Thursday, December 30, 2010

The case against agriculture, in an era of better opportunities- surely not!

It was an extremely difficult year in my agricultural endeavors, and if not for supplementing my income from additional work in Colombo, I could not have made it. It was another year of disappointing harvests, with a fresh round of crises. Upon analysis of this year’s problems, the key was one of lack of discipline and not following specific instructions. This coupled with a severe labor shortage when the need arose, meant a fall in output. It is an eye opener that I was unable to get the required results from the one area I could control. This inability to get to grips with the labor/human resource issue is one that convinces me of the desperate need to elevate agriculture to a different plain with educated, motivated and well remunerated managers who are dedicated to this field. In order to make such a task viable, it is essential to run a much larger establishment with maximum use of mechanization, and use of new capital intensive techniques.

The frustrating part for me is to see how relatively inefficient my neighboring CIC Hingurakgoda Farm of over 1300 acres is, as I cannot use it as a working example to make my point, as the profit per acre from agricultural activities on that property is arguably below mine. In my opinion, one should get a net profit of Rs50K per acre in agriculture in SL after paying for all the costs, (excluding land). So this figure can be compared with the rental for the use of the land. We must use this as a starting point when doing the business plan of agricultural activities, as otherwise the opportunity costs of going into other fields is preferable to working the land.

I can market everything I produce if the quality is consistent and superior, and have failed to get the output directly from my land, and from the outgrowers to supply my customer demand. We must therefore shift away from the perennial problem of the farmer in marketing his produce, but concentrate instead on growing quality as the increasing demand for quality will capture every item of production. The problems that are highlighted of farmers disposing of their produce for lack of a market, can be solved with a little bit of common sense, once storage, transport and logistics are sorted. The greater problem of the shortage of quality is what needs to be urgently addressed before prices go through the roof. Free marketers will say, let the market take its course, when price increases, more of the product will be grown, which will result in a drop, sometimes too much to make it a total loss.

The bottom line on all of this is efficient production at low cost will enable the farmer to wither all price fluctuations which are only temporary. A larger enterprise can be intelligently managed and current risks mitigated by planning. One should not resort to knee jerk moves such as imports to distort the market.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Getting to grips with the Food Production Dilemma – Sri Lankan Problem

We in Sri Lanka have not yet been able to distinguish fact from fiction in the food production dilemma. There was a time, when it was thought that we should not bother with growing any food, as other people can do it better and cheaper, so lets do what it is that we can do better, and effectively let all our agricultural lands go to forest, where we can encourage tourism with the growth in the National Parks!

I am not one to subscribe to that viewpoint, though I do agree that our agricultural practices are inefficient and outmoded. I have belabored this point right through the blog as any reader would notice. So all I am advocating is a complete change in the way we operate, being focused in all we do, and remove as many of the risk factors as possible, because agriculture has the most unknowns in any venture.

The government MUST work with one purpose, without encouraging grape growing for a wine industry, or importing ostriches to increase meat consumption. Such fantasies are by those unaware of the ground situation aka ‘politicians’. We have a lot to learn from the agricultural practices of the plantation industry, as well as those of the outsource success stories of companies like Ceylon Tobacco Company for their management of labor and outgrowers. We must also learn from the past mistakes of large scale agricultural failures that led to the small holder emphasis. This issue demands so many resources and thought put to it that no one appears to have the time or patience to attempt this, least of all politicians.

In my opinion, lets take product by product and have a definite national plan to encourage or discourage as well as the preferred size of operation. It was noticeable that once again, people were encouraged to apply for blocks of land in the Mahaweli zone in 50acre lots for agricultural projects, as if it was some kind of panacea for these ills. We know what happened to the original leases granted thereon, and once all the trees were cut, the top soil eroded, you cannot give this land away free if you wanted to. It is important to have a goal, as to what will be suitable for that land. Then assistance subsidy and sound business plan must accompany this as well as follow up thereon. So many agricultural projects in SL have floundered even with the best of intentions, that only a concerted effort can arrest this likelihood.

Let us begin with paddy production and have a national plan for that. Let us all understand that this plan should encompass all varieties of Paddy and different objectives for high yielding and organic varieties as both have a market, but at different levels. Then understand the workings of the farmer, best practice, work ethic and develop a practical plan, first by selecting an area which can be replicated nationwide if successful. In order to be selected, various criteria must be in place, and then the subsidy and education of the farmers and best planting practices can be implemented. People will say we already have Bathalagoda Rice Research Institute for training and imparting knowledge. If so look why it has failed and look at methods of turning it around. They have recently set up a Rice Research station to advise farmers, but I would like to know who have obtained training, and how much land has been cultivated by them, and see how their yields have improved due to the training, as that is the obvious measure of its success.

