We recently met with Mr. Barry Syiem, District Horticulture Officer, South West Khasi Hills, Mawkyrwat who gave us valuable insights into his work. We were introduced to Mr. Syiem by none other than his brother Professor Don Syiem of NEHU! Dr. Don Syiem is also a foremost expert on a much celebrated herb called Lyngiangbru (Potentilla fulgens). Mr. Barry Syiem is currently based out of Mawkyrwat in South West Khasi Hills. He visits Shillong every once in a while and this time took the trip just to meet up with us!
So we went to meet him at the Shillong Horticulture Office and we were pleasantly surprised by his candid nature and practical stance on all things agricultural! Since he didn’t have an office at this location, we used an office cubicle belonging to a colleague of his.
We started the interview by asking him what is one of the biggest challenges for the farmers of Meghalaya. He explained that the bulk of the farming community in the state is the small scale or subsistence farmer. To demonstrate, he said that the average holding per farmer is only half an acre. This means that the farmer could never hope to take advantage of the economies of scale by mass producing. And this is the first issue, according to Mr. Barry Syiem, which afflicts the farmers of the state. Since they produce only as much as their land holding allows them to, the market can never get enough of their produce. It is a vicious cycle where the farmers can’t produce enough and the markets can’t get enough.
The average holding per farmer in Meghalaya is only half an acre!
To support his theory, he cited the examples of squash, bay leaf and broom sticks. He pointed out that because these commodities are grown in bulk, the market is more receptive and the (large) scale farmers are also able to make a profitable living out of them. If the (subsistence) farmers of the state had been able to able to grow their produce in large volumes, then the story would have been entirely different.
Another major pain area for farmers of the state is storage and refrigeration. There is currently no state sponsored facility for farmers to store/ preserve their produce. For those who do bring their produce to the main market, which is in Shillong, farmers are left with little choice when at the end of the day, there is surplus. They either have to dump their produce or have to give them away at throwaway prices. And it is at this point that the middle men make a killing with the farmers. This in turn boomerangs back to the farmers who are discouraged from going large scale. On the other hand, there is reluctance too to invest in cold storage due to the large infrastructure cost involved. Reason being that the subsistence farmer has only so much produce and their own reluctance and low volume may not bring in the ROI on the initial investment made.
At the end of the day in the market, farmers have to either dump their produce or give them away at throwaway prices to middlemen!
Then there is poverty. The subsistence farmers can barely make enough to meet his needs beyond his basic needs. And because he practically lives hand-to-mouth, produces only on a small scale, the farmers of the state continue to remain on the fringes of the poverty line. Mr. Barry Syiem also pointed out that while officially the agrarian population of the state is 80%, he believes that it is now more like 70%.
Fortunately, there has been a major push for education and while this has helped, the children of the farmers are reluctant to carry on with farming. And one of the main reasons could be that they’ve seen how their parents continue to be exploited by the middle men. Additionally, they are also vulnerable to the demand-supply dynamics of the market, which again, is favorable only to large scale farmers.
So what could be the solutions that will help alleviate the condition of the farmers of the state?
- Low volume-High value: Since the farmers of the state are mostly small scale, they need to push for low volume and high value crops. This will ensure that their produce will fetch a good price while they continue to use their smaller plots of land. Of course, this has to be complemented by a readily available market that is ready to absorb their produce.
- Processing Units: Here, he cited the example of the coffee growers of the state. While a good number of people took up coffee growing, lack of knowledge and the required processing units are pushing these farmers to give up coffee.
- State sponsored buyback: Another solution for the farmers would be if there were buyback schemes sponsored by the government. This will encourage the farmers to produce to their maximum capacity.
Soil management: He pointed out that soil quality would deteriorate inevitably and that is one of the reasons why farmers turn to chemical based fertilizers. And even though the government was no longer supplying chemical based fertilizers as of 2015, they are still freely available in the market for farmers to purchase. But what would be truly helpful as well as sustainable was crop rotation as this would ensure that nutrients are returned to the soil without chemical-based fertilizers intervening.
These and several other measures, initiated by the farmers as well as the government will ensure that the farmers of the state can profitably carry on farming without being victimized by middlemen.
By the end of the discussion, we felt that there was a lot that needs to be done to help the farmers of the state which resonates deeply with Zizira’s vision. We at Zizira feel strongly about our farmers and with the help of dedicated and sincere individuals like Mr. Barry Syiem, we aim to make a difference!