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.