Without learning the lessons of the past we can never improve for the future and as a working paddy farmer I can honestly tell you I learn something new every day, and blame the lack of common sense of the farmer for a lot of the ills we are faced.
I have digressed somewhat from the main point of the article, namely to find away out of the mess. By way of example I have highlighted the problem in one instance, but am convinced that there is NO attempt YET at arriving at a comprehensive agricultural policy to match all the suppliers and consumers, and improve productivity as all this will contribute to the growth of the GNP at a far higher pace than simply relying on the service sector to take up the slack.

I firmly believe that this is the key to economic growth that has completely eluded the planners and politicians, one that will directly flow into the hinterlands, if only we can harness sufficient interest. With the hotel sector also growing and willing to pay a premium for quality produce, even they are struggling to get the variety of produce at the exorbitant price they are being asked to pay. We cannot play catch up with supply and demand and wait for that to come to equilibrium. Proactive steps must be taken immediately. I recently read an article where a prominent Buddhist priest was exhorting people to realize the value of growing some of their own food at home in pots or in a small plot, just to mitigate their food cost, and gain an appreciation for quality food and value of agriculture, something that is desperately needed, but which is not the solution to the problem per se.

You only have to go to the Pola at any village to realize how little is grown locally as in local to the village, and how costly the food items are with much having been transported from afar, from dried fish to coconuts. If today’s Rs60/- coconuts are any indicator of the future, we have no idea what we are in for, are we waiting for the coconuts to reach the magic Rs100/-? This to me is the most important task, surpassing the cost of living committee, which are all playing to the gallery. Only an immediate focus on food security and the plan to insure against it will suffice.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Here we go again with re-imposition of Price Controls on the sale of Rice

Today’s papers announced the establishment of a high powered Cabinet Sub-Committee on Cost of Living, chaired by the President, with 15 Cabinet Ministers and including the Prime Minister. Concurrent to this following on from the import of Chicken and Eggs recently announced, they have imposed price controls on Rice, the single most essential ingredient in the diet of the average person.

One does not stick a bandage each time the wound bleeds, one has to find out why it is still bleeding and try to prevent the causes, like controlling the diabetes!
I have intimate knowledge on Paddy and Rice as I am a farmer who grows more varieties of Paddy than anyone else I know and converts that into multiple varieties of Rice and sell it direct to consumers, so I have both a stake in this subject and an opinion on what needs to be done, without this unforeseen edicts from above.
I know from my area, a lot of paddy was purchased by the state at the guaranteed prices from the last harvest, as the market price was lower. However some of the paddy was substandard, due to moisture levels being higher and were purchased not having regard to basic norms for storage. Now 70,000 Tons of paddy will be released from these stores, to be converted to 45,000 Tons of rice. This will then be issued to the market. I dread to think how much paddy will have to be thrown away due to substandard that may not even be good enough for animal feed, as that is what happens when the paddy spoils it ends up in Chicken Feed.

By imposing price controls on the most popular varieties of rice, the best quality of these will go underground, or the millers will not produce them. In my case, there is no incentive for me to spend the extra money, get the paddy par boiled to a high standard, by a neighbor, so I can sell quality Nadu, that tastes good, and sell at a loss for the Govt regulated Rs60/- a kg. Especially these days with wet weather, sun drying this is out of the question, and the risks associated with getting the required quality are not worth taking when losses result in so doing.

It is typical of leaders who don’t understand supply and demand, who try to control prices and thereby reduce the choice to the consumer, and put the producer in jeopardy, when in fact their whole focus should be to improve productivity, which helps both producer and consumer. A government whose slogans are “rata hadamu, api wawamu” should take heed from a farmer, and not from price controls, that further impoverish the retailer and producer with the real culprit the big miller again set to cash in from the failure to issue paddy from the stores earlier. Why wait till now when prices began rising a month ago, due to non release of paddy stocks by Govt.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Increasing the Nation’s Milk Production

I have read so many recent articles about the effort to increase Milk production in SL and if one were to believe what is published one would be very optimistic about its future. The reality however yet again is somewhat different. Why is it that we in SL have so many schemes and so much talk, with very little action. There was an article about the NLDB doubling their milk production within 3 months (the three months are long gone since the article was published) with the import of higher yielding milk cows and assistance from Israel. Then there was the article about a prominent politician who had set up a company to increase milk production, while engaging in giving skills to the youth to obtain self employment by giving them loans to get the cows and get them to produce the milk. This was headed by a Managing Director who had previously worked in the largest dairy farm in Saudi. None of these have come to fruition or even commenced. There is no shame in lying!!!

