Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A new birth on the land

December 26th saw the birth of a male calf, to the heifer I took in my pick up from Godagama a few years back. Females are desired for future milk. He looks the spitting image of his dad, who was also taken from Godagama, and was the first calf born since my return to SL at the end of 2004, and a few days before the Tsunami. As the father could not be called Tsunami, the son can and maybe one day the father and son could used to pull a cart to take people around the farm!
One must realize that the male calves have no other future than ending up at some stage at the hands of a butcher’s knife. However pious people try and prevent animal slaughter, but money creeps in and meat is the result. The male I brought to Polonnaruwa has so far avoided the fate because the Friesen look that he has, which is black and white has involved him in being used to impregnate the local heifers. I have not made any charge for that service as I am sure he has calmed down as he feels his needs are met often. As bulls are hard to control, their noses are often pierced and a rope is put through which is used to control them.
The birth was in heavy rain, and the special hut prepared for them, was abandoned due to the rain even seeping in there. It is important that we take the excess milk after the calf has had its share, as these special types are bred for milk and it is important that this milk is extracted as otherwise the output will fall with future pregnancies.
The problem now is with the excessive rain it has been difficult to find grass to feed them, and all the available land is cultivated with rice paddies. In an ideal scenario, the grass would be cut and taken to a cattle shed where the steer manure can be collected in one place to be used to make compost. To be fair for a farmer the ability to make maximum use of the manure is just as, if not more important than the milk. The high yielding grasses unfortunately don’t grow here.
One problem has been to isolate the animals in one place. The coconut seedlings and other vegetation doesn’t get unnecessarily eaten up in the process. It is a perennial problem of farmers that stray cattle destroy other people’s crops as they are not properly tied up. I have lost many a coconut plant to cattle, as the people responsible for taking care of them have been derelict in not controlling their movement. With an organized plan to isolate the areas of their habitation, I hope to be able to increase the herd and also provide the basic raw material for compost which will be an essential ingredient in the growth of crops in a future with no subsidized fertilizer. It is important that we start now.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"we are still transplanting by hand" where are the alternatives?

We sowed one set of paddy fields on Poya, December 1st, and within minutes of sowing the rains came after a lapse of 11 days without rain. What it did was to move the sown seedlings in some areas either to wash away with the water, or displace them. Fortunately we took the precaution of also sowing a nursery for this eventuality.

Therefore on December 20th two of the local women came to transplant the empty patches. They first remove the nursery plants into bunches and get that ready. That is what is being done in the photos here taken on that day. They then transplant this into fields where there is heavy wash off of seedlings. Once that is done, they transplant the balance into lighter areas where there are few plants. There are also places where due to the rain areas near the drainage points of fields have a thicker density of plants due to the run-off. Here the paddy plants need to be thinned and excess plants planted in areas of less density.

It should also be noted that it is easier to replant if the fields are sodden, as fingers are used to press the plant into the soil in transplanting and is obviously harder to do this when the surface is hard.

These women get a daily wage of Rs600, we provide morning tea with a bun and afternoon tea. They go home for lunch. The working hours are from 8am to 5pm with an hour for lunch and two 15 minute tea breaks during the day. The unfortunate thing is that this labor is scarce, and so the work is not on productivity basis, and the rate is the same whether worker is twice as fast or twice as slow!! As this is a day or two's work, it cannot be incentive based like a contract to transplant an area.

Further they are not reliable, as they did not come the following day, but came on the day after that. This means it is difficult to rely on expediting the work. So machines your time is now so we can rely less on an increasingly more unproductive workforce who believe they are doing us a favor in an ever increasing wage scenario.

The sooner we can replace manual labor the lower will be our costs of production.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

timing of the rain has once again been unkind

Despite the best laid plans, there are so many variables in agriculture that are beyond one's control that until the harvest is in, one cannot predict if one would get a harvest at all. All it takes are a few unforeseen events to put a spanner in the works just like in the last few days when the skies literally opened and buckets of water poured into already saturated fields where only runoff was the order of the day and with it top soil, and some of the fertilizer application with it.

Some of my neighbors were even far worse off than me, where due to the heavy rains the sowed seed has been washed off and they have to sow again, incurring further expense and in addition getting the fields repaired by reinforcing the boundaries.

It also meant that the application of the preemergent weedicides had to be delayed and now a different product will have to be sprayed as the product I had in hand had to be applied within 48hours of sowing. As stated in a previous blog this costs more than the fertilizer subsidy and having to rethink the replacement makes an already expensive task even more so.

A larger producer would have a greater window on which he performs his planting and therefore only a section of his cultivation would be affected as the harm to different stages in the growing process is less, the earlier the planting. They are therefore able to average out such costs unlike the small producer who suffers the loss on his complete unit.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

just finished sowing my paddy fields

I wondered if I would ever be able to do the impossible given the last minute snags I encountered, in what one would consider a pretty mundane exercise. The pokuru samba (vadimal vee) the 4 month variety was planted in the adjacent property that my sister acquired. The sowing was done on Poya day December 1st. As soon as we finished sowing, the rains came for the first time in 10 days. The last thing one wants is rain immediately after sowing, as the sown seeds are likely to be washed away to the ditches that have been created to drain excess water out of the fields. The only saving grace was that this property has very muddy soil that will hold the seed, while a sandy soil will wash it away. As a precaution to transplant areas where there is low density of paddy, a small nursery was also set up, and in retrospect was wise due to the heavy rains.

So my fields that should also have been prepared a while ago, also became a last minute one due to the main man lying on a hospital bed in Kurunegala with a broken foot, caused in an accident between the trishaw that he was in and a motorcycle. I had to take charge and find stand-in paid helpers to complete the task. The going wage rate had gone up this season to Rs700 a day, which really points at more mechanization being a better proposition. Then one of the neighbors managed to get the tractor stuck in the only part of my fields where that could conceivably happen and in the effort in trying to extricate it managed to get it to go upside down resulting in more damage, where many of the parts had to be removed and cleaned and some replaced before recommencing the second tilling.

Needless to say there were some fundamental errors, which had not been corrected, like not using the mud wheels in the wet tilling and also not replacing the rotary blades that had been bought. There are so many areas to consider in this process.

In amongst all this I had to complete the complicated fertilizer subsidy forms, then find the secretary of the farmers coop who had to approve them. It was tough finding his place in the dark. Then I had to get the approval of the agricultural extension officer. The wild goose chase finding that person was an exercise requiring a seperate blog story. Once that was done, then I had to go the office to pay my money and get the bill for the fertilizer. The lady said that they were out of urea so she could only bill me for the fertilizer that the store actually had. I then went to Minneriya to the stores to pick of the fertilizer that was actually available. Some of my neighbors wanted me to help them transport their entititlement in my cab saving them transport costs, as they do not have their own tractor trailers, to bring it.

At the store I had to lug the 50kg bags to my pick up as there is no help around there, and the bureaucrats are only supervising that we correctly take only that which we have bills for. Just as I was putting it on the truck, the rains came, so there was another delay in getting the stuff back to base dry.

All this while the fields were being prepared for sowing. A seperate blog entry will describe how the seed paddy is washed and prepared so that the seedlings are in a form ready to be sown, with maximum germination.

We usually decide in advance what form of pre emergent weedicide that we have to put, and depending on the variety chosen, the spraying schedule is determined. The weather can affect the practicality of that too, and if one had purchased one that has to be sprayed within 4 days of sowing, as I did, rain can adversely affect its effectiveness. It is also very important to note that the cost of this exceeds the total price paid for the fertilizer that will be used for the whole season, enriching the companies like BASF, Monsanto, and the like whose products are used under different brand names, and under license from them. A little known fact is that the total cost to the farmers nationally of what they pay for fertilizer is less than what the farmer spends on the pre emergent weedicides to the half a dozen companies, like CIC, Hayleys, Lankem, Harrisons, Finlays, that have an oligopoly on these products. I will use 'Tiller Gold' on the Pokuru Samba, and 'Sofit' on the BG 352 variety (100day) of nadu that I am planting in my fields. I used Solito last season, and my yields were less than hoped for.

