Sunday, June 24, 2012

The reintroduction of the Crate rule – is only one reason

It was barely two months ago when the farmers were screaming blue murder that they had surplus vegetables that they could not sell. Tomato was rotting on the trees too costly to pluck. Now tomato is Rs300/kg at retail! So what gives?

Tomato was always transported in boxes to prevent being squashed so the crate law does not impact them differently. It is purely a question of good weather which brought a bumper crop, and farmers stopped growing tomato as it was not worth their while and hey presto there is a shortage, coupled with the drought that has intensified the problem. It helps to be contrary, as those people who were able using greenhouses to grow tomato expecting the shortage and price rises are making hay. However one can probably count the number of people in this fortunate state on the fingers on one hand, there are so few who took advantage.

That particular circumstance aside, there is a huge debate going on as to why there is such a massive fluctuation in vegetable prices, which are not always exactly predictable, year on year. The crate issue is not the main reason. After all only a total of 25 fruit and vegetables require to be transported by crates. That is peanuts in comparison to over 100 varieties.

Many of the price increases are on vegetables that do not even require crates, though obviously there is an added cost involved in crate transport, not covered by lower post harvest losses. Ironically due to the political sensitivity of the farm lobby, the crate law does not apply farmers. That at a stroke reduces the benefit of the crate law in the first place as there is a substantial loss in transport from the farm gate to the main wholesalers at Economic Zones where they are first transported to.

In today’s context the drought is bigger factor, as it is across the country and not restricted to an area. The only people likely to benefit from this are people who were able to grow vegetables in their home gardens, use available water from home wells to grow their vegetables for home consumption and therefore save on market prices, which mean they will now be able to eat, that which they were priced out of. Good for them!

It is clear that farmers have not been able to weather proof their production, and due to lower yields will not benefit from price increases.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Hemakumara resigns! About time! Have you finally seen the light? What took you so long?

A Presidential Advisor on agriculture and a former MP and minister, who defected to the UPFA from the UNP, and lost his seat at the last elections, Hemakumara Nanayakkara resigned his post today in disgust at the Government Agricultural Policies or lack of them. He is also the younger brother of Vasudeva Nanayakkara, an MP and leftist!

This blog is full of the lack of it! And it does not surprise me that after his visits to the farming communities all over the country, it is apparent what a pigs breakfast this Govt. has made of agriculture. The agriculture ministers are confused as to what their responsibilities are, the bureaucrats in the departments are completely unhinged and the farmers left in the dark, as policies come and go in a field that requires long term planning for effective productivity in the least productive sector in our country.

I am sure that once confronted with the farmers’ woes, of schizophrenic behavior on the part of Govt. policies, he realized that he could only express his honest opinion, by not being a yes man, but by being truthful and objective that there is NO policy that is being implemented to benefit agriculture in Sri Lanka.

This lack of knowledge of the subject and the pursuance of a policy aimed at hoodwinking the farmers for votes to win elections, is grounds to be disgusted, as the Govt. takes advantage of a very delicate community facing incredible odds to make a living. It is time that he gives his frank opinion, rather than pussyfooting around, as to the real reasons he is disgusted with the current state of play.

So how about a summary: The quality of the fertilizer given to the farmers suck. The use of the fertilizer is harmful. The planting material given is not up to an acceptable standard. The weather forecasts were wrong and so the officials gave farmers the wrong information with regard to planting, resulting in a colossal loss of inputs as the plants will now die. The unannounced withdrawal of the subsidy for non paddy crops and the late availability of fertilizer. The difference between the guaranteed price to the farmers and the real price they receive. The lack of a market for the produce, and the bad advice from the department on every aspect of agriculture. To name a few of the topics to be covered.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Sustainable Agriculture – Its everywhere but in practice!

There is so much pontificating words written about sustainable agriculture and I believe very little of that comes directly from someone who earns 100% of his income from existing agriculture, sustainable or not.

Why is that? The person who is a full time farmer cannot see the practical side of the concept as he cannot contemplate doing without many of the inputs he has become accustomed to. He cannot see that he can earn a comfortable income following these principles. After all he wants a life, like all of us. In my experience it is only theoretical farmers who have other income means who practice this in a serious way, and by so doing they grossly under price in terms of the market place. The reason is that if the true economic cost was charged, no one will buy. I can vouch for that as I also attempted to do the same and discovered how expensive it really is, especially to do it on a small scale.

While I believe there are merits in sustainable agriculture, there is no concerted effort to bring the two opposing factions together or to bridge the gap. The poles are so extreme that people in either camp despise those of the other. Into this argument are those who espouse green agriculture and those who term that green is greed in a veiled guise. After all the Green Revolution whilst increasing yield had as a direct result the abandonment of thousand years of practices and techniques purely in the interests of extra yield in order to save the world from starving.

