Saturday, February 28, 2009

Just another day in Paradise

I am in Minneriya worrying about the level of a disease that has spread to my paddy fields, which I see has affected most farmers in my area, and just have to hope the effects on the final harvest will not be too severe. I have information from farmers in other places whose paddy has been destroyed due to lack of water, so I must be thankful. While the Government statistics showed that the area under cultivation this Maha season is an all time record for Sri Lanka, if my observations and information is anything to go by the harvest will be a lot less with the powers totally oblivious to the facts on the ground.

While here, I was just informed that there was a break in to my Kade in Godagama where all my produce is sold and all the money has been taken. Usually I don’t have much money about Rs5,000, but as it was month end and I was away unable to re-supply the shop there was Rs15,000 approx that was taken. Ironically it was probably the largest balance at the shop all year! Of course we have our suspicions as to who did it and the family that was asked to leave due to an earlier issue was still in residence last evening and had left by morning, leaving little doubt as to who the culprits were.

The shop girl had to be sent to make an entry at the Athurugiriya Police explaining the whole incident, and despite there being boys attached to the Chicken enterprise less than 10ft away from the shop, it had been done while they were asleep, indicating how easy it is to be so brazen. The dogs would not bark as they recognize the person, so what more can I say.

Of course the lessons to be learnt are many to prevent or reduce the outcome of such an event. However the desperation for cash by people who are alcoholics is little different to those of drug addicts and until we as a nation are able to do something about how perfectly able and productive people could be so ruined by this menace, their lives and others around them are affected.

I have plenty of vacancies for jobs in my enterprise, but please only non- smokers and teetotalers need apply. It is a wonderful job if you have the right attitude, and not fixated on one place, but like a nomadic life seeing the country and being fully engaged in a very fulfilling but tough life. I cannot chase people away from here however hard I try as they have such a cushy life, and those who leave voluntarily return begging for their jobs back. Only when some of these people are fired and they find it so difficult to live elsewhere as no one will tolerate their antics do they realize how foolish they were to bite the hand that fed them.

I have to take a philosophical attitude to the loss, which though to the reader does not sound a lot, it is still more money than I spend in a whole year on myself, just to put the loss in context. So if one looks at one’s annual spending then one can gauge the extent. I run a far-flung enterprise on a shoestring. My personal needs are negligible, so everything that affects the shoestring just affects the business directly, but are all factors one needs to take into account in living this way of life in this sort of enterprise where one is heavily dependent on other people most of whom have limited education and ambition.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The looming crisis of the year, and none of you know what it is

Bamboo split in two is used to make a temporary water aqueduct

The world is fixated on the worldwide recession, and Sri Lanka is fixated on winning the war, but there is a more sinister problem in Sri Lanka that is hidden from the public.

I am at present at a unique organic estate in Kithulgala of about 90 acres in extent. I periodically come here at least once a month to review progress and advise on action to take. I have been completely taken aback this visit with the extent of damage that the current drought has done to this extensive multi crop property.

As night follows day, we should realize that a rainy year is followed by a dry year. A wet 2008 seems to have given rise to a very dry 2009. Usually this area has one of the highest rainfall figures in the nation. I have never known my previous visits to be without a rain shower at least once. With no rainfall for two months the place is bone dry and the farm is in a panic mode to try and save its trees and tea bushes from being destroyed.

They have stopped plucking tea this month, laid off half its staff, using the existing staff to water the whole estate. The young tender new tea plants are being watered to save them from dying. The 200+ well grown Rambuttan trees full of fruit are reduced to about 100 that still have some life though all the fruit are now diseased. The Mangostine, Durian, and other fruit trees are struggling to survive, and even the Gliricidia, which was used to make compost is affected.

They are currently using the two swimming pools at the top of the hill to store water and then water the tea and other crops below the pool level. The water that comes from the streams above is gradually slowing to a trickle and I have asked them to prepare for a emergency if rains fail to arrive in a month to partially arrest the decline. Illegal felling of trees in the neighborhood has also affected the water retention properties of the hills exacerbating the problem, and no attention has been drawn to this either.