My seed paddy was purchased from CIC, which is probably the most expensive at over Rs62 a kilo of usable paddy once the "boll" is extracted in the soaking and washing process. The timing of the rains can affect the planting schedule and also the eventual harvest, and this season, the rains came late and in my case the timing could not have been worse.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

An interesting follow up to a critical blog entry on the CIC relationship

I was pleasantly surprised that someone within the CIC agribusiness division was alerted to my blog entry as a dissatisfied outgrower for them, as can be seen below dated October 4th. I was contacted by the person who I had accused of not visiting my fields. He had assured me that he had visited when my person on the property was not there, and also that prior to this season he had visited and given advice on planting. He also further reported that has been in telephone contact with my man giving him advice on a regular basis for problems that have cropped up from time to time in relation to growing issues, both in paddy cultivation and in other areas.
His boss had come down hard on him and so he wanted me to set the record straight in the matter. So he had been given a copy of the blog entry and we had a pretty lengthy conversation on each of the points raised with his side of the story.
I did try and remind him that this is part of an agricultural blog that merely expresses my personal opinions on agricultural issues I face without trying to gloss over anything, and at times my version may not appear to tie in with the version that the other party at whom an accusation is made comes up with. It would be nice if he could make a comment in the comment section so his point of view can also get a hearing to balance any perceived bias.
My whole aim in this blog is to engage in discussion with the sole purpose of improving the productivity of my agricultural enterprise and that of others as well so that the country can at a minimum produce twice the current output with little extra effort, except to use improved techniques and methods of agriculture. I have a lot to learn and I want to learn from others experiences, just as I would like others to learn from mine so we don’t have to re invent the wheel, and instead are able to work together. The important thing to note is that we are not competing with each other as we are producing such small quantities ourselves and the competition we face are from overseas competitors of similar products like apples and oranges that currently are even cheaper than fruit grown in Sri Lanka.
I am one of the smallest most inefficient producers of agricultural produce, but the variety of my produce, and the direct to customer distribution and sale makes me the only one in Sri Lanka today who grows both in the dry and wet zones, a reasonably diverse range of products that I directly sell to my customers on home delivery on Mondays. The experience of survival this has given me through an incredible level of suffering over the past 5 years cannot be appreciated by a small farmer or an administrator not tasked with this multi- disciplinary work load.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Oh when will we get the water to plough the fields for the coming season!

At the best of time paddy farming is a very precarious enterprise, but when we were initially told that the water would be given to get our fields ready on October 20th we were hopeful at being able to plant early. However today the 10th of November and we still have no idea of when the water would be given. There have been rains in the past 10 days and the Minneriya tank is pretty full with excess water being sent on one channel via Rotawewa to Kantale Tank and the other channel to the Kaudulla Tank, both for irrigation purposes.
When a farmer is faced with uncertainty like this it is difficult for him to schedule his time effectively, and those that make decisions in Sri Lanka who are usually not the people who are affected by them, do not realize the importance of those decisions for those dependant on them for their livelihoods.
I have decided this season to try and optimize output in both properties I farm in, and to that extent am using what I have experienced to be the two varieties that have done best on the land based on my six harvests to date. It will be sudu kekulu on my fields sown the traditional way and pokuru samba on my sister’s fields being transplanted after preparing a nursery ahead of the water being given, as it is a 4 month variety in comparison to the former that is a 100day one.
This time I just need the yield to be able to sell the produce immediately on harvest as I have a desperate need to encash the harvest for funding needs as opposed to keeping it stored to be sold over time after making it into rice. To that extent I will be reduced this season to that of the same plight as all my neighbors who live from harvest to harvest.
It is interesting to tell the reader that we expect this to be the last season where we receive heavily subsidized fertilizer, and without saying so, the authorities have forced us all to show compost preparation pits of a minimum size prior to receiving the state subsidy. It is a carrot and stick approach as it is deemed that farmers will not otherwise produce compost if they are not compelled to do so. As I have dairy cattle in Meegoda, I took enough steer manure to prepare the compost, but most of my neighboring farmers are scouring the fields to collect cow dung in all the fields cattle have grazed, thereby depriving the fields of the natural composting they have hitherto enjoyed. The problem is as always it was a last minute order, rather than a well planned request which gives the farmer about 6 months to prepare. Our compost pits will not be ready to be spread around the fields this season anyway so I imagine this is to prepare for the inevitable in the next season from May2010.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Census Statistics are way off base, let us try and improve their reliability

Sri Lanka is a very interesting case study in the collection, interpretation and usage of data, and I am writing this in the hope that those who are preparing for the 2010 census will “kalpanakaranna” or think before they devise the questionnaires and train the census gatherers on their extremely important task.
I very strongly believe that people lie and misrepresent data on the census forms. If not, how can a country with very little real poverty, have half the population receiving Samurdhi (welfare) benefits? I know of families where there is a wage earner overseas but is getting these benefits, and living a pretty comfortable life from their remittances. I dare say the wage earner’s name will not be in the census either! And how does that overseas contributor to the SL economy get counted in the census!
The census while supposedly counting the number of people in the country also take random samples of data that form the backbone of important Government statistics that the Central Bank amongst others use for developing policy in the country. My contention therefore is that the policy is developed from flawed or inaccurate information that is gathered that augurs very poorly in the planning and implementation of projects. The powers in the country are constantly quoting this information in the media as to the why’s and wherefores of what they are trying to do. This then gives rise to wrong policies being carried out to the detriment of growth and prosperity in the country.
My particular interest is in what the real number of SL citizens overseas is? Which segment remit funds back to SL? What is the annual remittance? What are their skill levels and what can be done to improve them, if they can increase their income and hence the amount of remittance? In the rural sector, I would like to know the real number of people engaged in each sector, especially as many people are engaged in many sectors. I know young men where I live, who work on a Combine Harvester for 3 weeks a season, then find a painting or construction job in Colombo for a few weeks. Then are underemployed for a few more, and work their small agricultural plot, so that they can grow sufficient rice to feed their family for the season. These people therefore work in 4 or 5 sector categories as defined in the Central Bank statistics, but are most likely classified as farmers. Poverty alleviation in the form of the rice subsidy to help these non farmers is the wrong way to tackle their lack of regular income. They need guidance and direction in skills training to promote a vocation that can sustain them in the long term and provide for their families.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Chinese gift of a two wheeled tractor factory in Sri Lanka – please refuse

What is it with our politicians? They take anything that people give us without a thought about the pros and cons!!! The latest is the 2 wheel tractor factory that is claimed will help ease the great need for such in the Northern Province, once the land opens up for development. Please don’t mess up the North, in the way these same self-serving politicians have messed up the South. Giving a farmer a two-wheeled tractor is a death sentence, forever impoverishing people to the land.

Trust me, I know. It enslaves one struggling to survive in the harsh world of agriculture where not a farmer with a two-wheeled tractor in SL makes a decent living. The land to tractor ratio, as well as the heavy wastage of imported energy, namely diesel per hectare tilled or ploughed is just unforgivable. A four wheel tractor’s energy usage is less than a quarter of the two wheel for the same work, and in fact better and faster and more productive. Just as the Tsunami, the tractor driven thresher has now given way to the Combine Harvester, the Two wheeled tractor should be consigned to the annals of history. The Chinese version that is being envisaged is neither here nor there, too heavy for the mud and not powerful enough for the dry fields, the former which can be tackled by the lighter and less powerful Kubotas, and the latter which will more efficiently be done by the four wheeled varieties.

In the interests of improving the productivity of the agriculture we must as soon as practical, direct our best people to work in productive larger extent farm-lands. Do not give landless peasants land for agriculture. A few perches for a home is quite sufficient. We need the best skills to go into farming, even those with the best education in the land, leaving these supposed farmers a better alternative of training them in more productive non farm employment.

It is extremely time consuming (read that also as unproductive) to change wheels, ploughs rotaries, and sort out all the niggly things that can go wrong with Chinese made products where razors need replacement at regular intervals and maintenance is a continuous process. It just is not worth it. Please please don’t let our country down again.

It is amazing how these stupid projects are lapped up. I know as there was a race amongst some of the greedy I know to get this project for themselves. That was so they could make some money along the way without the slightest knowledge of farming or its usefulness for the intended purpose. I have had to learn from costly mistakes and I don’t want others to make the same mistake.

