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Published: Monday December 9, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday December 9, 2013 MYT 7:01:20 AM

Saving our rice bowl

Saving the fields: By closing his fields for one season to allow the earth to dry up, Baharom Kasim could plant padi again. Before that, the problem of soft soil caused by wet weather had made farming almost impossible in parts of the Muda agricultural scheme in Kedah. – SAM THAM/The Star

Saving the fields: By closing his fields for one season to allow the earth to dry up, Baharom Kasim could plant padi again. Before that, the problem of soft soil caused by wet weather had made farming almost impossible in parts of the Muda agricultural scheme in Kedah. – SAM THAM/The Star

A climate that is wet when it should have been dry is taking a toll on rice farmers in the country’s largest granary.

STEPPING into his rice field, Baharom Kasim sank in up to his knees. A year and a half ago, the soft earth would have reached up to his waist. His harvesting machine would have been partially submerged in the quicksand-like soil, which swallowed whatever entered the field.

Like some 3,800 other padi farmers in the Muda agriculture scheme near Alor Star, Kedah, Baharom’s rice fields suffered from “soft soil” – land that is more mud than earth, making rice cultivation and harvesting near-impossible.

The problem got so bad that the 61-year-old farmer was left with little choice – he abandoned his fields in the hope that they would dry out. Most of the 200 farmers in Block 13 of the Muda scheme in Kampung Masjid Tualang, Kubang Badak, did the same, leaving their fields idle during the planting season of August 2012 to March 2013.

The move worked. In April, Baharom could sow his fields again and by October, he harvested over five tonnes of padi from his one hectare of land.

“Previously, it was difficult to get even two tonnes,” says the fourth-generation padi farmer as he ploughs his fields for the new planting season. The soil, however, has not fully recovered.

Heavy machinery can no longer be used in fields suffering from soft soil; it will just sink.
Heavy machinery can no longer be used in fields suffering from soft soil; it will just sink. – Mada

He still could not use heavy machinery to sow his fields, which would have done the job faster. Instead, he would have to use a handheld seeding machine. Nevertheless, he says things are much better now.

“After we closed for one planting season, about three-quarters of the rice fields in Block 13 are better than before and planting resumed.”

Baharom points to insufficient drainage canals, which leaves the fields waterlogged, as the cause of the soft soil. While padi grows in wet conditions, there has to be a layer of hardened soil (what farmers call “hard pan”) about half a metre deep to support the seedlings and farming machinery. When the fields are constantly soaked, the hard pan does not form.

The Muda area certainly has one of the lowest drainage canal densities among the country’s granaries, with 11m of drainage canals per hectare compared with 24m to 48m in the others. Being the pioneer large-scale rice planting scheme in the country, it was established at a time when irrigation know-how was still limited, back in 1970.

Using tracked heavy machinery to plough rice fields might ease the burden of farmers but it damages the soil.
Using tracked heavy machinery to plough rice fields might ease the burden of farmers, but it damages the soil.

The lack of drainage, however, is just one of the contributors to the soft soil problem, according to officials of the Muda Agricultural Development Authority (Mada). They say the problem has more to do with the changing weather pattern. The Muda scheme sits in the northern region of Peninsular Malaysia and this area has a distinct dry period from January to March, which is necessary to dry up the fields and restore soil fertility in preparation for the next planting season. The weather, however, has turned unpredictable and this dry season is no longer the norm.

“It was a ‘wet drought season’ in 2010 and 2011. It was supposed to be dry, but it rained, so the fields were always flooded,” says Nasiruddin Abdullah, director of the irrigation and drainage unit in Mada.

“The months of February and March in 2011 received over 400mm of rain and in 2010, over 350mm. Usually, we get only half of that. Previously, the weather was so dry that the soil was all cracked up. During that time, the villagers would flock to the fields to play kites. Now, you don’t see that anymore.”

In 2012, the dry season was not as wet and this year, things returned to normal. But the two years of extremely wet weather have wrought enough damage. The soft soil poser surfaced in 2011 and just kept worsening.

“Previously, the problem was isolated, one hectare here and there. Then suddenly, we see so many farmers facing this problem,” says Nasiruddin.

Without the annual dry season of January to March, rice fields become waterlogged.
Without the annual dry season of January to March, rice fields become waterlogged. – Mada

In early 2012, 6,230ha were afflicted. A year later, it expanded by 30% to 8,107ha. This is 8% of Muda’s total area of 96,580ha, and the land is owned by some 3,877 farmers. The worst affected farms are in Pendang and Jitra.

