Monday, March 31, 2008

Old customs are rare in rice milling and eating

In days gone by, the paddy harvested was stored in a ‘Bissa’ and in large walauwwa houses indoors adjacent to the kitchen in large wooden boxes referred to as ‘wee pettiya’ The paddy was put in from the top and taken out from the bottom.

This paddy was first par boiled in a muttiya and then dried and once cooled, milled at home in a ‘wangediya’ using the ‘molegaha’. In this process, the red rice kept all its goodness as even the whole of the redness was left intact.

Today, we mill that redness to give a pink hue for parboiled rice, as consumers don’t like the ‘goodness’ in the redness. Doctors prescribe red parboiled for diabetes patients as being the best rice for them, but few eat it.

For the first time, I parboiled my paddy at home and used this method to mill at home, to make some rice to eat, to see how it tastes. It tasted so different. I can eat it on its own.It needs getting used to as the grain is all red before cooking, but I can get used to it in the long term and should be offered in classy restaurants.Hand milled par boiled red rice.

Friday, March 28, 2008


For some weired reason I have not been able to access my email and therefore my blogs for adding purposes for a while. I am still not able to access my email though I entered the blog through another method today to access.

Also since I last accessed the blog I have noticed a doubling of the profile views from what I had since the inception of the blog about 9 months ago, all mysterious events which I cannot explain.

It would be wishful thinking to believe that mine is now the most popular Sri Lankan blog, but its nice to think that even though it may not be true!!

I am in the process of distributing my Rosa Kekulu rice, to my customers to taste before taking orders.It is was grown with no pesticides or weedicides though I used chemical fertilizers.

Thank you readers for your interest

The local doctor

Here in my Kumbuk Thuduwa, I heard Ranga cough a bad chesty cough, and so I sent him to the nearest qualified medical practitioner to me, about two kilometers from me on the main road, at the Kotalawala junction. She sees patients after 4.30 pm as she is a government doctor and does private practice after hours.

She examined him and prescribed him three different medications including an 8 day course of antibiotics. The antibiotics were from the State Pharmaceutical Corporation. The way medicines are handed out there is no indication what it is, so I don’t know.

Anyway the charge for the consultation and the prescription also dispensed by the doctor was Rs 120/- which is about right for this neighborhood as being between a quarter and a fifth of a daily wage around here.

To extrapolate in the US context, for someone earning $4,000 a month for a 20 day month the daily being $200, then a quarter is $50. I suppose a consultation in the US and medicines may vary from $100 to $150, with insurance paying a portion of this.

The doctor told him not to bathe and I told him to take a few days off as his parents are visiting him and will fuss over him!

The process of paddy to rice conversion

I prepared a nursery of red nadu rice on November 17th 2007. The seed paddy was purchased from the CIC store in Hingurakgoda, the variety being AT 312, a specially prepared a high yielding variety of the Rice Research Institute and now also grown by CIC. Three bushels, each of 21kg was purchased for Rs 700 ea. I am one of the few to grow this red rice in this area, as most farmers grow white rice.

Hulang Gahanawa

I transplanted about 2 acres of my property in the first two weeks of December, and it cost me Rs 8000/- to transplant by hand with the female labor rate being Rs 450 a day for this job, the actual work time being 6 hours. The excess rice plants in my nursery were given to two of my neighbors to grow and from whom I agreed to buy the paddy at the prevailing price less Rs 5 Kg to cover my nursery cost.

I put no pesticides or herbicides like pre emergents etc. but used all three varieties of chemical fertilizer obtained as a subsidy from the government at Rs 350 per 50kg bag. The current market price hovering around Rs3,500 per bag. Without the use of the fertilizer the yield will not cover the cost of production, as these rice varieties were developed for use with chemical fertilizer. I am probably the only person not to use pesticides and to that extent I estimate my yield be about 20% less than it could have been. For example if I had used pesticide to kill the paddy fly, I could have saved some part of the stalk, which they suck dry, and results in no seed.

Sadly while this is a selling point for my customers, as I probably have the only pesticide free AT312 rice, I will only be able to get the market price and not the Rs 12 more I need to cover the loss of yield. One cannot blame the farmers for their current practice, as they see no benefit from being free of carcinogens and other harmful chemicals.

I harvested the paddy on March 22nd and 23rd about week after I should have, due to two weeks of unseasonal heavy rain up until that date. I could not hand cut my paddy as the paddy seed would fall in cutting due to the over ripe stalks. This meant I used a machine that cuts the paddy and half threshes it into bags. This man and machine cost me Rs 15,000. My boys had to hand carry the paddy bags from the fields into the kitchen, which was cleared to store the paddy before the cleaning process.

