By Sheridan Mahavera
KUALA SELANGOR, April 1 — For Selangor padi farmers, it’s not about survival anymore or making a decent income. It’s about pride.
“Semua mau cari nama sekarang (everyone wants to make a name for himself these days),” announces Zainuddin Sudar, a strapping 36-year-old farmer from Kampung Sawah Semapadan, near Tanjung Karang.
To make that name, his padi farmer friends/competitors are pulling out all the stops to produce 12-tonnes of padi per hectare — the ace benchmark of padi farming.
For this is not a run-of-the-sawah story of spiritless farmers and wasted government aid like in the northern region. In the rice belt of Selangor, padi is as serious and as competitive a business as electronics.
Farmers like Zainuddin get up at 3am to devise new cocktails of pesticide and fertiliser that they think will make their padi stalks grow stronger and fatter.
They go to their fields every day to put their crops under a magnifying glass. They are not afraid to pour in money for the latest innovation and are always on the lookout for fields for rent or sale.
They are the fruits of a 2009 Selangor government initiative for farmers to increase padi yields.
They are also its best hope of boosting incomes in the rural heartlands of Kuala Selangor and Sabak Bernam and to ensure that the state’s wealth is not just in its industrial estates.
Producing more than its weight
Even without the Selangor government’s help, the over 9,200 padi farmers of Selangor are already producing 5.1 tonnes per hectare (tph), which is more than the national average of 4.1 tph.
In fact, at about 18,000 ha, Selangor has a fraction of the over 120,000 ha in Kedah, yet it produces more than Kedah’s 4.6 tph.
The reason may lie in the storied padi planting of nearby Sekinchan, whose farmers produce an average of 8.6 tph per season.
They were the inspiration behind the state government’s initiative and their best practices were compiled and taught to neighbouring farmers in a pilot programme.
The aim, says Noorazimah Taharim who oversees the programme, is to increase Selangor’s yields to 7.5 tph by 2013, and it is already bearing results.
“The yields in the lots under the programme are already going up 20 per cent compared to 2008,” says Noorazimah, an adviser to the Selangor Menteri Besar’s office.
Farmers, under the pilot programme, are schooled in modern techniques of field management which involve close monitoring of every stage of the 110-day life cycle of padi and the scheduled use of pesticides and fertiliser.
They get subsidised fertiliser and pesticide from the government while a web of irrigation canals and aqueducts ensures that fields are watered.
Government agencies also actively negotiate on behalf of farmers with service providers on rates for renting out machines to plant, till and harvest the crop.
Zainuddin points out that padi farmers all over the country get the same types of assistance from the government. Even the modern techniques are similar.
So what makes the Selangor farmer stand out from the rest is simply attitude.
“Petani lain malas”
It’s not just the entrepreneurial spirit of Selangor’s young farmers that drives them to increase their yields and incomes.
Zainuddin says they owe a debt to their forefathers who were wise enough to let the government parcel their fields into neat lots so that each 1.2 ha lot has access to roads and irrigation.
It makes planting efficient and the lack of it is partly why Kedah farmers for instance, struggle to grow more than four or five tonnes a hectare.
“They are so picky about their land that they won’t trade a small part of it for a road or irrigation ditch that would benefit them. We are lucky our ancestors had the foresight,” says Zainuddin, whose fields total 19.2 ha.
Another farmer, Burhanuddin Halimi, 39, feels that he and farmers like Zainuddin would have a hard time producing as much in Kedah as they do in Selangor.
“With those types of fields we ourselves could not grow as much,” says the former businessman turned farmer who has 9.6 ha of fields.
Though they are competitive, these young upstarts work in groups of three to four to oversee each other’s farms.
Zaidun Osman, 30, explains that the group works each member’s field in turn and they do all the work instead of hiring outside workers.
“We don’t trust others to mix the chemicals. Outside workers may not be as meticulous or thorough as we are,” says Zaidun, who had managed to produce 11 tph last season.
This combination of zeal and a dedication has not only increased their incomes, it has made them concentrate exclusively on farming. This is while other farmers have to go out and search for supplementary work such as rearing livestock or planting vegetables.
The costs of making a good living
According to Selangor government statistics, 68 per cent of farmers in the pilot project have started to make the equivalent of more than RM1,500 a month last year.
The three who were interviewed here represent the cream of that group, those who now make more than RM2,000 a month.
“Which is why you see them earning more than the government officers assigned to them,” jokes Noorazimah.
And that paradoxically is now starting to be a problem, the farmers and administrators say.
“The cost of pesticides is going up next season by almost 15 per cent. Now transplanting machine owners also want to up their fees from RM900 last season to RM1,200,” complains Burhanuddin.
There really isn’t a substantive reason for these hikes they say, as market prices for fuel and chemicals are not high.
“So in the end we think is because “gula sudah naik” (sugar has gone up)”, says Noorazimah. It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that these service providers are purposely doing it as they expect padi farmers to make a killing this season.
The market price of padi had shot up to RM1,300 per tonne last season in Selangor. Farmers expect it to hover around that range when this season’s batch of crops is harvested sometime in April and May.
“What the service providers don’t realise is that the padi price can come down the following season but will their fees come down?,” says Burhanuddin.
Hope springs eternal
Despite these bumps, the state is putting a lot of hope in these farmers, especially the top 15 percentile like Burhanuddin, Zaidun and Zainuddin, who produce more than 8 tph.
“We want these youngsters to lead the others. It does not matter if it’s a small group as long as the acreage under them is huge and they are productive,” says Noorazimah.
Though the fear that prices might fluctuate are there, demand for the crop will always increase. The country itself wants to raise rice self-sufficiency from 70 per cent to 90 per cent.
But there are no new viable fields in the country, says Noorazimah.
“We could open up new fields in other parts of the country but it would be expensive. The soil is different and it would take close to 20 years to put the infrastructure in place. Instead of doing that, it’s better to increase the yields from the fields we already have,” she reasons.
And these three are already doing that; Zainuddin, Zaidun and Burhanuddin are now experimenting with sound waves to get fatter crops.
You heard that right. They plan to broadcast uniquely patterned sounds that they believe will encourage the padi plant to absorb more nutrients and grow bigger.
It’s been done with other crops but they don’t really know if it’ll work with padi.
“But hey man, it’s worth a try,” quips Zainuddin, as if to paraphrase that entrepreneurial zeal that the country has long been searching for in its padi farmers.