken to minimize the travesty caused by this.

As historians know large tracts of vacant lands were given to people who were settled from all parts of the island. I happen to live in a tract that was granted to a family in the 1930’s as one of the first such schemes in Minneriya by DS Senanayaka who was then a Minister of Agriculture under the British Administration. This was after the Minneriya tank was restored and canals cut to bring water to the villages. The houses built for the villagers were solid structures, which still stand and lived in and is testimony to their construction.

The people were given large tracts 5 acres of fields (mada idam) and 5 acres of other land (goda idam) and in addition homes in a nearby location, which formed the nucleus of a new village.

I don’t want to go into the reasoning why landless peasants were given land, but as far as I know from talking to the descendants they were certainly not landless from whence they came, some still have property in their gama and to this date treat the place from whence they came as their gama. The CP de Silva’s Senananayaka’s and Kotelawala’s being walau karayo did not realize how they had been had by the sly and cunning people into giving them land.

What has happened through the ages is that all this land has been subdivided into tiny homesteads and are no longer cultivated as a whole. Even some of the paddy lands have been filled in and some descendants live on them some in picturesque homes surrounded by paddy fields on all sides.

No matter what one tells me I will not accept that this is now agricultural land anymore. It is residential ranchettes to put no finer tone on them and most people living in them have government jobs, and other means of support, and may have a few fields to grow the rice so that they can eat three full meals of rice a day.

The remaining truly peasant farmers are those who believed the government and due to the government not keeping its word have become destitute. So what we have now are suburbs out of previously good agricultural land

Rice cultivation in Sri Lanka – doomed to failure

In light of a year of harvesting disasters in the Polonnaruwa district, I as a peasant farmer in the district, with 3 acres of rice in Raja Ela, Hingurakgoda offer an opinion on how we as a nation can resolve the twin problems of improving the livelihoods of the peasant farmer and increasing the yields of our existing paddy fields, both to be completely self sufficient in rice production and have available quality rices for export in small quantities to Middle Eastern, European and American markets.

Sri Lanka must accept as a hard fact that it is totally inefficient for someone like me to farm 3 acres of paddy using state subsidies, which under today’s world market price of fertilizer amounts to Rs50,000, per kanna.(as there are two kannas per year it amounts to Rs100k per annum) The subsidy is related to the area under cultivation for each kanna (a busalas or half acre’s subsidy is slightly less than Rs10,000) for all farmers who cultivate small tracts of under 10 acres, but is given only for rice cultivation. I don’t know how much the government spends a year but I have heard it exceeds Rs 50 billion on this subsidy.

There is some corruption in the way the subsidy is distributed owing to its value, and some have been uncovered in the press. Some farmers receive the subsidy and sell the fertilizer in the black market as they stand to make more money than if they were to cultivate.

A sad fact of life in subsidy driven Sri Lanka is that, if the subsidy is withdrawn, then one of two things will happen. One set of farmers will cultivate without the use of fertilizer and see a substantial reduction in their yields, while other farmers will stop growing paddy and grow other crops. In both cases our total paddy output will definitely drop. It is likely that farm incomes will also drop substantially. We may however see a substantial increase in the price of rice, which would only fall if the government imports rice of lower price.

One thing is certain no drastic action, like removing the subsidy, can be taken but a national plan has to be in place to achieve the twin objectives outlined above, which I believe can achieve the balance we strive for over time but has to be applied and agreed as a National Plan and not changed by governments for political expediency. Some of the steps will be politically unacceptable in the short term and hence the agreement of both main political parties is essential to ensure this policy is not changed.

The price of paddy and rice, due to world market shortages has been high lately, the farmers therefore after receiving the subsidy have an income slightly more than in the past years, and are therefore willing to cultivate their land, however when the subsidy is taken into account it is obvious that the nation as a whole is spending more on this than the price of the rice in the store. In simple terms we in Sri Lanka should realize that despite complaining that the price of rice is too high, our costs are even higher, with only those profiting from this food chain are the large mill owners, of whom there are 6 in the nation, private individuals whose annual income exceeds Rs 500M each and none of whom pays more than a nominal income tax.

The high yielding rice types that are used in 99% of the cultivation in Sri Lanka have been developed over time to be used with chemical fertilizer. That was what the green revolution was all about. No one predicted the price of oil to go over $100 which has resulted in a bag of urea which I purchased 4 years ago for Rs300 and is now Rs5,000. I get 7 bags of this along with 2 other types of fertilizer for my acreage all at Rs 350 for a bag of 50KG.

Weedicides, Pesticides and a host of other inputs like diesel for tractors and the fertilizer, all inputs in farming have gone up in line with the price of oil. The reader will say why don’t you go organic and begin using buffaloes (of which there are none in Polonnaruwa District) It is not as easy as it sounds.

Intense use of chemical fertilizers, weedicides and pesticides in Sri Lanka has resulted in leaching of the soil along with the elimination of the good pests that eat the bad pests! We have therefore to take steps over time in soil reconditioning and developing strains of rice that will show a yield with minimal use of chemical fertilizer and maximum use of organic fertilizers. Proper farming techniques are also essential in this regard.

