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.