Monday, September 1, 2008

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A sad fact of life in subsidy driven Sri Lanka is that, if the subsidy is withdrawn, then one of two things will happen.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.


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