It is no surprise then that private sector ventures, ‘petro lanka’ in Mirigama, by a Sri Lankan who returned from overseas and set up his own dairy, and then the multinational Nestle which has expanded in the North and East by setting up new chilling centers are the ones making real positive contributions in this regard. Additionally LMF a company quoted in the CSE (Colombo Stock Exchange) raised Rs700M by way of a rights issue to expand their already huge dairy business. It goes to show that all these government initiatives just seem to be hot air to get some airtime or press time, with no real teeth to it.

The poor milk farmer, and I count myself as one them is left to struggle through the mire literally with little real help to improve productivity and revenue in this genuinely honorable goal of becoming less dependent on imported milk products.
Rich countries use the implantation of female embryos to produce good quality female calves, and this is justifiable bearing in mind their high yielding cows. In our small way we must get the sexing machines that are now available and used in other countries to sex the sperm, so that when AI is used (artificial insemination) we have a greater chance of a female calf, so as to increase the population of milk producing animals as compared with the male calves that end up being killed.

Without just making statements, the Govt should guarantee a minimum price for milk, like Rs50/kg so as to encourage new and existing farmers to expand and improve, rather than close down and give up as it is not cost effective. Most of all, the quality of the animals to suit the climate, and targeted education of the farmer in proper methods of fodder, feeding, milking and care are desperately needed.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rice and Milk, perception, production, consumption, storage and waste

I rarely email or use my Facebook, so the longest absence from any web entries was just an unplanned occurrence. I hope I will have the time to keep up. Life goes on from one eventful day to the next, where there is never a dull moment. The unexpected always happens that is the certainty of life, especially down on the farm and fields.

It rained almost all day here on the farm in Godagama, while I desperately need the rain in Hingurakgoda, where I am preparing the paddy fields for sowing, and there has only been a few droplets there. It was a misery plucking the king coconuts in the rain as one has to climb the trees, there being no other way to cut the bunches, and bring them safely down. Fortunately the coconuts were plucked yesterday, though as it is out of season the number on the trees are less than half the usual, so with even prices around 75% higher than average, the total revenue is still lower.

A cow gave birth to a male calf in the early hours of the morning; Sagara only said yesterday, that one would be born today, on Poya. The mother is not a great milker, and so a few more bottles is not something to crow about when I get Rs29 per kg which is less than the cost (that is the way the milk is measured and amounts to about a liter) However hard we try to wish otherwise, the fact is 98% of male calves born in SL end up eventually as food. This brings me to another related point, where I was associated in a project to implant female embryos in cattle to ensure that female calves dominate.

Despite my having a shop on the farm, it is like pulling teeth to convince the locals to buy fresh milk, when they prefer the NZ dried powdered milks, which are better marketed. Sometimes it is an effort to take the milk to the collecting center in the mornings, so I prefer to give the unsold milk to the dogs, as a protein supplement.

The end result of the persistent rain is that weeds take over the area faster than we know how to control it, and the practical problems of weed control surface when one does not wish to use any weed killers.

Wherever I go I see the paddy lands being prepared or sown, this is the season which expects the bumper harvest if all conditions are right, and many a livelihood depends on it, though more and more have determined that they cannot survive merely by being rice farmers, and have to either supplement their incomes or actually pursue other vocations, merely allowing a friend or relative to cultivate their tiny plots to provide a portion of their rice consumption. The price of rice that had fallen to unheard of levels lately have begun to climb, but I suspect that this is just a ploy by the millers to control the market after they have purchased all the paddy. The government stores in the meantime are full of paddy, which they have yet to release to the millers, but which are also in the meantime rotting due to the bad practices of purchase and storing paddy with higher than recommended moisture content. This results in the paddy getting spoilt and not fit for human consumption. Despite the bumper harvest this waste will create a shortage, bump up the price and the millers who hold the keys to the price, yet again call the shots. The state in the meantime loses, when they could theoretically have profited.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Dilemma in agriculture that we have yet to resolve and no one addresses

The economical agricultural unit is changing rapidly due to the multi phased changes in our society. They range from a severe shortage of labor prepared to work in agriculture, with few young people even contemplating farming, to changes in demographics, and expectations, as a result of education, and increased standards of living. As usual the policy makers will stumble on the new reality, while the politicians are still living in a dream world thinking the majority of our people are farmers, when only the majority are rural dwellers, who are nothing but kitchen gardeners as they have a small plot of land to play with and most of them who grow paddy get an added bonus called a fertilizer subsidy, most of which goes down the river. These rural dwellers earn less than 10% of their household income from agriculture, the rest being from their main job, as a teacher, bureaucrat, bus driver or such like.