Let me use an example. The large 1300acre CIC farm in Hingurakgoda is about a mile from my property. They grow about 800 acres of seed paddy for farmers using large tractors and combine harvesters. They use less chemical fertilizers, as they don’t get a government subsidy, and much less pesticides and weedicides as the average farmer. One reason for this is a weed suppressing techniques which they use, but the average farmer does not. Due to their having large tractors in their large fields instead of the two wheeled tractor which almost all paddy farmers in Sri Lanka use, they are able to use deep ploughs at lower cost after harvest to completely turn the soil over, and once the weeds are about 6 inches high turn it over again and do this often enough so all weed seeds have germinated and the weeds themselves smothered by the next ploughing. This technique has enabled them to be almost weed free allowing them to use minimal chemicals such as just a pre-emergent after sowing.

Me and my fellow farmers use only a rotary plough (a light surface scraping one) once to prepare the fields, and not a deep plough. I purchased a deep plough for Rs12,000 and I seem to be the only person in the area who has one. When I asked the company that manufactures this, they said that they sell less than 10 a year nationwide. While I am having some problems in using this plough, namely in the way it turns in the fields, I am intent on deep ploughing so that I can both get the nutrients hidden below the surface back up as well as to use the weed control technique outlined.

When I questioned the farmers in why they don’t use this technique, they say it is an added expense, both for the plough and to run their tractors once or twice more on the fields, while not giving much credit for the additional yields as they feel the fertilizer they use is sufficient. This is a means I feel which leaves them overusing fertilizer because of the subsidy, and giving less attention to the economic benefit of deep ploughing.

I have alluded to the fact also that larger farm units can reduce the cost of production per kg of paddy substantially which is the only way those who do not get subsidized fertilizer can compete in the marketplace. Do we go the way the Muslim farmers in the eastern province who cultivate their lands together as one unit? They share the profits in proportion and this method increases both yields and reduce costs of production at one stretch as they use the latest John Deer combine harvesters from the USA to gather in their crop at a substantially lower cost (I estimate at half) than the Polonnaruwa farmers who still use labor that is very scarce and now costing Rs500 a day if they are available.

It is increasingly cost effective to use mechanical means and farm large tracts of land as Sri Lanka is no longer a country with people needing employment and it is only the government that thinks otherwise, buried in economic programs to cater for a nonexistent unemployment problem. We can then enable alternative forms of employment for them.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

going fishing

This a photo of Rupe in the village of Ratmale off to fish for his family and sell any excess to his neighbours.

As the water level of the Ratmale tank has fallen substantially as the water has been irrigating the paddy fields, it is time to catch the fish. So in the evening a few days ago he took his tube and net and went fishing.

I bought a wela of fish in this case 4 lullas for Rs 200 for us to eat and if bought from the fisherman who comes our way we would usually pay twice.

Friday, July 25, 2008

the worst period for the king coconut grower, seller and distributor

2008 has been a very bad year for my sales of king coconuts which is my largest revenue source. First it was a year of incessant rain in Colombo (rain still continuing) where my market is and people do not drink this when it rains. To cap an already bad year, where even the man who climbs the trees failed to honor his commitment to turn up on the requested dates, the government has decided to raze all the unauthorised shops on the roads selling products like king coconuts to the weary traveller, and when I came with my load today I found all my regular customers had been steamrolled literally and their livelihoods reduced ostensibly on account of SAARC.

I am all things, a grower, a buyer from other growers, a transporter, a distributor to kades and the golf club and finally also delivering to homes of customers, so I have been affected at all stages of this business, and today the prices are less than a year ago and my sales down over 30% in volume.

Hey what's new when one is down one is really trampled over just to make sure he is finished!!! I have 90 left to sell now at the back of my pickup, does anyone want any? one of the healthiest beverages on the face of the earth looking for a mouth~

Friday, June 20, 2008

food prices in polonnaruwa higher than in western province

the photo of my plate was of prawns caught in the river in front of my cabin in Raja Ela, Hingurakgoda and much tastier than lagoon prawns.

I sold two Ambun banana bunches yesterday, in Hingurakgoda for a Rs1000/- that was for 125 fruit. This is the retail price I sell in my shop, while here the retail price is nearly double at Rs15/- a fruit. So it is a no brainier for me not to haul it all the way, but sell where it is grown. I am told that it is very difficult to grow here in Hingurakgoda, but all three bunches I have taken and sold here have been commended and the shop-keeper told me to bring as many as I want to him to sell. I must therefore try and see what I can do to increase the quantities of this variety of banana in this property.

I have now come to the conclusion that there is a more lucrative market right here for my produce rather than my trying to take it all the way back to the farm in Godagama for sale there. That’s good news for the long term when I am hoping to increase my supply from this base and spend all my time here.

A monkey is grooming another almost in front of me not a bit frightened of my presence. They are a major farmers’ pest, eating everything they can get hold of and the populations have increased alongside the human populations they seem to feed off. They have yet to be taken on the do not kill list. I believe a serious culling is necessary in order to protect food production and the farmers will be relieved.

This increases the cost of food production. I also notice that there are very few people growing vegetables and so if I am successful at increasing the cultivation, I should actually take a stall at the Sunday fair in Hingurakgoda to sell my produce. I am taking 6 bunches of Kolikuttu to Godagama tomorrow and wonder if it is better for me to sell here too, as by the time I take it to the grand dames in Colombo, who will say not ripe yet etc and have to handle it many times, a quick sale of all to one fruit shop will reduce a lot of hassle as well as the wastage in transport.

I am also growing aubergines and have now decided to sell most of it locally as I am unable to travel often due to the high cost of fuel, where I have cut down the journeys I plan on making by half, to just two a month.

