Thursday, November 27, 2008

Four years since my arrival in Sri Lanka on Nov 29. 2004

My enterprise, now directly feeds 35 people when one includes, spouses and dependents, and in this period there have been a natural increase of 6 due to marriages and births. That is all I can claim as my contribution as well as the fact that I produce food that contributes something to the nation’s hunger and thirst. Personally, except for the pride in the job, there has been absolutely no financial benefit, despite an incredible amount of sacrifice on my part to this venture. I never for a moment thought it would be this bad.

I will leave to a separate section, all the observations I have made during this period as well as the lessons I have learned about human behavior and the illogical thought processes that lead to such actions, all adding to low productivity and high costs of production.

This past year has been the toughest of the four as like Murphy’s law, everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. The whole year has been one of surviving day to day, living and running the whole enterprise on a meager cash flow. While the year began on an optimistic note as seen in an earlier blog entry at the new year it just went from bad to worse, with the weather being the largest contributory factor, but others such as loss of crop to animals and pests of all sorts, deaths of good milking cows, and unexpected repairs and expenses, with the final straw being a ridiculous demand for backdated social security claim for non deduction of payroll taxes in prior years.

I wish I can say there is a silver lining, but at the moment I cannot foresee one with things expected to get worse before it gets better and the hope for better weather conditions, being my only hope, where a extremely wet year can be followed by a very dry one. Having given up any hope of being able to get more out of the employees I have, I have a very limited hand of cards to play with, and the trick will be to play poker and bluff my way through to get the better of them without them knowing it.

I am struggling four years on with the same original problem, namely with a lack of supply, when I still have the demand. My only option to plug this gap is to outsource supply, and try and find funds to provide working capital to finance this, while cutting down on the staff subtly to reduce the heavy cost of employment. Piece-work may be an avenue to follow and contract out the work. Finally I will have to supplement my income to stay alive.

Another curse in 2008 how much more is still awaiting?

You may have noticed that long before the international financial crisis took hold of the world, I have suffered from my own business crisis since the beginning of the year, firstly arising out of the weather, but latterly a myriad of other human resource and animal destruction related losses. Added to all this I had to meet with an official in the Labor Department in Colombo, today, to discuss how best I can resolve a demand for back dated social security deductions and penalties for two employees, one a house maid.

While the law should apply equally to everyone, wealthy Colombo households do not have to make payments on behalf of their many employees, but in a small, struggling and uneconomical agricultural farm, I have to make these payments for my few employees, irrespective of what they do. I know of some garment factories that recently shut, with no notice not even paying the wages of staff, let alone paying over the deductions for years, from their employees for EPF ETF. (social security)

No relief was given to me in this regard, with the assumption that the laws that apply to the large plantations, where the home help of the manager is also included in the liability for payroll taxes, also applies to my small farm.

I cant afford to fire my staff, as I have obligations to pay on dismissal, neither can I afford to employ them, and now I am even further burdened by the state regulations imposing the same level of taxes that a large establishment has to pay for its employees. I have been paying, these taxes all along, but the back-dating and harsh penalty for prior arrears, is something that cannot be paid without resort to borrowing funds. I may have to just tell my staff to work only half days to temporarily resolve this problem. I cannot see a practical way of carrying the burden of unproductive employees, who despite all the incentives, and encouragement have failed to be more productive. Sri Lankan labor laws are just too draconian.

The passive aggressive behavior of people who have been treated too well in the past, not willing to improve productivity, and who just do not follow instructions is a classic way of agricultural employees showing their dissent. It is something that has led most people in my situation to give up and sell their properties for development land and thus reduce further the land available for cultivation and add to the woes of the agricultural sector. I don’t see a solution to this intractable problem if the state goes after us.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

An update - now preparing fields for sowing the paddy/rice

Up to my knees in mud trying to assist the professionals in their task of preparing the paddy fields for the new season, I am worried about surviving the day without cuts and bruises on my feet. Interestingly this is not something that seems to bother the local people as they almost always walk barefoot, except when they go out dressed up to town or temple. Therefore their feet are tough and can withstand all sorts of hidden obstacles. Wearing boots in a paddy field is just not possible, as one can barely walk due to the mud the boots get stuck in and the feet just come out as no amount of effort will get it out. Other sorts of shoes cannot bear the wear and tear either, and I have always wondered how primitive our farming techniques still are.

