Using the example of paddy farmers in this instance, in irrigated lands of the Wyamba, North Central and Eastern Provinces, farmers are generally able to grow two crops a year, the most productive being the Maha season ranging from planting in October to January, for harvesting between January and March of the following year. This has been the way since the colonization schemes of 1930s.
They face many challenges in their pursuit and I will attempt to illustrate some of them, which when taken in toto, amount to an increasingly risky business of cultivation and survival.
Lack of Planning of the steps to be taken to prepare for the following paddy planting season.
Many farmers who have sold their paddy and repaid debts and redeemed valuables pawned to cultivate their lands for the previous season, don’t have the mental clarity to prepare their tools in readiness for planting, such as repairing their tractors, having them oiled and greased and serviced as that is a cost some find difficult to contemplate. They also have to join together to clear the irrigation canals of weeds in order to permit free flow of water to the fields, sans obstructions. Therefore step one is delayed due to the lack of funds.
Preparation of the soil
The banning of Roundup also known as Glyphosate, which the farmers used previously to kill the weeds on verges and irrigation canals, is now no longer available. Many of these weeds they contend are invasive species that did not exist at one time, and were deliberately introduced by multi-national companies in order to market their increasingly strong weedicides to the market to kill these introduced weeds! I personally don’t believe that it was deliberate, but there is a strong belief amongst the farming community, that it was caused to enslave them.
They now resort to burning the fields as much as possible as a means to eliminate the weeds, with the resultant environmental consequences. There has been no intervention on the part of the state, through research institutes such as HARTI to educate farmers of the practical alternatives to the above practices, leaving the farmers at the mercy of chemical companies marketing alternatives, that don’t come close to solving the problem either.
With a large public sector of unhelpful staff in departments of agriculture, no assistance is provided in training and demonstration of practical means to this end
The supply of irrigation water on a timely manner
It is important that water is provided with sufficient time to prepare the soil for planting, and usually 30 days of daily water is supplied to the land for drowning the weeds in mud including the seeds of the weeds to begin the circle of the new cultivation cycle. It could be argued that much water is wasted in this process, as planting only begins to the end of this month, with much water wasted and allowed to flow out into the streams and rivers, unless reused further downstream by damning and redirecting to fields further downstream.
In any particular area, farmers know if they have received water too early or too late, as it affects their whole cultivation cycle, and if it is received late, they have to use shorter rice strains instead of the 120 day varieties as the irrigation water supply is also limited to agreed dates.
The talk of the town in Hingurakgoda this season was that rains came early, but all that water was wasted in the fields, as it was too early to cultivate or prepare the soil, now in mid-November the when the rains normally come, there isn’t any, and to add insult to injury, the hoped for supply of irrigation water on 16th November or thereabouts has been delayed till the 25th November.
The story goes that the new Moragahakanda Reservoir project as the final phase of the Mahaweli Irrigation Project is the brainchild of Maithripala Sirisena, who brought forward a delayed project, and with the waters collected after the recent rains, wants the reservoir filled up so he can make a PR exercise in throwing flowers into the water and opening the gates to fanfare for supplying water. However as the irrigation officials have been asked to delay this till more water accumulates in the reservoir so he can show how massive the water body is the farmers supply has been purposely delayed without taking into account their prior and more important needs. In essence, the farmer will pay the price by shorter planting season, or low yield rice, in order to satisfy the personal ego of one man who will soon relinquish office within a week.
Another theory behind this delay in water being given, is that the State has failed to order the needed fertilizer (import) on time and therefore is delaying the supply of water until the fertilizer stores are stocked up and able to supply the subsidized fertilizer.
An added spanner in the works is that both main Presidential candidates have promised free fertilizer, and in order to avail themselves of this promise and the resultant hiatus, the farmers are likely to get their requirements long past the need by dates for cultivation, aggravating an already precarious delay in cultivation. Free means there is misuse, by public officials and a black market created too!
Fertilizer distribution to farmers
The process of obtaining either free or subsidized fertilizer is fraught with a lot of bureaucratic red tape. There are numerous forms to be completed and Grama Niladari certification and farmer society intervention, which in themselves is done to avoid misuse and ensure only those entitled to receive the fertilizer in fact do so, however it is the very same state employees who are involved in rackets to circumvent the system and often even shortchange the farmer, but where produce leaks out to unauthorized users, due to corruption.
There are maximum amounts of fertilizer that can be distributed to any one farmer, but the reality today is that more efficient farmers work more land, while those who own the land lend their fields for payment in kind, namely bushels of paddy per acre for example. So they have to break the rules and circumvent the system in order to obtain the needed fertilizer to work all the land they rent. This has not been properly thought out and it penalizes the honest, and efficient while encouraging the wasteful and dishonest, made worse by the political promises of free fertilizer, usually not to the deserving cases.