A significant shift in the marketing of my produce is called for to make optimum use of the produce I have as well as the most practical and profitable ways to dispose of them.

what it looks like three weeks later

Thursday, May 29, 2008

some photos of preparation of fields for sowing

yala planting season begins and is so beautiful

I as a paddy farmer having about 3 acres of paddy land in Hingurakgoda as part of the total 5acre property (the rest planted with coconuts, bananas mango, orange and lime as well as a few vegetable beds)

I have just sown(May17th&18th) white Samba the BG358 variety for the first time, and unlike last season I have not transplanted. This was due to a cost of Rs10,000 to transplant not compensated by the certainty of a much higher yield. I have previously planted red nadu, red samba and white nadu. I want to see which variety gives me the best yield to determine what is best for my particular soil conditions.

As I am the last in my irrigation canal and this season in exclusively tank fed from Minneriya, I foresee a problem with a shortage of water, having to pump water at expense when necessary to cover a shortage. I have obtained permission to close all other water lines for one night a week to ensure I get water, but how this will work in practice is yet to be seen.

It takes me two full days of a 2 inch pipe of pumping to flood all my fields at a cost of ten liters of kerosene which costs 80/- a liter at present. I did this on May 24th and 25th while the water was shut to our canal. It is essential that in the first weeks for the germinated seeds to take root, that fields get a good soak and a head start over the weeds. The days are baking hot and the fields in higher ground like mine can crack in the heat.

I am at a loss to know which season yields more, but farmers tell me it is Yala when the sun is more prevalent and photosynthesis has the greatest chance given the availability of water. Only time will tell! Farmers expected a bumper crop last season, only to be scuttled by the heavy rains at harvest.

It is such a joy to see the new rice plants and its light green form in the fields as it is a sea of green wherever one looks in my area. The farmers are broke exhausted and expectant that this year will see a turn around in fortunes. In wet fields one gets a host of birds, a pair of Indian Rollers in my case, swooping down to catch small frogs and worms in newly sown ground.

The photos here show the preparation of the fields with the tractor, the sowing by hand of the germinated seed paddy, and then the light green fields a week later. In another week they should be at their glorious green.

Friday, May 9, 2008

a downside for yield in the rise in price of rice

Many of the small landowners, who have for the most part inherited their paddy fields have been in the habit of renting them to other farmers to farm and the payment as noted elsewhere is traditionally 20 bushels of paddy per acre rented per season. In today’s terms that is about Rs12,000 per season.

There are experienced farmers who farm large lots of lands on this basis as they have all the mechanical machinery to perform most of the tasks, using minimal labor. It is the next most efficient way of farming this land, short of amalgamating large tracts into one and farmed in one large area by one person. I have a neighbor who does not own any land but farms about 100 acres and does it well and has a higher yield and productivity per man hour than all the small farmers.

When the price of rice increased, the owner not content with the increased value of the rent as it is in kind, has in many cases decided to work the land himself this season and this farmer is now wondering what he should do iin the light of new events.

His solution was to sell some of his farm machinery and buy a large lorry and has decided to buy paddy from farmers and sell them to the large mill owners. Filling a 5 ton lorry he says he can make Rs30,000 per load after paying his wages for hauling and driving and taking account of the vehicle amortization cost. This is for less than a days work as in the morning he knows the millers buying price and he then offers a price to farmers, some of whom will sell their paddy and is able to fill the truck by early afternoon going from farm house to farm house. This he says has almost no risk while paddy farming is full of risk. We lose another efficient farmer this way!!!

In my opinion these landowners who have now taken back control of their land do not know the inherent costs in farming and assume that they can make a lot of money. Inevitably they will lose or at best make only a little and possibly less than the rent they would have received, with a lot more effort and risk. That is not to say that as their efficiency is much less, the output per acre will also fall for the same inputs such as fertilizer. The overall effect therefore is for a fall in yield and the government carrying the cost of the fertilizer subsidy that has actually contributed to a lower yield despite the higher prices in the market. I see no evaluation of this fact anywhere in the discussions of the increased acreage under cultivation.

cost of production of an acre of paddy per season

This is an attempt to give the reader a realistic idea of what it costs to work an acre of paddy for a season (two seasons per year) and the profit and benefit to the farmer is purely a factor of the yield, and the price he receives on the sale of the paddy. This is the cost for the year and ignores the cost of the land or water, which though very real is treated as zero. A farmer who is working another’s land has to pay the owner twenty bushels per acre per season and that is 420kg, which at Rs 30 a kg is 12,600.

This example is worked on the basis of 100 bushels per acre, which is average for good land here in Polonnaruwa, and the yield can vary between types of seed paddy planted but for the purpose of this exercise, this will do.

The fertilizer will cost Rs 1500/- at the subsidized price, which if one purchased in the open market would be over Rs 16,500/- which means the fertilizer price is subsidized to the tune of Rs15,000/- an acre or about Rs7.50 per kg of Paddy produced. The true cost to the nation should therefore include the unsubsidized price at which the government purchases the paddy. The cost of the seed paddy is Rs 2900/- The cost of preparation if paid labor is used except for the farmer who is working his land is Rs 4000/- and the cost of the ploughing using hired tractor driver and diesel is Rs6000/- The cost of weedicides and pesticides is Rs3000/- assuming a low use of such on the property. Then instead of using paid labor to cut, he uses a cutting and threshing machine, the cost is Rs7000/- and then the cost of drying and fanning the paddy before preparing the bales for sale is a further Rs3000/- not counting his labor in taking care of birds and mice and other pests during the growing season. The total cost is therefore Rs27,400/-

The maximum profit to the farmer who owns his own property therefore becomes, a function of the revenue of Rs63,000/- and cost of Rs27,400/- and is Rs35,600/-. And Rs23,000/- if you don’t own the land. On the basis of this being 6 months income, it is a maximum of Rs6,000/- a month. Don’t forget this is based on Rs30 a kg price. The government guaranteed price of Rs22 will only give a profit for the owner farmer of only Rs18,800/- halving his profit. By implication a farmer who has twice this extent stands to benefit twice as much and so on. Bear in mind that half the farmers probably get much lower yields and some have costs that are higher so while this is a guide, it is also a reflection that at this higher price the farmer is still pauperized, despite the government subsidized fertilizer.

