Beyond the Pumpkin Festival: Policy on agriculture vital | Sunday Observer

Beyond the Pumpkin Festival: Policy on agriculture vital

Pumpkins being unloaded at the Dambulla Economic Centre  File pic
Pumpkins being unloaded at the Dambulla Economic Centre File pic

Even though pumpkin is not a popular vegetable among Sri Lankans, it grabbed the attention of the urban community at the ‘Pumpkin Festival’ held in Colombo, last month. Many visited the festival which was a platform to sell surplus pumpkins and to educate urbanites about the nutritious value of the vegetable while connecting farmers with consumers.

President, Co-Exist Lanka Foundation and Chairman of Sarvodaya Development Finance PLC, Channa de Silva, who conceptualised the ‘Pumpkin Festival’ told the Sunday Observer that the purpose of the event was not to sell the excess pumpkin only, but also to educate the urban community on issues faced by farmers.

“Emotional connectivity was the key reason behind organising the event. However, we ended up selling 100,000 kilos of pumpkin that day with orders still coming to farmers. For instance, there is a café in Ward Place which still markets pumpkin based products. We wish to make the festival an annual event. But we do not want to stick to pumpkin alone,” said Channa.

Beyond the festival

The Pumpkin Festival was a great relief to the farmer community at a time their harvest was about to rot beside the roads, no argument. But, in terms of sustainability, it displayed failure. The problem of selling their harvest is not an issue that began recently. It has been a continuous issue with different crops from time to time. The harvest surplus issue applies to tomato, green chillies, onions and a few other vegetables.

“Farmers who used to cultivate onions and other vegetables turned towards pumpkin because it was easy to grow and was cost effective. At that time, the market price of pumpkin was really high. As a result, in the last two to three years, pumpkin supply began increasing while demand stagnated,” said Nissanka, a pumpkin purchaser at the Dambulla Economic Centre.

Secretary Dambulla Economic Centre Trade Association, I.G.Wijenanda told the Sunday Observer that farmers and the Ministry of Agriculture are responsible for the excess harvest of certain vegetables and are far beyond the demand. “There is no policy on agriculture in the country. Farmers look at the highly priced crop this season and start farming that particular crop for the next. The result is an excess supply of that single product to the market.

“The ministry runs advertisements in newspapers asking, farmers to cultivate certain crops. For instance, they had recently published a newspaper advertisement stating that growing carrot is risky these days and instructing that cucumber be grown instead. As a result, the price of carrots would sky rocket in the coming months,” he said.

However, at our discussion with Senior Agri-Economic Analyst at Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (HARTI), W.H.D. Priyadarshana, he said that the Ministry has a data base covering the entire country which shows the present distribution of farming lands based on each crop and it is the mechanism behind the Ministry naming certain crops as most suitable or riskier to grow.

“Other countries have calculations on market demand for certain food items throughout the year which leads to create farmers who are well aware of market trends. In 2012/ 2013, such a plan was prepared but was not put into practice. In the past couple of years we tried hard to implement the plan, but the unexpected drought which prevailed in the past three years hindered us in that effort,” he said.

“When it comes to pumpkins, its production cost is between Rs. 10 to 12 per kilo. But due to excessive supply its market price dropped to Rs. 5 per kilo. Then the government started buying it at Rs.30 per kilo and later, the private sector (super market chains) also started buying it at around Rs. 22 per kilo. Market intervention by the government proved good. But we need more sustainable approaches than that,” said Priyadarshana.

Lack of policies

As a step towards food security and reducing waste the government plans to build the first ever cool room in Dambulla in the coming months. However, Priyadarshana says that it’s important to establish processing centres parallel to cool rooms. “Processing centres would facilitate bringing a value added, finished product to the market. For instance if we take carrot, the consumer buys carrot with leaves and even with mud all over the product, which the consumer has to pay for,” he said.

HARTI has launched a project with the support of Mobitel, to educate farmers on the market price for different crops in various economic centres such as Dambulla, Keppetipola and Thambutthegama, via a telephone number (6060) so that farmers can decide on which market they should bring their harvest for best profit.

