Wednesday, June 6, 2007

My first rice paddy harvest

In Sri Lanka one does not qualify to being a farmer until one has grown rice oneself. My new property consisted of 3 acres of abandoned rice fields. It was overgrown with some very destructive weeds. At first glance I could not even imagine growing rice as the task seemed out of my present ability to tackle.

Neverthelss with the encouragement of my neighbors and my staff, I decided I was not just going to give it to a farmer to cultivate and just let me have the usual 60 bushels of paddy as payment for the use of the land, I was going to do it myself. A boy in the neighborhood was asked if he would use his trctor to plough the fields for payment. I learnt my first hard lesson in dealing with the locals. I spent over Rs 10,000 to repair his tractor. He began ploughing a few fields, and there were about 25 fields in all.One day he had taken the tractor and pawned it for money saying his father was ill and needed treatment and just did not come back.

I had to find another farmer with a tractor I could hire and he finished the job. In essence I had to pay all over again. Due to the nature of the fallow and neglected land, I had to prepare all the fields again so that each field could retain water at an even level. This was a big task in levellling the land.There was quite a lot of work that was required. We even had to make a canal to take the water along the side to the furtherst fields as the gravity flow would not ensure water got to them had we not done so.

The seed paddy that I had bought in Godagama turned out to be tainted with white rice and the farmers told me not to use it. So I had to send one of my boys to the Kaduruwela Farm by bus to get a new supply of government certified seed paddy. I then just milled the other seed paddy and sold it in my shop barely recovering my cost.

I obtained the services of the most experienced man in the area to sow the paddy. He had been doing this job for 50 years. It turned out that he had used all the seed paddy on two thirds of the land and I had to hurriedly sow the balance fields with paddy I had bought to mill of a different variety. It turned out that I had sufficient seed paddy but he had sown far too much. This sowing resultied in plants growing too close to each other, which did not allow maximum yield from the plants for lack of space and also plants that were more susceptible to fall with the wind.

Another lesson learned. The expert can do more damage to the crop than the novice. The people in the area were perplexed that I planted a variety of red rice (red samba) not grown in these parts. The people in the area only eat white rice so they only grow white rice as they keep some of their crop for home consumption. I knew I had a market for red rice and I could sell it for more than 50% of the white. I could also buy all the white rice I wanted from my neighbors while I could not get the red. So for me it was a no brainer.

Due to a lot of pitfalls and delays due to labor doing their before coming to mine, I was one of the last to sow. I sowed on the 15th of December 2006 and harvested by cutting the paddy on April 2nd 2007.

The view ten days after sowing was wonderful something that I could never have imagined. A light green spread all round this expanse of fields up to the border of my land lined with trees.Water flowing from one field to the next and generally adequate for growing. A pre-emergent herbicide was used 10 days from sowing to prevent seeds of weeds to grow from the plants that had been ploughed and then drowned with water. It was an unrecognizable set of fields from the weed infested ground.

I did not use any pesticides and my plants did not appear to have been affected by the known pests to any great extent. I mistakenly again on the advice of the local farmers, spread nitrogen in the form of Urea fertilizer on the land. In hindsight I did not need it as the land had been lying fallow and had the required nitrogen in the soil. With the additional use of Urea the Paddy grew taller than they normally should and due to the height tended to fall with the wind, once the stalks were heavy with the grain.

I must count myself extremely lucky in cutting the paddy to be threshed. I had about 10 people working over two days for whom I had to pay Rs10,000 to do this. I got 4 from Ratmale and the rest from Raja Ela and was able to have it all done. Then, when the threshing machine known locally as the Tsunami came we were able to bag about 100 sacks of paddy giving me about 5000 kilos of it. I took 10 bags to Godagama on the first day to have it milled there as the mill I normally used was closed on Poya day for Bak Full Moon. The first rice I had milled was not perfect as it had not sufficiently dried so the rice grains were broken in places. However the the aroma of fresh rice more than compensated. This rice was better for Kiri bath than for normal Kekulu bath.

The reason I say I was fortunate is that once all the paddy had been bagged and in some cases carried on the back of my staff to the open verandah, the rains came with a vengeance. Rains a few hours earlier would have caused untold problems for me in having to dry it or have a significant portion lost due to other weather related issues. Now I realize luck and timing are essential in this exercise. Some farmers who were not able to cut their paddy had so many problems in cutting wet paddy and threshing it which took longer and also for drying it. The threshing cost was a further Rs10,000 with these machines costing Rs50 per minute for their use.

Due to my paddy having fallen I had to cut the straw from the bottom as the plants had to be scooped up from the scythe. This implied that more straw had to be fed into the threshing machine and it took longer. This was an added cost of the bad sowing of the seed paddy earlier. I resolved that I would further refine my planting technique in future by transplanting my paddy instead of sowing, something people in this area do not do due to the labor cost of transplanting. Technically one should transplant to get maximum yield and almost no one in Sri Lanka does that. It is shameful that our farmers take this route when every farmer in Japan transplants his small little field and I believe they use transplanting machines which we should also use here. I sincerely believe this could lead to a much higher yield per acre something we should aim at.

Once the rains had ceased I took the paddy to the mill to dry it on the cement floors outside. Yet again the weather gods were kind. We had just dried and repacked the paddy into the sacks and brought them back to the property when the rain came down in buckets. Those other people who were also drying there paddy were not so lucky. Theirs got completely wet as they were still on the cement drying floors.

Now my paddy is in the room that I built and some sacks still remain at the mill. I then either take it to be parboiled and milled or just milled to take to the shop in Godagama as and when required for sale. I sell both these varieties of rice in my shop for Rs45 a kilo.

I did not make a big profit on this exercise but I covered my costs and am able to supply my own rice to my customers in Colombo and the farm as well as to my family, something our family has never been able to do. The other benefit was that I was forced to clear the land, and if I had to clear it in any other way the costs would not have been even recovered. Future planting of rice or vegetables or even fruit will not require a heavy cost to clear. A by-product is the hay that I have to cover all my banana and papaya trees to prevent weeds from growing as a result of the irrigation.

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