Monday, May 5, 2008

the real world of subsistence agriculture

The appreciation of what a peasant farmer has to endure to make a living is something no book can teach and until one lives that life completely, the nuances of the risks he faces are cannot be comprehended and then evaluated.

Many of the people in the aid business, be it donors or government bureaucrats are merely trying to salve their consciences or at best do their jobs. To do it effectively all the dynamics have to be accounted for. In my opinion risk minimization is the way to approach this subject, rather than poverty alleviation of rural farming populations.

I have endured an additional risk this year 2008, over the risks I have begun to accept. The weather pattern internationally and specifically to Sri Lanka has been extremely unusual with some saying El Nina effect. The rainfall has been excessive island-wide, which has led to the farmer being unable to plant his vegetable crops according to plan, which consequently has resulted in steep prices the consumer has had to pay. Ironically the steep prices have NOT helped the farmer increase his income, as his overall net revenue has fallen due to his crop loss being greater than the price increases, where most of the margins are accounted for in the post harvest food chain down to the ultimate consumer.

In my case where I use paid labor, I have had to pay wages for people who have not been able to do a days work due to the rain, and whoever tells me to supply raincoats is off the mark. I have bought boots for them and they don’t like to use them, if I supply raincoats its jut the dogs who will have a field day tearing them apart, when they have been put aside and forgotten in the fields when the rain ceases. Such is the mentality of the person who is now part of this society where they expect everything free, be it from the government or their employer.

In my case even trying to grow organic is a farce, in an environment where I am unable to minimize risks, the only practical way being under greenhouses where most risks are eliminated. Take today’s example of the wholesale prices paid by small shop keepers to buy vegetables in the Meegoda wholesale market close to my farm and close to Colombo. (inevitably buying large bags of between 50kg and 70kg will command prices about 20% less than what I note below, but also have a higher percentage wastage as there is no way of sorting out as one has to buy the whole bag of the truck, not knowing the quality of what is inside.
All prices are for a kg (2.2lbs) as of May 4th 2008
Tomatoes Rs 150, Capsicum Rs 240, Green Chillies Rs 200, Makaral Rs 80, Karavila Rs 70, Bandakka Rs 70, Wambatu(auberrgine) Rs 70 and Cucumberr Rs30. Now I sell my produce on home delivery at between Rs 80 and 100 a kg as I find it difficult to sell at a higher price to cover my costs, and in the shop on the farm I sell at Rs 20 a kg less. How can I sell my better produce (as in no pesticide and no chemical fertilizer, but sometimes with the odd pest embedded) at higher prices to compensate me for extra costs and low yields? I have to sell my Tomatoes at Rs 250kg and no one will buy at that price.

So Colombo ladies who think you can buy good for less than the Kollupitiya market think again, you just can’t afford my produce if I were to sell at a price where I can afford to eat at least one meal a day. I am effectively subsidizing your lifestyle. Anyway why do you want to eat Organic when the air around you is so polluted that no matter how much organic you eat you will not be able to cleanse your body from the carcinogens you breathe?

Returning to the topic, the conclusion is that due to supply and demand factors the price of vegetables is beyond anyone’s control least of all the farmer’s, and in order to stabilize the prices while giving the farmer a greater share of the pie, a lot more has to be invested in post harvest technology over an above yield improvements which are still necessary at the farm. So NGOs if you are still interested in helping the rural farmer, rather than your good selves in posh cars and offices and fat salaries then please take heed.

A farmer will never sell you produce if he can get a better price. So you give a price point that is high enough to encourage him to grow, while limiting how much you will buy, so you don’t encourage the farmer becoming a middleman at your expense. The produce you receive you keep in conditions that allow longer shelf-life, and you arrange the disposal of such. Keep strict management controls so you don’t lose on this deal, and run it as a business with incentives for management properly structured. As a private sector person I would also like to do something with a long- term profit motive but the capital cost of establishing an enterprise precludes me from going ahead, unless development financing of a long-term nature can be obtained at concessionary rates. Such enterprise actually would be more effective than trying to do it through the NGO or government due to inefficiencies.

Friday, April 25, 2008

retailers become the scapegoats in the paddy to rice scam

I have tried to show as simply as possible how this recent government price controls on rice and no other commodity that has risen in price, has been for the benefit of the miller primarily, while giving temporary relief to the consumer, but really at the expense of the farmer who the government should encourage to grow more rice.

The real emphasis should be to increase productivity and therefore output, which will automatically result in prices remaining stable. The market mechanism will adjust itself if this is done. I am a rice producer and a very high cost very inefficient producer, as I am stifled by limiting size, fighting with my neighbors for my water entitlement and dealing with land that has been bleached over the years of nutrients, which result in substantial reductions in yield.

