Tuesday, April 7, 2020

It’s finally time farmers of Sri Lanka get a fair shake, surely!

I have been a subsistence farmer for 8 years from 2004 to 2011 and believe I am sufficiently experienced in all aspects from growing to final sale to the consumer, to be able to opine intelligently on the subject as much anecdotes are from personal experience.

Years of just paying lip service to farmers, in order to get their vote, but eventually with policies that did little to improve the productivity of agriculture, we in Sri Lanka must once and for all realize that food security is important and professional farmers do indeed play a significant role in ensuring that.

This coronavirus pandemic has brought food security back into the front burner in Sri Lanka, as some people have only just realized that over 50% of the food intake of Sri Lanka is imported, and with the limited foreign exchange at their disposal, that this cannot be one which is sustainable.

It is simply ironic, if not tragic that the only announcement made by the President recently was to guarantee a price of Rs65/kg for Dhal and Rs100 a tin of fish if purchased from the Government owned stores Sathosa. In reality with the curfew imposed almost immediately thereafter, the hapless citizens were in queues kilometers long in order to be given an allocation of 1kg of Dhal and one tin of fish! Is that fair? You be the judge of that. This rationing was to prevent a few people including unscrupulous traders from stocking and selling on the black market at a premium, but that is what happens always anywhere there is a shortage of something that is under a price control.

All this talk is a bunch of hot air, if we are unable to empower the farmers of Sri Lanka to produce food, be it rice, or any other commodity in order to feed the populace, and in some cases gain foreign exchange from their export, mainly of spices. There have always been programs and incentives to improve agricultural production for the past 70+ years, but apart from the Mahaweli Scheme that brought a lot of irrigated land under cultivation, there have been few other projects that have truly increased agricultural output.

I blame this fairly and squarely on policies that have not been adequately communicated with farmers to obtain their input in the practicality of proposed Government incentives to increase productivity and production as none of the goals have been achieved and no detailed studies have taken place as to why they have not succeed. In my experience there have been many inconsistent and disjointed projects that farmers were encouraged to get involved in that ultimately pauperized him, with no recompense or admittance of culpability on the part of those who encouraged their adoption.

There have been ad hoc explanations, such as pest control and threat from wildlife that is protected, that have devastated crops, but in essence no practical steps have taken place to minimize the impact of this pestilence on agricultural harvests.

Farmers have a dim view of the establishment believing rightly or wrongly, that all stakeholders plot against them, in terms of selling pesticides that are useless, or taking action that increases pests as part of an organized crime to sell more pest control and weed control chemicals to enrich and local and multinational companies.

Recently, the farmers in Polonnaruwa were convinced of a plot to cheat/fool them, with the authorities releasing irrigation water a full 3 weeks after the date by which the water should have been released for cultivation, which resulted in a crop devastation due to a blight, which they almost could predict would happen, and the remedies suggested by the plethora of multinationals who they suspected were in league to delay sowing, were on no use to save their harvest. This resulted in untold hardship along with the inability to repay loans taken out for their crop.

This is merely one of many, this being the most recent event as of last month (March 2020) but this is one of a long litany of sins blamed on the powerful agribusiness mafia, that do not have the needs of the farmer at heart, but mere sale of a myriad of solutions, none of which was able to solve the problem!

The whole aspect of inputs are stacked against the famer, as there is a tractor owning mafia that regulate the cost per acre for ploughing, and combine harvester mafia that regulate the cost of their work at a price per acre, no matter what the harvest might be, or how easy the task of harvesting on some land is. Of course the nigger in the woodpile, is the price finally received for their produce, where agents of the millers wait like vultures with cash in hand at the time of harvesting, to persuade the farmer to part with his crop there and then and avoid the messy and time consuming task of drying paddy. They give a substantial discount over the govt. guaranteed price, with the latter having considerable strings attached prior to being purchased at govt. owned warehouses.

I have not gone into the extremely unfair method of price fixing at the Economic Centers such as Dambulla for farmer produce, and as that would take more writing here, I will merely refer to it here as another thorn in the side of farmers to give them next to nothing for the produce they toil to grow, under very harsh and trying conditions.

Suffice to say, how on earth can one expect farmers to come to the rescue of the Country as Food Security Providers, of far more value than the Security Forces, when so many barriers are purposely placed in their way?

There are some private entities that have entered the purchasing market with guaranteed minimum prices for farmers, as they sell through their own chain of supermarkets. They do indeed provide some respite to the beleaguered farmers who join such cooperatives. It is then of the essence that this model is further extended in order to obtain a fair price for produce.

Home Garden Fad encouraged in times of food shortage to fool the masses

Lately, a lot of media publicity has been given with prominent personalities showing their efforts at growing certain vegetables at home, including that of the PM and his wife. It is laughable to say the least as it is nothing but a stunt to fool the hapless public that this will go a long way to alleviate the problems at hand.

While there is nothing wrong for someone at home who can find some space where they can put some seeds down and grow some food items for their home consumption and exchange with neighbors if there is some excess. At best this is a stop gap measure for a limited period of time, as only a few vegetables grow in this way with minimal intervention and free of disease. There are people who vouch for this method of growing their home garden, but they are honestly few and far between and are accomplished in this task, which the average Joe just cannot begin to adopt. I am not pooh poohing this idea completely, but it is not the panacea for the low productivity of agriculture in Sri Lanka.

We still act very schizophrenically in assuming we can all grow organic vegetables and MUST grow that way, by banning the use of pesticides and chemicals. This is purely pie in the sky, unless the whole island adopts this standard. In areas where this is a mixture, pests removed from areas of spray gravitate to areas of organic agriculture, making the task of growing an impossibility. This further pauperizes the well intention farmers who are promised higher prices for organic food, with false promises, made by those who don’t know the subject in the first place.

Most commercial farms also seem to have given up the ghost of agriculture due to the high taxes on farm equipment essential for low cost economies of scale. Further the labor rate and hiring and firing practices don’t permit efficient use of labor unlike in the Western Countries that encourage seasonal labor at harvest time to pick crops for market, as labor laws are far more lax in this area. There is no culture of work gangs that go from place to place to harvest, as their skill level and productivity over the average villager is double, but are not compensated adequately for their effort, unless a piece rate is negotiated on contract prior to engagement.

I sincerely believe productivity can improve if all inputs are evaluated fairly.