It is ironic that I reported earlier that due to the drop in tea prices and the closure of factories, people did not cut their tea-leaf. Now there is a demand for tea, and prices have risen with no tea available to be cut, this change in events taking place in a space of two months. Such are the vagaries of agriculture, which further enhances my opinion that it is the most difficult field to be in with a greater level of knowledge than any other field.

Following on from this, the drought is nationwide with no rain in the forecast anywhere in the Island. It is surprising that newspapers have not mentioned this issue, and it seems to be generally not a hot topic, with Provincial Council elections being the latest. It goes to show that even journalists appear to be urban folk, well educated but with little knowledge of the hinterland and the needs of the agricultural sector. I am therefore convinced that my blog is the only medium where any current and important information regarding agriculture can be obtained from for anyone interested in this field in Sri Lanka or overseas. I would invite my readers to comment on the above, as it affects the country in many areas when this whole sector suffers, but due to the delayed nature of the information flow it is too late once the news comes through to do anything about it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

What is it the consumer, public and each of you miss but not realize?

The offending mango cut up a week later to be eaten, see story on Feb 7th

It is always the TRUTH that is hidden from us. I will illustrate this based on the follow up of the earlier report below that I tagged a about a week ago. I was hit by a falling mango, which I noted, I would keep as a souvenir, to eat when ripe. Well here is the photo for all of you to enjoy. It was ripe exactly one week after it was plucked and I took the photo before I ate it a few minutes ago.

I can’t tell you how sweet it was literally. ’mee pani wage’(like bees honey). What I really want to share with you is this. I had the mangoes plucked when they were mature, and wait till they are ripe before I eat them. I sell them too to my customers, who complain they don’t look as good as the ones in the shop. I must say the mango that ripens on its own does not look as good on the exterior when compared with the ripe mango one is used to buying from the fruit seller. I can assure you it tastes a lot better.

Let me explain, the fruit seller buys the mango that has been plucked in an immature state by the grower or the plucker because it looks clean, and is then bought by the fruit seller, who then sprays it with a carbide that speeds the ripening process, so the buyer buys a nice light yellow hue and it looks nice and they pay over Rs100/- It tastes awful, as a mango plucked when not mature while looking nice on the outside, is sour, as it has not been allowed to mature and ripen on its own unaided.

My mango on the other hand looks average and this time also had a look of being blackened due to excess sun falling on the fruit. When it ripens there is hardly a yellowness to it, and consumers think it is not ripe, as they are used to the carbide yellow!
Even better, my price of Rs50/- is still not enticing enough to these consumers, the very same ones who pay a Rs100/- in the store. It is only when they eat it that the TRUTH be told. This is an example of the trouble I have to teach my well educated, degreed consumers, that even they have been taken for an almighty ride. No wonder we have a problem with the truth. The truth is that a naturally ripened mango does not have to be yellow to be ripe. If yellow it could be too ripe and spoilt.

So it is Valentines and I am spending the day quietly, home alone as they say. I had another run of trouble with my vehicle not starting, which resulted in a half day wasted as the vehicle reversed down a slope in an effort at reverse starting and broke the left side mirror! Once the battery was recharged and the alternator that was not charging repaired, the engine caught fire last evening while I was driving. I had a narrow shave as I was out in the wilds in the dark when it short-circuited and was able to limp back safely. This morning as the vehicle was just not pulling something that has been gradually getting worse, I had to be at a workshop while the fuel injectors were removed and cleaned, hoping that would help. It has a little, so I will probably be able to climb up the hill of one of my regular customers homes. It still is not up to the pulling power I would like, and the next stage will be to check over the injector pump to see if there is something that can be done to boost the power there. My whole enterprise depends on my being able to use my only vehicle everyday and I have to attend to all the repairs myself, as I don’t have a chauffeur to take the responsibility for its maintenance. It was a tough week.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Just Another day in Paradise – the effort to satisfy the ever-skeptical customer

As I sit at my desk this evening, in the dark save for two of Dr Godakumbura’s safety lamps, (those that don’t topple and cause a fire) writing this entry, I would like the reader to try andvisualize the trouble we go through to get good produce to our customers.

