Thursday, May 29, 2008

a view of a lesser seen audience hall in polonnaruwa behind the rest house

vesak in polonnaruwa

there were no extravagent displays in Polonnaruwa where I spent the past ten days and hence the lapse in blogging. My neighbors borrowed my tractor to attach to someone else trailer and go to Medirigiriya to see the vesak Pandals as is custom in this area.

I have given Vesak dansalas for the past three years but financial constraints and the prohinitive cost of food meant I could not do so and just literally had to eat off the land this time with no celebration planned.

I enjoyed the day quietly after a heavy session the previous day to finish the sowing see the perceptions link for that and just enjoyed the sight of the full moon, amongst my coconut trees above and on the Ratmale tank below.

see for the alternative living during this period, devoid of any celebration.

my first computer

Two weeks ago, I gave a computer to a girl in Ratmale. The monitor and hard drive were donated by Motorola office in Colombo through a friend who works there, and I supplied the rest, the keyboard, mouse and multiplug extension cord. Though it is a Pentium III she primarily needs Microsoft Office, which is loaded and once she loads a Sinhala font she will have all that she has at school except for the internet connection.

I got to know she needed one when I went to her house once to pluck oranges, and limes and her mother said that she was bothering her to get one in order to do her work, as she is not allowed time to practice at the school computer lab due to its popularity, and they could not afford one at present. Now the mother says when I went on Sunday to pluck oranges, the whole neighborhood descends here to have a go, much like in the village when only a house or two had a TV, while now every house in the village has a TV except mine of course as I am one of the few with no electricity!

I have numerous requests for computers by these kids in economically deprived households, so if anyone out there wants to help, you know whom to contact!

This girl, earned the right to go to Ananda Balika Maha Vidyalaya in Hingurakgoda when she got high marks in her O levels from the CP Pura Giritale School. Her current school has two computer labs, one with 24 stations and better equipped is for the students of the school while the other is for students at other schools in the area. There is one bus to Hingurakgoda in the morning and another that returns for the school kids after school, and if the bus breaks down due to the appalling state of the roads, they have to walk the 4 KM to the main Minneriya to Polonnaruwa Rd to get alternative buses, or walk back home also from the Minneriya station.

I never formally learned MS office, but just taught myself what I need to know for whatever I do. So now I have someone now I can learn from more easily and look forward to the day when this village is linked into the Internet as there are very few internet cafes in the whole of Polonnaruwa District now and the Internet is all that separates these kids from all the world has to offer without them ever leaving their beautiful village. It is a true village in the jungle with 80% of the residents being related.(see for my place in this village.)

pin haraka saved from the slaughterhouse

Just when I thought the tragicomedies in my enterprise had some limit, I was only a fool to believe it, as they are unlimited and in a sense better than a reality TV show;” this is the real thing.”

On Friday, the 9th of May the best cow in the heard, a potential 12 bottles a day animal, heavily pregnant and weighing about 300kg, had a problem standing up and its hind legs gave way and lay on the ground, the vet was called and was given an injection to induce the birth of the female calf, the next day. The birth was free of complications but the animal as of today 29th May is still lying and unable to get up.

The animal had been saved from the slaughterhouse, (Dematagoda mas kade) over 6 years ago by the local village, who chipped in and bought the animal, a 80% Jersey heifer not yet 2 and gave it to us to take care. This was the fifth calf, all born at our farm with the third calf at my property in Polonnaruwa and I intend taking the fourth there sometime soon.

It was ironic that this animal turned out to be the best milk producer. I can only presume, those who sold the animal did not realize its true worth or maybe had stolen it for the money, it was not even fully-grown.

The vet came again a day later and administered the calcium and other vitamin injections for possible deficiencies and then again on 13th after we had broken the walls of the cattle shed to drag it out into the normal ground hoping that the earthen floor would be better for it to get a grip to stand as opposed to the cement floor in the cattle shed. There were no signs of a real illness as the animal was eating well, however a blood sample was taken. We had it taken to the lab in Welisara and came out negative reinforcing that there was no blood illness except perhaps a hairline fracture which was not apparent to the naked eye as there were no outward signs of swelling.

We made a frame and bought sheets to try and raise the animal up so that it can eventually put its weight on the hind legs, but as it was struggling our cowherd with 50 year of experience wrongly told us to leave it down.

For the workers in the farm this was a case of western medicine failing, and so we had to resort to native treatment. We went in search of the local person a few miles away who came in the clothes he was wearing at home, and then pronounced he could do nothing but that we consult the expert on cattle, the famous “harak veda mahattaya” (ayurvedic doctor specializing in cattle) and we left that evening in the dark in search of him in the Pannipitiya area where he lives. He must be well known as we just referred to his profession and fingers pointed in the direction of his home.

