Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Inside the ‘rice bowl’ of Malaysia

The maddening subsidy mentality of a padi farmer is like this, complained a government officer.

He not only wants free clothes, he wants the government to put those clothes on for him.

This is why every announcement of farming aid — from free fertiliser to allowances — is always followed by a speech from a government bigwig exhorting farmers to “change their attitude” and “adopt modern practices.”

It is also why despite five decades of government help, a majority of Malaysia’s padi farmers are still stuck in a cycle of poverty and hardship.

Amir Yaakob, however, is not one of those farmers.

The 40-year-old is part of a growing group of farmers whose fields can produce close to nine tonnes per hectare (ha) a season — just a tonne short of the 10-tonnes per hectare produced by elite rice planters the world over.

Amir may also represent the future of padi planting in Malaysia and who may prove to the Malay community that this centuries-old enterprise can be profitable.

More importantly, “agro-preneurs” like Amir are crucial to the national aim of ensuring that the nation’s rice fields can produce enough of this staple food for its own citizens.

In 2008, Kedah produced over 918,000 tonnes of padi according to the Department of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industries.

Yet, the Agriculture Ministry revealed that in the same year, 657,000 metric tonnes of rice had to be imported to meet national demand.

Doing as they please

Padi planting in the northern rice belt of Kedah and Perlis roughly falls into two categories: fields that are supported by the Muda Agricultural Development Authority (MADA) and those that are not.

Fields under MADA supervision get government-sponsored irrigation and access roads while farmers buy fertiliser and pesticides at heavily-subsidised prices. Farmers also get training in the latest planting techniques and help with machines to harvest their crops.

This is so they can plant more often (twice a year compared to once a year like in the old days), have larger harvests (seven to 10 tonnes per hectare instead of three to five) and make more money from those larger yields.

The Kedah Farmer’s Association Board (LPPK) estimates that three-fourths of all padi fields in Kedah and Perlis or roughly 96,000 ha fall under MADA.

Yet after three decades of pouring in hundreds of millions of ringgit of public funds into MADA, the results aren’t up to par.

Yes, most farmers under MADA have produced larger yields than they used to but they rarely reach the eight to 10-tonne per ha target that the agency wants.

In 2003, a visibly annoyed then-Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi pointed out that farmers in Sekinchan, Selangor can average between 10 to 11 tonnes a ha with little Government help while MADA’s farmers only average five tonnes.

Aziz Mustapha, the deputy chairman of Kampung Jelai Farmer’s Association (PPK, says that 60 per cent of padi farmers still refuse to treat agriculture as a business.

“Diaorang syok sendiri. (They are self-absorbed),” says Aziz, whose association was named the best local farmer’s unit in the 2009 national agriculture expo.

Though they are happy enough to get government help, most farmers refuse to follow strict field management methods necessary to reach 10-tonnes per ha.

“If we all believed in it (that agriculture is a business),” says Aziz, “we would have achieved 10 tonnes long ago.”

The padi is equally green on the other side

The trick (and obstacle) to making padi farming profitable is getting every farmer in a certain area to be on the same page because each person’s field is next to someone else’s and what happens in one field affects another.

That means that they should till the soil, plant seedlings, water the fields and apply pesticides at the same time.

Hussein Darus, another Kampung Jelai farmer, explains:

“I have a relung next to someone else’s.

“This season, he didn’t follow the watering timetable so this affected the seedlings in my relung and because of that they can’t grow.

“So for this season, my relung can’t produce because of the guy next door,” frowns Hussein while he gestures resignedly with his palms up at his barren plot.

A relung is the traditional way Malaysian farmers measure plots. One ha is equivalent to 3.74 relung.

On the whole, Kampung Jelai’s farmers follow efficient field management methods or what MADA calls “precision planting”, where every stage of padi growing is closely monitored says MADA agriculture assistant Asyraf Ramli.

It is part of the system called “estate farming” which the government is trying to encourage for padi, says Kedah LPPK director Abdul Nassir Hassan.

Yet because the majority of all fields are broken up into smallholdings of between 0.5 ha to two ha that are owned by individual farmers, the hardest part is getting them to all agree to plant together.

“This small-mindedness is still alive and well,” says Amir, also of Kampung Jelai PPK. What is changing is not so much the attitudes but the farmers themselves in that as they age, they won’t have the stamina to farm.

And that, ironically, is what will move padi farming into the future.

Go big, literally

“Our MADA officer used to poke fun at me. He used to say that in his career working with padi farmers, I was the first he has seen use binoculars,” joked Amir, a compact, wizened man who seems to be always brooding about his next effort to make more money.

The officer wasn’t being malicious. It’s just the way Malays usually praise one another by casting a compliment as a gibe.

In this case, the officer was making an astute observation about one of Amir’s more inventive methods to make padi farming more efficient.

By using high-powered binoculars, Amir is able to closely monitor the stalks in his numerous fields for signs of health, pest infestation and disease from kilometres away.

He currently cultivates 30 relung or 8.02 ha of padi but not all the relung are grouped in a field that he can survey in one visit. They are all scattered over the Tajar sub-district and it would take him a day to individually visit each relung.

“The binos make it faster for me to monitor my relung and it saves me a lot of time,” says Amir. Time that can be spent on his metalworking business — which is a crucial source of income — or, of equal importance, time looking for more relung to farm.

Amir’s father left him a 0.9 ha field and no matter how much padi he can coax out of such a smallholding, he would never be able to earn enough to feed his wife and kids.

So Amir went out and found an extra 7.12 ha he could rent out from other owners who did not have either the strength or the descendants to continue.

With such a sizable holding, he says, he is able to keep costs low and concentrate on increasing his yields. He is able to get more out of the fields through precision planting compared to the original owners.

Though yields this harvest season have been dampened by a plague of brown plant hoppers, a pest, and hotter-than-normal weather, the price for a tonne of padi is still high at RM1,100 per tonne.

Profits can also be affected by the rising cost of pesticide and fertiliser, says Kampung Jelai’s Aziz.

“You have more and more people leaving the padi business because it is hard work,” says Amir. According to MADA figures, 55.4 per cent of farmers are above 55.

“So when these people can’t farm anymore, they’ll come and look for someone like me, who will rent their holdings and do their farms.”

To truly earn a stable income, says Amir, a farmer would have to have 40 relung or more.

Kedah LPPK’s Nasir concurs that bigger is better.

Another successful padi venture, Nasir says, is in Kampung Pelek in Permatang Pauh, Penang.

It is totally run by the farmer’s association whose managers oversee 300 ha while the field owners sit at home. Profits are distributed to the owners after each season according to the size of their holdings.

So the future, says Nasir, may depend on getting farmers to stay at home and leaving their fields to be tended by professionals.

“Because if the farmers go down to the field themselves they’ll ruin everything,” says Nasir, referring to that attitude of refusing to plant systematically and doing as they please.

Amir, on the other hand, is definitely keeping an eye out for more farmers who want to stay at home.

courtesy of Malaysian Insider

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