I do not have a hidden agenda, all I want is for us to produce twice the current food output for no extra effort, and possible with a considerable reduction in the numbers currently engaged in agriculture, where they are enslaved by the very laws and rules by which the land is given to them with conditions attached by the government. I just hate to see so many farmers trying to work unproductive paddy fields using old methods out of fear their lands will be taken over. It is costing them twice the cost of the rice to actually plant the land, which can only be productively cultivate using capital intensive means.

Is it an old factory that is being dismantled and sent here, so we become dependent on Chinese spare parts. Please spare a thought!!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Most of SL still live in rural areas, but only 10% of heads of households are farmers

I am making a broad statement here and in order to back it up, I must define who a farmer is. In the context of this article, a farmer is one who derives 75% of his income from agriculture, where he is able to sell a good proportion of what he grows in order to receive this income. It has come as a complete surprise to me that while the statisticians define most people in rural areas as farmers, I maintain that less than 10% fall into the above definition that I have stated.

The primary reason being, and I use my Govi Sangvidanaya (Farmers Association) as an example, that most of the members have other sources of income, which are greater than that of farming. There are households where the primary income is from a state sector job such as teaching, administrative, hospital, postal, police and forces etc. Others are lottery ticket sellers, fish vendors, veda mahattayas (native doctors) work in shops in the nearest town, or in banks and other financial institutions such as insurance and leasing, or are drug reps, or reps of the pesticide selling companies, and many young men are 3wheel drivers, the latter being the most unproductive ones, just to quote a few examples.

If one takes the example of Japan, a highly industrialized country, the government there has taken a policy decision to help their rural paddy farmer, by banning imports of rice, and where the price of rice is 10times that of the world market. Despite that the household income of those farmers is mainly derived from non-agricultural employment as their plots are as small as they are in Sri Lanka.

Admittedly, there is a significant number of people falling into the rural poor, and in the latest analysis I was told that the bottom 10% of the population earn less than 1% of National Income and most of these people are in rural areas, and the top 10% of the population enjoy 40% of the National Income and mainly live in urban areas.

The followers of my blogs will note that the current system of land ownership, division and direction of the political agenda, will forever keep the rural people poor, and the system will perpetuate poverty, until some radical change takes place in the psyche of the people to explore a more meaningful avenue of income and status. What I mean by this is in order to productively engage in farming, the future would be one in which larger land extents are encouraged, and farmers given the tools, in land ownership laws, research, education, finance, irrigation, equipment and market congruent with this.

People have become landless, after generations of division of property, where they sell the balance of farmland to pay off debts. These people then want to work as paid labor. However there is a fixed wage scale, which in my area is Rs550 a day with lunch thrown in and two tea breaks with buns or some such eat! No farmer can get productive income from such wage rates unless he is heavily mechanized, and so only hire them very infrequently for the odd job which then leaves these the truly poor, with only a couple of days of paid labor a month (the underemployed) As their home is in the village they don’t want to relocate to places with better prospects due these rigid ownership rules making labor mobility difficult. I will cover the land ownership issue in a future blog entry.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The recommendation to deep plough once the Paddy Crop has been harvested

The results of the ploughing after the burning of the straw

This blog is a window of ideas in Agriculture that I discuss as I go along with my farming work and hope to exchange ideas with my readers in improving on my methods and give an insight into some of the practical problems one faces in this regard.

The previous blog entry alludes to the worst harvest I have had to suffer in my 3year experience of being a rice farmer in growing Red Basmati for CIC as an out-grower. I am now more determined than ever to grow the type of rice that I believe will give me the highest yield, and hopefully along with it the best return. I have decided to plant BG352 variety of White rice on my property, the105day variety, and grow Pokuru Samba on my sister’s adjoining land, which is a 120day variety as that would suit the generally wetter fields that she has, as compared with mine that has lower water retention.

The first step in this process is to prepare the soil. The paddy was recently harvested using a combined harvester, for which one pays by the land extent and not by the volume of the crop. So what that means is that even though my yield was a third of the previous season, my charge for the cutting, threshing and bagging was the same.

I attached the double plough onto the Sifang type 12HP hand tractor I have after wetting the fields for a day using the 3inch water pump that runs on the tractor engine. If the fields were not watered, the ground is too hard for the plough to perform. I came across an unexpected problem. I do the deep ploughing once a year, so that the straw in the field can be turned over, and allowed to decay into the soil before preparing the soil for sowing. This decaying process helps in producing fertilizer from the paddy stalks.

The last time I did this was a year ago, where we harvested by cutting the paddy by hand, and then transporting it to a location from where the thresher (known locally as the Tsunami) separated the straw from the paddy. This time, the combine harvester puts back all the excess straw back into the field as soon as it cuts the paddy stalk, cleans it inside, separating the stalk from the paddy while it moves along the field. These harvesters do not bale the straw as is done in the US with wheat and the bales used for cattle feed.

Due to this separated straw being returned to the field, the plough collects the loose straw(not the ‘ipanella’) and makes it impossible to plough as it all clogs up the process. The answer is to set the field ablaze to burn this straw as well as the ‘ipanella’ (the dead plant shorn of paddy stalk) This defeats the soil conditioning objective first set out!

The only way of avoiding the burn is to use 4wheel tractors, which only a farmer with larger fields can possess. Another reason now more than ever, when combine harvesters are the rage here, of the necessity of farmers to work much larger extents both in the interests of economies of scale and better productivity. I therefore make the point that the current farming of small plots is just idiotic, but the government due to the land laws and protecting the so called non existent peasant farmer, does not permit one to increase his land holdings, in a sensible manner. It obviously begs the question; why are we preventing those who want to reduce costs of production from doing so!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A bad experience as an outgrower farmer for the CIC Agribusiness Division.

I have been experimenting with different paddy farming techniques and decided this season to be an outgrower for CIC in growing some seed paddy for them. I went to their farm in Hingurakgoda, and discussed the best type of paddy to grow given the expected weather issues and season, and was persuaded to grow Red Basmati as seed paddy for CIC with the promise that there will be an adviser coming to look at the cultivation from time to time and making recommendations for improvement.

My first surprise was when I mentioned this to CIC chairman, whom I met on a different matter, who said that it was a crop for export and not a seed paddy requirement. I then checked the internet and was surprised that it was marketed by their Golden Crop brand in the West and particularly in the USA at US$2.49 a lb so say it is $5 a kg. I was guaranteed a price of 40c US a kg for the paddy which is about 60c if converted to rice.

I was told it was a 90 day variety, which suited me as water was an issue, and I wanted a short term crop, and was told it would suit the soil conditions I had, and I made the best effort to prepare my fields as best as I could, knowing it would be inspected, and was prepared with a water pump to fill in periods of shortages of the water supplied. I did everything I could to maximize my yields and this was the 6th season of my paddy growing and was no longer new to this field.

The reality was even though I spent a lot more in growing this, my yields were less than half of the other varieties I had planted before, and my loss on the crop, without any cost of my time, just the direct costs of cultivation, when compared with the revenue was an astounding Rs 70K, something I cannot suffer without serious repercussions to my enterprise. The irony was that I could carry, which I did the whole crop in the back of my pick up yesterday and delivered it to the CIC stores in Hingurakgoda, about 4 km from the my fields. That’s how little there was, a total of 1700 kg of paddy.

There was not one visit from any of their reps, and I was told yesterday that it needed complete immersion in water, which was not possible this season due to the water shortages. The converse of what I had been told before. Additionally, the paddy had been harvested by combine harvester three weeks previously, and despite calling for them to pick it up, they despite making promises to pick up each day failed to do so. Am I the only farmer in this situation or have others faced the same fate.

I may offer my services to CIC to help them improve on this aspect of their business which is diametrically opposite what is stated in their Annual report of being a supporter of over 10,000 farmers using the outgrower system assisting them in every way to give them a good income. If this is not an isolated incident, it will make a mockery of such a statement unless immediate corrective action is taken to arrest this misconception.

Sadly, I cannot use this blog to canvass for people who can vouch for my experience, but I do not have the time and patience to test my hypothesis, and sincerely hope others have not been so misled

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The cussedness of the petty bourgeoisie is hard to fathom at the lowest level

It is worth noting that some time ago, the actual distribution of water was the responsibility of the irrigation engineers who were able to gauge the total held in the reservoirs and how much was able to be distributed, along with the managing of the individual distribution channels, as well as the placing and throughput of the pipes through which water was distributed to individual participant farmers in the respective scheme, taking into account the land extend requiring paddy cultivation and other crops.

