Friday, April 4, 2008

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.

1 comment:

Java Jones said...

Strangely enough I too spent many years in the States and then returned to do ‘farming’ – organically, though. I have been at my 3 and a bit acres of land since ‘84 and expanded my experience enough to develop a training project in ‘life skills’ for youth (on an adjoining property in 1989), with the main focus on organic agriculture. We grow a variety of herbs from Europe and the US and other crops that can be grown in the dry zone, as well as in the hill country. We have gradually increased our customer base (one trip a week to Colombo and one to Nuwara Eliya) consisting mostly of friends and their friends and a few restaurants. The customers have an appreciation for the value of organically grown herbs and veggies and also free-range eggs, so the return on the labour is increased tremendously and as there is no need for any artificial fertilizer, chemical pesticides and fungicides, costs are negligible. Fortunately we have a few cows and pigs and are also heavily into compost and leaf mold production, so the improvement in the quality of the soil has been more than apparent. The biogas system also gives us free gas for cooking and the slurry from the overflow gives us a lot of organic waste for fertilizer. The chicken litter from broilers and the layers is allowed to dry out and provides a high nitrogen input into the soil.

In my view, if an organic farmer could focus of speciality products for the niche market, there is a very good return.

By the way, the CISSR developed a solution that mimics the pheromone of the fruit fly - a horrid pest, not easily eradicated without chemicals. A minute quantity dabbed on a cotton swab in a ‘trap’ attracts the male flies – the logic being that their numbers will be significantly decreased due to the lack of breeding male flies. I blogged about this a few months ago. This method will save the waste on your gourds to some extent, so give it a try.

Good luck with the farming – great for the ‘soul’, isn’t it?