On March 25th we borrowed a tractor from a neighbor with a special fan that has been fitted into the fan belt, and the paddy was cleaned using air pressure. The paddy is sifted by hand while the fan is running and good seed falls into the ground and the half seed and other lighter parts get blown further away and is accordingly separated. (sinhala expression is hulang gahanawa)

The paddy thus cleaned was put into 72 bags, approximately 3,300 kg and I immediately took 9 bags to the mill and 3 bags to a farmer friend of mine for parboiling. The resulting rice, red nadu and rosa nadu turned out ok, but as the paddy had been left too long, the grains tended to break in the milling process. There should be no problem with the parboiled rice in this regard. The miller said that the paddy still needed to be dried. I will have to dry the rest before bagging for storage and later milling. Any paddy with a high moisture content will spoil in storage so it is essential that it is well dried. I had to dry the rice as otherwise that too could get mildewed even though I expect to sell it in the shop or to my delivery customers in the space of a week.

One useful point to note is that for rice that is not parboiled, it is advisable to cut the paddy as it is getting ripe. For parboiling over ripe paddy is OK. For the former any later cutting will result in the grain breaking. Also another noteworthy point is that all red rice can be milled to any shade one wants, all the way to white. That is why a little more milling can result in Rosa, or Rose colored, which is currently more in demand than red.

It costs Rs 2 to mill a kilogram of paddy, which means that each Kg of rice suffers a Rs3 per Kg milling cost.

The other fact is one can make more money in a shorter period and with less effort if one is prepared to trade in Paddy than be a farmer growing paddy. That is a simple fact. Even within this short period of about three weeks the market for paddy has fluctuated to a degree that traders have been able to make more profit per kg of paddy than a farmer.

The only thing the trader needs is access to funds and somewhere to store the paddy that is secure and safe. I therefore will barely break even in my paddy, based on cost of production and current market price but make my profit in selling the rice at a reasonable profit over the next 4 months.

The Paddy Milling Process

I spent most of today March 27th at my local paddy miller supervising the drying and milling of paddy to take about 6 varieties of rice back to my shop for sale as well as to my customers in Colombo.

I first had to dry my paddy in the cement area outside the mill. Normally this is not a required process as paddy brought from storage has already been dried, whereas my paddy has just come from being threshed.

Once adequately dry, I get the miller to check it by eating a grain of rice. Then it is left indoors for an hour to cool down, as milling hot paddy can affect the quality, as the rice can break.

The paddy is then put into a machine that separates the husk from the rice particle. The paddy goes through this process three times with the person on the machine putting the paddy back up into the drum to be cleaned. I understand this is done so that the husk is completely removed, as the first pass is not enough.

It is then put into the polishing machine, which is adjusted to determine the level of shine and whiteness. As my rice was red, further tightening the lever will clean more of the red, and make it whiter. If I want it dark red then it is polished much less. In the bygone days, people ate red rice as dark as possible, as it was very nutritious. Lately people prefer less red as that is what they have got used to, at the expense of nutrition. The extract from the polishing is called Rice Bran or Rice Polish and is just as valuable as rice, and the rice bran oil from pressing this powder is extensively used in cosmetics and commands a very high price.

The resulting polished rice is what we buy in the stores. So in summary 66% of the paddy is rice, 12% is rice polish and the balance is Paddy husk. All the customer gets is the rice, the miller keeps the polish and husk and sells it for more than he charges for milling the rice. Actually the miller in his elementary calculation, says he breaks even on the charge for milling and makes his profit on the sale of the bran and husk. The bran sells for Rs 30 a kilo primarily for animal feeds, but now increasingly for human food as it is mixed with kurakkan flour to make eats and cakes and local delicacies. Remember that the goodness is in the bran and we give it to the cows and chickens in preference to eating it.
Needless to say the processes are similar for the large millers, but they have additional machines to remove sand particles, to remove broken rice and expensive double polishers for perfect visuals. Depending on the sophistication of the miller, the processes are further automated. In fact the cost is far less for them as their unit costs of production is less due to large volumes and they have sophisticated distribution set ups to market the bran and one even uses the husk to run his generators to produce electricity to run the factory. He sells the excess electricity to the National Grid.