As an electioneering ploy, where farmers complained about the fairness of the distribution, and the fact that the engineers did not know farmer requirements, farmer societies were set up and this society governed the distribution of water to the members. The result of this was that this practice was open to corruption, where the members of the committee fiddled around with the water pipes, sometimes digging them deeper, so more water could go into their fields, and to cut a long story short, meant that only the powerful in the society, and those who have leverage were able to steamroller through objections. The typical way was if you are unhappy with the way things are done, then overthrow the existing hierarchy and put your own. It is easier said than done.

The upshot of this environment is that my complaints have failed to get my allotment of water due me at the best of times, and now that this has been curtailed due to prevailing shortage of water, there is less likelihood of me getting even a drop, let alone the 65% of normal allocation I am entitled to. Despite my saying that if they are unable to supply me with water, I will resolve to pump my requirements from a river, not a channel that too has been prevented. I have no option but to continue to pump, as otherwise my crops will completely fail. I have sunk costs I wish to recover and so will suffer the consequences.

One issue that requires mention is that there is gross misuse of water by farmers, far more than they require for their particular crop. This is one main reason for some not getting enough when others get too much. In normal years, even though I get little, and I pump water from the river, my neighbors up the channel, allow excess water to go into the river, when they should just close their pipe, which will enable me to get the water. I therefore, due to their entitlement for something they do not pay nor need, have to pump some of this same water that is allowed to flow into the river further upstream.

Water is essential for agriculture. It is not appreciated when it is free. From my experience those farmers who pump water from agricultural wells and rivers, are the more efficient users of water only taking what is necessary as it costs them money. All water is used more than once in farming as in the case of a rivers, where excess water flows into them, and down stream other farmers either pump the water or by the use of anicuts divert water to their fields, and this process goes on until the final excess flows into the sea. Using the canard that farmers downstream use water so I cannot pump is a facetious argument, as all excess water through seepage eventually goes to the lowest point, which is usually the nearest river, unless of course agricultural wells suck up some of these sources too. Increasingly this will be a bigger issue in the future, and my solution is to ask farmers to pay a price on usage, so the value of water will be appreciated

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The farmer has no place in Society as it is willed that way by other farmers!

For those who read my musings, you will notice that I take a very different view to farming than is generally accepted. I am attempting to understand current practices of farming, as well as the modus operandi used to keep farming at this level. I am moreover looking forward to coming out with a plan that I believe will increase the total agricultural output of Sri Lanka with no more inputs that we currently use, and also with the future in mind where there are no people in villages to farm, we must use much more mechanized and automated methods of farming, along with efforts and methods to increase efficiency and productivity which will lead to greater output, lower prices, but increased incomes to the farmers as well. This win win situation is possible, it just needs an overhaul of the mindset.

What motivates me today in this writing is the gross injustice that has been meted out to me this week, where once the locals realized I was going on my own to plant what I liked on all my land, and I was not relying on the water to be supplied, but instead ready to pump, they determined that I could not pump for all the land, but only for 65%. I cannot see the logic, but they said that even the water on the river is used by farmers down stream to farm their land, and that I would be preventing them from using the water. It is a hypothetical assumption, where I believe if one is going to the extent of spending ones own money rather that getting it free as the farmers do, to plant, I would be extremely cautious of wasting water. I would only use the water necessary to me.

I did not want to get into the argument which I have had before of the fact that even in the best of times, I have had to pump, as other farmers up the line take their entitlement of water just to let it flow down the river, instead of allowing me to have it, and I then have to pump it back up from the river to irrigate my land. This is the agricultural mentality of a place that had been established in days gone by as agricultural villages, where I contend few of the farmers are engaged in real agriculture.

I call real agriculture, the planting of excess for sale, as most of these people down to small plots of land, being designated by the government as farmers, only grow enough paddy to feed the families and have alternative sources of income as well.

It is so ironic that those who rule us are now talking about the new war of development, when those who want to develop themselves are prevented from doing so. So it is just the rules that need to change, which allow more freedom for the individual to improve themselves, free from any restrictions. It’s the restrictions stupid, that are wrong in Sri Lanka. These restrictions don’t apply to the ruling classes, so it is the average Joe who suffers. Abolish discriminatory restrictions on personal liberties, and hey presto we will have a safe and vibrant society. The trouble is, it is just those very same restrictions that give the government the control it has over people’s lives, which if they were not there, would actually make government in Sri Lanka irrelevant. Now that would be something we could all look forward to!

Lets therefore start with a blank sheet, realizing we are in 2009 with a shortage of labor.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Comments and Suggestions needed on a tricky issue

While I doubt if any of the readers of this issue would directly relate to it, your thoughts on a solution will be useful, as you will be viewing this far removed from the frontline, and a dispassionate evaluation may result from those of us in the thick of the skirmish.

Farmers throughout Sri Lanka have just begun preparing their fields for sowing paddy for the Yal Kanna, and some have already sown. However the rains in some areas have failed, and there is an acute shortage of water in many of the tanks or lakes that hold water for irrigation. Accordingly, farmers have been requested to proportionately cut down the extent of land that they cultivate, including myself, and the percentage of subsidized fertilizer we receive will accordingly be cut to account for the lower cultivation. Those of you who know nothing about farming should realize that common sense just does not dictate the practicality of each farmer reducing his land under cultivation in a proportionate way.

Imagine that in a large extent of paddy fields, there are 40 farmers who own them. Each one has a different extent of paddy fields, each one has to cut down his cultivation by the same proportion, in our case by 30%. Just imagine the whole area will be a patchwork of fallow fields. The practical way to proportionately reduce water allocation is to give two days water a week instead of three, so providing two thirds of the previous allocation. The reality is that as in any area, certain lands are more productive than others. It is nonsensical in the interests of fair play to allow all farmers, with good land and bad to leave the same proportion of their land fallow. We then do not optimize the use of the most productive land; the constraining factor here being the non-availability of water for all the fields to be cultivated this season.

Take my case. I know that there is not a cat in hells chance of receiving even my 70% allocation, as I am at the end of the channel, and at the best of times I have had a hard time getting water, risking life and limb in doing so. My neighbor next door to me is in the same boat as we both share the last ‘pole’. I have therefore taken the decision as noted below to completely pump the water from the river that runs alongside my property and not depend on the supply of water from the tank. My neighbor being landlocked is not so fortunate. He does not have pumps and pipes, and he is therefore hoping he will be able to get his 70% allocation, and even if I give him all the water that by some chance comes to my land, out of pity for him, he may have to see his whole effort ruined and suffer a devastating loss in his quest to cultivate. Don’t forget that he will also lose on the fertilizer, which is heavily state-subsidized, which will be effectively wasted. You the reader is paying for this fertilizer, which I can tell you now will be of no use, when his cultivation is abandoned eventually when he gives up his forlorn effort.

Who benefits from this gerry mandering of lands? No one, certainly not the consumer, who will have to pay a higher price for rice, as we will also have to import the shortfall to meet the demand. When you have a scarce commodity like water, that is given free, you will have an unequal and inequitable distribution of this not based on need, but on entitlement, resulting in a waste of water, while some don’t even get their due amount.
What is the solution to this crisis? Well if you are Sinhala you have none. If you are Muslim, from the Eastern Province, you will farm collectively and share proportionately. When you allow your land to be farmed collectively, if there is a water shortage, a collective decision will be made to farm the most productive 70% of the land in the collective, and share the profits which are lower also in proportion to the land that is owned, not farmed. There will be no waste. I have already seen some problems in our area, where everyone is trying to divert the lower volume of water into their fields for ploughing, and as there is no unity amongst the farmers, there are a lot of disputes cropping up even amongst the close relatives, who own adjoining fields.

The crop will be lower as no one will get enough water. In extensive fields water often goes from the higher elevation fields to the lower elevation fields and do not come to the fields from seperate sources. Farmers who therefore hold the water in their fields then deprive others down the line, which will result in heated arguments and late night cutting off water supplies and prevention of anyone completing their cultivation satisfactorily.

