Various sources have come out with plantation crops viz Tea and Rubber production/ productivity figures over the last several years. However, more recently the accuracy of such figures has been disputed, mainly by the plantation companies. Whatever it may be, the plantation industry needs a national plantation crop policy to boost its production/ productivity by about 25 – 30 percent over a 5- year period and remain competitive in the global scenario.
One of the major areas of focus is to boost land productivity of the existing plantings of about 206,104 hectares in tea and 128, 120 hectares in rubber. This can be achieved by, 1) Site specific soil management programme, 2) Innovative exploitation systems and use of skilled tappers, 3) Minimizing crop losses due to unforeseen crop losses 4) identification of uneconomical fields for intensified harvesting and early re-planting, and 5) strictly enforcing an annual re-planting rate of 2- 3 percent depending on the crop.
"Emphasis on basic science must always be with a conceptual link to applied research for tangible results in the field, both in the agricultural and processing and value-addition technology streams"
The next focus will be on re-plantings as a medium to long term strategy to enhance production and to boost productivity. Development of degraded land some of which are in the 3rd/4thm cycle of planting with the use of organic manures and prevention of further degradation of such lands, has assumed importance in this plan, as soil fertility depletion has been considered as one of the prime reason for low productivity in ageing plantation
Effective nursery management to obtain quality plants has also been considered as an urgent need. A selected vigorous rootstock planted bud grafted with a bud from a quality bud wood plant which has a high growth rate leading to a minimum unproductive period, is considered as a high quality plant and attempts are made to achieve this.
Phased out planting of a combination of clones for higher yields, disease and drought resistance and planting and post-planting care for field establishment success and early growth are also emphasized.
An integrated soil, nutrient management programme for managing crop and land fertility inputs and other related production practices for efficient crop growth/ yields are considered for implementation. Management plans for sit-specific situations, minimizing undesired environmental effects while optimizing farm profits and production are focused.
"The traditional system of maintaining estate records should now give way to computer technology which provides more accurate and wide-ranging information, capable of easy accessibility for speedy and improved decision-taking by management"
High productivity must get top priority; equally important is increasing total production through area expansion. Traditional areas have no more area available for plantation cultivation.
Planting materials with high yield potential are available in Sri Lanka. If these can replace the old trees, the average productivity can be raised from the present level by about 25 -30 percent. Moreover, the newer clones are more vigorous in growth and pluckability and tappability can be achieved much earlier than was seen with older clones. Therefore, this has been considered as a national programme and therefore the entire replanting/ new planting cost and phased out replanting have to be worked out.
Research and development
Agro-climatic constraints for expanding plantation crop cultivation to various non-traditional areas need to be examined and cost of cultivation worked out.
Location-specific clones and farm practices including farming systems that take into account the local crops and nutritional requirement of the people should be developed. This is all the more relevant when we expand in to newer areas in the country which is essential if we have to bridge the gap between demand and supply.
There has to be more emphasis on processing and value-addition technologies also, if the additional crops produced are to be consumed. Focus should be on providing products and services to the processing and products manufacturing industry. Emphasis on basic science must always be with a conceptual link to applied research for tangible results in the field, both in the agricultural and processing and value-addition technology streams (be it a smart clone or an intelligent beverage).
Climate change impact
It is estimated that the crop yield comes down by 10-15 percent for every degree rise in temperature. The extent of climate change and its impact on crop growth and productivity should be worked out and climate models should be developed for predicting future supply. Adaptation strategies and economic burden of adapting to climate change need to be worked out.
Improved mechanisation and reduced tapping frequency are needed to reduce labour dependence in the NR sector. Satellite data can be used to identify and estimate the extent of agro-climatically suitable areas in the Low/Mid Intermediate/Dry Zones where rubber can be introduced with least conflict with present land utilisation and no impact on biodiversity in various parts of Sri Lanka or outside. Satellite data also can be used for estimating the probability of occurrence of climate stress in Sri Lanka or any rubber producing country.