There is absolutely no question that in his billion rupee mill, the largest in the country, it does not cost him anything to mill as the by products, cover the production costs as well as amortization of the factory cost. Effectively being able to do the conversion for free, This gives him enormous clout in the market place to determine price, and also stifle the competition.

His main preoccupation therefore is to have enough paddy coming through his factory to keep the machines operational 24/7 so he has no down time as that will increase the unit cost.

I have not touched on the parboiling process, which is when the paddy is boiled and then milled. That process produces parboiled rice, which is also very popular here as many of the laborers like this rice, as it fills their stomachs due to the mass.

I do my parboiling at home or at a known farmer’s so it tastes slightly different as the equipment used is rudimentary and the taste accordingly is different with some preferring home parboiled rice.

Many small millers have gone out of business as their costs were not competitive, and the big millers also have bought out small millers and closed them down, so that they get access to the paddy in preference to anyone else. This race to keep the big mills operational all the time, is what has reduced the number of millers, as they pay cash on delivery and are very efficient in grading and transacting the purchase. They use local traders with vehicles as subagents to collect paddy on their behalf to deliver to their mills, in order to have a continuous supply.

In order to be unique I have to differentiate from the quality of the large miller by offering a new rice, area specific and in my case, a major selling point being newly milled rice, less than a few days from milling.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

human resources the greatest challenge in agriculture

There are many schools of thought on how to handle unskilled labor. Strict discipline and a command structure as in the army is the way to go say one lot and others say that people need to be treated better if they are to work for you. The middle ground is probably the way to go. In the earlier scenario one may not be able to retain a workforce which today is generating more vacancies than it can fulfill especially due top the massive recruitment to the forces at very high rates of pay for very low educational skills. The latter scenario being too nice may mean they try to take full advantage of the situation and then take you for a ride.

Due to alternative employment opportunities available, workers are demanding much higher pay scales. Those who employ farm workers to tend vegetable plots, now tell me it is just not profitable to do so and are cutting down on labor intensive practices or vegetable cultivation altogether. There is no price guarantee of produce, so if paid labor is used and certain levels of scales have to be paid many areas of agriculture become unprofitable and have been scrapped. It may result in price increases for those items. This will go on till a balance is reached.

The other area is the work ethic where agricultural labor requires a lot of supervision, which unless it is part of a large farm, is impossible for a smaller farmer. Alcoholism is a major reason for low productivity and also contributes to absenteeism, sickness and theft to fund bad habits. With the price of food rising the latter reason is become more of a problem. The unavailability of labor limits choices with those in work.

The size of our agricultural unit lends itself better to owner cultivator and not to paid labor. In order to get to the next level in productivity we must either have to resort to mechanization in a larger scale and have large-scale farms with supervised labor much like the way the garment factories operate. The plots between 5 and 50 acres will then become uneconomical and a paradigm shift will take place, after huge adjustments unless there is proper planning for the eventualities of no labor and very high cost of food for lack of prior planning and implementation of the future course of food production. Specialized highly paid skilled labor will also be more appropriate under the circumstances.

Current price list

The latest product and price list of deliveries to customers in Colombo use the rough exchange rate as follows to covert if necessary.
US$ 1–Rs 100 UKSterling–Rs 200 and Japyen1–Rs 1 All prices in SL Rs
Coconuts Rs 40 ea
King Coconuts Rs 18 ea
Polonnaruwa Oranges Rs 10 ea
Lime Rs 20 500g
Papaya Rs 60 kg
Anamalu Plantains Rs 10 ea
Kolikuttu Plantains Rs 10 ea
Ambun Plantains Rs 10 ea
Seeni Kehel Rs 60 kg
Ambul Kehel Rs 60 kg

Fresh Milk Unpasteurized Rs 50 bot
King Coconut Oil Rs 200 half bot
King Coconut Oil Rs 400 bot
Forest Bees Honey Rs 350 half bot
Forest Bees Honey Rs 650 bot

Garlic Rs 40 200g
Red Onions Rs 45 500g
Bombay Onions Rs 70 kg

Fresh leaves plucked in the morn
Gotukola Rs 30 bunch
Gus Nivithi Rs 30 bunch
Thampala Rs 30 bunch
Mukunuwenna Rs 30 bunch
Kathurumurunga Rs 25 bunch
Rampe Karapincha Rs 20 bunch
Kathurumurunga Flowers Rs 30 pack

Ginger Rs 20 100g
Green Chillies Rs 60 200g
Capsicums Rs 40 250g
Lunu Kola Rs 40 500g

Tomato Rs 50 500g
Bandakka Rs 40 500g
Aubergine Rs 40 500g
Karavila Rs 40 500g
Ma Karal Rs 40 500g
Thibbatu Rs 40 250g

Kehel Muwa Rs 30 ea
Corn on the cob Rs 15 ea
Cucumber Rs 25 ea
Kekiri Rs 20 ea
Pumpkin Rs 30 qtr

At present I do not have any rice to bring to customers, but as soon as the harvest is complete in the next two weeks I will be able to bring between 8 and 10 varieties of rice for sale, all freshly milled and in fact newly harvested.