The type of fields does not lend themselves to the large tractors that are driven or even with the two-wheeled tractor I have that one can sit on, we have had to remove the seat and instead walk with it to handle the peculiar conditions of our fields. In Sri Lanka water is used to till the soil and suffocate the weeds and as I have noted earlier in numerous places, the non use of large tractors does not allow deep ploughing to really turn over the soil to bring up some of the hidden nutrients up to the surface, as even some of the chemical fertilizers seep down below the root line of the paddy plant never to be of use to any other crop if deep ploughing is not undertaken.

I have tried this season to deep plough as much of my fields, I am the only one doing this. Only time will tell if that has paid off. The costs also are higher as it is an additional round of ploughing than is done normally.

I picked up my subsidized fertilizer from the government stores yesterday at less than 8% of the market price, which I have noted earlier, is not an incentive to conserve and carefully apply. It is only given for a maximum of 5 acres per farmer. I have also pointed out earlier that it is more profitable for me to sell the fertilizer than go thorough the whole planting process and make a profit as I am using paid labor and not working the land just by myself. One must also note that the world market price of this fertilizer that has come all the way from the UAE and CIS countries, have halved since the state purchased this stock a few months back.

A few days are required for all the weeds to rot in the water. This will also kill as many weed seeds as possible. We then flatten the soil (poru gahanawa) before sowing the seed without a nursery and transplanting

A new property adjacent to mine in Hingurakgoda

My sister purchased a property almost adjacent to mine, recently, upon my recommendation. It is well worth what was paid, and the sellers are already regretting the sale as they can now see what little they can purchase with the sale proceeds they received. Like mine it was partially abandoned by the owner, as his wife did not want to live there. I will help farm the property and try and ensure there is no added expense on her part for ownership.

Along with mine, I am preparing the land for the imminent sowing of paddy, and in contrast to mine where there is such a shortage of water as I am the last in my canal to receive water, hers is nearer the front of her canal and so there is no shortage, and due to the lay of her land and soil, her allocation is much more than she needs. This therefore is a fundamental flaw in the water allocation system, as there needs to be a needs assessment, based on the way the land is farmed to determine the water allocation based on the size of the property and some allowance given for available moisture and type of soil if that is possible.

I have had to put life and limb at stake to get water to save my paddy, and if this example is one to go by there must be numerous occasions where the allocation of water is not fair. So it is not a question of inadequate water for all who want to farm, but a more sensible and frequent analysis of water needs should be done. Many properties that have been converted to homesteads from farms still receive the same water allocation previously given, and that too should be adjusted down.

This property consists of about 2 acres of paddy fields and 2 acres of coconut, interspersed with various fruit trees. There are a number of teak trees along the property line and like mine has a river running alongside one of its boundaries giving rise to a further acre of reservation land.

Her property has a small house with electricity whereas I had neither, when I purchased mine and still have no electricity. The even more surprising fact is that there is a well, where the water is almost at the surface of the ground. It is surely a spring as it apparently is like that even in the driest of years. There is a lot of potential for the property which can be developed as a holiday place for the family, and a great way for the kids to learn and see what it is really like in a far off village as they are currently very isolated from this life, living in Colombo.

Boulder Garden Hotel in Kalawana

A cousin who works in Cambodia came for a week’s vacation last week. I went with him and his brother on a short trip over three days. He wanted to come to Polonnaruwa, but the distance and the shortness of the visit, I felt was not productive, especially as the intermittent rains were also a factor.

We went instead to Kalawana booking at the Boulder Garden. We were told the place was full bar a room. In fact it was more likely that of the 8 rooms, 6 were undergoing renovation, and so only one room was taken. Such is the truthometer of Sri Lankan hotel parlance. It was Poya day, and so there did not appear to be a manager whom we could chat with and get a grasp of activities, and we had to rely on the staff to help us out with the needful.

Just to get an idea of the location, we wanted to go on a walking tour up the hill, and being warned of leeches, the Cambodian decided to quit then and there and the other cousin clad in leech proof socks decided to come with me. His sneakers had a better grip than my rubber slippers, without socks, and the climb on and into cave-like boulders was quite tricky. The one incontrovertible truth at that point was it was truly a Boulder Garden.

There was one point we climbed up on top of a boulder to see the view and was pointed to smoke rising from a tea factory Cecilian which produced some of the best low grown teas in the country, and which continued to pay it suppliers a good price for tea in this climate where other factories have closed due to lack of sales of their teas at the auction. We were glad to hear and reported this to a relative who is one of the owners of the enterprise.