“In some areas, the hard pan is already damaged and no longer there. Some farmers cannot plant at all and have stopped cultivating. Some still cultivate but are unsure if they can harvest at the end of the season because machines cannot go into the fields,” says Nasiruddin.

One of the affected farmers, Ahmad Din, 58, also notes the change in the weather pattern.

“The dry season is short nowadays, just at the end of February to early March. The dry season is important for farmers as this is when we plough the fields and level the earth.”

He, too, stopped cultivating padi on his 4ha of fields for the 2012/2013 planting season, and lost income of about RM16,000.

Nasiruddin notes that while the annual rainfall over Muda remains unchanged at 2,200mm to 2,400mm, the rainfall pattern has.

Seed-sowing machines cannot be used on fields with soft soil. Farmers have to rely on handheld appliances to spread the seeds instead.
Seed-sowing machines cannot be used on fields with soft soil. Farmers have to rely on handheld appliances to spread the seeds instead.

“The distribution over the year no longer follows the pattern of previous years,” he says. In November 2010, the rain that fell over three days was equivalent to that which normally falls in a month.

October is usually the wettest month but this year, it was very dry for the first two weeks and then it rained everyday, causing floods in Kuala Nerang.

Nasiruddin says flooding, which never occurred in the 1970s and only sporadically throughout the 1980s and 1990s, has grown in frequency since 2000. It has become an annual affair since 2005, affecting riverine flood plains and low-lying areas. In 2010 alone, there were three major floods which damaged over a quarter of the padi fields.

He says land-clearing in upstream developments can exacerbate the flooding but there is no denying the impact of a sudden downpour.

“Last time, 50mm of rainfall would be spread over several hours so we didn’t feel the intensity. Now, it is in two hours, so we see the effect.”

Rice fields that are constantly saturated have a destructive rippling impact: land preparation and seeding will be impaired; seeding and harvesting machinery cannot be used; and yields will drop. Instead of the average six tonnes per hectare, fields with soft soil can only produce as little as one tonne. Yield from the country’s largest granary (Muda makes up a quarter of the total padi-growing land) appears to have been impaired: production has dropped from 956,417 tonnes in 2011 (37.09% of the national total) to 929,070 tonnes (35.7%) in 2012.

The use of heavy machinery adds to the problem. Nasiruddin says the combine harvester has been modified to handle loads of up to 11 tonnes, from eight tonnes previously. Also, rubber tyres, which are not suitable for wet fields, have been swapped with track systems which further ruin the soil.

Mada has sought for Federal funds to resolve the problem. This year, an allocation of RM3.77mil enabled the construction of finger drains, desilting and deepening of drainage channels, and use of mobile water pumps. For the next two years, Mada will get RM11.4mil and RM2.7mil. Drainage improvement works carried out this year enabled cultivation to continue in some affected areas, and raised the poor yield of 2.9 tonnes per hectare last year to 5.2 tonnes this year.

Nevertheless, Mada officials say merely adding drainage canals is not enough. To save the affected fields, it proposed early this year a stop to padi planting for two seasons. (The main planting season in Muda is September to February, and the second season is March to early September.)

“We can stop irrigating and this will allow the soil to dry up. It will also allow us to do drainage improvements. Now, with the planting going on, we cannot access the land to do drainage works,” says Nasiruddin.

To tide the farmers over during the closure, Mada has proposed that the existing farmers’ subsidies be converted to cash. This means no additional funds are needed to help the farmers. Current subsidies are for fertiliser (RM560/ha), padi production incentive (RM845/ha) and padi price (RM248.10 per tonne or RM1,240.50/ha). But the Agriculture Ministry has yet to approve Mada’s proposed closure and compensation package.

While the Government dallied, farmers such as Baharom, Ahmad and the others in Block 13 took matters into their own hands.

It was a difficult time for Baharom as he lost over RM6,000 in income.

“The family’s daily needs must still be met but we have no choice but to take this drastic step. If we don’t make this sacrifice, we might have to stop farming totally in the long term. So we voluntarily stopped, with no help from the Government.”

Luckily for the farmers in Block 13, the temporary closure bore results. Rice farming there is back on track but at the other affected areas, the future is uncertain. Even if the farmers can seed the fields now, they might not be able to reap what they sow; their farm machinery might get buried in the soft soil.

Manual harvesting is no longer an option as it is impossible to get farmhands these days. They can only hope that the next three months will be dry. If the weather turns awry again, their labours would have been in vain.

Related story:

Climate-smart farming

Tags / Keywords: Environment, Ecowatch, climate change, padi farming, rice, Mada, Muda, Kedah

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