Photo courtesy of Global Press Journal

There are various dire predictions of the expected amount of paddy this Yala season, which will result in insufficient rice to feed the country, although there is some confusion as to how much is in storage from prior cultivations.

What we are talking here is an expected yield of 500,000 tons when the normal is more like 1,850,000 tons. The past volumes of paddy production for the Yala season from the Department of Census and Statistics are given here.

The three largest paddy producing districts in Sri Lanka are Ampara, Kurunegala and Polonnaruwa. They account for around 140,000 acres each for the Yala cultivation in normal times. I farm some paddy acreage in Polonnaruwa.

Water for my paddy fields from the Minneriya Tank was released on May 25. Normally we would receive water a full month earlier. However the farmer organizations of each of the main irrigations tanks – Parakrama Samudraya, Minneriya, Kaudulla and Giritale – rejected the water, saying they don’t want water until fertilizer was supplied so I had no choice, despite having prepared my inputs for cultivation beginning April 25 when unseasonal rains drenched the land, to delay cultivation until the water was released. I took advantage of that rain to run the rotavator over the land with my tractor so that any weed and paddy seeds from the soil would have a chance of emerging, to be plowed back in the second time when water was released to reduce the weed infestation substantially. This will assist in improving my harvest. However few farmers have the wherewithal to do this. Most hire tractors from those who have them and do it once; paddy seed as well as weed seed combination is the result, leading to the need for weedicides that could affect paddy, at high cost. My sole intentions is to do it right for a maximum harvest despite the cost. If I am fortunate in a good harvest then the higher cost can be covered, if not I could even lose money. The element of risk is definitely there.

In each area there is a historical window during which one should cultivate to maximize on productivity, water availability and the likelihood of pest infestations at certain times of the year that cannot be countered with chemical repellent. My window was gone and now I am entering into the process of preparing the soil for late cultivation where the risk of pests is much higher and pesticides are not available. I have to suffer the consequences of this delay. Rains likely close to harvest time are also a cost.

The fertilizer conundrum

It is no surprise that despite the delay, the farmers did not get their fertilizer. Farmers have been given misleading information about the availability of urea. The varieties of paddy that I grow, and are grown by 95% of farmers in my area, are locally developed hybrid grains specifically for high yield using a high concentration of nitrogen fertilizer referred to as urea.

Subsequent to a cabinet decision on April 29, 2021 all chemical fertilizer was banned from the country leading to consternation among farmers; permission was given to private traders to import their own. However, this coincided with the import bans and lack of foreign exchange so importers could not easily obtain fertilizer unless they had ready foreign exchange. This meant that only a few traders were able to import, which created a shortage, a black market and rumors of quality compromise and mixing that thoroughly confused the farmers as to what to do because if the fertilizer was not up to standard, they could literally lose their shirt. The Rs.10,000 urea from India is only expected in August – too late now.

What is the farmer with few resources to do? Give up paddy cultivation this season until there is some certainty with regard to fertilizer supply.

Land under paddy cultivation

With the recent increases in fuel prices as well as the unavailability of fuel and the depreciation of the rupee, input costs have risen astronomically over a short period of time. The current charge today to plow an acre is Rs.25,000. Without urea it makes no sense for the farmer, who is not proficient in growing local varieties that don’t have a ready market, to risk planting what he is not competent at because he is justified in thinking that the yields will be around 50% of normal. So when the Rs.25,000 harvesting cost is added, the basic cost of Rs.75,000 on top of his own labor does not make sense if he can only get a harvest of a maximum of 1,000 kg per acre.

My approach and rationale

Given these conditions, around half of the farmers are resigned to not engaging in any cultivation, paddy or any other crop, despite the government’s plea to plant some other food crop since the water is available via the irrigation canals.

They are usually the ones with no savings to invest in cultivation, who often borrow from banks and money lenders to cultivate and who envisage penury if they work their land. I can’t blame them but the result is the prediction of a massive drop in output. The farmers who either own or have access to tractors are more likely to work their fields since part of their cost is already sunk in their equipment and they have a greater chance of breaking even or making a profit depending on the price of paddy at the farmgate when they harvest. That is a complete unknown at present. However if the price of rice is any guide, it is more likely to be much higher than in the past and that is what I too am expecting in order to take the bigger risk that I am engaging in.

So I have scoured the marketplace for the best available quality of urea and I am able to procure it at Rs.40,000 a bag (with no government subsidy) when compared to Rs.1,500 (subsidized) prior to the chemical fertilizer bans.

In order to improve the nitrogen content of the soil, I planted mung beans on the day of my last paddy harvest in some of my fields and hope that it will help in my paddy growth this season, as recommended by the Agriculture Department. No other farmer in the area replicated what I did because I had to purchase the mung bean seeds at Rs.1,000 a kilo and none of my fellow farmers were prepared to follow my example for a myriad of reasons.

Subject to the conditions of late sowing, I am doing my utmost to get as good a harvest as is practically possible on my land to cover the massive extra cost of fertilizer and other inputs and hopefully to make a return. Only farmers with the resources are following my example with the use of urea at this price. Some have found alternative chemical fertilizer at lower prices such as ammonium, a low quality substitute for urea.

Only time will tell if I am able to cover my costs. If I can do so, at least I can brag that I produced, say, 15,000 kgs of rice this season but made no profit while my neighbors produced nothing and left their fields fallow.

I can claim I produced some grain to help with food shortage without any subsidy from the state except for the provision of irrigated water.