He was brought with his magic wand and reeled of a concoction of herbs we had to administer, most of which we had on the farm, but other oils had to be added. I cannot get my staff to work at the best of times, but it seemed all hands were on deck at night in this venture with wives, kids, and people in the area willing to lend a helping hand. It was like a circus in the cowshed with every pundit pronouncing the goodness of the puwak kola to rub the backside, or the kohomba kola to the mixture with garlic and herbs.

Of course after the first medicines were poured into the animal’s mouth and various oils rubbed on the animal’s neck his payment was in the form of a bottle of kasippu, the local moonshine which he promptly downed and was inebriated when I thanked him for his efforts and sent him in the cab in the dead of night back to his home. Actually we had to go the next day to pick up his preparation for 2500/-, which was obviously his real payment, to administer according to his instructions to the animal. So it was another trip for that and endless days of various preparations these past two weeks.

This veda promised the animal will be up in three days and its now two weeks and there is no more milk even for the calf, who now has to be bottle fed milk from the other cows. I therefore went to the vet today to ask him to euthanize the animal. He was not willing to do this as it is not customary in this society to do so even if the animal is suffering. He said local traditions can intervene to effectively scupper what he does if he resorts to this, as he is responsible for the welfare of the animals in his area and does not want to in anyway jeopardize his position.

I keep telling my staff it will be a miracle and world record if this animal walks, as no cow stands up after a few days, as its hind legs on which the bulk of its weight rests just loses strength and cannot withstand the strain.

I am caught in a catch 22 situation where I have lost the best animal and am still incurring a cost of feeding and administering medication to satisfy the people around who don’t have to pay the price of false hopes, another instance of just how our traditions and reality conflict at another’s expense.

Friday, May 9, 2008

shrimp in my river going a begging!!

Last evening after a busy and tiring day, I had a lazy bathe in the river from about 5.30 to 6.30 and then Sagara and Gamini after their work also went to have their bath in the river, and as we had no protein with the rice and vegetables and the passion fruit leaf mallung, they thought they would test the water for fish and cast the net. Lo and behold they caught shrimp that is a smaller version of prawns and kept casting the net till we had enough for four for dinner. I must say for taste there is nothing like freshly caught freshwater wild shrimp fried. The photo above shows my plate with shrimp and some other small fish fried ready to eat. This was an unexpected bonus for the day. We must see if we have the same luck this evening. The fish was caught right in front of where I am typing at my desk now at most about 20 ft, so it could not be closer to home than that for anyone.

weather differences nationwide

Now we are into the second week of May 2008. It rains intermittently almost daily in Godagama. It is the intermonsoonal period. Nuwera Eliya is cold has its usual rainfall. Here in Hingurakgoda, Polonnaruwa it is windy and the start of the windy season that will go on for at least 6 months. Once the rainy season stops the windy season starts. One more day or two or rain is expected when the wind turns, and then it will be bone dry till November. We have to therefore depend completely on irrigation for agriculture pumping water at high cost when one does not have access to water from Tanks as part of the irrigation network.

With the advent of the windy season the number of mosquitoes is less and it is quite pleasant to lie in the shade or under a tree where it is cool. Few people realize this and this is a good time to visit this area to get away from the high humidity heat of Colombo, especially for the Vesak season when it can also rain heavily as in thundershowers when it gets too humid and hot.

I can particularly vouch for this as I do not have electricity to run a fan and I look forward to the windy period as the nights can get cold and a good wrap up is all I need.

Working out doors however on the land can get very oppressively hot and it is advisable to work at dawn before the sun goes up or late in the evening.

tales from the frontline, the week that was

We think of the war when the word frontline is mentioned, but what about the war for food production. It is truly a war when one looks at all aspects one has to undergo to achieve one’s objectives in agriculture.

Sudath the man who had just married and is the person in charge in Hingurakgoda, had a tiff with his wife and had suddenly left without telling me in the morning before my arrival and the wife also disappeared before I woke up on the morning after I arrived at 3am on Tuesday morning. That left me well and truly in the lurch unsure of what I need to do.

I had to carry on with the special work needed to get the paddy fields ready for sowing. Firstly I went to pay the money for the fertilizer and the official told me that as it is not in my name I cannot get it and Sudath should come. As I was not sure of Sudath, I had to cancel all the bureaucratic paperwork in his name and begin the application process all over again in my name for the fertilizer subsidy. A new form and new people to authorize and then I had to go after 8pm to the agricultural extension officer’s home to hand over the forms and pay the money so that I can get the fertilizer before I leave. A lot of duplicated work because of the lack of responsibility of a person.