One possible solution is to allow the best fields to be completely farmed, and compensating farmers whose fields are designated as cannot be worked as no water will be supplied. Those being permitted to cultivate can also be charged a higher price for fertilizer, so that there will be a two fold benefit. One that fertilizer will not be wasted, and secondly, there will be funds to compensate those who will not be given water, as their fields are determined to be marginal. My fields would be deemed marginal, as well as my neighbors, as it would be impractical to get water into those fields, whilst I should be permitted to pump water at my expense from the river, and cultivate my property, as that will not have a bearing on another farmer’s ability to cultivate more productively.

I fear that billions of rupees of expensive fertilizer will be wasted, and the average productivity of the fields lowered due to the prevailing weather conditions, and no logical method used to maximize the output given the constraints on the limited input of water.

I am willing to bet that no analysis using the methodology I have shown above has been carried out, let alone even contemplated, due to politically unacceptable repercussions, and accordingly the country will pay a price for the ensuing inaction, as there is no one in authority, and I mean with leadership to take up this challenge boldly and offer a solution, that whilst upsetting many people, is nevertheless a necessary step in the interests of the overall collective benefit.

You can’t waste water to pacify the voters. I have recently seen a waste of water, as there is not enough in the fields to plough and by implication, result in those needing water not getting enough and those getting it not needing it. The latter will not get enough anyway to work the land for the season. No one has the courage to take up this challenge, and tell the latter that water will not be given. It is the irrigation engineer who determines how much water he can release into the fields, an agricultural expert who determines which fields are cultivated, but elected representatives who should decide how it is allocated on a basis of optimal use of land, as long as they provide the inputs of water and fertilizer.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The solution to the water issue

I have a Sifang type Chinese built, 12hp two wheeled tractor that I use for my cultivation. Under the circumstances, due to the requirement of a large quantity of water over a short time to completely flood the fields, I decided to purchase a 3inch Solex brand pump that would run on the tractor power, once another set of fan belts are fitted to the tractor to work the pump. Typically in Sri Lanka when one decides on something, it is not easy to obtain all the supplies in one place to fulfill one’s expectations. So I had to hunt around and check prices and decided it would be worth driving to Dambulla about 55km from here to get a better deal.

The Solex pump at Sara Lanka, an agricultural supplies place, cost me Rs9,675/-, but the 3inch Alkathene cost me Rs10,700. The bends and couplings added a few more thousand, and the foot valve was not available so I had to hunt around for it separately. All in all it was an expense of about Rs25,000 to get all the necessaries to set up, and get the pump working. I already have a 2inch kerosene engined pump that I have been using for the past 3 years, which when used in conjunction with the 3inch one will allow me to flood the fields once a week in about a 8hr session.

I have therefore set up the steps to look at the overall costs of this whole operation, to see if this is a viable alternative under the circumstances, and to show people that rice cultivation is or is not viable if one has to lift the water from a water source. This will then give an indication of the waste of water, and the opportunity cost of water the farmers in my area who have much better paddy lands receive free from the state (nominal cost of about Rs250 a year) In Sri Lanka what is given free is not appreciated and is in fact wasted and misutilized.

To make the whole process a little more energy efficient I may have to replace a wheel on the tractor when I am using the pump, which was a suggestion from a neighbor and will see how that improves performance. This whole investment will also give me an added advantage I have hitherto not had, of being able to put an intermediate crop on the land after harvest of paddy, which will also be a soil enhancement.

Suggestions for this are green gram, which has the advantage of adding nitrogen content into the soil, but the disadvantage of manual picking every other day once the crop comes into bearing. I wonder how the Australians do it as they are some of the largest farmers of green gram along with dhal, which they have a ready market in India. The dhal and green gram of good quality I sell in my retail shop on the farm comes from Australia, the lower quality comes from India. This is another indication of the effectiveness and the productivity of large scale operations, like the ones in Australia as opposed to the very small operations we have in Sri Lanka.

This is just the start, I have a lot to learn from growing a new crop, and will also be a guinea pig of the CIC establishment, with me not them taking all the risks, with most of the reward in profitability going to them. If it is successful, I will at least be able to claim credit in pioneering higher value rices to satisfy increasing consumer desire for quality.

Each dynamic in the fluidity of agriculture requires second-guessing at every turn

I witnessed the the opening of the sluice gates (2) of the Minneriya tank yesterday, which with the debri of the canals, the first rush of water eventually feed the paddy fields in our area for this Yala season. The problem is that the Tank is far from full, the real bad news for me is that we have been told that the water allocation will drop to 70% of normal and we have been requested to only cultivate 70% of our fields, for which the subsidized fertilizer would be given proportionately less.

To a reader of my blog it spells disaster for my cultivation, as in the best of times I have to fight for water, risking life and limb in the dead of night, legitimately closing the neighbors water pipes to allow sufficient water to flow into my fields. In my case as I am at the end of the tributary canal, I will most definitely get NO water as the neighbors upstream will take all the water they can. Earlier I was allowed to close the water for a night to ensure I had at least a chance of filling my fields once a week.

The way the water allocation is rationed in practice is that previously the canals were open three days a week and now it will be down to two, and so farmers will be fighting for this lower allocation. I am therefore trying to foresee the problems ahead and plan for this eventuality. I have one of two options open to me. The easiest approach is and which has been adopted on this property since it was given over 70 years ago in the initial Minneriya colonoization scheme, is not to cultivate this season. I can remember when I bought this property it was in a desolate state of abandonment a sea of overgrown weeds. The more difficult one is to purchase a large capacity water pump and try to do the impossible, completely cultivate all my fields on water pumped up from the river running beside my property.

A complete sucker for punishment as some blog readers have called me, I have chosen the latter course. In time, I will report to you the progress and the pitfalls of this approach as well as the economics of this. The first thing I learned a generation ago in my first economics class was that it is the study of the optimum allocation of scarce resources. I don’t know if this comes under that or simply a roll of the dice! In this roll the downside of losing big outweighs the upside of making a little more than break even. That is why we farmers are foolish, and always seem to roll the dice when there are no odds of making a good return.

Now if I take the easy course, you blog readers will not have anything to smirk about, so I decided to take an even bolder step, in keeping with my previous record. In my 6 seasons farming rice paddies in my life, I have grown 5 varieties of rice on my land, and I have decided to take the plunge and try a 6th, something I have not even tasted, and is still in the experimental stage. It is the CIC developed, ‘Red Basmati’. They want me to grow it as a seed paddy to increase their stock of seed paddy so that CIC will have many out-grower farmers grow for them, as they will guarantee a minimum price. If you go to the CIC shops, you will see their “Golden Crop” brand rices they sell and I believe a packeted kilo is sold at Rs150 or more. I bought the 5 bushels of seed paddy (20.5kg a bushel) at Rs1350/- a bushel. This is for 5 bushels of land, which is one hectare.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The farmer faces many hurdles- this takes the cake – every nut must conform

Delivering King Coconuts to shops today, instead of the club!

Amongst the many products I grow and market, my single largest revenue earner as noted before is from the sale of King Coconuts, and my largest individual customer was the Golf Club in Colombo, to which the land in Godagama has been supplying King Coconuts for over 10 years. We have had to make extra efforts to supply them with this twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays, averaging 500 a week.

I missed my Monday delivery to them as the man who climbs the tree and cuts them did not turn up despite a search for him all over area on Monday, and was only able to track him on Tuesday. So I had 150 specially cut as early as possible that morning and I personally took it to the club that day, not a short drive away, for a special delivery.

I was told that the Chef had to be called to pass the sizes of the nuts and once he came he said he could only take two bunches as the others were smaller than the mandated sizes. I then learnt that a member of the club had hauled both the chef and the manager in charge of ordering, and given them a talking to, saying the club’s king coconuts were too small as compared with those that appear for sale on the roadside.

I had no option but to tell them that we have made every effort to bring fresh King Coconuts, direct from our property and these were about two hours from plucking, and that I was not willing to cut my king coconuts and select those that adhere to a dimension that is stipulated and then bring only them to the Club. They either take what I have or not take any, as they just cannot pick and chose, much like in a super market, as that is another purchase, where the source cannot be guaranteed, and they are only purchasing on size with no other guarantees. I promptly took all the king coconuts and sold them on the road side within minutes of leaving the club, breathing a sigh of relief that I will no longer be stressed out to ensure the plucker comes twice a week to satisfy this want.

