Photo courtesy of A Subsistence Farmer
The biggest gamble of a lifetime is being played out in the fields of Sri Lanka by over a million people today.
Paddy sowing for the rain fed Maha season is almost complete, with the lag being by farmers in Polonnaruwa who came in late because they were in a stand off with the government, which relented a few weeks ago and permitted the import of chemical inputs by the private sector while maintaining that the state had not changed its original stance.
When the cabinet announced on April 29 that Sri Lanka was going organic instantly, after the shock had settled in, some farmers who were in the middle of Yala season cultivation decided to conserve what fertilizer, weedicides and pesticides they already had for the future, while the numerous retailers and some wholesalers took their stocks of chemical fertilizer and other chemical inputs underground to plan for the inevitable black market that would emerge.
The moment you play with market dynamics by restricting or banning something, that item automatically goes underground and a black market emerges for a few haves to take advantage of the have nots, a common human trait in a society that lives precariously on the edge, with farmers forced to make decisions beyond their capabilities.
The Maha season has the largest area under paddy of the two seasons, since rain fed paddy in areas without irrigation schemes are also cultivated. In places such as the Kurunegala District with few irrigation tanks, you plow with the rains or you miss the bus, so farmers prepared their fields despite the uncertainty of available inputs. Overall there is a reduction of around 20% of cultivable land from the corresponding period last year due to this shortage and the risk averse not wanting to engage in farming paddy.
The question you ask is what are you using as inputs? Do you have enough fertilizer? How are you managing your paddy farming this season? Each farmer will have slightly differing answers depending on their level of preparedness and their financial status in being able to pay for inputs that are hard to come by and have ballooned in price in the black market.
Farmers have been forced to take much higher risks; in agriculture you can calculate all the inputs needed but the output, namely your harvest, depends on a myriad of factors beyond your control.
To pile on added risk on top of the traditional risks of unseasonal rains or lack of water, pests and diseases, the new shortage of inputs and the question of which areas you compromise in puts the farmers’ mental faculties as well as their physical resources to the ultimate test. Coming from a successful Yala season, where the harvest was an all time record because the rains were on cue and diseases were much less than prior years, the optimism of a good income at harvest time in July and August was dampened by the immediate and confusing move to organic.
While those who had the resources stocked up with their inputs early, buying in the black market with the funds they received for their prior harvest, 80% of subsistence farmers had no choice but to let fate take its course and many delayed their planting until the ban was lifted.
I recently purchased weedicides for Rs. 5,000 for a 500 ml bottle being marketed by a local company. It must have been a stock that was released to the market after the ban was announced, so the manufacturer had increased the retail price from Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 3,800. During the last season the retail price was Rs. 3,000, which means that in the growing areas where the farmer can get about a 25% discount since the retailer shares his 40% to 50% mark up with the farmer, it was around Rs. 2,250. On this product alone, the cost is up by over 100%. This story is being played out in a million homes around the country today.
Why am I willing to spend more than double from the last season? I take the risk because I expect the price of paddy to double due to the expected lower harvest caused by the uneven supply and the inability of farmers to apply inputs at the same level and consistency as in the past due to price rises and limited availability of inputs.
Urea, a nitrogen based fertilizer that was available last season at Rs.1,500 for a 50 kg bag was selling at Rs. 9,000 for a 25 kg bag. We don’t know the brand, neither do we know if it was old stock since urea deteriorates with age and we don’t know if the retailer is selling hoarded stock. We have to determine if we are willing to pay this just to apply even a quarter of the normal usage per hectare, which would still be a 300% increase per hectare from the 1,200% increase in price. Due to the low application, we have to mix it with sand to apply as otherwise it is difficult to spread evenly in such low quantities to the growing plants when needed. The bottom line is that this is only available to less than 10% of farmers and black marketeers are thriving on this trade.
The government, in the late stage of realising that the basic ingredient for hybrid paddy cultivation is nitrogen, sourced it from India, calling it nano nitrogen. It comes in liquid form in bottles and has a pungent smell that is hard to take.
Farmers in the Ampara District have applied it. One person I spoke to said his paddy has gone all yellow after application. That is a frightening proposition and I do not want to apply it in my land when I receive my entitlement in a few days. It is given according to the land extent under cultivation and is provided free. I am not going into the argument that you don’t release to unsuspecting farmers a product that has not been tried and tested, with specific instructions on its application.
The biggest additional cost is is urea at Rs.1,500 for a 50 kg; one has to pay a day’s wages at Rs. 2,000 for a half day’s work for hazardous application using sprayers that require water to be dissolved according to instructions. It’s piling on more costs that few farmers can afford.
The costs of growing paddy have escalated so much that the risk of cultivation rises and the expectation of at least a doubling in the price of paddy is the basis on which this risk is taken to compensate for the higher costs as well as the lower harvest outputs.
We will have to wait for the results between February and April of 2022 to know if the gamble has paid off and if not, how many farmers commit suicide having mortgaged all the property they have to cultivate their lands. We have no idea of what might happen despite the lifting of the ban; we live on rumour of what may be available. The private sector dares not commit because it needs the dollars to import and the time lag from order, release of funds by the Central Bank and product arrival could mean it’s not available this season unless local producers have imported chemicals in store and are busy manufacturing as we speak. We are racked with this uncertainty, especially those hoping for last minute reprieves.
I have seen fields with much more weeds than previously, implying that the pre-emergent weedicides have not been applied, which would automatically result in lower harvests. Let’s remember that no matter what the harvest is, the cost per acre for the combine harvester that the farmer has to hire is the same no matter what the harvest is. It is based on price per acre, currently Rs. 12,000 in most places, but that could change between now and harvest time due to factors such as price of diesel and other inputs for their operations.
This unacceptable level of risk in an industry that is already highly risky means that we must be watchful of the repercussion of a bad result on people’s livelihood and mental state at harvest. We need to offer a minimum price determined today, not at time of harvest, just to get through this season as a minimum to give farmers a level of comfort in order to take the risk. I propose a price of at least Rs. 90 per kg for nadu paddy up from the Rs. 55 per kg for last season, irrespective of what the big millers will offer at farmgate, which is a private sector supply demand based price at time of harvesting.
We cannot play around with the minds of farmers on whom we depend on for rice because we don’t have the alternative of dollars to import the shortfall, or to force down the price of paddy, as the latter is treachery to protect the consumer and punish the farmer on whom the tragedy has been imposed.
While this drama plays out, the state is oblivious to the ramifications as it is busy with more weighty matters such as payments of international borrowings. We must brace the country and the people for the possibility of a shortage of rice or at least a massive increase in the price of rice from March onwards.
The talk on the land is the fear of the unknown and the rumour mill discusses the availability or shortage of inputs, withincredulity about the lack of responsibility on the part of the government that took collective responsibility for the instant conversion to organic, followed by the instant overturn a few days ago; it has turned out to be a false promise due to the lack of the same inputs that are now allowed.