Thursday, July 03, 2008

Agri Econ 3: Dr. Samran Sombatpanit and WASWC

My two articles the past three weeks....

June 17, 2008

Meeting Dr. Samran Sombatpanit

Before going to Hong Kong the other week to attend the Pacific Rim Conference (see my previous article, "Individual liberty in the Pacific Rim"), I passed by Bangkok, upon the invitation of a Thai friend, Dr. Samran Sombatpanit. He is the immediate past president of the World Association for Soil and Water Conservation (WASWC). My route was Manila-Bangkok-Hong Kong-Manila. By making two foreign trips in one exit at the Manila airport NAIA, I would pay only once the extortion charges of travel tax of Php1,620 (about US$37 at Php44/US$1) and terminal fee of Php750 (about US$17), instead of paying twice.

I got to know Dr. Sombatpanit through a Moroccan friend, Nahid Elbezaz, who was my ‘batchmate’ in an international training on "Sustainable Agriculture" in late 2003 held in Sweden. I have been managing an agro-forest farm for a decade-and-a-half now, and the farm is owned by the Millora family, a friend whom I consider my second family here in Manila.

I contributed a paper for WASWC on building stone terraces for small water path to control soil erosion. This system not only minimizes and controls soil erosion, but also somehow conserves the eroded soil through well-arranged stone terraces that act as soil trap. Then I would also contribute to Samran some short papers on some of my observations and experience in agro-forestry, climate change literature, and so on.

Samran and his fellow editors and agriculture scientists recently published a book called "No Till Farming". It's a bit of a ‘revolutionary’ approach in farming for the following reasons. First, not tilling the soil is leaving it undisturbed; regular plowing and tilling can be harmful to the soil and the farm by making the soil loose and easily eroded during heavy rains and strong winds. Second, for many countries, government distribution of tractors to farmers at heavily subsidized price is among the more expensive public expenditures that taxpayers have to bear. And third, plowing by tractors and other mechanical devices can be expensive at this time of high oil prices.

Thus, the no-till farming philosophy can (a) save the soil from becoming loose and easily eroded, thus retaining nutrient-rich topsoil; (b) save taxpayers of the high cost of additional farm subsidies, (c) save farmers of the high cost of oil and tractor maintenance, and (d) save rivers and lakes from heavy siltation due to eroded topsoil due to heavy and frequent tilling of soil. From a number of farm results, crop yield is not that far from farms that experience regular tilling, leaving farmers with higher net income. So when you come to think of it, farming should not be too subsidy-dependent from the State – a principle that negates the ever-expanding agricultural bureaucracies and budget in many governments around the world.

If farming is left to agro-entrepreneurs and not distorted by heavy state subsidies, regulation and taxation – like NFA monopolization of rice importation for many decades, abuse and moral hazards problem in government agri credit programs, and rich countries' high domestic support and subsidies for their local agricultural production – a more dynamic market of supply-demand situation in food production, distribution and international trade will emerge. And the recent drastic food spikes could have been averted. This is because farming is an entrepreneurial activity, not a “social welfare” activity. Entrepreneurship requires less regulation, taxation, and subsidies, whereas social welfare requires the opposite. There should be big profit in farming and hence, state subsidies should be unnecessary because farming is mainly on food production, and everyone in this planet needs food.

Furthermore, if agri subsidies are kept at the minimum, if not abolished, then only those who can make profitable farming should stay in the business, unlike in many societies now where many farmers stay in the sector not because they are making enough money, but because they are receiving lots of state subsidies. And this is true in many rich countries like the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

It is good that the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) is not extended for another five years. The program is among the major factors why many agro-entrepreneurs are hesitant to develop and expand investments in their farms because when the farm is becoming prosperous and making good income, officials from the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) would come to them and tell them that their now prosperous land will be subjected to land redistribution to farm workers. That is why the current CARP as implemented will really have no time table. Which means uncertainty in agricultural investments will remain and the thick bureaucracy in DAR will only grow, not be reduced, in number.

Meanwhile, while we were in Thailand (my wife and our daughter came along), Dr. Sombatpanit toured us to Ayudhya and surrounding areas – Bang Sai, the King's summer palace, Ayuthaya, and other tourism areas. The development of Thailand's tourism industry, like its agricultural development, is somehow impressive. Of course it helps that Thailand does not experience strong typhoons like the Philippines; that it has a wide flat land, unlike the Philippines' archipelagic nature; and it has plenty of long and wide river systems that provide ample irrigation to its farms. The development of its new, big, and beautiful international airport that was opened only two years ago is a big bonus to foreign visitors who come to that country.