For all the trouble of plucking, where the plucker gets Rs2 for each nut, the transport, labor and my effort I get Rs15 a nut from the Club. I get Rs20 for my home delivery ones, admittedly at a lower volume and I was not going to give the customers smaller sizes for more money reserving the larger ones for a lower unit price at the club.

Anyone who grows King Coconuts will know, that in a 100 trees, the sizes of the nuts vary substantially, and some bunches can be as small as 5 and others as large as 35. In addition, sometimes the smaller nuts are deceptive, having more water than the larger nuts, and then due to rainfall and seasonal variations there are different sizes of nuts on the same tree at different times of the year. So if they want to source it from one location, that is the variation they have to accept, as I cannot then dispose of the smaller nuts elsewhere. Additionally trees go into hibernation sometimes and while the club requires a standard level of supply, I have to limit my supply to others due to lower harvest.

I consoled myself with the thought that the person complaining about the nuts was a 25ml shot drinker who thinks King coconuts are made to exact standards, a typical attitude of a townie. Nevertheless I still lost a significant customer. An added risk of farming!!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tools of the trade

I went to one of my neighbors in Rotawewa, Minneriya where I also collect fresh forest Bees Honey, to pluck oranges as they are now ripe to be plucked. He was getting ready to leave his lovely ranch full of fruit trees, to go to his fields. The picture shows, his mammoty, his water bottle and hat, the basics he needs in his field. He is of the old school and still rides his bicycle, now the young ones ride their motorcycles to the field, with basically the same extras!

Friday, April 17, 2009

The exasperating saga continues. All I want is increased output farmers please!

My pleas just fall on deaf ears, when my mission as well as this blog is to get our growers to grow more, better, more efficient and so to reduce agri-produce costs to the consumer. The latest example is over these few days. I was caught in the depression in the Bay Bengal! Which resulted in some unusual and excessive rain over the Avurudhu period.

Taking advantage of this to my benefit, I had my whole field ploughed up as it had been less than a month from the past harvest. I would have preferred to use the deep plough which I used last time, but as the boy I engaged to do this wanted out quick, I had to use the rotary instead, and while the ground was wet had it completely turned over so all the “ipanalla” or uncut part of the paddy plant and the straw would be mulched into the soil and get a chance to deteriorate to form some good soil conditioning and improve fertility.

This means that when I get the water from the Minneriya tank for cultivation on May 10th I will have already taken the first steps in the soil and field preparation. Without water on the fields it is difficult to do and this was an opportunistic moment. Remember I have barely been a paddy farmer for 3 years, and most of my neighbors are lifers. They concurred with my efforts and when I asked them why they did not also follow, they just shrugged their shoulders in SL fashion and smiled. They are just too lazy, thinking more of the drinking and games of Avurudhu. They have the money for the diesel, the tractors and the expertise themselves. I hired a boy to work the tractor as I was alone.

It boggles the mind that the average Joe in SL does not seize the moment to improve his return, and just follows time honored traditions slavishly. “It is unheard of in these parts to plough the fields in preparation prior to Avurudhu!” What absolute crap I ever heard. “pardon my Ffrench!”. Tell me how I can I even attempt to make a difference with attitudes like this. I know I am always called a fool on my blogs, saying that the Sinhalaya is one who only gets off his backside only if he desperately needs something, and then only if he cannot steal it will he then work for it!

I cannot go on accepting such euphemisms describing my countrymen with a straight face when there really is a job to be done. All those Sri Lankans overseas, namely those of you who have been frustrated by the inner workings of the SL mindset and have decided to go to sunnier climes in search of both being more productive in your host or adopted land, think for a moment. We have lost your talent and are left with the rest.

How can we get you back? We need you! I cannot do it alone. It is a fight we must win, otherwise don’t even brag about the motherland you left behind and how good the “good ol days were” and how bad it now is. When you leave it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and when you return we can change it. Who said it is easy, but take some time read my blog share my frustrations and my hopes and don’t forget the sacrifices I have made. It is still a noble cause, and look ahead to your own future and that of your children if there is no Sri Lanka to brag about, but a basket case of inebriated louts living off charity and someone else’s gravy train. You may as well disown your heritage in that case. We can turn it round. It is just a mental thing, a moral boost and hope in our future.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The 80/20 principle as it applies to agriculture

In my previous entry where I stressed the need for greater efficiency and productivity in Agriculture, one of the comments I received was on the 80/20 principle. I agree that even in this context the principle applies and the question is from which point to which would it move to affect the efficiencies I envisage.

To put it in perspective lets say that there are 200 farmers producing output of 100units costing 100 and for a revenue of 100. This is a case of average subsistence breakeven farming, overwhelmingly the case today. I expect in 10 years, those 200 farmers to drop to 100 as very few young people are going into agriculture, but I would like to see them produce a cumulative output of 200units costing 100 for revenue of 150.

Doing the math we are looking at a 400% increase in the average production per farmer. This will make farm incomes more viable. As you can see income per farmer is 3 times higher if we assume a price reduction on average of 25%. I also fairly make the assumption that to achieve a fourfold productivity increase his costs will also double giving him a profit margin from break even earlier to 33% of Revenue.

These are all achievable targets and following discussions will go into all the areas that require measures to reach this goal. The skewing of the rule referred to above will now change from 30% producing 80% of a pot called 100, where 10% will produce 80% of a pot called 200. This is as numbers dwindle and productivity of the large units surge by much higher proportions when economies of scale and mechanization take place to reduce unit costs many fold.

I use the analogy often where one farmer in California farms a 3000acre paddy field, which is fully mechanized and in Sri Lanka over 3000 farmers work the same acreage for a lower yield. No wonder the Californian rice is produced at a lower cost than ours, and that farmer can still earn 1000 times what our farmer earns.

Now that we have a labor shortage in the rural areas, we should not feel that we must still hang on to old ideas to give employment as most income in the rural areas is from the service sector, be it security forces, education, state sector or the retail sector. 80% of those who have land in the rural areas don’t even produce enough rice to feed their immediate family, so apart from encouraging organic home gardens, to increase the nation’s output, there is no rational reason anymore to ask them to break their backs to increase output more than what is reasonable given the resources they have access to.

Needless to say when we double our National output we will have surplus to export to niche markets in both the Maldives and the Middle East. They now amount to small quantities of exceptional quality goods that have a higher value added factor. We cannot supply all the requirements of the export agricultural sector which certainly has a lot more room for growth, and if the examples of some of our niche market agricultural exporters are anything to go by, there is much we can do without brushing into each others markets, as even they face severe product shortages for export.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

What is the secret to productivity increases in agriculture?

The main purpose of this site is to make a stab at getting the reader to understand some of the issues associated with the methods of agriculture adopted in Sri Lanka, understand why our productivity in this sector is one of the lowest in the world, and suggest with my current experience, ways at improving it. I firmly believe we can produce twice the output we currently do with little extra effort.

The main reason I believe is structural, based on a flawed land distribution policy. We are still continuing to distribute land to supposedly landless peasants, some good land, some not so good, all in the interests of electoral gains and not in the interests of preserving forests, or improving productivity of existing planted or cleared land. Does it not surprise you how much unutilized land we have in the country? I don’t mean cutting one more inch of the fast dwindling forest.

From my limited foray into agriculture and my extensive traveling overseas, I can assure those who don’t already know that we have such a blessed land, full of agricultural promise, where seeds planted by birds seem to feed us as much as that planted by man.

In www.rajaratarala.blogspot.com I commented on my Kotiyagala visit this week. 150+ farmers, none of whom are landless, had been given 300+ acres of scrub, previously stripped forest for agricultural use over 8 years ago. No one used it, ostensibly because there was no water supply. They were waiting for the state to provide the infrastructure. The company I represent fenced in the land, built the roads to each allotment, dug wells and dams to store water in resulting small tanks. They guaranteed a minimum price for the local varieties of papaya at 50% above the market rate, and despite the over Rs10M sunk have not got more than 20% of the families to join us in the project.

