Using Farm Mechanization to Strengthen the Rice Value Chain
In Pakistan, basmati rice farmers are adopting direct seeding technology to improve farm efficiency and yield.
Pakistan is a major exporter of basmati rice. In recent years, however, productivity and quality constraints have eroded the country’s competitive edge in the world market.
A project is helping farmers in Punjab, where basmati rice is mainly grown, to increase production by modernizing agricultural practices, particularly through mechanization, and by incorporating disease-resistant genes from the International Rice Research Institute into the elite variety of basmati rice, also known as “super basmati.”
To help small farmers adopt the technology easily, the project worked with local service providers in making the needed farm machinery and equipment readily available
- December 2013 : Approval of technical assistance project
- December 2018 : Expected completion
- $1.2 million: Total Cost
- Asian Development Bank
- Government of Pakistan
- Punjab Agricultural Research Board
The aromatic, long-grain basmati rice is one of Pakistan’s premium exports. It is the main livelihood for more than 730,000 families. Nearly all of them farm in the Punjab.
In fiscal year 2012, 65% of Punjab's total rice area, or 1.1 million hectares, was devoted to basmati with a production of about 2 million tons.
Basmati farming however is in decline, suffering from low yields, inconsistent quality, and increased competition from India. Eight years ago, Pakistan’s basmati exports were worth nearly $1 billion a year. Today, it is around $540 million.
Many farmers have switched to other, easier to grow, rice varieties. Meanwhile, demand for basmati has been increasing worldwide.
Pakistan needs to strengthen its basmati rice value chain to regain market leadership. The major bottleneck in the supply value chain is in the upstream or farm production. High production costs and declining yields of existing basmati varieties make their cultivation less profitable.
To grow basmati, Punjab farmers traditionally flood and till the paddy fields, then plant the seedlings by hand. Many of the farm workers are women, who are given the backbreaking task of transplanting the rice from the nurseries to the field.
“With our conventional method of rice transplanting, the first issue is the availability and cost of labor, which is around 5,000 to 7,000 rupees per acre,” says Muhammad Hamid Khan, a farmer from Bucheki village in Punjab. “The second problem is the excessive use and cost of groundwater, which is extremely scarce. Also, we are not achieving optimal rice plant density this way, which means lower yields.”
With support from an Asian Development Bank project, the Government of the Punjab, local universities, and rural service providers are working together to revive the basmati industry. The project is improving basmati seed varieties, modernizing farming and postharvest practices, and enhancing research and service capabilities.
“Basmati is a premium crop with potentially high profit margins,” says Muhammad Cheema, University of Agriculture in Faisalabad. “With better farming practices and support, Pakistan’s smallholders can benefit much more from growing basmati than from other rice varieties. One of the ways we are helping is by introducing new technologies to lower production costs and increase yields.”
Under the project, machinery was adapted to plant basmati rice seeds directly on dry paddy fields. More than a hundred rural service providers tested the technology with 2,000 farmers in eight districts of Punjab, classified as basmati niche area—the Kallar tract.
Precision seeding and ICT applications
Direct seeding of rice requires a quality drill for precision seeding on laser-leveled fields. Laser land leveling creates a seedbed with uniform soil moisture to ensure uniform germination and crop stand. It also helps reduce weeds and saves water.
However, majority of basmati farmers in Punjab cannot afford to buy a drill for direct seeding of rice. They depend on service providers for farm equipment.
The project focused on two key actions. First, efforts were made to refine the drill to provide a machine for precision seeding of rice because the current drill is not standardized.
Second was to create awareness, training, and strengthening of local service providers so that they can provide services for precision seeding. The service providers and farmers were also linked with experts (agronomists, pathologists, entomologists, and engineers) so that they can get responses to their queries on a real-time basis through a WhatsApp group, as most of the farmers or their children have access to smart phones. WhatsApp is a free messaging application developed for Android mobile phones. The service providers and farmers also used WhatsApp to send pictures of disease-infected crops and other problems for experts to view and diagnose. The experience has shown that the use of information and communication technology (ICT) helped to provide timely knowledge and information.
The results of the project were impressive. Water used in basmati rice planting was reduced by 25%. Yields increased by 19% and farmers’ income grew more than 29% with direct seeding of rice.
With success proven and farmer interest high, scaling up is now the project’s focus.
“Nowadays we experience severe water shortages,” says Kashif Fiaz, rural service provider and farmer from Jagatan village. “By using direct seeding technology, we save water and achieve higher plant numbers. Our labor costs are lower and due to line sowing, our harvesting losses are much less. Therefore, we should adopt the technology.”
“So far, 450 direct seeding machines have been sold and we are planning social media campaigns to reach thousands more service providers,” says Cheema. This will be the best way to roll out the technology to basmati farmers throughout the Punjab.”
In this year’s rice season, the project also demonstrated the technology and machinery to more than 2,000 farmers on 9,000 hectares. It trained both male and female farmers in direct seeding of rice technology.
Improved basmati seed varieties
In addition, participating research institutes have submitted eight advance lines of high-yielding basmati rice with bacterial leaf blight-resistance to Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) for national uniform yield trial in 2017 and 2018. They are also in the process of developing drought- as well as flood-tolerant basmati rice varieties.
The project promoted the use of innovative technologies and machinery successfully through the active participation of service providers and the use of ICT in linking farmers and service providers with experts.
The project showed that a conventional approach to extension services in agriculture, such as field visits and meetings, are not effective in transferring knowledge to farmers. Instead, building the capacity and capability of local service providers provided a sustainable vehicle for demonstrating and transferring agricultural technologies to many farmers.
By using ICT, the project reached many farmers and linked them and service providers with knowledge institutions, which provided technical knowledge on a real-time basis.
Some farmers have suggested expanding the use of ICT from WhatsApp groups to a Facebook page. ICT may also be used in partnership with knowledge institutions to disseminate best practices from the project.
Another lesson learned from farmers is that their income is linked not just to one commodity and their resources (capital, water, and land) are on a per farm basis. Therefore, future assistance and investments should focus on sustainable farming systems.
Farm mechanization may later displace some landless workers, particularly women who currently do the manual planting of seedlings. Future projects for rural development and agriculture should consider this and include assistance for displaced workers, such as alternative livelihoods.
Service providers also identified three necessary inputs for the provision of high-quality services to farmers:
- establishment of service centers under the guidance of manufacturers of precision machinery for the repair and overhaul of machines and availability of spare parts,
- capacity building of service providers and linking them with leasing companies so that credit support is available at reasonable interest rates, and
- provision of technical support for importing the right type of precision machinery.
Asian Development Bank. Pakistan: Punjab Basmati Rice Value Chain Project.
Punjab Agricultural Research Board. 2018. Punjab Basmati Rice Value Chain, Pakistan. Accomplishments of the ADB TA Research Project. December. Agriculture Department, Government of the Punjab.
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The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Asian Development Bank, its management, its Board of Directors, or its members.