Belait farm braces for worst rice yield

National 3 minutes, 36 seconds


BELAIT’S largest rice farm in Sengkuang, Labi is bracing for its worst commercial yield, with severely dry weather beginning at the start of the year exposing the absence of irrigation infrastructure in the area.

As the sole remaining Agricultural Development Area (KKP) for padi farming in the district, the 300-hectare lot Sengkuang has traditionally been Belait's biggest producer for rice.

However, according to the Department of Agriculture and Agrifood (DAA) statistics, yields have taken a nosedive in recent years – dropping from 192 metric tonnes in 2008 to 54 tonnes last year.

Despite its size and gazetting as Agricultural Development Area by the government, the site has never had an irrigation system installed. Instead long-time farmers have “always relied” on ample water supply flowing from Sg Rempayoh directly into Sengkuang – until the Public Works Department cleared the river about five years ago to mitigate flooding in Labi.

“Flooding has always been a mainstay in Labi during certain parts of the year – which to a certain extent helps padi farming as the area needs to be very wet.

“Previously Sg Rempayoh would be clogged by dead logs and other branches and vegetation, but (PWD) cleared it as part of a wider flood mitigation project in the area. The water then flowing into Sengkuang drastically dropped. Our yield has been declining ever since,” said the appointed head of Lot Sengkuang Hj Mohd Sofian Mohd Yassin.

At the moment, the farmers’ other option for water supply is to draw it from the site’s drains using water pumps. However, with water levels declining in the past years, Hj Mohd Sofian said all government-owned pumps were transferred out of Labi.

“Right now only those who can afford it buy their own pumps, but they are less powerful than the ones provided by DAA. But even I haven’t been able to use the drain’s water because there is barely any water to draw from using the pump,” said the 69-year-old.

Sengkuang’s farmers in the past few weeks have been taking their harvest to Labi’s DAA station to be weighed and some have come with only a single sack of rice.

“Since there is no irrigation, we rely on rain. But this year the hot and dry weather has come earlier, with even less rain and lasted much longer than expected,” said Jaya Ambun, who managed just 33 kilogrammes of Laila rice from the two acres he farmed with his wife.

An outlier with one of Sengkuang’s highest yield ratios, Jamit Gidang, has collected about one tonne over two acres but said this was 800kg less than his regular harvests.

“This year I have tried planting BDR5 for the first time (alongside other traditional varities), which is supposed to be more drought resistant. So there is harvest, but it is much, much less than I normally produce,” said the 50-year-old, who stays at his plot in a makeshift house almost every day during the farming season.

DAA is still tallying this season’s yield, planted last September to October – considered the “main season” with the highest produce.

But judging from what has been already collected, DAA staff are expecting Sengkuang's total drop below 50 tonnes.

Hj Mohd Sofian, who was previously awarded most successful rice farmer for producing 50 tonnes across four years, will make a loss of $5,000 from this season's harvest.

The 69-year-old has collected just 880 kilogrammes from 1.6 hectares this year, according to the DAA station's records.

“I have seven full-time staff to pay, so I am struggling and will no doubt be making a loss this harvest. I would be lying if I said I don’t have thoughts about stopping the business. But I will try again (for another few seasons),” he said.

As water supply from Sg Rempayoh has dropped and yield has subsequently been declining, Hj Mohd Sofian said many farmers have decided to pack up their bags and leave Sengkuang.

“The matter (lack of water supply and irrigation) has already been repeatedly raised to the authorities. Now we just cross our fingers and wait,” he said.

Upgrades to irrigation infrastructure have been mentioned publicly several times before by the former Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources.

However, the project following the assessment – titled “Water Supply and Irrigation System at Sengkuang, Sungai Liang and Labi Baru” – has yet to be implemented.

The Brunei Times