Sudath who is my man Friday in Raja Ela, Hingurakgoda and I went as I woke up this morning at dawn before even washing my face, to a neighbor across the river. We had to get his permission, before he left to tend to his fields, to pluck the balance of his Karthakolomban Mango. These were the Mangos the itinerant pluckers left behind as they were hard for them to reach. The owner of the trees, a small farmer who was short of cash was happy to accept some thousand rupee notes from a opportunist mango plucking team, even though the Mango was not mature. I had earlier reserved the tree for when the fruit was ‘pahila’ to pluck. The allure of money now was greater to him than later upon being mature, even though I had helped him in the past and also let him use some land this season free of charge to grow his green chillies.

The unsuspecting customer purchases the mango at an exorbitant price. They have been sprayed with carbide to ripen, and so he is disappointed with the taste, all because both the tree owner and the plucker want to make a quick buck. If they were on the tree till mature, (it is impossible to leave them till they ripen on the tree as the monkey, bat, and rock squirrel get there first) they would taste a whole lot better, and in these parts almost sickly sweet, something a Mango connoisseur would delight in. I forgot to mention, the unscrupulous middle-men pluckers, often also sell the fruit that falls, which spoil on ripening.

Sudath climbed the tree, some fifty ft in height. It is dangerous work having to stretch his arm with the plucking rod that has a pocket into which the mango falls, and is retrieved and fed into a sack that is carefully let down. I then take over and extract the fruit without damage. We then wash them thoroughly as the white milk if not washed, will result in the mango spoiling. When plucking some fruit fall to the ground damaged. One350g fruit fell about 40ft right onto my shoulder, which is sore as I write. I have the offending fruit as a souvenir and hope it ripens without spoiling (thanks to my shoulder) so I can eat it.

Just a moment after it hit me, a friend from back yonder, who lived on the same street in London’s Chelsea, around the time we both qualified as chartered accountants in the UK, called me saying he was at the CIC farm a couple of km away and would like to meet up. He and his wife, came here and saw what it was that made me give up all that and come here. There is something money just can’t buy, something magical, and we have it in abundance in this country. One just has to spend a little time searching for it.

All I could offer them today apart from mango was fresh juice from my orange trees, without sugar, and they were amazed at its taste, when compared with the orange imports that cost 5 times what I struggle to find a buyer for these. They are the traditional oranges growing wild for as long as people here can remember and are not the ‘Bibile Pani Dodang’ , which cost a lot more. The lack of sourness is due to the dry climate.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A drunken brawl on the farm gets out of hand, this is no ‘Dream’ It is ‘Reality’

I am a farmer and a 10acre landowner but I earn a living exclusively on what I grow, or buy from other growers, and then transport and sell on to the consumer. Of course I can’t do this on my own, and so I have people who live on my property to help me achieve my production volumes and for whom I pay a living wage. I also provide them housing, produce from my property and electricity free of charge. This imputed benefit if they had to get it on the open market would be Rs7000 a month. I nevertheless, still end up with a negative cash flow at the end of the month as you can see below on 31st January in the summary of my January accounts. I have to bridge this shortfall from assignments, working irregular hours and weekends. In short I work long hours, in multifaceted fields seven days a week to meet the payments including my staff, and in terms of spending money they indulge in the daily kasippu fix, while their families go hungry.

So when a member of my staff who was drunk and turned up around 8.30pm at my door sword in hand and wife in tow, seeking some sort of redress for an implied slight that another man who was at my home had done, I was angry enough to chase him out saying that I had just come home tired. I could not entertain his uncouth behavior. Of course he picked a fight with the other man and it spilt out to the outside. It should have ended there, a brawl between two moonshine (kasippu) inebriated men who would call each other names until both of them fell down and slept on the gravel in a drunken stupor.