Once our policy planners realize the inevitable, it is will be too late to make structural changes that are sorely needed to improve the productivity of the land which is the intention, but with no one actually being able to effect this sea change.

I farm about 6 acres of rice fields, and the government spends about Rs90,000 more than what I pay for my fertilizer, per season, on the fertilizer, which is all imported from the Middle East or CIS countries, with hard currency. That is Rs180,000 a year. That is staggering as, that is all I need just once, to use earth moving equipment to drastically improve the size of the fields and level them off, so that I can use four wheel tractors, and large combined harvesters, which would cut the cost of my production by over 40%. Additionally the larger fields will yield at least another half to an acre of cultivable land that currently is part of the bunds that separate the smaller fields. This once off structural improvement to the land will yield a permanent benefit.

What I envisage happening in the future is if this improvement takes place, then the land can be cultivated by professional tenant farmers, who will pay a rental based on the land area, to the owner, which will satisfy both parties, and solve the labor shortage issues by use of mechanical and hitec equipment, which is only economical in a larger scale operation. The government should therefore begin an experiment in offering credits for the use of earth moving equipment to improve the scale of fields, in lieu of the subsidy, as it will be a no lose proposition. The utterly useless use of two wheeled tractors can then be eliminated and larger scale farming, starting with paddy cultivation, and then moving into other areas can then commence earnestly and efficiently towards meeting all food production targets.

What I am afraid of again this time round is that as Sri Lanka will be self sufficient in Rice production this year, due to additional lands in the North and East coming under the plough, that the urgency of making this structural change will disappear once again into the ether. Don't forget, self sufficiency and productivity are mutually exclusive concepts and should not be mixed or confused. The resulting drops in the price of paddy will only make the smaller farmer more alienated and driven to suicide, instead of moving in the direction I propose, where he will be given an option arising from a productivity improvement to either farm or rent out his land, and pursue a more productive vocation.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Soursop known locally as "Katu Atha"

Sour sop with a Latin name of Annona muricata has suddenly hit the news lately due to the claims that it is 1000 times stronger than Chemotherapy for cancer patients and cancer fighting agents.

I am being inundated with requests for this fruit, which I sell for Rs100 each, but which I find difficult to grow. I have about 8 trees and only two actually produce any fruit. I am told that sometimes these trees don't have any fruit for a while. I also have two trees in Polonnaruwa which have yet to fruit.

I prefer to eat it as a drink which is made by liquidizing the fruit pieces after removing all the seeds. One of the common mistakes made is that people pluck the fruit before it is mature, and therefore it does not ripen well. The reason for this is that the period it stays mature is so short, perhaps three or four days on a tree before it becomes black in places and begins to spoil. It is impossible to sell a fruit that looks spoilt, though the spoilt parts can be cut out as the rest actually taste better, because it has fully ripened on the tree. This rule of thumb holds true for most fruit and in Sri Lanka due to the lack of refrigerated transport, the tendency with all fruit is to pluck prematurely.

It is important that tissue culture is done on the good bearing Sour sop trees, and new plants are available in order to get consistent planting material to ensure a good yield. As usual the pundits come up with you must grow a whole area with these trees, but I have yet to be able to source good and reliable planting material, something which we are currently woefully lacking in for all types of fruit trees.

This is an added reminder that in order for us to maximize our potential for increasing our supply of fruit, the planting material is of the utmost importance as one does not have the luxury to experiment as these trees and in the case of the above take about 4 years to properly fruit.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tender vegetables - "lapati elavalu"

As I am in an enterprise, where I grow and deliver my produce to customers who then consume them, I am in the unenviable position of having to explain if I can even do that, about a various range of questions to do with my produce, as my customers are critical and picky and want to know the whys and wherefroms etc.

Some of them range from "last week they were less ripe, and this week they are more ripe", or "the earlier oranges when squeezed were yellower when compared with the riper ones you supplied last week". "The rice was a little darker this week when compared with last" and so on and so forth.

A new one this week from a Lady whose husband is the chairman a large garment conglomerate said she prefers the Okra very tender and similar with Aubergine and so on. It got me thinking that we really ought to have a different product as these are usually plucked a lot earlier than normal and so is tasty especially in its raw form for salads or mildly cooked form and for example in the case of tender aubergine, if lighty grilled, is delicious on its own as a bite.

I guess the way to start it is encourage the Food City stores in upper income neighborhoods to sell tender vegetables in a seperate section at a different price point. One main reason that these are not plucked is that its weight and therefore farmer income is less. So farmers wait for them to grow as big as possible. The way we cook our food by boiling to high heavan takes away all taste and so even too mature vegetables can be cooked and eaten.