All the onions varieties including garlic are bought in for the shop and so offered to delivery customers as well.

The bees honey is a fresh source from harvesting bee hives in the forest and not in bee keeping boxes. Harvesting though illegal is not a threat to the environment as the bees constantly find new places to build their hives and bees are not killed or harmed in harvesting.

One liter tetra packs of long life milk is sold in stores at Rs 125 a bottle and so selling fresh milk unadulterated and straight after milking at Rs 50 is a bargain, especially when comparing the price of 400g of powdered milk at Rs 300.

The corn is arguably the only corn grown in the western province and plucked just before packing.

Monday, March 17, 2008

a great man with common sense

When I have a problem in my agricultural enterprise I go to 89 baas unnaha my mentor. He has been a builder in his time who had to give it up due to a medical problem and took up farming subsequently.

People from the agricultural department also come to him for advice. I buy my parboiled rice for my shop from him and also whatever he has that I also want for my shop or customers on my home delivery.

I visited him yesterday for some advice on how to handle the crisis I am currently facing with not being able to take in my harvest owing to the rain.

His answer was very simple. The last time this happened was in 1988 and there were not threshing machines then. The farmers used the runway on the Hingurakgoda airport to thresh their paddy using the large tractors and dry the grain on the surface. For obvious reasons they cannot do that now.

He told me that as my paddy has not fallen, I should bide my time and wait and when the sun next shines to cut as it will only take two hours for my paddy to dry and it will be perfect. If I cut now in a wet state the possible loss incurred in trying to dry it is not worth the risk. So that is what I have decided to do.

He is a practical man who has faced difficulty and overcome some and is still stifled by the lack of funds to pursue some of his dreams. One day I hope he will have the fortune to be able to carry out his ambitions as he is a true man of the soil, who loves his country and its heritage and strongly believes we can learn a lot from history, about the agricultural techniques and blend it in a rational and logical way to maximise the output with the least harm to the environment. An environmentalist before the term became fashionable.

Its people like this level headed and knowledgeable with a clear sense of what is required, with no interest in pursuing a personal agenda, that we require to draw up a master plan for the future and is a hidden gem worth more than anyone I can think of in this country today.

coconut scraping a daily mealtime chore

I find we in Sri Lanka are incredibly unproductive in our use of time, as well as in some cases, valuing our leisure over the pursuit of money to an extent that sometimes drags economic growth rather than being neutral. This is a policy makers nightmare as none of his textbook theories work on the Sri Lankan spsyche.

For the record, most households in Sri Lanka today, cook by using firewood, and most households use at least a coconut a day for cooking their curries. Both these items are getting scarcer by the day.

A coconut is scraped every day, in a household, where a mother usually is up at dawn to cook the days three rice meals. She starts with scraping a coconut for the first fifteen minutes, and once the coconut milk is obtained for the curry, scrapes another half for the pol sambol. They rarely use the squeezed coconut for the sambol, which is the way to go.

We have become so dependant on the coconut for our daily food consumption that I believe it is time we adopted some habits that are both more nutritious and also less reliant on scarce energy and coconuts.

If we use less coconut, that means eating fewer cooked curries, and if we use less coconut oil, it means eating less fried food, and if we use less firewood, it means eating certain foods in a raw state as in a salad. These three areas can be built into a campaign that can address some of our pressing problems in one sweep.

This is an ideal campaign for the agricultural department, the health department and environmental lobby to work together for the common good. It will release time in sense of less cooking, improve nutrition in healthy eating, and use less fossil fuels, a major environmental pollutant in Sri Lanka. As a by product it will keep the price of the next most important item of food, other than rice at an acceptable level.

In jest and in all seriousness, if everyone eats the way I do we will not have a food crisis, rice shortage or coconut crisis, and if we eat the way my staff do we are heading for disaster before we know it.

why are people silent about an impending crisis

No one in the media or government is a farmer or knows about farming.