“On the other hand, we cannot see value addition to the raw products too. Even the private sector doesn’t get involved in value addition. Maybe we don’t follow large scale farming strategies. Now, what the country needs most is a proper production plan which is coupled to market factors,” said Priyadarshana.

A senior officer in a dedicated economic centre, told the Sunday Observer on the basis of anonymity, that lack of integrity in the Central Government and Provincial Councils and also the spreading of agriculture related institutes among many ministries are reasons behind the absence of a national policy.

“I have been to several countries to study modern farming and harvesting methods. But that learning is useless as we cannot implement what was learnt, here. Agriculture related institutes are not under one roof. Therefore no matter how hard we plan, there are practical issues when implementing,” he said.

Another complaint from officials was the reluctance of farmer communities to adopt new technology and also follow Ministry instructions.

Channa De Silva had a different perspective about the issue, that supermarket dictatorship over the farming community has made the situation worse.

“In fact supermarkets in urban areas currently control approximately 40 per cent of the market. They dictate to the farming community. Also there are certain areas which haven’t caught the bureaucratic eye. Especially the need of rebranding products. The government should re-think these matters as institutional support is very much needed to hold their (farmers) hands every step of the way,” he said.

Recommendations

Despite commercial agriculture practices in other parts of the world, President, Progressive Farmers Federation, M.K. Jayatissa said Sri Lanka should follow an integrated farming methodology. “This is a method widely used in India and Japan. Accordingly, I have cultivated peas and maize on the edges of my paddy field. Also mango, banana, potato and some herbs are cultivated in a dedicated small area in the same paddy field. I use traditional agriculture techniques with a modern twist,” he said.

Continuous failure to establish a concrete plan for agriculture has barred the development of the industry, it is something obvious, one could say. Moderator of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR), Chinthaka Rajapaksha also claimed that failure in agriculture planning since 1977 has wrecked the industry.

“The sad truth is that Sri Lanka is a country without an agriculture policy. The agriculture sector differs its shape according to the Minister in office. In 2007, the then government introduced a program called Api Wawamu – Rata Nagamu (Let’s cultivate and develop the country) and under the previous subject Minister, there was a program called Api Wawalai-Api Kanne (We cultivate and we eat). There is another program introduced by the President in 2016 called, ‘National Food Production Program’. The current Minister has a separate plan. No one has an idea about where we are heading in this industry,” he said.

“Other than pumpkin, paddy, tomato, potato, onion and even pepperfarmers face the same issue of selling their crops from time to time. Government involvement in agriculture has reduced continuously, especially from 2015 to 2019 the involvement reduced considerably.

Not only buying the harvest, but also regulating the market, distribution, quality maintenance and most importantly, assuring the rights on production factors of farmers (land, water and seeds) are areas where government assistance is critical,”he said.

A well planned cooperative system is the recommendation of Chinthaka Rajapaksha, who had his higher education in Sociology with years of experience as a civil activist related to agriculture.

“Our suggestion is a model based on the cooperative system, not the old fashioned cooperative system. It could be a company made by farmers. This could be a sustainable way to take forward our agriculture,” he said.

There are many people who would contribute to a platform to discuss how to develop the agriculture sector in Sri Lanka, but what our country needs is action rather than mere talking.


 

Four projects

Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Economic Affairs, Livestock Development, Irrigation and Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development, K.D.S. Ruwanchandra said:

There are four projects we have already initiated to eliminate future failure. One such project is registering all farmers, by way of instructing them what to cultivate in different lands at times. We can then forecast the harvest beforehand. We are also developing a central data base.We already have one, but it is incomplete.

Plans are under way to obtain the harvest of the same crop during different periods as prices drop when all harvest comes at the same time. If we could put forward or backward seeding time of the same crop in different areas, then the price can be controlled as well.

Dr. Harsha de Silva’s ministry will build a cold room in Dambulla. We hope to open a few other cold rooms in different areas with the assistance of the private sector.

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