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.