By Carolyn Hong
Many have tried and failed to turn padi farming into a viable commercial venture but a private firm in Sarawak believes that it has hit on a formula that just could make it work.
It has turned to machinery instead of human labour to undertake the back-breaking work to lower cost and raise yields. The Kuching-based Ceria Group is now working some 1,000 hectares in Sarawak, with its largest project recently launched in the highlands which produces the famed Bario rice.
As this is just a drop in the ocean of the total 128,500 hectares planted with padi in the state, Ceria sees vast potential for its initiative.
“Agriculture is not a backward field, as is the general impression,” said Ceria’s managing director Thomas Hii (pic).
The use of machinery in padi farming in Sarawak is not new but previous attempts had failed because of a lack of technological know-how among farmers. Hii believes that it can succeed if the project is run by the private sector. It had also been carried out successfully in West Malaysia.
It is pinning its hopes on the project in the Bario highlands because it already has the advantage of existing strong demand. The short-grain rice retails from RM10 to RM12 per kg, compared to under RM2 for other types of rice.
But there is limited supply of Bario rice farmed at around 1,000 metres above sea level, and irrigated by mountain streams.
Hii said the project, which aims to boost production through mechanisation, is a joint-venture with the local community and state government. Ceria holds a 51 per cent stake, the Rurum Kelabit Sarawak organisation 44 per cent and the government five per cent. The federal government had given RM17 million to upgrade farm infrastructure for about 200 hectares. The project is being facilitated by the government agency PEMANDU.
He said government funding was necessary as the high cost of upgrading infrastructure would otherwise render the project unviable. Ceria’s role is to manage the project and transfer the know-how to the community.
Its target is to raise yields from one tonne per hectare to three tonnes, through mechanisation, better farming methods, upgraded infrastructure, and reviving abandoned fields. Mechanisation can halve the cost of planting and harvest, and reduce wastage, Hii said. A machine takes half a day to harvest as much as a person can do in a month.
Gerawat Gala, a lawyer who was the Rurum Kelabit Sarawak president until March, said this project could revive padi farming which has been in decline in Bario due to an ageing population and urban migration. About half its fields have been left idle.
Farmers can opt to pay for services such as ploughing and planting, and will keep all the produce. They can also choose to turn over their farms entirely for Ceria to manage in return for 30 per cent of the produce. Most of the farmers had opted for the second scheme.
There has, however, been unease among some of the local community who fear that commercialised farming may erode their traditional lifestyle. Rice farming is central to their community cohesion and culture. There is also fear that the fragile highland environment may not be able to support large-scale farming.
They feared losing their land, and were skeptical about the benefits.
“Any major project will attract different viewpoints,” Gerawat told Business Circle.
He noted that even if the project failed, the people would still benefit from the improved infrastructure. He also said the people would not lose their land as non-natives are not allowed to own land classified as native customary land.
By next year, the Ceria-managed farms should produce some 400 tonnes of Bario rice a year, or twice its current production, through double cropping.