Anyway it was telling that this lady also confirmed my worst fears about Cargills Food City that all the talk about slected especially direct from grower is a load of crap as she said that the quality of their fruit and vegetable really sucks. In her own words and not mine, they just dont do any quality contol and buy any rubbish that those supposed outgrower farmers supply them. They need constant monitoring and quality control, as only a big organization like Food City can technically do given their vast resources and unlike the normal food chain are able to deliver in plastic containers in cooler trucks to preserve and maintain the freshness.

For those interested in a new venture, tender pathola, watakolu, beans, makaral and even tiny carrots can form this product list. The question then becomes how much of a premium can you charge, as you have to double the price to differentiate and cover the costs of this re branding and different display. It is not easy to evaluate the economic viabilty without trying. I have to train my johnnies to pluck at the tender stage and that in itself is asking too much!

SO what comes first changing the eating habits of the locals to eat more fresh and less over-boiled or to sell the tender ones and give them new recipes in cooking. Both are insurmountable tasks.

Over to you commentators for your thoughts. How about growing your own in your kitchen pots or patches so you can ensure a continuous supply of organic and fresh the only sure way to be certain!!!!!

Friday, May 14, 2010

The case for scale in Paddy Cultivation in Sri Lanka

I have been asked by a friend overseas to give him an idea of the costs of rice production in Sri Lanka, to determine if he wants to invest in an agricultural venture to grow paddy. This is like asking the proverbial “how long is a piece of string?” type question.

I tried to explain, much depends on the land extents envisaged to be cultivated, as well as the land availability that is suitable for cultivation. Usually this means that existing paddy lands have a greater suitability, as basic infrastructure is in place, but the more productive the soil, the purchase price reflects this.

In order to be practical about this it is almost impossible to come across a 50 acre minimum land size that is suitable and available for paddy cultivation, as I believe this extent is required as a minimum if one is considering giving up whatever it is including common sense to go into paddy farming.

In order to satisfy his request, I will base my assumption on a 50 acre size and make the following assumptions. The main one being that the land is available and purchased, as it would only be a wild guess as to how much such an extent of land would cost. It would be a minimum of Rs20M.(in the US rice extents are cheaper) The other assumption is the availability, of water from a canal fed by an irrigation source. Relying on rain fed paddy is too risky not something to be tried and the use of pumped water for such an extent would also change the dynamics of the project.

If average land yields 100 bushels per acre for each season, the harvest for a year will be 10K bushels or 200,000KG of paddy at an average selling price of Rs30/kg would give a gross income of Rs6M a year. If the direct costs cannot be less than Rs3M then this project is not worth it as otherwise the Rs20M can yield a better return in most other safer investments with a lower risk.

It is easier to work backwards from this direct cost, which for a season for an acre runs at Rs30,000 as a maximum. So how does this stack up with outsourcing the work. It will go as follows. A) tilling the land 3000 B) preparing the fields 3000 C)Sowing 1000 D) Fertilizer 5000 E) Pesticides 5000 F) Husbanding the land during the growing process 3000 G) Combined Harvester to cut and thresh 8000 H) Drying and cleaning as well as bagging for sale 2000. Realistically it is difficult to do it for any less, with the only flexible one being the use of the combined harvester, which due to the extent of the land can be bargained down to even Rs 5000 per acre. The important point to note is that the yield is the most unpredictable, and the most likely contributory factor for either profit or loss.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Maha Harvesting Paddy using the tractor driven thresher known as Tsunami

As previously documented I showed how I used a small Chinese built combine harvester to cut, thresh and bag the paddy from my property in Minneriya.

In this blog entry I show the other principal alternative used. My sister’s property adjoining mine has fields that are water retaining, under current conditions the harvester will get stuck in the mud.
We therefore have no option but to hand cut the paddy and then transport it to a point from where the thresher is used to separate the straw from the paddy using a machine colloquially known as the tsunami.

A viper (polonga) was seen while collecting the cut the paddy, so had to be killed.

We had a serious problem in finding labor to cut paddy, as there are just no people willing to work in Polonnaruwa. There are people who come from outside called mattayas( I don’t know why they are called that) who take a contract for the property to cut and bring the paddy to a specific point. The usual charge is Rs8000 an acre but in this case due to some fields where one’s legs get stuck in the mud slowing the process, they charge a higher amount.

In my desperation, I had to pay Rs700 a day and find people to cut this paddy, and due to the labor problem my cutting got seriously delayed. If one cannot cut the paddy by a certain date, the stalks can dry out too much. It is called “pahi karawela” which is what happened to me. So when I mill my paddy, the grain breaks up pretty badly, making it difficult for me to sell the rice. The only partial solution for me is to have the paddy parboiled, and then mill it as the parboiled paddy does not break up like the way the kekulu does. The rice in this field was white Pokuru Samba, the 4 month variety.