The past two weeks have seen very unseasonable weather throughout the Island, which has resulted in large areas of the North Central and North Western Provinces as well as others being inundated with rain during the peak harvesting season for the Maha harvest. It is almost impossible to harvest paddy in the rain or when the paddy is wet.

Farmers, who were extremely hopeful of finally receiving a reasonable price for their paddy owing to the prevailing all time high prices, were in for a rude shock when they were faced with the inclement weather.

Many had staked all to obtain a good yield, borrowed money on very high short term rates of interest in order to take advantage of the expected price, that everyone failed to realize that one cannot count the chickens, until they are hatched.

This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that when it is suitable to cut the paddy there will be a shortage of people to do the work as dry weather windows are few and far between under this weather pattern. One must also realize that the machines that cut paddy cannot operate when the fields are wet, as they will get stuck in the mud and cannot propel their engines forward.

If one is fortunate enough to be able to cut the paddy and have it threshed, then one has the added cost of drying it to an acceptable standard for storage and sale. The threshing process where the machine costs Rs60/- a minute, will take longer with wet paddy. Paddy is only dried in the sun. A warm cement floor is an ideal way to dry paddy quickly. That is why one sees these drying floors outside rice mills.

The alternative is to sell as is, as in with a higher than acceptable level of humidity to traders at a lower price, who sell on to the few Mill owners who have the capacity to immediately par boil the rice and then dry and store it for future sale. This is therefore another opportunity for the bigger mill owners to obtain paddy at below market rates, ensuring they have additional profits on marketing, as wet paddy is not an issue with parboiled rice.

A worse scenario has befallen some farmers, whose crop has fallen owing to the rain as root systems are not deep when sowing as opposed to transplanting, and if the fields get flooded the paddy drowns in the water. It then gets spoilt with plants sprouting and what ever is saved in the threshing process is of a poor standard, only good for animal feed. I believe the last time it rained to a similar extent at harvesting season was over 25 years ago, so one can imagine how infrequent and unexpected this event has been. Crop insurance schemes will only cover total loss and most farmers will be able to reclaim some of their crop albeit at a lower price, which will still exceed the best price obtained last season, though their input costs have been much higher.

I am writing this in the verandah of my cabin while it is raining heavily outside and my crop is right outside, looking very bountiful but too wet to do anything about. I can fully appreciate what the other 150,000 + farmers in these areas must be feeling, as we are all faced with the same problem, expecting a record crop, only to be stifled by the unpredictability of the weather pattern.

I have an added problem as my model is to grow rice with the minimum use of pesticides and then store it and sell it direct to my customers during the rest of the year. In order the to that the stored paddy has to be very very dry so that it does not spoil. This is going to be a problem, which I have yet to resolve. If the rain came two weeks earlier or later it would have been OK but at the crucial period of harvesting is not fair!!.

On another practical note, for regular rice, it is better to harvest when the paddy is slightly raw, so when milling the rice particle does not break. In parboiling this is not an issue, added benefit to the Mill owner who can stock this paddy for when the prices rice as is inevitable again this year.

I am due quite a lot of paddy on account of transactions I have entered in the nature of forward purchase. I will have a problem again as I will inevitably receive wet and therefore under weight when dried paddy. I will further have to dry this before storage, to ensure I will have different types of rice for sale in my shop. The rains being nationwide, does not give me an option, to take my paddy to the farm in Godagama to dry it there either, which is an option I am toying with.

grains of paddy which when milled is rice still on the stalk prior to threshing

Sunday, March 9, 2008

a time out

I took a few days off as I am out of produce to market these days. It was also a chance to reflect and redirect the business into areas that have more distance.

A short road trip, starting in Vienna, driving first to Salzburg and a brief day out to Munich. Then on to Czech Republic and Prague and old cities on the way and then back to the Eastern end of Austria, and over to Bratislava in Slovakia before returning to Vienna to return the rental car. I just got back, and back to my regular deliveries tomorrow, Tuesday the 11th March 2008.

The bad news was that I dropped my digital camera in the taxi back to the hotel one night in Vienna, and if it is not found, all the wonderful (500+) photos I took on the trip will just be a memory. Never fear me without a camera is like not having all my limbs so I will somehow repair that so my real photos from real events in daily life of Sri Lanka can resume.

Thank you road trippers, the journey was not without its moments good and bad but we hung in there and made it through, so now who is going to tell the tale or tell tales!!! and some mighty funny tales they are too, like the Hungarian strangler in a Czech village ready to gobble up!!