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 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 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.