PADI farmer Mohd Roshdi Yahya is struggling to provide for his family as declining harvests and higher operating costs eat into his income.
And the 50-year old now fears passing on to his sons a padi field laden with debt.
“About 90% of padi farmers are in debt,” said Roshdi of Kampung Dulang Kecil in Yan, a prime padi planting district in Kedah, the nation’s rice bowl state.
“My father left his debts to me. It is not impossible that when I am no more, my debts will be passed on to my children,” said Roshdi, who is now part of a group helping padi farmers called Padi Rescue.
He is among the 300,000 farmers in Kedah that Padi Rescue claims are drowning in debt and whose incomes have shrunk over the years because of increasing operating costs.
Their declining incomes have made it hard for them to stay afloat and pay off those debts.
They also blame the lack of government support and a rice monopoly for making it hard for farmers to gain a sustainable income despite the fact that rice is a staple food for Malaysians.
Roshdi compares the situation among farmers with that of Felda settlers, who complain of being choked by debt and poor yields.
A combination of factors have led to declining returns.
Costs to hire workers to plant seedlings, spray pesticide and rent tilling and harvesting machines have gone up.
Increasingly unpredictable weather means that droughts and floods can be more severe and last longer. They also have to contend with more frequent outbreaks disease and pests, said Roshdi.
On top of this is the fact that rice mills, most of which are run by Padiberas Nasional Bhd (Bernas), reject up to 20% out of each tonne of padi they sell. This means they end up selling less padi to the mills.
Roshdi blames Bernas, which is owned by tycoon Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, for much of the pain farmers feel in the industry.
“When a body that is supposed to look after farmers is shut down and replaced by a private company, our interests are ignored.
“This private company is only interested in making a profit not the welfare of farmers.
Bernas was formed in 1996 to replace the National Padi and Rice Board (LPN), an agency that oversaw the industry and farmers.
Borrowing to live
The result of all these problem is that the average farmer earns the equivalent of RM600 per month for planting rice twice a year.
Farmers measure their plots in “relung”, which are roughly 0.288ha or 0.7 acres – about one third of a football pitch.
The cost to plant and harvest one relung of padi is between RM500 and RM700, said Roshdi.
“An average farmer usually has five relung and they also have to pay rent on the land because not all farmers own the land they work on.
“The income is seasonal, and it is difficult to estimate. If we estimate that in a six-month season we make RM3,500, our net income per month is just RM600,” said Roshdi.
Another farmer, Mohd Fauzi Mohd Rozi, said mills buy padi at RM1,200 per metric tonne, and the government gives out a RM300 incentive per tonne.
“But this is still not enough because our harvests have declined due to problems like padi angin,” said Fauzi, referring to unwanted varieties of rice plants that are classified as weeds. These unwanted rice plants are undesirable because the rice grains fall easily to the ground during harvesting, and take space and nutrient from more productive stalks of rice plants.
“I have to supplement my income by driving a lorry. Otherwise, it’s difficult to pay my debts,” said the 32 year-old from Hutan Kampung in Alor Star.
Farmers are forced to borrow to stay in business said Fuad Yaacob, 50, another farmer from Hutan Kampung.
“Our incomes have gone down, but when the season arrives we have to plant. So, we need to borrow money to plant because costs are high.”
Roshdi for instance owes RM13,000, an amount that he admits does not seem high.
“But if our costs go up and our incomes go down in the next few years we will be worse off.”
Padi Rescue wants the government to revive the old Rice Board or LPN and take control of the industry from Bernas.
“Bernas has failed in meeting its corporate social responsibilities.”
In a statement last January, Bernas said that its quality deduction rate – rice that is discarded because of impurities – for each tonne of padi was not more than 25% for the December 2016-January 2017 planting season.