A very simple reasoning in farming is to obtain as much yield as possible given the inputs. By increasing inputs such as nutrients and pesticides as well as better farming techniques like deep ploughing and intelligent use of fertilizer and water, specific to the type of seed paddy being used, one can increase yields dramatically more(50%+) than we currently obtain. We must concentrate on why we don’t use these techniques and address those issues, such as land holdings, water rights, practical solutions for expansion of fields, to counteract the contraction now taking place of division by family members from generation to generation. Other factors include title, being able to borrow at reasonable rates of interest for machinery. I have also noted earlier that agricultural advisers should be better trained, with the overall objectives in mind rather than as done today advise people to go into organic farming with no idea what it would do to yield and with no ready market for these outputs, readily available to the farmers.

A short-term solution, namely, price controls are most unhelpful as it has again created uncertainty. This is something no farmer, who deals with more than his fare share of uncertainty, wants. Farming is a career where one day one can obtain very high profits and the next enormous losses, and the ability to withstand this and cushion for hard times is how one can separate the successful against those not so. All steps should be taken to reduce this uncertainty, as one can never eliminate it, and by doing this I am confident that the yield increases demanded from them will come in time. Patience and long term plans are required to succeed along with a VISION.

follow up of the rice price control saga

Paddy is so precious look at part of my stock-piled! by my bed

I am in Minneriya at the moment and heard that the Consumer authority has fined retailers of rice for selling above the maximum price. This is all done for publicity to frighten retailers, and indirectly tell the farmers to release the stocks of paddy they are keeping (in the government parlance hoarding) to sell to the millers. For example Food City chain that sells in over 100 outlets where they have 95% of their rice varieties above the maximum price, was fined Rs150,000/- which is a drop compared to the Rs 10Mill+ a day they get from selling rice at prices higher than the govt. set rate. Smaller retailers have been fined Rs5,000/-

If one speaks to the farmers here in Hingurakgoda and Minneriya their response is that the govt. is doing this to help their ministers who are millers, who hitherto were unable to obtain the quantity of paddy to mill, and that after price controls are able to get the paddy at 20% below the pre price control date, by frightening farmers to sell at lower prices set by the millers.

So now the millers have the ability to stock paddy at lower prices and release them when prices inevitably rise in about a month once the rumpus over price controls dies down. This sadly as noted in the article below penned as the price controls were announced, is just for media publicity that the government is doing something about food prices. All food items have risen on average 80% in a year and no other item is controlled just for this same reason, that there are no politicos to stand to benefit, unlike in the rice issue.

One of my friendly millers told me that even at the higher paddy price before the price controls came into effect, the largest millers will still be able to sell the rice and make a profit at the fixed price, so that they never stood to lose. Now with the lower price of paddy currently they are again in a position to earn mega profits even at the current price. One dreads to think the level of super profits they stand to gain once the price rises and their costs are at today’s prices.

Just for information, today’s price per kg of paddy paid to the farmer is Rs30/- Just before the price controls were announced the farmer sold his kg for Rs40/- so the difference is pure profit for the miller who could sell his rice wholesale at Rs65 with a profit even at paddy at Rs40 for retail at Rs75.

Friday, April 18, 2008

the government has just controlled the price of rice

Just sit back and think this through. In order to control the spiralling price of rice, the government has just fixed the price of the basic varieties of rice. Today's papers said that the Pettah traders have closed their whole sale rice shops. Anyone is free to close their shop if they dont wish to sell their stock. The traders say they bought the rice from millers at highe prices than they are forced to sell, and therefore they prefer to withhold their stock instead of making huge losses in selling at controlled prices.

If this persists there will be a rice shortage and due to unsatiated demand a black market will spring up and the price of rice will shoot up to hitherto unheard of proportions. What is the government logic? in an era of increasing prices.

What I think the government should do is to sell its imported rice at what they claim they can at Rs 50/- then if the consumer switches to this the local price will fall and if the consumer does not like the imported rice the local price will remain. So let market forces prevail.

I am personally affected by this all the way, as I am a farmer who grows rice, I am a buyer of paddy from my neighbours at prevailing market rates, of varieties I do not grow, and I mill and transport fresh rice to my shop and customers and sell them at prices above what the govt has demanded I reduce to. I am not and will not reduce my price to make a loss. In any case the margins I make barely cover my costs, and I am damned if some authority tells me how to run my business. If my customers are not satisfied with my price they are free to go elsewhere.

When I incurr yield losses to by not putting pesticides, I need a higher price to even break even let alone make a profit, so no faceless body can order me to starve just to serve a short term conscience salving exercise amongst a disgruntled consumer.

Time and time again in my blog I have referred to short termism. We will not be in this situation if correct policies were in place to produce more efficiently and productively. I have mentioned that with very few policy changes such as land use and permitting larger units, our unit cost reductions and yield increases can be dramatic. If these had been in place such a situation will not arise. We must therefore not take it out on the farmer and trader, but the real culprits, the government backed millers who have the most to gain by storing and profiting from paddy.

Remember the government talks about hoarding rice. That is possible to a very small extent by traders, but storing paddy that can be kept for long instead of rice which is a perishable, is done by the government backed millers who should be the people to go after. They only manipulate the price of rice not traders.

I have noted this earlier, that our farmers are now hoarding their paddy to get a better price, and the millers are upset at having to pay more. With this government edict, they force farmers to cut their prices to millers who will in the end hoard the stock to raise the price and the farmer who just saw the light at the end of the tunnel is again cheated by a silly ruling that in reality cannot last much longer in practice.