So what is the bottom line? We must attempt to explain it coming from the results of existing practices (post green revolution) that are promoted or are in current use.

Well it is that our land is being severely polluted. Sri Lanka uses 10 times as much chemical pesticides and weedicides over recommended usage. I was shocked at a picture I saw in an article by the reputable environmental advocate for agriculture, Dr Ranil Senanayake, which showed a diagram of the seas of the world and the seas around Sri Lanka were the MOST polluted of all the seas. If that is not scary I don’t know what is. I was shocked into being aghast staring at it for a while wondering how we in this country got into that state of self destruction.
Now it is up to the political will of our people. Can we ban their use? Yes but not unless we have an alternative in place which is at least as acceptable. We were a country with supposedly 3000 varieties of rice. We probably grow at most 15 varieties now. We DO NOT use transplant techniques to weed and instead use pesticides and chemicals. The Govt. in their foolish wisdom, came into power by promising the continuation of a fertilizer subsidy, that is both costing the country Rs50B per annum, but which has now resulted in a huge set of medical problems from the seepage of these chemicals into the water table, and could shortly decimate our population if not checked, like malaria never did!!

The environmental lobby advocate small farming, and decry the large farms and their control over land and also labor, by making slaves out of small subsistence farmers, but that argument is very disingenuous as there is no way if the country wants a GNP of $5000 a year, that these small farmers can remotely get to even a fifth of it!!

As long as some NGO pays their airfare to Rio and they can interact and bullshit with fellow environmentalists, the farmer in the 2 acre field is left destitute eitherway and so if we advocate NO use of chemicals, who is there to guide him in the practice? He needs his hand held for a while before he can embrace the alternatives. Along with the change of direction, go obligations, expectations, and behavior modification, which we expect the poorest sections of our society to engage in when the wealthy smugly do not even budge from their inertia, but pontificate.

Unless the whole process engages a holistic change in the food chain from education of eating habits, to the need for paying more for food items with worms as being healthy for you, to methods of storage and transport that ensure that most of the benefit accrues to the farmer and not the intermediary, it will not succeed. A rational and commonsense way of eliminating the middlemen in the food chain along with the mafia who control and therefore hype the price to the consumer, whilst at the same time pressing down the price to the farmer is the only answer.

I do believe that even if we have half the yield, we can still feed the population, by changing eating habits to healthy from volume, and from mostly closely grown than from transported from afar, to reduce the carbon footprint. We must simultaneously address wastage, reduce length and cost of transport, and ensure above all, education of the consumer.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Drought - Tobacco Company – in the farmer’s pocket – or the other way round

There is a huge ongoing issue in the Bakamuna Elahera, Yoda Ela stretch, Mahaweli H zone I believe it is called. No water has been supplied to the farmers after a promise that water would be released on May 1st. Water was released for a few days, which confused the farmers into getting ready for planting and then it was stopped. No water has been sent subsequently.

Firstly the farmers who jumped into preparing their lands were left high and dry licking their losses. Then the Tobacco Company reps jumped in and offered an alternative of growing tobacco where they will supply all the inputs without having to lay down any money and will only deduct the costs once the harvest is in from the final proceeds, which suited many farmers. Many of the people with connections to the local politicians, who promised them the minimum water, got into that line and are continuing this cultivation to the disgust of the farmers who did not, and the anti tobacco NGOs who are complaining that there is a mafia controlling the limited water supply to supply the tobacco plantations.

THERE IS NO DRINKING WATER let alone water for cultivation. The Problem is acute, within a month the people will explode into violence against the inability of the government to act and their continuing to help their own friends and connections in the Tobacco Cultivations.


No one to hear their plight. They believe the politicians are far removed from their daily problems and as the politicos cannot solve their immediate problems prefer to stay away in 5 star AC comfort in Colombo. Even the President who turned up at Elahera about a month ago, hooked it back to his Helicopter and flew away into the sunset, and did not wait to make the speech he was supposed to, as he would have been lynched by the people for saying things that do not mean anything to them.

The problems have got so acute as even drinking water is at a premium with wells running dry as the traditional Yoda Ela Canal is not supplying even a trickle of water for bathing as there is no water in the Mahaweli system to supply the diversion through Polgolla that comes into this area.

The Govt. DOES NOT give subsidized fertilizer for tobacco so the tobacco farmers are completely on their own, with advice from their reps to manage their plantations, and the necessary help within their own organizations. The farmers not in this cultivation allege that the District Secretariat staff assist them in breaking rules to provide them with water. It is possible that violence may be directed at these people before long.

Don’t say I did not forewarn of the impending catastrophe. When you are thirsty and see no way of buying water, when you have no way of paying for medicines or for food as these people have used all their savings already, you do not understand the seriousness of the situation.

Any politician who goes there without a solution at hand with them, will be lynched so no one dare go there. You cannot promise anything anymore as people will not believe any promise as they know they are mere words.