Clones of the future
We should aim at developing ‘smart clones’ which should have high yields, faster growth and shorter gestation period, improved tolerance to diseases/pests, better adaptability to climate stress and are location-specific. Do not worship any particular breeding strategy, but select the one which can help to achieve the desired end-goal speedily and surely. Research should continue its clone-centric approach, but it should make use of molecular breeding techniques such as marker-assisted selection to shorten the breeding cycle and get more number of agronomically important genes into an elite clone. Further genetic improvement in plantation crops (eg. Breaking the yield ceiling or pyramiding of multiple traits in one single clone etc.) may be difficult through conventional breeding/selection route.
The latest technologies such as molecular technology, nano technology, information technology, GIS and remote sensing etc. should be profitably made use of for advancing scientific research.
Land use and development
The traditional system of maintaining estate records should now give way to computer technology which provides more accurate and wide-ranging information, capable of easy accessibility for speedy and improved decision-taking by management. The Geographical Information System ( GIS) is one such technology. A land evaluation system for plantation crops was developed in the late 80s. Research should strengthen this system further with more sophisticated facilities that are now available for such purposes and provide land use planning service to rubber plantations for effective use of limited land resources available for these crops. Environmental dimensions in respect of both the on-site and off-site ill effects following the increased use of agro-chemicals should also be given due consideration in such exercises.
The success of any business depends on productivity in all areas of its focus. Land and human productivity in rubber plantings/holdings depend heavily on new knowledge, technology and people skills. Technology adopted by our competitors change rapidly and skill levels of competing countries are quite high. The problem in Sri Lanka is lack of new knowledge, appropriate skills and application of modern technologies in a systematic manner. Proposals should be developed and presented for a more effective R&D programme.
The lack of a close working relationship between national rubber research and extension organizations, and with different categories of farmers and farm organizations, is one of the most difficult institutional problems confronting the rubber sector. Research and extension organizations generally compete over the same scarce government resources and, frequently, leaders of these institutions do not see themselves as part of a broader system: the National Plantation Crop Technology System (NPCTS). Instead, they try to increase the flow of resources coming to their respective institutions and to solve day-to-day management problems, rather than ensuring that their respective organizations contribute to the broader goal of getting improved agricultural technologies to growers.
In addition, the leadership and staff of many research and extension organizations do not appreciate the important roles that growers and grower organizations can play, both in disseminating technology and, through effective feedback mechanisms, in helping set priorities and improving programme relevance. Mechanisms to solve such ineffective linkage problems have to be suggested.
Well-managed contract farming is an effective way to coordinate and promote production and marketing in agriculture. Nevertheless, it is essentially an agreement between unequal parties: companies, government bodies or individual entrepreneurs on the one hand and economically weaker farmers on the other. It is, however, an approach that can contribute to both increased income for farmers and higher profitability for sponsors When efficiently organized and managed, contract farming reduces risk and uncertainty for both parties as compared to buying and selling crops on the open market.
Advantages for growers
The prime advantage of a contractual agreement for farmers is that the sponsor will normally undertake to purchase all produce grown, within specified quality and quantity parameters. Contracts can also provide farmers with access to a wide range of managerial, technical and extension services that otherwise may be unobtainable. Farmers can use the contract agreement as collateral to arrange credit with a commercial bank in order to fund inputs. Thus, the main potential advantages for farmers are: provision of inputs and production services; access to credit; introduction of appropriate technology; skill transfer; guaranteed and fixed pricing structures; and access to reliable markets.
Out- grower system
Out-grower systems are schemes that provide production and marketing services to farmers on their own land.
These generally connote a government scheme with a parastatal enterprise, purchasing crops from growers, either on its own or as a joint venture with a private firm. Some times the term contract farming refers to the same arrangement in the private sector, where farmer and firm engage in a forward agreement of production and marketing, a partnership between farmers and agro-industrial firms.
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)