So any lawyer who wants to challenge this gazette notification I will offer myself as the sacrificial lamb to save the farmer from further insult, when he just thought he may finally be able to earn a meager living from farming.

Friday, April 11, 2008

over half the rice is consumed close to where it is grown

I recently read this fact about Sri Lanka, where most of the paddy is consumed within 8 kilometers from where it is grown. We need to deduce some important points from this. As rice farming is still primarily a very labor intensive and subsistence farming crop, the farmer and his family consume a lot of what he grows. The village rice mill caters to the milling of this paddy, much of which is parboiled at home and brought to the mill and taken back for home consumption.

Another note of interest is that the farmer keeps some of the paddy for home consumption, and so he is more likely to grow only the type of paddy he eats and not which can make him a bigger profit. I notice that in my area only white rice is grown as only that rice is consumed.

It is obvious to me that all three meals of the day consist of rice as the staple and the amount of rice consumed is quite substantial as it forms 90% of a meal’s bulk and for those working in the fields this provides the carbohydrate required. It is also interesting to note that as fewer and fewer women work in the fields, finding other forms of occupation, they tend to be on the heavy side, due to a large intake of rice with little exercise to shed it.

With the ever increasing price of rice the monetary value of the rice consumed rises and a farmer will not change his rice eating to accommodate a price rise, and proudly says that his duty is to grow sufficient rice to feed his family and that only a surplus will be sold.

I had manioc for breakfast and all my staff had heaped plates of rice. The pol-sambol was from the freshly scraped coconut in the land, and at today’s prices a great benefit to them as I provide all the meals. My effective cost therefore is soaring.

We as a county cannot afford to eat three rice meals a day, and we should try and find nutritious alternatives. Of course manioc and sweet potato that grow on even the most marginal lands is more nutritious, but it appears old habits die-hard. It is important that the powers who extol the virtues of eating rice, should instead get the nation to grow manioc, which I believe is the easiest crop to plant with hardly any care and the resultant food can be substituted for breakfast. After all food and taste is all about habit and preference. Nutrition is what matters.

'jinasenas you can do a lot better'

Yesterday, I bought a double plough for my 12horse power Jinasena Agrimec tractor. I purchased it in Dambulla as that was the only place that stocked one, ploughs apparently being very rarely sold these days.

The salesman said if I was living in the area he will be able to show me how to fix it, as it is not very easy to do. I was surprised there was no sheet giving instructions, preferably in Sinhala about how to fit it.

The instruction sheet can then give information about the various terrains the plough can be used in and what other specifics are required like the rear wheel and the ploughing wheels if different, but sadly zilch was given.

I got a local boy to help me fix it as I did not know where to start, and he somehow struggled to do it. However we discovered we did not have the needed tools to fit it and also all the required nuts were not there.

My intention was to start ploughing my fields as soon as possible, but due to the lack of good service from the seller of the agricultural equipment, I waste a lot of learning time and also making mistakes. A company that prides itself on making products due to the expertise of the engineers they employ should also cover the end user by sending those very same engineers to the field to see how those machines are used and the problems encountered in the fields with putting it together in real conditions rather than a factory situation.

This is not the first time I have had problems with their service, as I am still awaiting a replacement wheel for the tractor, which was faulty when in was delivered. In addition there is not casing for the removed rotavator, so that the plough can be fixed and I have also had a whole host of other issues that I have not been able to satisfactorily resolve with their service people. They don’t realize that for a farmer service is what sells a product and bad service means that other farmers getting to know this will definitely not buy one of their products as a result.

I have still not got it to work and do a task, which should have only taken a day, and we are struggling to get it to work the way it should. So please speak with your customers and address their concerns by coming to the site, so you can serve us better. The appalling service stands out time and again.

history of large scale farming

I am in the process of coming up with a proposal of how best Sri Lanka can improve total agricultural production, while improving yield in an era where the numbers remaining in farming is steadily dropping.

When I talk about large scale farming, I immediately hit the obstacle “we did it and it failed miserably and people lost a fortune”. Even as far back as the 1920s a large farming project in Minneriya, which predated the colonization schemes, failed miserably for a myriad of reasons. These were either company owned or corporative, not individually owned.

We need to have a fresh approach given a changed situation, where employment is no longer the objective, but yield, and unit cost reduction in an environment where the market for the product is there for the long term. Sri Lanka’s problem re exports is the lack of volume to fill orders not the lack of orders. Increased output is therefore essential of such items.

One significant reason given by those who did large scale farming in the past, was that once the economy was opened up, the flood of cheap imports made their products uncompetitive in the domestically, so they closed down. With the current open economy, this stigma will not exist as the evaluation will expect that local industries will not be protected.

One area touted for large-scale farming is the sugar cane plantations, to feed the mills. Whilst Sri Lanka imports 80% of its sugar requirement, the local producer can now manufacture competitively as he has found a niche in the higher value cane and brown sugar segment. Their main problem is the shortage of raw material, which they now receive from the outgrowers.

Again we come to the question of lack of inputs to run the factories efficiently. They are running considerably below capacity. The more raw material the factories can get the lower the cost of production and the greater the attraction for the domestic sugar industry. A lot of money has been spent on this project in the past before it failed, and now there are people trying to resurrect it due to changed circumstances, as the cane has many more uses than just producing molasses from which sugar is refined.