JULY 03, 2008

Tilling and soil erosion: sugarcane farms

I was born and grew up in Negros Occidental province in central Philippines. It is the sugar plantation capital of the country. In my past travels to almost all 81 provinces in the country, I would say that in terms of land utilization, no other province could beat it because one will hardly see vacant or idle land there. Almost all lands are fully utilized, for residential/commercial/industrial use, and planted with sugarcane or any other crops (coconut, banana, fruit orchard, a few rice land). This makes me feel proud of my province.

Huge tracts of land planted mainly to sugarcane, from midway of mountains down to the lowlands, means huge volume of harvested sugarcane being transported from the farms to huge sugar milling companies. During peak harvest and milling season, hundreds of over-loaded 6-wheeler trucks, up to long 18-wheeler trucks, all carrying several tons of sugarcane per truck, would be seen plying the provincial roads everyday. This plus bad public governance where the quality of newly-constructed or newly-repaired roads is often suspect, explains for the bad road network in the province.

I was not too observant of “topsoil level” before. After going through several pages of “No Till Farming” book published by the World Association for Soil and Water Conservation (WASWC), I became more aware of the threats to topsoil erosion by regular tilling and plowing of agricultural lands.

Sugarcane farms are perhaps the most tilled lands in the Philippines and other countries, after rice farms. But in the latter, rice farmers use only small hand tractors, if not farm animals like “carabao” (water buffalo) or bulls. In addition, rice fields are terraced so the ground is flat, that even water is impounded and trapped up to a certain height; hence, soil erosion is minimized and controlled. In sugarcane farms, they are using regular tractors which are big and heavy, so the plowing of the soil is deeper and wider. Many sugarcane fields are also not on flat soil, rather on hilly and rolling terrain. So when there is heavy rain and the soil has just been tilled and not yet planted to sugarcane, the volume of eroded soil can be huge.

In my recent visit to my province just last week, I observed that a number of sugarcane fields are several inches below the average ground level. Some are even 1 or 2 feet lower, especially those on non-flat terrain and those beside a canal. I surmised that the difference between current sugarcane fields’ level and the normal soil level, say on the shoulder of the provincial road, or those planted to bananas and coconut trees, is the amount of soil that has been eroded through time. If this difference or depth is only a few hectares wide, there could be no problem much. But if it covers thousands of hectares, then the problem can be big.

So, if a big volume of topsoil has been eroded through time, where does it go? By the law of gravity, the eroded soil go to lower areas – in creeks and rivers, ultimately into the ocean. The immediate result is that many creeks have disappeared after soil and small stones have covered their deeper portions, and everything were shallow and flat. There is still small water flow coming from upstream springs, but some lowland natural springs were covered and disappeared.

A similar thing happened in rivers. Many rivers’ depth have declined, meaning the rivers have become shallower, with regular deposit of eroded soil and rocks from the uplands and midlands. But rivers’ width have increased on average, as strong flash floods would “eat up” unstable and soft river banks, and as the rivers are now shallower. Mangrove forest species and related vegetation, like “nipa” and palms would help in stabilizing otherwise unstable river banks.

I think not all sugar planters are into yearly plowing of their farm, but I assume that their number is small. With the current expensive fuel prices though, I would assume that some sugar planters will be forced to reduce their tilling, say once every 2 cropping season or every 2 years, or even once every 3 years. Planting of sugarcane tops through manual boring will not only be a cheaper alternative, but also more sustainable in both short- and long-term as the slightly compacted soil is left undisturbed by heavy tractors and deep plowing.

As sugar planters slowly realize the virtue of no-till farming, aided mainly by expensive fuel prices, I hope that topsoil erosion will be minimized in my province. Although high prices and profitability of sugarcane for biofuel production could spur more sugar planters to continue the old ways of regular, annual deep tilling of their sugarcane farms, since high fuel prices for tractor plowing can be offset by high profit for biofuel production. Ultimately, it is the realization of the environmental value and long-term economic benefits of no-till farming that will convince many sugar planters to take this agricultural practice.

* See also: 
Agri Econ 1: Food Prices and Government, April 13, 2008
Agri Econ 2: Rice Laissez Faire vs. Subsidies, May 06, 2008

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