A further fact was that when it is too dry, many paddy seeds fall on the ground in the cutting process, and also as much of the area had fallen paddy contributing to a further loss of the harvest. Accordingly I suffered a considerable loss due to the delay in being able to cut the paddy.

The one advantage of cutting by hand is that the stalks dry out, and after threshing the paddy can be stored directly without drying. In the case of a harvester, one has to dry the paddy as can be seen in an earlier blog, before sale or storage.

The thresher charge is at the rate of Rs3,600 per hour and in my case there were 42 bags that took 70 minutes to thresh costing Rs4,200, making the threshing charge the equivalent of Rs100 a bag that weighed approximately 50kg each.

On balance it is more economical to use the harvester as it can work day or night and usually have your paddy cut when needed. I will in future have to do what is necessary to drain the water from the fields and reduce the wetness in order to use the harvester.

the parade of paddy bags to be sewn up prior to loading

the final act is to load the paddy bags onto my pick up to take to my place to be stored for milling and delivery to my customers of fresh rice.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Amberella plucking – a great way to shake a tree and rain 200kg of fruit - (spondias dulcis)

There was this tree in my sister’s property loaded with Amberella, and even thought the fruit is smaller than on my trees, there were distinctly a huge amount. I would like to know if this is a budded tree that has got so big, as I don’t have budded varieties on my property, and the trees grow very tall, but here the branching seems to have happened from the bottom.


We determined the easiest way to pluck this was to shake the branches once we climbed the tree and it rained down on us. A few shakes later, the time it took to collect this lot was greater, whereas we should have laid a tarp on the ground and let it all fall into it to be bagged.

We cleaned half the fruit of the tree and got 200kg of fruit. While I retail my fruit on home delivery at Rs80/kg, what we I get at the wholesale market is another matter. The fruit once plucked cannot be kept for more than a week, and so has to be disposed off immediately. I am likely to get between Rs20 and Rs25 per kg, while if the fruit was a little larger a further Rs5kg would have been a likely price.

In the next door property, Gamini the neighbor told me that last week, he had collected 9 sacks of this fruit with still more left on the tree, and took it to the Dambulla wholesale market where he received Rs14,000. It is therefore possible that on the two fruiting seasons of a large Amberella Tree at its peak, one is able to harvest Rs30,000 of fruit on a wholesale basis. There is no care required, just the work in harvesting the fruit, and that only is just to shake and pick up!

I would not recommend anyone to grow a bud tree that fruits early, but the fruit is small, and hence my suspicion this may have been a budded tree that just grew and grew. The traditional tree grows 40 to 60f tall, but the wood is not worth anything. The fruit of the traditional tree is also about twice the size of the budded tree and fetches a higher price and the tree also yields a lot more fruit.

If only I could have made Amberella Chutney with this, I could have bottled and sold it over the months, but in the current state of the enterprise, I don’t have the expertise and time to do so. The tree grows quickly, but does not have an infinite life, with many dying after about 10 years. It is one fruit I think that probably yields pound for pound of tree weight more than any tree I can think of.

The various pics are of the fruit, tree, and the plucking and collecting process to interest the reader of the possible and normal. Thankfully this one crop was saved from theft.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

UPFA agricultural policies are wrong, self serving, politically expedient, patronizing and most of all destructive- read on

The mess our agriculture is in due to the populist agenda that fools the people

I speak with considerable experience having been mired in both dry zone and wet zone agriculture for the past 6 years and being the only person in Sri Lanka who farms at the same minimal peasant allotments of between 5 and 10 acres, and produces about 50 different food items, including milk, eggs and coconut oil, that I transport personally, (me being the driver) and delivers to my shop and direct to consumers homes, I work through the day and drive through the night in order to keep my small business alive and the mouths fed.(about 35 directly)

I am harassed and delayed at night, by traffic cops seeking bakshish, checkpoints because I am easier to stop than a speeding Pajero, by security forces personnel just having to check someone to justify their enormous pay in comparison to farm workers who work harder for little reward.

I challenge all comers to a debate on the nuances of marginal agriculture that 90% of the so called farmers engage in, and the perpetuation of their poverty, by the current agricultural policies of the government with well meaning slogans that are blatantly wrong misleading and downright patronizing to the hardworking people of this country who are being completely fooled, bamboozled and coerced into voting for the wrong ideals, and subjecting them into a permanent poverty trap, to be exploited by these very same politicians pretending to be their saviors.