There were many schemes in the 1960s such as the Ceylon Tobacco Company scheme in Maha Illupulama to farm large tracts that were opened for agriculture. Somehow these sorghum and maize and other crops failed, presumably because the costs of production exceeded imported prices.

While there is no question that we are a very inefficient and expensive producer, with ever increasing labor costs, the only way is to drastically improve our methods of production to obtain better yields by the use of new technology including mechanical means. World market prices of foodstuffs have risen and will continue to rise. We have no other option but to produce a greater proportion of our needs domestically.

We must have a vision of the future and act according to that in these changed circumstances. 2008 will go down in history as the year that changed the food and agricultural dynamics globally, and the countries that are able to react to that positively and sooner, will be the winners.

In Sri Lanka, we have traditional export crops such as tea, where we can remain the world leaders in quality, commanding premium prices, as we cannot compete on cost. In rubber, we can increase land under cultivation and obtain carbon credits as it is the plant with the greatest conversion of emissions to oxygen. Emphasis on coconut production is required for domestic consumption that will continue to rise. We will have to produce more oil for local consumption as an import substitution.

We should be a net exporter of rice, when we increase our yields, as we have quality varieties of rice that have a niche and command a high price. Sugar cane will be needed both for carbon credits and food as well as alternative fuels. We can expand the corn production to feed the livestock. We now import most of the chicken feed, and the increasing costs make local production essential.

Increased milk production is a priority, to have a nation of children who are at least given a glass of milk in schools, as in the past, so they get basic nutrients for growth both physical and mental. We just need to improve the quality of the animal stock and plant high quality grasses, and make it worthwhile for people to rear cattle once again for milk as in the past.

The summary above forcefully demonstrates the urgency of getting our basics and priorities in order to lay the foundation within the means at our disposal as we already have the land, cleared but not cultivated to obtain the best from the soil and place specific conditions with minimal extra effort.

larger cultivated extents will increase productivity and yield

As I continue to struggle like a subsistence farmer almost mirroring what he has to face, with a few exceptions, where I use paid labor and have additional cost as a result and sell direct to consumers, balancing this cost with additional revenue.

It is clear as I daily face productive richer farmers and poorer subsistence farmers and am more able to analyze what is wrong and what I believe should be done to achieve the objectives we have set ourselves.

It is firstly most important to get some myths out of the debate. We should not concentrate on trying to help the subsistence farmer, as that is a state that no one can survive for too long. All we do is perpetuate his misery, and for him like the Japanese small case rice farmer this is just a supplementary source of income with his main job being something else.

In order to improve the efficiency of the entrepreneurial farmers, we must also take out the previous concern of him exploiting landless labor, who the theory went should be given land. That is not the case today. There is nothing wrong with being landless as land is no longer a right nor a passport to wealth or success, but instead a noose around ones neck to prevent a more practical vision oriented approach. Do not forget the reasons one is landless is also many and if future free land is on offer they will make sure they are landless by even selling land!!!

Once we determine we must be more productive, efficient in our techniques and require to produce more of what we eat, as being the objectives, goals or vision, then we need to give the persons most able to achieve this objective the means and access. For this there are many factors and just by way of example, the land laws should be altered to allow consolidation with existing owners, assured of a fair rental in that process. Others include bank loans and agricultural technology, including new seed varieties compatible to the area and other technical assistance to improve yields. This approach needs balancing with reference to environmental issues so that yield improvements are not at an unacceptable cost.

Taking a few willing farmers from each area and using them as the initial guinea pigs to show by way of example to others what can be done if certain practices are changed, is a way to begin.

Monday, April 7, 2008

'i can see clearly now the rain is gone'

The recent rains meant there was a very short window when the paddy could be cut and stashed in piles for the ‘Tsunami’ as the large threshing machines are known to thresh. Due to this short cutting window, there was a shortage of labor to cut the paddy, and accordingly the rates charged went up significantly. Using contract labor to cut and heap in one area ran at about Rs7000/- per acre. The ‘Tsunami’ costs about Rs3000/- an hour, and roughly an acre can be threshed in an hour of the paddy is dry and longer if wet.

I used a small machine, about the size of a two-wheel tractor that cut the paddy and partially threshed into bags instead of getting people to cut and then using the ‘Tsunami’. This cost me Rs 6000/- an acre, but I had to then clean the threshed paddy using a borrowed tractor and blower, which is not necessary with the Tsunami which cleans also.

If I were to make a forecast, labor is going to be more costly and difficult in the future so the answer lies in one of the two machines currently available, namely the two wheeled Kubota that cuts and partially threshes and the other a combine harvester like Kubotas that cuts, threshes, and bags and is on chain tracks. The Tsunami will become obsolete in a few years, with the costs of labor spiraling even if there are people available to cut the paddy.

The big combine harvesters are over Rs 3 million, so they will be gradually introduced into the market by the wealthier farmers, while the cheaper two wheeled cutting and threshing machines will become common.

In order to complement these smaller machines, and avoid the use of a tractor with the blower, ‘hulang gahanawa’ it would be appropriate to see someone come up with a small contraption, that can be fitted to a hand tractor instead of the current blower, where the paddy will be put in one end and the cleaned paddy come out at the other speeding up the cleaning job.

I don’t expect this to cost more than Rs 30,000, which can then be brought by the operator to clean, which currently is done not just with the tractor, and fitted fan, but with about 4 people assisting in the process and the attendant costs. I used this system within last few weeks so am speaking out of experience and expressing a wish to speed up and reduce the cleaning process. Let me know if there is such a unit and how I could obtain one.