I can honestly say that if I was loaned just half that amount and given the land I would have engaged the most productive workers of the village, with suitable incentives and have the whole acreage completely planted. In my example 20 of the most enterprising households will be well compensated and have a good living while the rest just look on.

We are stuck because we have no legal way of using the uncultivated land given to the families who have not planted and give it to those who want to plant. This is highly productive very good soil. In this example we must understand we should not equally divide. This is not communism. We must give to those who can grow and take away from those who cannot, A productive farmer is stuck as he is restricted to a small allotment, and cannot increase his holding unless he has access to considerable capital to buy land. Land laws prevent those not cultivating to lease to those who want in fear that their land may be taken by them under the squatters’ rights.

I am confident that we have excellent farmers whose potential we have not tapped to the hilt, because land ownership is fraught with envy and frowned upon. Let us identify our Govi Rajas and loan them what they want, and see them prosper, as only then will the nation prosper, increase production, and reduce both unit costs and market prices.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Paddy Harvesting in Polonnaruwa

These images show how things have changed in such a short space of time in rural Sri Lanka. Last season saw a sprinkling of Combine Harvesters, but this season has seen a complete takeover by them. The owners, finance the purchase of these Chinese build machines, from a leasing company hoping to completely pay for it in four seasons or two years.

I have seen so many of these around this week, that I wonder how much business each person will get in numbers of properties to harvest. I will not recommend anyone to buy these as they will not be able to make it profitable with only the Chinese manufacturer and the local agent along with the finance company transferring wealth from the village to the financiers and China.

It is great to see my hectare getting cut, threshed and bagged in less than 150 minutes, something that usually takes days. It cost me Rs22,500 and if I had used manual labor to cut the paddy it would have cost me more at today's wage rate.

I am not complaining, and I was watching the proceedings with interest. We can now have the paddy bagged for each field if we want, and especially, as different fields have different levels of maturity, those that are more green can be separated and dried as required, something we could not do in the past.

The one requirement for these machines is that the field cannot be waterlogged when cutting, as the combine running on rubber tracks can get stuck due to its 2,800kg weight.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Era of the Combine Harvester has finally come to Polonnaruwa

The sight of four combine harvesters cutting and threshing the paddy in a small field this evening brings to light both the best and worst of Sri Lankan agriculture. Hitherto the most sophisticated tool was the Tsunami, a machine that threshed and separated into a bagging the cut paddy, which was what I used last season for my paddy. It was introduced into general use three years ago and now that has been superceded by the Kubota combine harvester that runs on a track and scoops up even fallen paddy and then cuts and threshes it and delivers the paddy into bags, much the same way the combines in the US harvest wheat.

I would first like to note that this season’s daily wage to cut paddy has risen to an astronomical 700 from 450 last season. Obviously people here aren’t even aware there is a world wide recession!! Anyway the cost of a cutting a one acre field is now Rs8000. It does not make any sense now to use manual labor as they have priced themselves out. It costs Rs10,000 per acre on the Combine which cuts and threshes and works out less than manual cutting and using the thresher once the paddy is collected in one place.

What was wrong with the site I saw was that four different people have bought 4 machines on a lease and they are working different people’s paddy land in the same large field. There is considerable duplication and waste. In the US one machine would be sufficient and so would it here, but the fields are divided into many plots owned by many farmers who have put many different varieties of rice thereby necessitating the current predicament of inefficient use of scarce resources and thereby increase the cost of productions significantly.

One wonders if this machine like the other one will also be superceded by more efficient machines, where the purchaser will find that his machine becomes obsolete before he has made his final payment on the machine. Such are the risks and vagaries of this business, where little thought goes into the all the real costs of production leaving many small farmers to eke out an existence with the providers of capital now replacing the providers of scarce labor.

I have my fields cut and threshed tomorrow by one of these combines and when I see it in operation for the first time at close proximity I am hoping to report on the process, hopefully with some photos.

Till then I leave you to contemplate what next in the scheme of agricultural innovation, and improved efficiency in paddy production. It is Japan as the supplier of the machine and the banks that are the suppliers of the lease terms that appear to me to be the major beneficiaries of this change but it is the farmer who has by demanding a larger wage for cutting who has actually cut his own self out of this participation and share of the costs of production. It really means, think about this statement logically, the role of the peasant farmer is now on its way out whatever you think about the pros and cons of the new era.

We just have to grow up to realize the consumer will get cheap rice with fewer farmers!!

Organic Virgin Coconut Oil manufactured for the first time in Sri Lanka

Here in the jungles of Minneriya, as I write watching our supper being fished from the pond in front of my verandah www.ratmale.blogspot.com I have discovered another Sri Lankan product that beats the pants of all other cooking and edible oils on earth.

To my knowledge, I am the first person to market Organic Virgin Coconut Oil in Sri Lanka. I have connections with an Organic Estate in Kithulgala, Sri Lanka, which has just begun to produce Organic Virgin Coconut Oil(OVCO) from their coconuts. I am marketing it in a very small way to my customers. Of course my task is made more difficult as no one in Sri Lanka understands what OVCO is. One only needs to google it to know what an incredible and versatile oil it is. It is marketed in the US at US$25 for 440ml and I market at SL Rs300 for 375ml bottle.

Of course I did a quick survey of the cooking oils available at a local Food City, and apart from white coconut oil, which I also produce myself from my own Coconuts, all the oils were imports. There was Palm, Soya, Corn, Sunflower, Olive and some other vegetable oils, all imports I might add. A few outlets carry Sri Lankan Virgin Coconut oil marketed at Rs600 a bottle. I expect that either Food City or Keels will carry it once a suitable arrangement can be made with Paradise Farm, which has enquiries from the US for export. It is a labor-intensive, and the available organic coconuts are limited. Selling at Rs600 a bottle is not profitable, but defrays some of the labor costs of the estate.

Now what is Virgin Coconut oil and why is it so good, and arguably the best oil for both ingesting on its own or for cooking? I would recommend the reader to search for more info on the web, which would spark a more independent opinion of what I state.

This oil has medicinal, weight loss, and an ingredient in the manufacture of cosmetics. The most surprising fact is that it has taken so long for me to realize this. Upon investigation I have discovered that the US in trying to protect its Soya Bean industry, had made every effort to discredit any consumption of coconut oil, and I would also like to note that even the affluent households of Colombo are of the incorrect opinion that it is harmful, and so they purchase the even more questionable vegetable oils on the shelf, out of sheer ignorance. They believe the clever marketing, which the international companies are better at when compared with the sleepy local ones, including the culpable government which has not come out to defend and support it and therefore the industry.

Of course we are splitting hairs about organic as there are very few Coconut estates that are organically certified, but most household coconut trees are organic and is a product that can fairly easily be manufactured as a cottage industry, where a machine costing over Rs100,000 is required for the pressing process to be practical and economical.

So now that the manufacturing is sorted! it is as usual the ‘market stupid’ that needs to be made aware of this best product to grow. If that is done, I am sure that the cost of production and therefore the market price can be reduced to be competitive with imported vegetable oils and take a greater share of the local market from less healthy imports.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The lifeblood of the nation

Sunset over the Minneriya Tank, the lifeblood of water for my paddy fields, for which I pay the state Rs500 a year(about US$4) as water taxes.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Trees that are usually found in the home gardens in the Polonnaruwa District

I spent the whole morning yesterday, plucking the remaining mature mangos from the home gardens of my neighbors in Godabima, across the river from my place. Most of the people live in one or two acre properties with a “colony ge” constructed and given by the government decades ago, to attract settlers to the area. The homes were usually constructed in one or two designs, but as wood was plentiful, often Ebony and Satinwood was used for the rafters, and the roofs were tiled and a nice verandah was part of the design. Very few of these homes have been maintained, though various additions for kitchens and rooms have taken place. Actually they look rather decrepit.

Technically this home functions as the ‘Maha Ge’ and is therefore passed down to the youngest son or child if there are no male children, and the others given land for homes from agricultural land given by the government at time of the settlement creation. It is an interesting study in social anthropology to note that the inheritors of this property knew form a young age of this inheritance and did little to better themselves, usually falling into alcoholism by being the spoilt child, with whom the parents live till they pass away!

