Monday, 15 December 2014

Essential Factors in Bringing Back Organic Rice Farming: A Case Study from Nilwala River Basin

By Chatura Rodrigo

Paddy farming accounts for nearly 40% of the total cultivatable land in Sri Lanka. However, majority of this is under inorganic paddy cultivation and only around 5%  is under organic paddy cultivation . Organic paddy cultivation is largely for private consumption, therefore it is mainly for subsistence purposes . Most of the time, organic rice goes hand in hand with traditional paddy varieties .   Over the years, concerns over non-commutable diseases (NCDs), chemical free produce and environmental sustainability has persuaded many people to consume organic rice . While the government has emphasized its intention on promoting  organic paddy cultivation in the country through consecutive budgets of 2013 and 2014, encouraging farmers to practice more commercial organic paddy farming is faced with many issues that need considerable attention .  This article focuses on a case study of the Nilwala river basin in Matara. It highlights the issues faced by organic farmers and some farmer-driven initiatives to overcome them. 

Main constraints faced by farmers of commercial organic paddy production

Stand-alone cultivation has increased the cost of cultivation of organic paddy farming. Many organic paddy farmers do not have large land areas. The average paddy land size varies from 0.5 acres to 2 acres while the majority is around 1 acre of paddy land. Often these are marginalized lands, either abandoned after so many years of inorganic paddy farming or not cultivated for several years. Lands, especially in the Nilwala river basin are not very suitable to use machinery. Instability in the top soil layer prevents larger machines operating in the paddy lands and ploughing is done manually, which is very labour intensive. Moreover, these lands are located apart, individually, and there are many commercial inorganic paddy lands in between.  Therefore, unlike in the commercial chemical based paddy farming where the lands are cultivated as “tracks of lands”, organic farming is much more “plot oriented”. This has prevented farmers from getting the advantage of “economies of scale”. Furthermore, having inorganic paddy lands in between have increased the land preparation and water management costs significantly.  

Finding seed paddy is a major issue for organic paddy farming, especially if the farming is for commercial purposes. Even though there are many traditional paddy varieties involved with organic rice farming in Sri Lanka, few have attracted commercial attention. Usually, organic farmers practice broadcasting as a way of planting, while some are using methods such as “Parachuting”. Both methods demand more seed paddy. On average 1 kg of traditional seed paddy ranges from between Rs.90-Rs. 100. However these are for common varieties.  There are high yielding, nutritious varieties which are sometimes hard to find even if the farmers would like to buy. These varieties are distributed among farmers through their own networks.  There are organic farmers who cultivate organic paddy to produce seed paddy for the requirement of others. Unlike inorganic seed paddy, there are only few organic farmers who successfully produce seed paddy. Sometimes, organic farmers in Anuradhapura and Galle have to get their seed paddy from farmers in Homagama and Horana in the Colombo district, since these varieties are available only with farmers in those areas. Therefore, the cost of securing seed paddy for cultivation is quite high for most organic paddy farmers. 

Water management and labour discourages farmers a lot in engaging in commercial organic paddy farming. 

As mentioned earlier, majority of the commercial organic farming is concentrated on marginalized paddy lands. These lands do not have irrigation facilities and many farmers are dependent on the rainfall. For most of the commercial organic farmers in the Galle and Matara districts, the last two seasons were failures due to irregular rainfall patterns. They did not receive enough rainfall to start the land preparation, and heavy rainfall came just before the maturation and harvesting stages, destroying the harvest.  In Elipitiya of Galle district, out of 180 acres of paddy land, only 30 acres were cultivated during the last season due to low availability of water.  Some farmers do have access to nearby water ways, but they refuse to obtain water from these sources since it is already polluted with upstream inorganic cultivation. To make things worse, local authorities of many areas give priority to providing irrigation water for inorganic farming, ignoring the nearby organic paddy lands. 