Friday, April 4, 2008

the village headman is still alive and well

The ‘gammuladaniya’ or village headman position was abolished decades ago. This was where each village has a leader who effectively controls the village (lord of the manor) and this position is hereditary passing from father to son. There were benefits and responsibilities but the benefits far outweighed them. This feudal obeisance has now been transferred.

In my opinion, these positions are now taken by two persons, the Grama Niladari, usually not a person from the village, but whose office is in the village, and this is now a political position; the other by the village moneylender, who by default or cunning is able to always lend money and other items, such as tractors, modes of transport to the villager if he or she wants it.

Both these people take full advantage of their positions, the former, by accepting direct or indirect bribes for official documents, to verify identity for identity cards, confirmation of residence for police reports and other employment related favors; the latter of course by favorable business transactions. These include people in the village duty bound to sell all paddy harvest to him, as otherwise in a future time, the farmer is unable to transport the paddy, he would not come to his help. Others may include the ownership of the only threshing machine in the village, and so all the threshing has to be done by him. They usually threaten people from outside, not permitting them to bring their threshing machines into the village, even in a crisis when like now everyone needed to thresh at the same time when the sun came out after weeks of rain.

These people are at the heart of the insoluble problem in Sinhala villages of not wanting to see your neighbor rise up, and constantly trying to prevent this, as it could upset the pecking order.

How can we empower the villager to get over this, and being less dependant on this person? One practical way is by providing some competition to the existing status quo. Depoliticizing the position and giving strict term limits or transferring them thereby not letting them get too familiar and powerful. The money-lender is compromised when banks help villagers with soft loans to improve their situation, but the trick is to lend to what one would consider the most reliable section. If they are able to show by example the problem is they may emulate or better the existing moneylender at the same game!!

the clash of science and tradition

I have been in this venture of peasant farming for over three years now and I am convinced that in small scale agriculture, there is an art as well as science that needs to blend to make it practical and sustainable.

Just like the way ayurvedic medicine and western medicine are now coming into some sort of accommodation, so must the agricultural equivalents. Those out of University and Agricultural colleges, coming as advisers to farmers come head to head with some traditional methods that rural farmers use and often come into confrontation in the sense of not being able to convince the farmer of how to solve a problem or advise on what to grow.

I know the day and time of planting a certain crop, affects its output tremendously. The particular soil conditioning and the specifics of terrain, direction of sunlight, surrounding growth, crop rotation, also affect pests, yield and weed infestations.

Now the Almanac (litha) is a further factor to take into account, as crops are grouped into certain categories, and only certain types can be planted on certain times, the phase of the moon also determines whether a plant will grow and whether pests will or will not affect the crop. All this must sound complete anathema to the purist, which I thought I was when I came into this but now I am convinced of the merit of these learned the hard way by my own mistakes.

I reconcile this as follows; the large-scale intensive agriculture will usually be successful because everything is scientifically done, including the use of hy-brid seed and the technical and mechanical methods used in planting. That is how India is able to produce onions at a fraction of the cost we incur. They have developed high yielding seeds and perfected the techniques and the land area used is far greater than ours for this crop.

In Sri Lanka 90% of agriculture is in the small scale less than two hectare extent, farmed by individuals or families, with multi crops like mine, and for this type of farming where costs of production are necessarily very high, the use of the traditional methods definitely mean less risk in terms of likelihood of crop failure, due to pests, weather etc. The Agriculture Department is now recommending the use of organic fertilizer as well as more traditional seed varieties that do better under these conditions, so this method is congruent with their direction too. I fear a drop in yield.

The increase in chemical fertilizer costs as well as pesticides, which reflect to an extent the increase in the world oil price, must necessarily mean we have no alternative but to go in this direction. Only large land tracts using mechanical methods can use the high yielding and high intensive methods, which have to be used to get high outputs. This is also a direction we have to go in if we are not to be short of the total requirement, which cannot be met by the large number of small-scale plots.

The future must be a picture where there will be fewer farmers, therefore individual plots will get bigger, and the high intensive methods can yield the desired results. Those still in the small-scale sector have no option but to use the traditional methods and obtain markets and prices commensurate with their output. For this to happen in a practical sense, there has to be a price differential acceptable to the consumer for the smaller to survive.

For example, the hybrid bitter gourd from Thailand has a high yield with intensive use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides resulting in large heavy gourds. The traditional variety, which I grow is small (more in demand from my customers but unwilling to accept a much higher price) and often has pest infestations, resulting in a high level of wastage, but for which the market price is less than the other. If the price is higher, reflecting the higher cost then it maybe worthwhile for me to grow it. I have now decided it is too expensive to grow as the return is less than cost.

A 15kg gunny of Pakistan potatoes for my shop was Rs 40/- a kg, and the price of the local variety, akin to new potatoes was Rs 60/- a kg and the bag was 50kg, which I did not buy, as my profit margin would be greater with the former. The Pakistan potato farms are huge (over 100 acres each) using mechanical means, while our potato farms in the Nuwera Eliya area are tiny(averaging less than quarter acre) using hybrid seeds and intensive use of fertilizer and pesticides. My recommendations of traditional methods will not work with potato as this is foreign, being alien to our shores and so we have to use a substitute instead, which then is a different product and may not be acceptable to the consumer in the short term.

The above illustrations highlight two different issues, both of which need to be considered in any comprehensive plan for food production.