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Let’s listen to farmers:
They are smarter than we think – I

" Peasant farmers already know their agro-ecological area,

farming system and socio-economic environment intimately.

Their knowledge is superior to what outsiders could realistically hope to gain,

even after prolonged study."

- Peter Gubbels

All the major and minor food crops and animals (livestock) on which mankind survives today have been discovered, selected and domesticated from the wild by farmers. "Early cultivators knew about the characteristics, food and medicinal value of over 1,500 plant species"(Braidwood, 1967. Prehistoric men).

Farmers regularly innovate and make their own selection of appropriate technologies. Because farmers Seldom record their accomplishments in writing and do not attach their names and patents to their inventions, the history of agriculture is written without reference to the main innovators in the long- term process of technology change. Modern agricultural science rests upon the foundation of at least ten millennia of informal experimentation by countless anonymous subsistence farmers. Sadly, with the advent and professionalisation of agricultural science, farmers’ research tends to have been marginalized or de-legitimized. Politicization and bureaucratic control has finally resulted in farmers being seen as mere adopters and recipients of technologies developed by ‘scientists’ and disseminated by ‘professional extensionists’. However, experimenting is part of farming as much as tilling the soil and planting seeds and continues unabated despite professional prejudice.

Good reasons

Peasant farmers generally have many good reasons for what they do, as well as what they will not do. They are NOT resistant to change. In fact, survival demands that they rapidly adapt to changing circumstances (political, socio-economic, environmental etc.). However, many of them may resist readily accepting advice given to them by ‘outsiders’ (scientists, extensionists and politicians) because:

"Farmers rightly sense that there is danger in the counsel of any man who does not have to live by the results" (J.K. Galbraith)

The acid test pertaining to the relevance of any technology introduced into an area is widespread farmer acceptance and adoption. In the mid 1980s the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka (MASL) linked-up with private sector Companies in an attempt to introduce high value cash crops such as gherkins, baby corn, baby ‘okra’ (Bandakka) etc. to small farmers within Mahaweli systems. The private companies provided the total package of necessary inputs (high quality seed imported from the USA, fertilizers, fungicides and insecticides) on credit to farmers willing to grow these crops. The Mahaweli Authority also obtained the assistance of USAID in training and establishing an effective commodity-based extension service specifically to assist these farmers. USAID was quick to respond with even storage facilities (‘Cold rooms’) for these highly perishable commodities. Quality standards required for export, and fastidious urban consumers were laid down, and purchasing centers were established. Farmer response was initially very positive. However, their interest soon waned and the entire project ended in a big flop. Why? Because the new crops (gherkins in particular) were highly susceptible to fungal diseases under our agro-ecological conditions. They were also very demanding in terms of labour requirement. ‘Baby corn’ was virtually ‘still born’ due to the Corn stem borer pest! Traditional Corn varieties grown by local farmers were more resistant to this pest. Input costs and overall cost of production was so high that farmers soon realized that their efforts were not adequately compensated by the purchase prices offered by the big Companies (‘Kompani karayo’) for their produce. Some farmers found it more profitable to let the gherkins grow into big cucumbers when they fetched a reasonable price at the local ‘pola’. Despite the higher purchase price per kg. Offered by the Companies for finger sized gherkins, farmers found that selling overgrown gherkins as cucumbers at the pola enabled them to earn a higher income per acre ( just 3-4 cucumbers added up-to a kilo). The Kompani karayas retreated to base camp!

Other field crops (OFC)

Government agencies such as the agriculture department and Mahaweli Authority often bemoan the fact that many farmers are reluctant to grow OFCs (also referred to as other field crops or subsidiary food crops) such as greengram, cowpea, maize/corn, soybean, B-onions, chili etc. in paddy fields during the dry (yala) season despite their increased profitability compared to rice. Many farmers in major irrigation schemes still prefer to grow a short age rice variety in the ‘yala’ season. Officials tend to be puzzled by this apparently irrational behavior on the part of farmers even when there appears to be inadequate irrigation water to grow a successful rice crop. OFCs require less water, and make more money, so why grow rice? Ask the officials.

Still farmers are unconvinced because they know from experience that OFCs require well drained, friable soil conditions. Most paddy fields tend to be poorly drained heavy clay soils. Improving their drainage status requires construction of raised beds and a network of drains. All this requires much labour(labour wages have doubled during the past ten years, costing about Rs 500 per manday at present). During the rainy season (maha), the soil tends to be too wet for OFCs despite the construction of raised beds etc. Paddy/rice is the most viable option then, but rice cultivation requires billiard table flat fields (to ensure effective water management and weed control). The costly raised beds have now to be broken down and leveled.

However there are some areas, mainly in Mahaweli system H and Elahera region where soil conditions do permit successful cultivation of OFCs without heavy investments in land preparation. But there remain many other intractable problems: OFCs require very high investments in terms of imported seed, fertilizers, pesticides, and labour for weeding, harvesting/picking, processing and storage. Having done all this, farmers are faced with the most intractable problem of all – marketing.

OFC cultivation is thus a high-risk venture and is generally undertaken by ‘better off’, more prosperous farmers.

They are a minority. The majority of ‘poor’ farmers can rarely afford taking such risks.

If a rich man’s crop fails, he merely draws down his bank account, or takes out another loan. When a poor man’s crop fails, he and his family may go hungry and be driven to the point of suicide.

Paddy sales

Despite the establishment of an extensive network of paddy purchasing centers by the government assuring a reasonably attractive floor price for paddy, considerable publicity exhorting farmers to sell their paddy to these purchasing outlets, rarely has the State managed to purchase more than 10 percent of the total harvest. The more enterprising (albeit exploitative), private trader succeeds in purchasing over 70 per cent of the harvest, even at a lower price! Corrupt public officials are frequently blamed for this situation. Yet, bureaucratic inertia and corruption is only part of the problem. Farmers prefer to sell their paddy to the middleman/trader because they offer a variety of other services: easy access to credit- consumption and production credit; agro-inputs- weedicides and pesticides on credit, tractors for ploughing, and more recently, even reaping and threshing equipment. Some private traders (closely linked to rice millers) have paddy cleaning and grain drying facilities. As such, these traders purchase even wet paddy from farmers. Paddy purchasing centers managed by the State have to insist on higher quality standards (moisture content of grain less than 14%, X % impurities, broken grains etc.) because they do not have the facilities to process wet paddy. Wet paddy/rice germinates and ferments on storage. Large-scale mill owners, do not even need to dry wet paddy purchased from farmers, because they are able to arrest the process of fermentation by steaming (‘par-boiling’ the paddy), shortly after purchase, and prior to milling.

Part II tomorrow

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