The Chemical Mafia
Some farmers allege that the chemical companies are in hock with the fertilizer and the irrigation officials in determining when water is distributed, so that chemicals are needed to solve disease and weeds created owing the untimely water distribution, a serious allegation if proved it does happen. However there is a belief among farmers that they too are part of the gang that is working against the interests of the farmers.
Other factors – Quality of inputs
I would like to believe it is a myth rather than reality, but there is a question of poor quality fertilizer, poor quality weedicides that are not up to the mark in killing the weeds, poor quality chemicals that kill pests and other diseases of plants and the quality of seed paddy used to plant. All this affects paddy cultivation and there is no confidence that the officials tasked with ensuring their efficacy don’t in fact do their job, further leaving the farmer at the mercy of heresay in purchasing inputs.
In Summary, I have only covered the beginning of the cultivation process and not the attendant rains that are due but could be late or miss the mark, or a disease that spreads faster than any solution could be given, before it is too late. Then we have the right time to harvest affected by untimely rains further affecting yields etc. to illustrate the near impossible task of a paddy farmer to breathe easy!
How can this unresolvable challenge be met?
I have scratched the surface of a problem that hundreds of thousands of farmers with limited training and education face every day. They are given minimal knowledge of new techniques in order to reduce the cost and amount of inputs and maximize the yield, both of which is necessary for productivity along with the wise use of water, when confronted with unexpected water shortages needing rationing or reduced supply by necessity.
Farmers also have to prepared for flooding, in case the rains come late, or a month’s rain falls in one or two days, something that climate change has wrought all over the world, which could destroy a well tended field in one day.
Farmers have no financial resources for a rainy day, possibly being in debt to money lenders, thereby losing their independence and self respect. We blame alcohol abuse on many, but circumstances have led many to this state for their survival short of suicide, with no state assistance to mitigate their plight. They are in short left to their own devises and we place an unfair burden on them to muddle through.
I have not even gone in the direction of the Paddy Mafia that controls the price, and it them along with the traders who make the money at the farmers expense while the farmers have been singularly unable to work together to support each other to resolve these problems.
It is clear that the next generation farmer is an unknown quantity unless state intervention is immediately made to train a farmer corps of intelligent educated and trained farmer, armed with the know how, tools, land and funds in order to productively cultivate land.
How can they even begin, when even the tractors imported for farmers are highly taxed vehicles making it impossible for them to purchase and operate and repay their loans, leaving them at the mercy of lenders of last resort to end up owning them as well due to the inability to profitably manage the needed tools.
In this instance farmers are left to hire these vehicles with the driver at rates that barely make sense, as a specialist has now emerged, a businessman no less who owns the means of farming, the tractors, the combine harvesters who charge according to the extent of land ploughed.
The solution here is to empower the farmer societies in taking charge of this aspect and giving them the subsidized equipment free from taxes to share among the farmer societies, to reduce the wastage of labor intensive work.
One suggestion I was given recently was that the societies lacked a back hoe to dig the canals and clean them ready for water supply and neither did the irrigation departments have them, so if there was a scheme where 10 societies shared the tractors, back hoes and other much needed equipment while being able to get their hands on other less important ones, if needed from private sources, the objective of efficient and productive rice cultivation could result.
In conclusion we must first understand what the Country Food Security objective and then take steps to fulfill the objectives
I am not suggesting that we consolidate fields into larger productive tracts to cultivate, but we must be made aware of the population shifts and the numbers entering agriculture in order to make these assumptions.
The link below is one that says that smaller farms are more productive than bigger ones going against the new norm. However one should bear in mind it is by using the new techniques and intensive agriculture with much more inputs that will result in this and so green houses that are able to produce 10 times more harvest than without, is a means to achieving those ends, not just by assuming the same farmer will reach those heights without any training.
We need policies that will achieve the ends we set ourselves. It is doable, but with a different set of people with a purpose, not Public Officials warming their seats.
We have a political culture that goes against this trend, and that has got to change, sooner rather than later. They must understand not just food security, but also the nutritious food that the people of this country need, that reduces illness rather than increase them as what happens today. It is a holistic concept aimed at developing a healthy society for the future, not just a dependent one that all political policies seem to encourage, for personal gain, and not for the overall health of the country.
There is no one in Sri Lanka today that has the ability to take on these multiple sectors to work in the nation’s interest because there are too many personal agendas that are in conflict with that of the public interest. Let us hope we can rise up and convince the public that certain decision that are taken are in the public interest and not personal and there are some changes in policies needed to keep on track in achieving the goals laid out above. As far as I know I have yet to read an article that even broadly touches on this subject as I have laid out due to ignorance.