On our return, the descent being more dangerous than the ascent, I had over ten leeches on my feet ready to climb higher while even the cousin with the socks had a similar amount stuck on the outside of the socks that were removed, He was unscathed with his first encounter with them and I was unscathed with my umpteenth encounter, preferring to think about its blood thinning properties, and got my natural dose of Heparin to last me a while!

We then bathed in the pool that filled up from fresh water from the hills and was constantly refreshed and the when one looked up there were overhanging trees all around with monkeys and birds. The draw-back was the leaves that fell into the water, but the pool vacuum was absent, and an infrequent extraction of leaves seem to the order of the day.
What beat the pool and surroundings was the adjacent dining room completely covered by a boulder, which was the effective roof and ceiling. Without these two features the place would amount to a hill of beans! The water-scapes around the dining room need a complete overhaul to make it attractive as they just looked more like mosquito breeding grounds. Good uplighting would have made the night scene much more stunning framing the room with the tall trees. The seven course meal was excellent, including a mid course sorbet before the main course of fish in batter or gammon steak with vegetables. The menu cards were printed with the guest name, an unusual touch, but the paper it was typed on looked expensive and imported. A native alternative elephant dung paper would have been more appropriate.

I was very disappointed first with the interior walls of the rooms. In keeping with the surroundings, the rock walls were left unplastered, it made the rooms very dark and also very moist. This meant that a noisy extractor fan had to be used to extract the moist air, which together with a constantly active dehumidifier kept the place from the smells associated with moisture and damp, to say nothing of what it would do health. If the walls were waterproofed and then plastered would this problem occur? It is not necessary to keep the exterior and interior looking alike as far as walls are concerned even in such a location. The result was that the rooms are dark and dingy and the available light not powerful enough and certainly not eco friendly in the sense lights have to be kept on all the time. The TV had just two channels while the neighboring house had Dialog TV! It would have been better not to have a TV.

I believe all the black rock used to build the rooms are too oppressive and forbidding. The flat ceiling and roof, is a recipe for moisture and leakage as there were bugs attached to the ceiling because of its moistness. I believe it would be a maintenance nightmare to keep the property in a condition warranting the charges for the place. When a property has one overriding point of difference the secret is to enhance that while providing the other facilities to complement and not match as seems to have been the case.

How does one market a property while saying leeches are everywhere? Those who find leeches repulsive will not enjoy even a few hours in such a place. One other mistake we made was make the journey by car to Rakwana to get to the main road. Though the distance was a mere 25km it took us the best part of 3 hours as the road was so bad. We did not make it to Sinharaja as the leech idea was a non-starter to enter the rainforest!

Coral Gardens and Hikkaduwa a day out

The journey from Rakwana first to Deniyaya on the famous Hayes Lauderdale road with hairpins was memorable owing to the scenery. However the journeymen tired from the earlier leg could not enjoy it. This road though an A road is little more than an estate road, which it was in times gone by. Most of the estates on this road are part of Matugama Plantations. We had rice and curry lunch in the still old fashioned Deniyaya Rest House, a relic from the past with the one person, Rest House keeper satisfying all our needs. The fresh tea was great to wash off lunch.

It was dark once we made the trek first to Galle and then on to Hikkaduwa and checked in at the almost empty save a wedding banquet old Coral Gardens Hotel. I remember the place even before the hotel was built, but the location is worth the stay even though the hotel is pretty dated, without a Del Coranado type design worthy of restoring. Anyone can purchase this place with over 100 rooms for an offer between $2.5 and $3M, but the cost of tearing it down and rebuilding may not even entice one at that price.

We had dinner at the pricey Refresh Restaurant further along the beach, and the following day were charged Rs800 for a half hour trip on the glass bottomed boat to see the fish corals and the sea turtles almost at the shore. One felt ill in the tilting boat and got off, while the other put on a pair of goggles and surveyed the underwater life, along with the humongous turtle quite unperturbed by the activity around him.

Lunch at the Dolphin Restaurant painted in mauves. blues and pinks, was on the sand itself. They had built a structure with tall wooden pillars, 8 in all supporting a roof of coconut rafters so the wind blew right through, and no fans were required and no flies were able to withstand the breeze. It was a very pleasant place to have a simple meal. We left for Colombo soon after making the traffic filled journey back in time for a family birthday dinner.