I had purchased a set of new ploughing wheels for mud ploughing but on the second outing these had come apart, and the tractor had got stuck in the mud, so I had to take that to be repaired, and was promised the repaired wheel the next day. Surprise surprise its two days now and it is still not repaired. In my opinion it had not been properly made, but I cannot return it and get my money back here.

The bicycle on this property was in a bad state. The usual problem where the staff don’t take care of items given for their benefit, as they had no hand in the purchase or payment for it. I had therefore to take it to be repaired and given a list of stuff to bring as part of the repair.

Sagara had to be sent to Habarana to pay a Rs1000 speeding fine I incurred when stopped outside the Habarana Cinnamon Lodge at 2.30 am at 58kmph. What can one say when radar police stop you for speeding doing 35mph in a 30 zone at 2.30 in the morning when there is no traffic. Words fail me when we have a police force incapable of fighting crime, but capable of enforcing the law on hardworking trying to make an honest living.( I had been working all day selling my produce in Colombo and only left the farm at 11pm to go to Polonnaruwa) After I dropped him at the Minneriya bus stand I picked up two boys I knew from Ratmale who were going to computer classes at the Pirivena in Hingurakgoda and dropped them there even though it was out of my way.I used the unexpected visit to the town to look for straw hats for the work in the baking sun, but could not find any.

Then it was a case of three people coming to me for loans as it is the start of the season with promises of unbelievable rates of interest for a 4 month loan. The lowest interest would be repayment of capital in 4 months in the form of the then prevailing price of paddy with interest being a bushel of paddy for each thousand lent. At today’s price the bushel or 21kg is Rs620 so an effective 180% interest rate, inevitably in four months this price will be so much higher so this rate is likely to be the lowest one can expect if prices remain unchanged. They are all stupefied when I say I have no money to lend them and I must also be silly not to have arranged borrowing facilities to be able to take these loans. If word spread I was willing to lend I could get at least 100 people wanting on average Rs10,000 just from the immediate neighborhood. They want this money for the government fertilizer subsidy, so are willing to agree to these rates knowing they cannot afford to lose the subsidy that is of immense benefit to the paddy farmer.

Frankly I don’t know why I bust a gut working so hard if money like this was so easy to come by!! I must remember for next season that for the four weeks before sowing, there is a great opportunity to make some money on this basis, it is not an unusual method but a common system established over the years to get money in a hurry so they have to resort to this system as banks will not lend on this basis.

I then went to the CIC farm at Hingurakgoda to buy the BG358 white samba seed paddy to plant this time. The office was not manned as it should so I had to hang around for a person to come to issue an invoice and collect payment. I was shocked at the increase in price from last season, of 70% so that I paid Rs 1450/- per bushel(20.5kg) and I purchased 4 bushels to sow in the 6 bushels (3 acres) of fields. The rule of thumb is a bushel for a bushel of land, but that is far too much in my opinion as paddy plants that close will prevent sufficient growth of each plant to maximize on its potential for stalks of grain. This paddy needs to be soaked in water and shoots need to sprout before it is sowed by hand. There is an art in sowing so that the whole field gets a fairly even spread of seed with later infilling of vacant areas.

Monday, May 5, 2008

A typical day at the farm

A typical day at Galdola Farm, Godagama, Kirimetta, Meegoda.

May 3, 2008. A summary of the day, written at the end, when all are asleep.

Due to unavoidable circumstances of my Tata cab at 104,000km requiring expensive repairs this week, I was forced to spend the whole week on the farm in Meegoda, which is approximately 25km from the center of Colombo. It is a land of 10 acres, primarily planted with King Coconuts, but which have many coconut trees and I have planted a further batch of coconut seedlings, only some of which remain, having escaped the wrath heaped on them by the cattle. Much of the King Coconut is under planted with Banana, which is now fairly prolific putting out shoots, which require to be suppressed lest it reduces the size of both the bunch and the fruit, with fallen trees owing to wind and rain adding to the woes.