Added to this the sudden withdrawal of the fertilizer subsidy for other crops has spooked farmers who did not know in advance that this subsidy had been withdrawn. So for their corn, green gram, soya cultivations, they will have to purchase their own or manufacture their own fertilizer at market prices. Today that is a moot point for the Mahaweli H zone farmers as they are facing a bleak future at least until the October rains.

Why do we wait for the problem to get worse before we take steps to try and help? The Minister of Disaster Management, don’t say you have not been informed.  If we assist in helping them with something like emergency tube wells we may at least alleviate the drinking water problem. I was suggesting a bowser of water but then when one village is helped, the other village will say they did not get water and get angry with the giver. This will be considered just a band aid to prevent the deep cut that needs stitches.

Tobacco cultivators be warned, along with Pradeshiya Sabha members of the area, your plantations face the first of the blows. More importantly anyone who is willing to help DO NOT go to the Government departments who will take all you have to give and more without any of the needy people getting anything. Go direct, give each a bottle, tag their fingers so they cannot come for seconds and give as much as you can.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A case for a close look at the Fertilizer imports – quality sucks!

I missed the 7am SLTB bus to Hingurakgoda, because it left the Ratmale junction at 6.45am and so took the Private bus at 8am. Rs37 is the bus fare and it was packed with the locals going to the Sunday Pola (farmers market) including those who missed the earlier bus.

I got the chance to chat with my friends in the Pola, where I used to go every Sunday when I was in town in my farming days. I had not seen them in a while and many had not even heard of the accident so were pleased to see me hobbling just with a walking stick now!

I was chatting with a farmer friend, who had brought his produce to the pola for sale. Boss Mama is what I call a professional farmer, in a small way intensively farming about 5 acres and has tried almost everything. So it was him, I used to go for advice in the past, and was generally talking about the state of farming, and the problems he was facing.

Now though the fertilizer subsidy at a lower amount is given to the farmers for other crops, I was asking him about some of the issues. He was quite firm in that the Urea he uses is a little suspect now. The quality has dropped substantially. It is all imported, mainly from the Middle East as it is a by-product of the Oil Refining processes. I checked the international prices at the moment, being US$550 a ton which works out to Rs72/kg or over Rs3500 per 50kg bag for which Rs1000 is charged, the rest being the government subsidy. The actual cost is now higher as it must include the transport, and retailer margins when one buys it locally.

Either way there appears to be some fraud that goes on in the procurement processes for this. There is a tender board through which the urea is purchased, and I read in today’s Sunday Times about serious irregularities in the tender process being highlighted. Be that as it may and remembering how the tea small holders are also demonstrating about the poor quality of their fertilizer, urea being the main component for the lush growth of the tea bush, it boils down to a problem! These tea smallholders were complaining the fertilizer they purchases actually killed the tea bushes a serious allegation.

Another problem in using state procured fertilizer to which the government must accept full responsibility.They must right these wrongs. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Another disaster in the offing. The hapless farmer is in the thick of it

I am in Minneriya during the Poson weekend, for some rest and relaxation, but I have been confronted by a problem that the local farmers have brought to my attention that I believe needs to be noted at the national stage and I do not see the prominence given to it as it deserves.

As I came by bus to Minneriya at dawn last morning, I was shocked at the low level of water of the Minneriya tank, which was full at the same time last month when I was here a for a few days over Vesak. It shows that there is no water to be sent from Polgolla via the Yoda Ela down to Polonnaruwa as the Victoria Dam is empty and the water level has gone down to a depth that the old Teldeniya town which was submerged is now on dry land!

If there is no serious rain, then the farmers who have sown will lose their crops as I do not believe there is enough water in the Minneriya Tank today to tide them over till the harvest. So at least the farmers who were not allowed to work their land in the Elahera Bakamoona line are spared this disaster, though they are agitating for a greater share of land to be ploughed, not realizing why they have been asked to keep the land fallow. There is not proper information flow from bureaucrat to farmer.

It is a mess that does not have a solution, as the farmers have ploughed in everything literally into the land and if they are not able to harvest, there is no real relief, which is enough to turn the area into a disaster zone with farmers not being able to feed their families. It is a possibility not worth contemplating, but needs to be addressed sooner rather than later, alerting them to the impending disaster rather than them having to face the music later. It is important therefore that the water to the land is reduced immediately to save it for a later date rather than hope for rain that may not transpire. We in Sri Lanka are poor communicators and it shows.

Let us begin with a water index in the newspapers and highlight the value of water conservation immediately especially for farmers who waste water as they do not pay for it directly. It is only then that farmers will not waste water unnecessarily in a way I have pointed out time and again here in the blog, to prevent other farmers from getting water. I believe that we MUST ACT NOW before it is too late for this season. The young paddy plants look so lush and green today hiding what might be in store!!