Labour is becoming an inadequate and expensive factor of production for organic paddy farming.   In the early days, farmers used to share labour popularly known as “attam”. Groups of farmers would get together and move from one paddy land to the other in land preparation, planting and harvesting. However, over the years, labour has become an expensive component. With two meals and two teas, a male labourer would cost around Rs. 1500/day and female labourer would cost around Rs 1000/day. Even at that cost, it is hard to find labour for each season and farmers end up employing more and more family labour. Since the majority of the younger generation is moving away from paddy farming, the available labour is less productive, hence increasing the number of labour days and ultimately the cost of cultivation. Furthermore, in areas such as Galle and Matara, there is high demand for labour from  tea and cinnamon cultivators. In Matale and Kandy, it is by tea and export agriculture.  All these restrict the availability of labour for organic paddy farming. 

Organic manure is limited and costly and has created many constraints for farmers, limiting their productivity. Organic farmers use a combination of organic manure in their farming. There are animal based as well as plant based manure. An animal based 50 Kg fertilizer bag, which is called “Katu Pohora”, is around Rs.2,500. There is a plant based fertilizer mixture as well which is at the same price range. In addition, farmers use liquid fertilizers also which are most often manufactured by themselves with animal waste and plant matter. This requires farmers to buy the animal waste if they do not rear livestock, and require family or hired labour in manufacturing. Therefore, taken together, the organic commercial farmer has to pay a significantly higher amount for fertilizer compared to commercial inorganic farmer. On average, with the fertilizer subsidy, an inorganic farmer pays a price of Rs.7 per 1 kg for inorganic fertilizers which on average will be around Rs.1,200 per acre.  There are commercial organic farmers who do not apply all these organic manures and apply only a limited amount, but their production per acre is comparatively very low compared to a farmer who applies the required amount of organic manures. 

Weed and pest management and harvesting are also costly for commercial organic rice farmers. Traditional varieties in organic farming also have a tendency to attract many pests and diseases that attack the new improved varieties in inorganic farming.  Since the organic rice farming does not include any chemicals, pest and disease control needs careful and continuous attention from the farmer. There are many traditional and organic ways to deal with weeds and pest attacks, however it needs early detection and prevention most of the time. It is not that easy as applying a broad spectrum chemical like in inorganic farming. Most of the time, weeding is done by hand which requires many man hours ultimately increasing the cost of production. Planting methods such as broadcasting and Parachuting will limit the applicability of machinery in weeding.  There are methods of cultivation which are applied in organic framing that will enable weeding by machines. However, most of the marginalized paddy lands used for organic farming do not allow the use of such machinery. There are bio-pesticides in the market at a very reasonable price, but this effectiveness might not be high when the pest attack is dominant.  Therefore, unlike in the case of inorganic farming, both weeds and pests have the capacity to destroy the cultivation very easily. Sometimes, there are farmers who in the worst situation, ended up applying chemicals to save their cultivation, but then these activities would waste the entire effort of organic cultivation. Harvesting is again costly since some traditional paddy varieties in organic farming do not accommodate machinery with the height of the plant. Therefore, there are issues of mechanization in harvesting organic rice as well. Employing manual labour in harvesting means more cost to the organic farmer. 

Marketing channels of organic rice is still developing and the price is high for many consumers. On average, a 1kg of organic rice would cost between Rs.170-Rs. 200. However, there are varieties that would be priced above Rs.300/kg. On average, inorganic rice will cost between Rs.50-Rs.75 per 1 kg, which is accessible for the poor and lower middle income consumers. Therefore, the demand for organic rice is mainly by the upper middle income and the higher income groups of the country. These segments account only for a minority of the rice consumers in the country. Hence if the organic rice market to be expanded, the price has to go down. Obviously, the organic rice should attract a higher price for desirable characteristics of being healthy and environmentally friendly food and to cover the higher cost of production. Nevertheless, the current prices are beyond the purchasing power of majority of consumers and hence need to be brought down, preferably with incentives to reduce the cost of cultivation. 