The trees that are now on the property are fully grown and it is almost completely shaded. Coconut forms the greater number, as there is enough for the family’s daily needs as well as sufficient to dry and mill for coconut oil as well. Then there are very tall Mango trees, which earn the homeowner between a thousand and three thousand a crop, when people offer for the tree and pluck and remove the mango. There are a collection of others that don’t give an income, namely, Jack and Del, Belli and Pomegranate, Katu Atha and Amberella, Pera and La ulu, Puwak and Siyambala, Woodapple and Orange and off course a lime tree for home use. If space permits there are a few Papaya, Banana and short term vegetable crops.

One of the comments I received was that if people are happy doing nothing then why should they improve their lot, to which I replied its fine if they purchased the means of livelihood and then made their choice. It is the state that provides, namely home, land, education, healthcare, water and electricity at minimal cost to them so that they can do nothing. That is the point. Is it any wonder that we are therefore known as the land of the “lotus eaters?”

Some of the homes of course have trees that are of value for timber, such as Teak, Mahogany, Ebony, Nadun, Halmilla, Kumbuk, and Kohomba. Some of the other trees mentioned earlier like Jack also has Timber value, then there are other trees that grow wild like Ahatu, Attikka, Bamboo, Wal kohomba, which is a type of willow, Madang, Buckmee, Cotta. I am sure I have not mentioned half of the wild species that grow unaided or unplanned.

While all these trees are accepted as quite normal to have, many of you readers, living in apartments or small homes in urban areas would nevertheless wish you were able to step out of your front door and walk amongst this veritable delight, with rare and beautiful birds singing their praises at such choice.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Making use of the Agricultural Extension Officers and Veterinary Resources

If one reads through this blog in detail one would realize that the knowledge required of a physician in General Practice pales in comparison with the knowledge required of a peasant farmer if he is to perform his tasks productively. Sadly the best brains in the country are streamed into Medicine, an area where we will soon have a surplus of, while those who are unable to do anything else are forced into fields of Agriculture, where we are desperately short of talent. Herein lies another of the predicaments I constantly try to expose. While a doctor has the training in Western Medicine or Ayurvedic Medicine, the farmer needs to know the diseases both plant borne and pest borne and know how to cure them by the use of chemicals and organic means. Having the knowledge in one only is not sufficient.

My 10acre farm is in Godagama, Meegoda, and so my nearest town for everything is Homagama 4 kilometers away. I first visited the vet to ask him about a foot injury a newly born calf has, and how I should treat it as the first aid administered of Iodex, the usual remedy had not worked. I then had to ask him about the cow whose uterus was washed, but despite 4 attempts at artificial insemination we failed to get a conception, so we on the due date will provide a bull to see if the natural method will work. I was pleased to see the construction in progress of a lab to test blood etc so that we can get immediate results of tests, rather than the time it takes currently to get it from Welisara.

I then went next door to get some advice and also call upon the local agricultural advisor to visit the farm to give me some ideas of improvement to my current practices. I have for the first time, possibly due to the unseasonably dry conditions, seen a disease, borne by a small caterpillar affecting all my papaya plants. I grow them in organic conditions, but all my known methods have not worked. I discovered it was a virulent worm that attacks primarily papaya and manioc, both of which I have a number of plants, but also other vegetables. The only organic means is to destroy all affected plants, that means my whole crop, or else I have to use a pesticide to spray the affected plants and hope it kills the worm. I have chosen the latter, what would you chose? If your livelihood depended on it!

This leads me to the debate on organic foods. The most enthusiastic backers are those who have no idea how hard it is to grow truly organic. Even more surprising to them would be to know the real cost of growing that way will be completely out of reach of that person’s pocket. In the real world however well intentioned we are we have to take practical measures in combating emerging problems. I agree that much of the problems farmers face are as a result of the overuse of chemicals, cleverly marketed by MNC companies, which have destroyed some of the natural predators. However single farmers cannot combat this alone, and has to be done collectively, with close assistance from the non-profit sector if they are really serious about helping the rural low-income farmers. The government sector is lost in its own world of trying to find an agricultural policy, one which I intend coming up with before they can even get pen to paper.

It is apparent that for someone in a multi product enterprise like me, the tasks, hazards and challenges are constant, unpredictable and multifaceted.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Independence Day 2009

The meaning and significance of such a day differs from person to person based on his or her life experiences. I was born long after independence from Britain and so the significance of the word Independence from subjugation to rule from another nation does not have as much weight. On the other hand I have lived most of my life in the United Kingdom, and second most in Sri Lanka, closely followed by the 14 years spent in the United States so I am a person who has immersed himself deeply in three very different cultures. Apart from the last four years of life in Sri Lanka from which all my blog experiences have been born, it was only my pre-teenage years from birth, that I spent in Sri Lanka. Now as a peasant farmer in a village I speak Sinhala.

So when I view with awe on TV the arrival of guests, and members of government and the forces in very expensive gleaming vehicles, with spotless extravagant uniformed guard escorts and in attendance, if I was from outer space I would think this is the wealthiest place on earth. What grander place for the show than on Galle Face Green! Then the endless parade in immaculate dress of the different regiments of the forces, and the military hardware on show, and the sleek show of naval strength on the high seas with an even more impressive show of air force might, lead me to believe that we have the power to conquer lands outside our shores just as Britain did in years gone by.

While I believe unquestionably that this event was for home consumption, by the people gathered in front of their TVs as all channels were obliged to show this, no international TV channel would have felt it worthy of being shown in any other country. I was also saddened by the lack of the general public gathered to view the show live, as they were only permitted to see it on TV. It smacked of a private party for invited guests, making it an exclusive event for a few. I am told this is the first Independence or equivalent parade of any country in the history of the world where there were no members of the general public present at the proceedings.

The only other two events on the program were, the raising of the National Flag with the singing of the National anthem and the President’s address to the Nation. I am trying to be objective in my observations, so please tell me if I am being unfair. The President was asked to rotate a wheel to raise the flag, something only ever done in Sri Lanka, and the flag was not raised on a flag pole straight up but at angle like on the rear of a ship, which would be judged by perfectionists as an insult to the flag. Needless to say these minor details are lost amongst the organizers.

The President’s speech was too long, too political and not sufficiently unifying. He could easily have chosen the occasion to give a short, fiery speech of inclusion and entitlement where all the citizens of this country are called upon to serve the nation and motherland devoid of petty religious, racial, caste and language differences. He could have laid the gauntlet for a truly united nation where all people’s rights of freedom would be guaranteed in the constitution and we would have applauded. As he was making a party political broadcast, bearing in mind the provincial council elections in less than ten days, it was none of that, so it alienated half the nation, and for that I am truly disappointed.

Friday, January 16, 2009

What is happening to our agricultural land?

I had a woman come to me for help with money. She told me a little bit of history of her family, I would like to relate it as a true story, showing what was and what is to all these settlements we have created in the interests of improving the agricultural output of the land.

Her Grandmother was seen working in the fields one day by the government agent here in Minneriya who was riding on horseback reviewing the area under his control. In those days there was a lot of responsibility and power vested in such a person to manage the area on behalf of the government. I did not ask her if this man was white or local, but it was in the days prior to independence.

I presume in the British times with modes of transport and foot paths the norm the horseback mode was the preferred mode of travel of the British which also gave them some sort of level of superiority over their natives!!!

Anyway he had seen that she was a hardworking person and asked her if he gave her some land whether she would cultivate it, to which she agreed. She therefore got 10 acres of ‘mada’ waterlogged and a similar area of ‘goda’ higher elevation. She and her husband diligently cultivated this and she recalls her father being a very respected member of the locality, where people bowed their heads as he had inherited a valuable income earning agricultural land, which his parents had built up through hard work over a long period of years.

On her inheritance she shared this with her sister and so got half of the land, which in her lifetime she had to sell parts and distribute parts with her 5 children to survive. I did not ask her if her husband was an alcoholic or dissipated much of the wealth she inherited but I gathered that it was the case. She is now reduced to wanting to borrow small sums to meet expenses.

I know the whole strip of land she inherited as it borders my property and I know at least 15 families live on this land including 4 of her children, with one who is trying to sell her property so she could move into her husband's village. There is almost no agricultural property left, possible just for a family to grow enough paddy for their own consumption and now an asset is considered the home or house and not agricultural land that had earlier been earmarked by the state. This is what has happened to our agricultural land.