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