Consumers who demand organic rice as explained above, are distinctive and are mostly residents in urban areas. Therefore, rice produced in the rural areas need to come to urban areas. However, marketing channels are not well established yet and only in few places in the main cities such as Colombo, Matara, Galle and Kandy sell organic rice, which is not sufficient to cater to the growing consumer base. Because of this there are many consumers who go directly to the farmer or the miller to buy the product rather than going to the market place. 

What are the lessons learnt from the Nilwala river basin farmers

Nilwala river basin farmers in Aththudawa, Matara are focused on cultivating a traditional paddy variety called “Maa-Vee”. This paddy variety has proved to be very effective with the soil type of the area, agro climatic conditions with proven resistance to weeds, pests and climate change impacts. Therefore, these farmers have selected an appropriate paddy variety that suits the local conditions. These farmers were inorganic farmers a few years back, but they made a voluntary decision to take up organic rice farming saving the government 22 million rupees in fertilizer subsidy. These farmers cultivate together. They share labour, machinery, seed paddy and organic manures thus achieving economies of scale in production. Since all the farmers are practicing organic farming, the water ways are not polluted by upstream cultivations. 

There are more than 60 farmers who cultivate on a commercial basis and they are closely linked with the local authorities. Agriculture extension officers and officials of the Southern Provincial Council are keen on developing organic paddy farming in the Nilwala river basin. Hence they enjoy favourable conditions, securing the government officials’ assistance as well as the political will for organic farming. Harvesting was an issue for these farmers as they only had a limited number of machinery. Rather than hiring machinery from outside, farmers took their own initiative to overcome this.  As a result, now there are dedicated harvesting machines in the area, providing secure and continuous employment for several people. Several farmers have got together and established a mill to process the paddy harvest. Initially they were buying paddy at a rate of Rs.50/kg. But with more supply from farmers and demand from wholesale buyers, the mill has been able to buy paddy at a rate of Rs.75/kg, which is a good opportunity and motivation for production. 

These farmers provide a very valuable example in addressing many issues discussed earlier regarding commercial organic farming. They act together, thus realizing economies of scale in production. Working as a group has reduced their costs of land preparation, water management, planting, weed control, pest control and harvesting. They have benefited from the institutional support and political will which enable them to secure water for agriculture, a market place for the produce and agriculture extension services to improve the farming practices. Furthermore, they work closely with the society, providing employment to others in becoming entrepreneurs such as mill operators, harvesting machinery operators, transporters and organic manure producers. Their example provides a light of hope for those who are keen to take into organic agriculture as a way of producing healthy and environmentally friendly foods.   

[1] Wanninayake, W,M, C, B and Shantha, A, A. 2013. Pricing Economic Value of Organic Rice Under Dichotomous Framework: An Environmental Perspective. Kelaniya Journal of Management, Vol 2, (2), 1-22.
[2] Rodrigo, C, 2013, “Traditional Paddy Cultivation in Providing Ecological Services: Resilience Against Climate Change and Many More”, National Conference on Livelihoods, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Colombo, Sri Lanka, pp 24-30.
[3] Chatura Rodrigo, 2013, “Use of Traditional Paddy Cultivation as a Means of Climate Change Mitigation”, September 19th 2013, The Island newspaper.
[4] H.P.S Somasiri, “Sustainability of Paddy Fields and Ecosystems Towards Society”, 4th INWEPF Steering Meeting and Symposium, Bangkok, Thailand.

[5] Small Organic Farmers Association of Sri Lanka, http://www.sofasl.orgvisited online on 5th May 2013.
[6] Chatura Rodrigo, 2014, “Is It Time to Go Back Where We Came From: Addressing the Debate Organic Vs Inorganic Rice Farming Through a New Research Approach”, February 3rd 2014, Daily Mirror newspaper.