Lately the President has been exhorting the farmer by extolling the virtues of exporting his produce, why? http://www.ft.lk/business/Farmers-could-make-more-profits-by-exporting-President/34-703027
The country is in dire need of foreign exchange and that must be in the back of his mind, looking towards agriculture to come to the aid of other industries that have taken a hit due to maladministration, which is now coupled with the Covid 19 epidemic worldwide.
I will use one example, pepper, to make the point, but broadly the argument holds for other crops too. If we exclude Tea, and Coconuts, which have a well entrenched system of production and value addition, that have their own problems as they are traditional export industries, it is other crops that I will refer in general in my opinion piece.
90% of the crops in all other agricultural produce is grown my small farmers in land extents not exceeding 5 acres and few if any farmer, me included are involved in mono crops, as diversification is considered both an insurance against crop failure or disease, and better for the overall soil utilization using minimal chemical fertilizer on the land.
In my case, I sell almost everything I grow on my land itself where the consumer comes to my property to purchase the limited but fresh and generally organic produce on Saturday morning as a matter of practice. It may be my fault that my revenue has never exceeded my payroll, and so have never made a profit on my land, and am willing to be branded inefficient and incompetent, if only you know what I am up against, all manner of theft from humans and loss due to animal interference!
Be that as it may, like most other farmers we all produce in quantity that is considered at best home garden levels in any other country, due both limited land area, and low productivity and little incentive to use modern technology.
There are many reasons for that, but include high cost of labor, in a country where working on the land is a matter of least preference, and other less onerous alternatives being available, one being Government Service, even as agricultural extension officers who aren’t require to do much work for their remuneration.
It is important to state at the outset, that if Public Service pay was halved, there would be more people wishing to go into agriculture at a lower wage, but that will not happen until it becomes necessary for food security.
Given the above, and that small crops have a limited harvesting season in Sri Lanka, inevitably, when it comes to selling one’s produce, over supply is given as a reason for the middle man to pay much less when purchasing the small yields of the farmers. Due to limited buyers for produce, the farmer has little choice.
In the case of pepper which is the example I am using and is no different in concept to others, the small farmer does not have the equipment (as it is not economical for him to purchase) to prepare it to a quality for export. So raw newly cut pepper is sold to a middle man who supplies the exporter who has the machinery to dry and clean the pepper in order to get the quality needed for export, something that local farmers are unable to do, as their level of output does not render that investment worthwhile. Quality is key and is hard to achieve.
I wonder if the President is even aware of this process in order to secure export markets, which require much larger volumes and consistent quality that only a middle man can guarantee, by him sourcing the raw material to meet the orders in hand. It is foolish even to ask the farmer to find export markets in this instance.
The State must intervene to give advice via these agricultural extension officers as well as assist in obtaining the planting material suitable for that particular area, as well as the guidance on best practice to maximize on quality yield in the manner of planting and fertilizer usage etc. This is what the farmer looks for at a minimum from his local extension officer and does not get. This is the area within the power of the President to intervene on behalf of the farmer, instead of shamefully extolling and exhorting! Of course a fairer price is always needed.
I am told Sri Lanka Pepper is the best in the world and I believe so. It needs to be marketed well and recently, the import of cheap pepper from Vietnam for re export by crooks maintaining it was Ceylon Pepper ruined the export market we had, which now suspects any pepper originating from Sri Lanka. One can imagine what it did to the pepper prices for farmers, some of whom were ruined by that action. If that was not Government policy to permit, tell me who’s idea it was!
Whether it is Cinnamon, Pepper, Nutmeg, Cloves or other spices, Sri Lanka can produce the best in the world, but the final finishing of the raw produce of farmers to international standards of hygiene and marketability cannot be done by the traditional farmer and taken up by a more centralized organization in the private sector, where the farmer receives a fair price for his product, rather than being fobbed of with the standard retort of too much supply now that has depressed the price!
I trust the President instead of putting his foot in his mouth, sincerely tries to understand the hardest vocation in Sri Lanka, namely farming and truly helps it.