The brawl did not end as it should have, as it normally does. An agent provocateur, who was with the sword man called out for imagined help on his mobile phone, and got in a crowd of thugs from two locations of more than 15 people, which included another farmhand who lives outside, the son-in-law of the sword man. They surrounded the farmhouse, and demanded that the person hiding in the house be brought out. It was past ten thirty, and I just switched the lights out and went to sleep, daring those troublemakers to try and make an entry in a good old fashioned western movie sense. All they were able to do was to break the padlock on the farm gate, which I had earlier closed and leave frustrated that they of 15 strength could not fight one person, who thought the better of confrontation in his inebriated state. This is a common problem in the country.

The next morning once daylight broke, we got the true story from the neighbors who heard the commotion, but were afraid to intervene at the time. The wives of these men appear to have egged them on rather than try to subdue their drunken bravado. The truth of their misdemeanors is also gradually emerging. These include plucking coconuts illegally, and selling them. Transporting wood from the property, along with other things such as firewood, and all the old iron to be sold. It has also later transpired that they have used tools from a local mechanic to remove and steal motors and equipment.

I have no option but to push them to leave voluntarily and force them out if they refuse. We have regularly helped them and there have been many occasions when we have saved them from problems of their own making. There comes a time when compassion has its limits and people need to know that they and their families’ fate lie in their hands and no one else. The moral of the story is to help those who help themselves only.

The Celebration of Independence – What does it truly mean? Who are the real heroes?

This blog is meant to record events of my life in my current situation of trying very hard to use my limited resources, to build an enterprise based on growing crops in rural village small-scale agriculture, and make my produce available at a reasonable price direct to the consumer, having personally transported some of my produce long distances at the dead of night to bring it fresh to the table.

It is a very independent way of life that is full of every hardship imaginable, but one is willing to undergo all this for that word independence. In the same vein the Nation celebrating Independence also must realize that with that word are a lot of sacrifices. In the present context, the final victory now in sight has been achieved by a heavy price paid by the soldiers and the majority of the citizens of the land who have had to indirectly sacrifice some of their basic rights, and privileges as well as desires for this victory.

Please let us not forget the true heroes of this victory. They are the men and women who work so hard in foreign lands, and send their hard earned money back home, whose remittances now amounting to about US$4Billion a year, that has enabled the war to be fought, the soldiers to be paid, the expensive hardware and ordnance to be purchased from overseas, and the bloated government kept in relative luxury, and foreign travel, when compared with the families of those who actually remit the money.

I want to make a very important point on the above statement. The US$90,000 remitted by 45 maids working in Dubai at an average of US$2,000 each per year, will buy a tax free latest model BMW for a Minister. At today’s exchange rate after transaction charges the Mid East worker’s family receives Rs 225,000 for the year. If the government had devalued the rupee by 20%, the least that is immediately required, this family would have received a further Rs50,000 or a little over Rs4,000 a month more. The Beemer would still cost the same in dollars. However if our cash rich Politicians want to buy dollars after devaluation, they will have to pay 20% more in rupees, so it is the maid in effect who subsidizes the overseas travel of the wealthy, and their foreign assets.

Over 75% of the citizens of Sri Lanka were born after Independence and therefore, British rule is just part of history. A history nevertheless that to this day has affected the “National Psyche” that has resulted in the 30 year ethnic terrorist conflict. We must try and take all steps necessary to erase this Psyche and replace it with a visionary Patriotism one based on a global perspective, where personal differences are truly immaterial in the pursuit of freedom from want, from hunger, from bondage, where we can all think freely, talk freely and act freely, within international codes of conduct, ethics, and morality without impinging on other people’s freedoms.

Lets celebrate this day, by first thanking our heroes who are at work in their country of employment while we have a Holiday, and request that our leaders recognize their contribution, and do what is necessary to make their lives more bearable in their places of employment, by providing better facilities at our Embassies to ensure that basic rights of our citizens working there are maintained. We can only then be truly independent.