I was up before all at 4 am, and made my two cups of tea and watched an hour of CNN uninterrupted by anyone except the crowing of the cocks in the pen not too far from the house. Akman will also get up at 4am to milk the cows, and he has looked after cattle for most of his 74 years. (he does not have to work and has a home close by with at least one son who earns well overseas, but prefers to live in a room near the cattle shed drawing a monthly salary of Rs7,500) I then went to the shed where the hot of the cow(no pun intended as the milk is warm when taken from the animal) fresh milk was being put into the Mega bottles (one and a half litre) by Siripala for delivery. (he is another single man of about 65 who stays in the room adjoining Akman, and is also a local man with well-off family including moonshine distillers who prefers to live on the farm and helps out with milking when needed and also helps with the cattle shed working on and off in the property for 35years, but whose primary purpose now is to cut grass for the animals. His earnings are also similar to Akman, but drinks moonshine daily)

I was chatting with Siripala about the benefits of more milk after my insistence on doubling the grass fed to the cattle, as we were reminded by the vet to feed at least 10% of their body weight with grass. Paul came to take the milk in the push bicycle to the neighborhood. Paul is about 57 and lives at the far end of the property with his common law wife and is the most difficult person to manage, having lived on the farm for about 8 years. He is from a good family of Fonsekas who endowed St. Mary’s Bambalapitiya the Catholic Church, but whose father had fallen on bad times, and he has actually spent time in jail for murder and in his prime was associated with the gangsters of Colombo, and who is now living in a lovely cottage provided by us on the farm, his wife, the mother of his two children having left him decades ago to live and work overseas. The one useful thing he has been able to do is to sell the milk from 6am and this morning he took 15 bottles for sale at Rs50/- a bottle. The problem is that on his rounds he gets a drink of kasippu (moonshine) from the odd customer and then once he returns at 8.30am goes home and does not surface till the next morning (he can really finish the task by 7.30am but likes to chat with householders have tea and con around before returning.) If he is pulled up for this he sometimes does not turn up for work for two days.

Once I got back into the house at 6am, small Gamini had woken (he is a 27 yr father of one and a half staying with me in the house. I brought him back to normalcy having picked him up ten days ago from an alcoholic stupor having almost died, and de toxed him so will pay him only from May 1st, while providing all his meals. I learnt my lesson last time, where the money given before he returned home was spent on drink before getting there. I will send it to the wife this time, and he has promised to work for me for three months before going home, and has promised not to touch alcohol under my wing.) He informs me that big Gamini,(a father of four and my highest paid employee) after I had paid him an ex-gratia of Rs 400 last evening for plucking 200 coconuts, over and above his daily wage, had got drunk and had to be rushed to hospital suffering from chest pains and discomfort. I had to therefore reschedule the work to be done prior to the shop opening at 7am.

He was tasked to husk the coconuts and take them to the Kade (shop at the entrance to the farm) and only then uproot the yams from the Kiri ala plants to put in the shop. Suwaris(a sixty something man who lives nearby with wife and daughter, and comes to work when he feels like, and is cranky and has to be managed!) was asked to collect the kathurumurunga leaves, and Amaradasa asked to cut the Kehel Muwa from the banana trees for the shop. After that they were both asked to pluck the Amberella from the trees also for the Kade as soon as possible as customers come first thing to get the best pick of what is available.

Siripala was asked to bring the banana bunches into the shop. Seetha who is Amaradasa’s wife (this couple left a year back and recently returned to the farm realizing there is no paradise like the farm, and he is sickly so works when he can having looked after the cattle in days gone by. She now cooks the meals for Akman and Siripala) was asked to pluck the gotu kola and take the bunches to the shop and when there, help the shop girl Nadeesha with the sales in the morning as more than one pair of hands is required for the first hour and half before breakfast break at 9 am.

Sagara the 22 yr boy who is Amila’s replacement as driver was asked after his morning tea to go in the cab to look for Leslie, the man who plucks the King Coconut bunches, as he has been missing for days. He reported back that he has not been sighted this morning at the Meegoda rail gate, the place where people looking for him in the morning go.

Once Sagara returned at 7.15 I asked small Gamini and Sagara to check the Manioc (cassava) plants in front of the shop to see if the yams are ready to be extracted. Ten kilos of yams were taken to the shop and I asked Seetha before she went for breakfast to boil a few for my breakfast, to have with lunu miris. There is nothing like fresh manioc, the taste of the small yams was great, but Gamini and Sagara the boys staying in the house with me, need their three rice meals a day and so had rice for breakfast, a luxury only a few can afford these days, but this at my expense! It is ironic that I eat healthy and fresh yams I sell in the shop at Rs 35kg while they eat the rice I grow which I sell in the shop at Rs 75kg.

I took the Oranges from the fridge to the shop and as soon as Paul came back from milk duties I marshaled him to go with Gamini to pluck the papaya and put a selection in the shop once washed. With papaya white sap on Gamini’s body, he had to go and bathe before his breakfast as it made his skin itch.