This government has been the bane of productive farmers by only assisting unproductive ones with wasteful subsidies and false promises of help. We need a complete policy shift that can benefit the vast majority of the people in this country and the government just does not get it. The people who know no better, believe in the parroted lies hoping to find relief in promises that realistically cannot be fulfilled unless there is a complete change of emphasis and direction aimed at productivity and excellence along with the tools to do so.

We produce agriculture graduates, to be government servants as extension officers who are the bane of the farmers as they know nothing and pretend to work, whilst we are in dire need of dedicated and trained agriculturists to run and manage larger units using their knowledge, coupled with the experience of growing in more productive units using the latest techniques with access to adequate funding.

Daily, I see this humongous fertilizer subsidy washed down the fields, by uneducated incompetent farmers whose costs, if their labor is fairly priced, far exceed the selling price of their products. The larger more productive farms that could use the subsidy wisely don’t get it and they still make a profit.

The biggest political lie is that we have convinced half the electorate that they are farmers, when they are not. A farmer is someone who produces a surplus of food over and above what he consumes. Only about 10% of those classified as farmers fall into this category. The others just happen to live on productive farmland in villas and think they are poor, but work as bureaucrats, policemen, hospital staff, bus drivers and shop keepers to name just a fraction of the areas that not just supplement their income but provide most of their income.

We continue with giving land to landless to keep them mired in poverty and beholden to the politicians for giving this land, instead of making better use of this agricultural land in a productive sense, and giving people housing nearer urban areas, so they can more usefully be able to reduce the commute times and costs, and have closer access to schools and hospitals in their inevitable jobs that cannot be sustained by farming. Give them 10 perches please and not three acres.

Only 10% of the heads of households in my area would be considered worthy of being called “knowledgeable farmers”. They lack productive land as useless wastrels living on government largesse (thugs, goons, party men who got free govt. land but live elsewhere, moonshine distillers, and those looking to make a buck out of exploitation of others) are occupying prime property, received by them or their ancestors free of charge.

I have a plan that will double the nation’s food output, with no extra inputs (this will reduce imports and increase exports) reduce the wastage and reduce the price of food for the consumer, while at the same time reducing the marginal so called farmer to be more productive in other fields where his abilities can be better rewarded. We cannot afford to give farming to the least educated, but should gradually encourage the most educated as it is the vocation with greatest risk, and thereby potentially the greatest reward, which people at the margin cannot hope to understand and therefore exploit for personal gain.

If you are in any doubt as to the practicality of what I propose, read the hundreds of pages in this blog which are devoted to all the aspects of improvements, which I have through personal suffering experienced and feel is needed if we are to get ahead. I am involved in almost all varieties of agricultural production in a practical sense including tea in the green and black tea production as well as organic and non organic methods. Just to add a little more power to my words, I am the only person in Sri Lanka that grows 6 varieties of paddy and has 15 varieties of my own rice, to sell direct to my customers, who I supply myself, albeit in a very limited scale as my land extent is small and I have very marginal land to grown in.

Sadly no one in this country has the guts to take on this monolothic giant that is unpatriotic, bent on keeping the people in serfdom so they can be autocratic rulers. Worst of all when they receive an overwhelming plebiscite they will actually believe they are right, when it is the slogans that did it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The economics of being a rice farmer – we have to increase the scale

A Polonnaruwa a farmer gets Rs22/kg for nadu paddy( when it is bagged at the field where the wholesaler buys spot cash) the variety that farmers grow. Only a month ago (before the new harvest came in) the same paddy was selling at Rs40/kg
As a small scale miller, I can sell the rice at Rs33/kg to break even. The farmer loses money at Rs22/kg despite the fertilizer subsidy not covering his costs. The person who farms less than 2 acres, which accounts for half the paddy output, spends about Rs26/kg as cost of production if he uses labor on an av. crop of 1500kg. A farmer with 100 acres can reduce his costs using paid labor to Rs 12/kg WITHOUT using subsidized fertilizer. The Govt. guaranteed price of Rs28/kg is only when it is taken to the buying location in a condition suitable to them with low moisture content. This very same miller, (an actual example as I am using my local miller’s economics) sells the sudu kekulu rice not at Rs33/kg which would cover his cost, but at Rs48/kg which is commensurate with the market rate prevailing. He therefore has a clear profit of Rs15/kg.

