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.