To group or not to group?
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN
A challenge to padi farmers
THE numbers don’t lie. It is undeniable that padi production in the sultanate has improved in leaps and bounds in terms of output with a dramatic increase of 44 per cent with 1,983 metric tonnes of rice last year compared to 1,382 metric tonnes in 2014.
Despite the positive news, there is much to be done in terms of improving the domestic rice production, mainly to ensure increased productivity of padi plantations, rise in profit and cut in production costs as stressed by the Minister of Primary Resources and Tourism (MPRT) YB Dato Padua Hj Ali Hj Apong in his recent visit to the AE Asia Agri-Mart Sdn Bhd in Bengkurong in April.
During the April visit, the minister called for local rice producers to help the government cut its losses at the agricultural sector, which he added was due to subsidies and the rice buy back scheme provided by the government.
While the government is trying to curb wilting in agricultural profits, for the padi farmers the subject of fertilisers and pesticides is the top issue, citing that there are times where there will be lack of chemical input which are subisidised by the government, leaving the farmers to buy the expensive chemical on their own.
Md Said Tundak, the village head of Kg Bebuloh and chairperson of the Kg Bebuloh padi fields, said the government should establish a set price for agricultural products in the country. He said this is necessary due to the large number of farmers who cannot afford the expensive chemical input, since they do not have any salary and only depend on their old age pension to fund their padi fields.
The government’s and farmer’s concerns may be different, but for the authority the key to meet all these challenges, will be the farmers themselves or to be exact - farmers grouping together to help one another.
For Khairunnisa Hj Omar Ali, the Head of Rice Research and Development Unit from the Department of Agriculture and Agri-food, it is time for padi farmers in the sultanate to be less dependent on government incentives and should focus on heightening their productivity in a cost-effective way.
She said that padi farmers should pool their resources together and organise themselves to form farming cooperatives that could efficiently manage their rice plantations as well as their expenditures.
Most farmers, namely in the Pangkalan Batu area, operate their padi plantations individually even though the padi plantations belong under an organisation such as the Kg Bebuloh padi fields which are under the village’s consultative council (MPK), she said.
“As the government, we are sometimes bound by financial restrictions and there will be times where we cannot provide fertilisers or pesticides to the farmers on time,” she said.
“We hope that the farmers are more progressive and not rely on the government assistance by working as a group and not individually because when they buy the chemical input in bulk, it is cheaper,” added Khairunnisa.
She also said that through farming cooperatives, padi farmers would be able to cut their production costs as the shared resources would allow them to also share their assets such as agricultural machinery.
“For example, there are farmers at the moment, who only operate one hectare of land and they have bought one tractor each to till their land, this is not very cost productive,” she said.
“Instead, what they can do is, say there is a group of ten farmers with each operating one hectare of land, they can buy one tractor and share it among themselves as a tractor can service one hectare of land per day,” she added.
Khairunnisa added that padi farmers should adopt the mentality whereby their padi planting should not just be viewed as a way to earn side income but in fact is a business venture that could generate high profits.
Sanah Hj Burut, the Head of Agricultural Development in the Brunei-Muara district, said that currently MPRT was heading to the direction of persuading the village and mukim consultative councils that operate padi fields to convert into cooperatives. This was one of the ways for padi farmers to overcome the expensive price for chemical input as “suppliers for agricultural products in Brunei are not enough, therefore their prices are not competitive”, she said.
Sanah said that if the consultative councils were to convert into cooperatives and operate more than 50 hectares of land, they could apply for permit to import chemical input in bulk for cheaper prices.
The solutions are on hand, but officials realised that persuading the farmers to group together is easier said than done.
“There were a number of padi fields under consultative councils that seemed taken to the idea but they did not follow through, stating the large capital that it requires to set up a cooperative,” she said.
She added that if these padi farmers intend to import their own chemical input they need to get a license to import from the Ministry of Health (MoH) before applying for a permit to import from the DAA.
“Aside from that, the cooperatives would also need to build a storage facility to store the fertiliders and pesticides that they have imported, which will be taken note of by the health ministry,” said Sanah.
Md Said Tundak said that the Kg Bebuloh Consultative Council does not intend to convert into cooperative in managing the Kg Bebuloh padi fields. He said that the hassle of applying for the permit and license from the MoH and the DAA was too much, adding that the capital to build a storage for the chemical input was also overwhelming.
“The store will not just cost two or three thousand dollars, for us to be a cooperative and to import the chemicals, we will need a big storage facility which in turn will need a large amount of capital,” he added.
Meanwhile Mat Noor Maaruf, the village of head of Kg Wasan cum the chairperson of Kg Batang Perhentian padi fields also said that they did not wish to become a cooperative as “they are hard to manage and rarely succeed.”
He also cited large capital as the reason, especially in terms of buying shares for being members of the cooperative.
“Furthermore, we (the Kg Wasan Consultative Council) intend to make our agricultural products as part of our One Village One Product (OVOP) products,” he added.
The government is still trying to convince padi farmers to unite but to group or not to group, at the end will be decided by the farmers.
The Brunei Times