I note here the cost of the lunch and the menu for those curious about what is available. No credit cards accepted, so all the Sri Lanka cash we had was needed, in addition to US$10 to complete the payment for the meal for 3. A pot of Cinnamon Tea 190/-; A tall glass of Iced Coffee 140/-; Crab Soup 250/-;Fish Soup240/-;Fresh Seer Steak Grilled with Chips and Salad 480/-;Seer as before with Mash and Salad 550/-; Grilled Calamari Chips and Salad 500/-; 2 cokes for 160/- and a 10% service charge on the total.

A surprising and irregular diet

What I am about to write about may surprise my regular readers and shock those who read this for the first time. Though I am in a rural farming set-up, I personally have a very poor diet and a spartan and irregular one at that. For many Sri Lankans living overseas who salivate at the thought of the delicacies available here, I am not one so fortunate living in rural SL!

It is nearly 4 years since I returned after a lifetime overseas, primarily in the US and UK. I am 35lbs lighter than on my return. I feel generally healthy and have only had a couple of flus since and not the mosquito borne diseases of chickengunya and dengue which most people I know here have contracted.

I did not grow up on rice and curry and I did not live in a SL household, The British boarding school food of baked beans on toast, or oily fried egg and fried bread was what I knew and mash made from smash! Therefore a good soup and bread is a delicacy, and bland food with a sauce is a preferred choice.

My dinner under kerosene safety lamp light last night in Hingurakgoda was, a plain salad of cucumber, tomato, garlic and large onions, and kurakkan flour noodles(red) a poor substitute for fettuccine or penne pasta that I like, garnished with a tasty home made ketchup, from the unsellable tomato, and a salad dressing made from Virgin Olive oil and salt and pepper. The Olive oil was courtesy of a maid who now works in Cyprus, who sent me a can to last me a while. This was washed down with fresh King Coconut.

I never got used to eating curry as I always thought the vegetables are overcooked. Even the regular chopped mallun is avoided, because I don’t like the fresh coconut mixed with it. I prefer the lightly chopped raw leaves of passion fruit or gus nivithi or gotukola from the garden, which no one eats here in this form. I also don’t eat much in the way of fruit except in fruit salad form when left overs from the shop are used due to some flaw in the fruit which customers avoid. Some of this fruit is also used for fresh juice.

After making my own basmati rice my way with butter and crust in the bottom of the pan in Iranian style, something that is not available here (Shamshiri rice in Westwood, CA) the parboiled rice is not my scene. Here in the village I eat what my staff eat and so rice is just to avoid hunger.
One should bear in mind that subsistence farmers, usually reserve the best produce for his customers and only consumes what he cannot sell so that holds true for me also. I don’t feel deprived, trust me, a sale is money!

I don’t have home help, so I intermittently get the odd dish cooked for me in a manner of my preference, the most recent being, fresh sprats, the cheapest fish in the shop that day, battered with bread-crumbs and flour, which was simply delightful. This was done as there was another person for dinner and I wanted to give him something tasty. That days price was Rs 120/- for 500g. My lifestyle is one on the go so meals are grabbed in different locations in a day if I am lucky. Trust me I am working towards regularity.

In a strange way I cannot remember when I had a regular 3 meal day and that may have been decades ago at boarding school. This is in complete contrast to all my staff who must have their regular 3 meals as otherwise they cannot function. It is no myth I know as I have to make allowances always for their meal times even if I am skipping a meal in the interests of my livelihood.

I drink plenty of Fresh Ceylon Tea with excellent water and fresh milk from my cows. Even 6 star hotels in Sri Lanka do not offer that, something I will cover in another one of my tirades about the SL hospitality sector. I also drink the best Organic Green Tea in the world from the tea factory that produces the smallest quantity of tea, More about that story another time.

I am not complaining here about my lot, just giving a reader the basic facts of my diet and he can make whatever conclusion he wants. I am however fortunate from time to time to be invited out to eat at a fancy restaurant or a party, like last Friday, for my Aunt’s birthday, where the food at her home was delightful and I ate much not knowing from whence my next meal would come.

It is true to say that I never think of food though I really enjoy eating food I like, though moments later I can never remember what it is I ate! I love a fresh spaghetti bolognaise or a good selection of sushi. A tasty bread pudding or caramel for dessert is certainly something to savor.

In conclusion the reason for my loss of weight is not due to exercise, healthy eating or careful diet. It is simply out of not knowing when my next meal will be, what it will comprise, who will prepare or provide it. That’s life!