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.