The new roster was set up after breakfast at 9.30 with Asanka (young 20 something boy, a grandson of a person who worked for my grandfather, who is involved with big Gamini’s eldest 18yr daughter, can only surface at 9.30 or 10am and is paid directly by my father to do odd jobs as he is multitalented, but lazy.) asked to remove the compost with a boy who had come to help for the day. After checking the compost in the pit, he tells me that it is not ready, because for some reason he was asked to put banana leaves, which had still not composted and therefore will be a while yet before it can be cleared and a new batch put in to compost. He should have checked this long ago, as he told me yesterday he needs a helper to bag the compost, and was using this friend he got to come to work for that task. These two boys therefore spent the best part of the day, using a grass cutter to mow the lawn area around the house and clear the verges of weeds and spruce up the place. If only the grass cutter was used for the fields we may have been able to cut four loads of grass instead of the two we did today.

Sagara was sent to a local mechanic with a note of what I was told I needed to repair before the alignment could be done. I wanted to find out if that was all I needed and if the parts were obvious. When he returned, Nimal Samarajeeva who started work only on May 1st on the next door property now handled by my cousin Shani after her father Uncle Harris died, said his water pump was not working and wanted to consult a mechanic so I sent Sagara with him to see if he was home, and instead his son, a young boy came to see what was wrong. Once it was discovered that the water pump had been misused and needed repair and Aunty Neela in her 80s was staying there and needed water, I asked Asanka to see if we could do some adjustments so we can use our pump to fill their tank and to give me a list of items I needed to buy at the hardware store in order to do that.

I then left with Sagara, first to give my two old tyres I replaced yesterday with new ones, to be retreaded to be used in the rear, then to the parts shop to see if there were the parts to do the repair on the front wheels, and finally to buy the valves to redirect the water to Aunty Neela’s water tank.

Once I returned I got Asanka working on the water pump, and I went to the shop to review the performance, which was very weak today with less than the expected customers coming on a Saturday. Then my father came, with his household laundry wanting it done today, I had to rig up the washer and start the machine myself, as the girl who has been trained to use the machine was off this week. I am paranoid to let too many people use the washing machine as people here are careless and this machine that has not given a problem in over 40 months could be damaged beyond repair. So I did the complete cycle and hung the clothes out to dry and was able to send the dried clothes back with him when he left at 4 pm.

I sent Sagara to get lunch (rice and curry packets) for himself and Gamini from outside and I skipped lunch with my father eating the left over manioc for lunch with fresh coconut he had asked to be scraped.

After breakfast, Siripala and Amaradasa went to cut the grass for the cows and Asanka went in the tractor and brought a load to the cowshed. Suwaris was asked to clear the balance of the Hingurala beds that had become weed infested, and Paul asked to clear the old corn beds of weeds so we could get it ready for new plantings, while small Gamini, sent to scour the property for bananas, came back to report that there was a fallen banana bunch that needed to be rescued behind the cattle shed. Asanka’s friend was cleaning the lawn and Seetha was clearing the beds for the bandakka seeds to be put.

After lunch Paul, Gamini, Suwaris and Sagara went round putting poles on the banana plants with hanging bunches to prevent them from falling over, after trying unsuccessfully to save the ambun bunch that had fallen near the cattle shed. This was a very useful exercise, which I should ask them to continue on Monday once we leave on our sales drive. Seetha took the afternoon milk delivery route, and Siripala and Amaradasa continued to cut grass for another load which was brought back by Asanka. Small Gamini collected the stuff for my father’s weekly food selection, while Suwaris husked the coconuts and Paul and Sagara checked the stock of wood for repairing Paul’s milk box and later went with Paul to repair his push bicycle and then onto to see if they could locate Leslie to get him to come urgently to cut the 500 King coconuts we require for Monday delivery.

Paul was asked to get the recipe from his wife to prepare two person portions of dry rations to pack and take to my Colombo customers of the Galdola special ‘Kola Kanda’ so that they can easily make this at home from the wholesome organic country fresh ingredients.

Once the shop closed I tallied and paid the shop girl her wages for April. I then checked that the adjustments made to the water pump did not compromise the water pressure to my tank and filled the tank.

All left at 4.30 but I was upset that Asanka and his friend both of whom are paid directly by my father and paid the most of all the workers today, did not work a full day like the rest of the staff. Sagara and Gamini went to have their well bath. Later in the evening when Gamini started to cook, he discovered that the gas cylinder was empty, so I sent them out to look for Leslie for the 3rd time in the day and get their dinner though not for me as I don’t like the food, and my hope that I would have dinner was dashed with the gas run out. The boys went to sleep at 9pm and I at midnight, am still typing away 5 pages of just today’s work of nine males and two females.

From the above it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that this sort of multi-product farming is uneconomical with an inefficient staff, who lack motivation and have to be constantly supervised.