In my case as I am not a miller, but a farmer who grows his paddy and then goes to the mill to mill his paddy and then transport it to my customers, I have the added costs, even though I get a slightly higher retail price, but his profit margin is much higher. I pay him a milling cost of Rs3/kg for paddy which works out at Rs4.50/kg of rice, an added cost to me, but zero cost to the miller as the by-product of milling, being rice bran and husk is sold at a greater revenue than what I pay for milling. All this being said the largest miller, namely a govt. agriculture minister a natural enemy of the farmer, stands to make a profit of at least Rs3M a day if his mill runs to capacity, a cool billion a year.(not counting the revenue of the electricity he generates from the husk to sell to the national grid over and above what he needs to run his mill. Rice bran now sells for Rs30/kg, a free by-product.
The carrot, that the govt. gives these poor farmers, is the subsidy. So foolishly because the govt. heavily subsidizes the fertilizer, the inefficient high cost farmer continues to gamble a high risk game of poker hoping the price he can get for his paddy is nearer Rs40/kg believing it is better not to forego such a great subsidy, little realizing that he will be better off to sell his subsidized fertilizer in the open market (that of course is illegal but is common practice) Actually this farmer is more likely to get a better income if he drops paddy and grows vegetables. One problem is that the irrigation system is designed only to supply water by way of the channel system to support paddy production. (certain days of the week, an unlimited amount and then once the harvest is near no water again till the beginning of the next season, a gap of over 60 days in some cases) Unless the farmer has his own source of water, he is then unable to engage in this cultivation.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Some observations of the ongoing paddy harvest

In the past few days I have been busy harvesting my rice paddies. In one property, we used a Combine Harvester to do the work. The downside of the process is that the paddy that is bagged still has fresh cut paddy however dry it is when cutting. This means that a further period of a days drying in intense sunlight, as a minimum is required before bagging for storage.

Once cut the paddy bags are strewn along the fields by the harvester. I therefore had to take my pick up truck right into the fields to collect all the paddy bags.
Once I off loaded them in one central area, I had to request some space in a mill which I use to mill my paddy to dry on their large cement area which they too use to dry parboiled paddy. Carrying 90 bags of paddy in three trips in my pick-up hauling them and spreading them around the cement floor to dry and later scooping it back up is a tiring and time consuming job. How tiring it was the reader could only imagine. One has to constantly use one’s feet to move the drying paddy from side to side to ensure the paddy gets dry. Wet paddy can have a disastrous effect on the quality as it could actually spoil.
I spoke to farmers who do not like to use the Harvester because of this even though they may have to incur higher costs of cutting by hand and using the Tsunami threshing methods to solve their harvesting. In fact that is exactly the process I am doing in the adjoining property to Harvest because the Combine Harvester cannot work those fields as it would get stuck in the permanently waterlogged fields.

In this process of cutting by hand, once cut the sheaves have a day or two to dry out and so once the Tsunami is used to thresh, they can be bagged directly from the Tsunami and stored safely. Some also say that the harvester bags too much debris which calls for costly cleaning which is easily done by the large mills, once they get cheap paddy quoting the fact that the paddy needs drying and cleaning, which results in the low balling in price to the farmer at the farm gate. An added problem for many farmers in Polonnaruwa this season was the swarm of some insect that devastated the crop, which could not be salvaged by any type of crop spraying.

The state offers to buy paddy, but to meet the standards required, farmers have to go through hoops to get these promised amounts. The drying and cleaning are the two single biggest problems. It is important therefore that some kind of mechanized means is developed to ensure all this drying can be done cost effectively. There is no reason then to use the expensive manual labor to do this work.

The paddy bags filled after drying waiting for carrying and transport

Latest Harvest of BG 352 - Sudu Kekulu

The machine disgorging the paddy late into the night.

I used the services of a combined harvester to cut, thresh and bag my paddy on Friday. The machine worked into the night as it can perform its duties at night as it has lights. The cost to me for the 3 acres was at the rate of Rs9.000 per acre. The total harvest though not weighed, was 90 bags, which is not excellent, but satisfactory when compared to my neighbors who suffered loss due to severe disease towards the end of the cycle.

The open hands collect fallen paddy by scooping it up and then cutting it with the rollers. However there is an element of paddy that gets left behind if the fallen paddy has got soaked making it difficult for the machine to scrape the sheaves from the ground.

The combined harvester at work in a paddy field, cutting, threshing, disposing of the straw and collecting the paddy to be disgorged into sacks from time to time.

Friday, March 5, 2010

one day they will either pull a cart or end up as tasty morsels, how will you know?

The one on the left born on Dec 26th 2009 is known as Tsunami as he was born on the tsunami anniversary and the other fellow born exactly two months later and at birth was almost the current size of Tsunami was named Mahanami

Thursday, March 4, 2010

recent pics from the rajarata

A tomato plant before flowering.

One of my vegetable plots with tomato in the foreground and watakolu in the background framed by the paddy fields

The photo was taken at dawn as he sun was rising from the East burning the morning dew on the rice fields. This dew also gives moisture Mornings are very cold and one has to be completely wrapped up in bed with at least a sheet. This in contrast to the unbearable heat in Colombo.