Govt should make production process easier, they plead
By Orji Sunday Sylvester
To rice farmers in Ebonyi State and its environs, a new dawn appears to have come with the state government’s resolve to reinvent rice production in the state. The state governor, David Umahi, while giving words of encouragement to farmers in the state, said that government would henceforth ban the consumption of imported rice at state functions.
“The parboiling process that Abakaliki rice undergoes makes it durable, unlike the imported rice, which does not undergo parboiling. That is why after six months, foreign rice becomes chaff and unhealthy for consumption. That is why we have banned our cooks from cooking any other rice except Abakaliki rice.”
Daily Sun learnt that the governor’s assurance had reverberated across the rice-producing communities and beyond, sending many of them into sheer delight.
One of such communities is Oduma-Achara in Enugu State. Mr. Paul Ukah, a retired headmaster in the town, as well as Agwu Uwadiegwu, a rice farmer, praised the governor.
“Banning foreign rice is a very important and positive move. We thank Governor David Umahi for that move. But we want him to make loans available to us. The cost of acquiring land, buying fertiliser and insecticide and hiring labourers is very high. After paying for all these, farmers end up having little or nothing as profit.”
Another villager, who declined to have his name in print said: “We want the government to bring us machines to help our work. Nearly everyone in this village above 45 years of age is suffering from severe waist pain. With this, many now can hardly plough two plots of land in one week.”
Oduma-Achara is located in Aninri Local Government Area of Enugu State. The hilly community shares common boundary with Uburu, in Ebonyi State, home of Ebonyi State Governor, David Umahi. It is an agrarian community whose estimated population of over 100,000 people are mainly cassava and Abalakili rice farmers.
Daily Sun learnt that the Abakaliki brand of rice is of good quality. But there is more that goes into its production, which many consumers are yet to know about. This is the deep insight many rice farmers shared with the reporter recently in the fields of Enugu and Ebonyi states.
One of such farmers is Mr. Ukah. He stated: “Rice thrives in a lowly, swampy area. It doesn’t grow in a sandy soil. It requires water always, at least, for the first few months.
“We start planting in the months of June or July. Two months before then, farmers clear their lands and then plough it, most of them using local hoes. We hire expert farm hands that do the ploughing for a fee. Nowadays, majority of farmers are taking exception to this practice because it is costly.
“The fields can be ploughed and the seeds scattered on the same day. It is not a big deal. Farmers move basins or bags of rice to the ploughed land and simply scatter them in the field like the Biblical sower. However, it takes a lot of experience to do that. It involves calculating the distance between each seed. With this mind, we scatter the seeds in a way that they can be nearly evenly spaced. This helps to avoid competition for nutrients among crops.
“Within five to seven days from the day of sowing, the seeds begin to germinate one at a time until the entire field turns green and beautiful.
“Between times of sowing and harvest comes a number of very relevant activities. Except in recent times when farmers are beginning to use herbicides, the original practice, which is still prevalent, is to hand-weed the farm.
“Some farmers apply fertiliser, organic or inorganic. This comes immediately after weeding. Some apply it while weeding activities are on. Few weeks after, the farm would be due for another weeding. So, the farmers are required to weed twice.
“Three to four months after planting, harvesting begins, usually in the months of November and December. We start by cutting the rice when the seeds are ripe and arranging them in tiny bunches. We do this with the help of a curved blade called sickle. That is why it’s called sickling.
“The bunches are left to dry in the farm for two weeks or more after the sickling exercise. Two weeks later, the farmers engage the services of wipers, especially, if the farm is large. The labourers arrange the bunches in big heaps and begin to strike them with a long stick to free the seeds from the stack to allow it drop into bags or mats. Then, the rice is winnowed. To winnow rice is to utilise natural wind or a hand fan to drive off the chaff, letting the rice to simply drop back on the mat. This process is repeated until the rice is entirely freed from sand and chaff,” he disclosed.
Indeed, it is a long walk. But that is not the end of it. Daily Sun was told that local farmers face some more serious challenges in the course of their production. The first is managing the seasonal rains. In recent times, the low-level rainfall has been affecting yields. Rice, it was learnt, required reasonable amount of rainfall to guarantee good harvest. That is why insufficient rainfall is the farmers’ Achilles heel. It is worse when farmers in the area have no irrigation facility.
Confirming the farmers’ plight to our correspondent, Okorie Onyeneke said: “Many of us are being forced to pull out of rice production because the weather has been increasingly hampering our harvest. This year alone, low and late rainfall has affected the general output of the fields. When you don’t have abundant rainfall, the rice would lack water to sustain it and the plant will dry up. Once the plants go dry, the rice plant sheds its seeds prematurely.”
While low rainfall is a major problem, flood occasioned by excessive rainfall is another pain in the neck. If floodwaters submerge the crops for as long as two weeks, what follows is that the crops will sip water and subsequently become too weak to carry the seeds. In the same vein, heavy rains cause the rice to fall flat to the ground. That is where climate change changes the equation.”
But that is not all, according to a local farmer, Mrs. Evelyn Agom Ohaozara in Ebonyi State. She said: “Other major problems militating against rice production in our area are pest and diseases infestation. Birds feed on crops a lot. When a flock invades a farm, it wipes off the entire crop in one fell swoop. The birds can eat up a huge percentage of our harvest. Grass cutters also don’t spare our crops; they too can chop down a whole plot of rice.”
When asked how farmers cope with these, Mrs. Agom said that the farmers sometimes resort to setting traps and erecting structures that have the semblance of humans with hands spread out to ward off the birds. They are like mannequins made of sticks and rags and a bell hung on the object. Usually, when the wind blows against the object, the bell rings and the pests bolt away, sometimes, momentarily. She also said that the farmer often set traps for the pests. But the question is, how many of the pests would be trapped.
The next hurdle in the way of rice production is storage. Another farmer, Mrs. Patricia Agwu, said this takes a significant portion of the farmer’s resources. The most common means of storage used by the villagers is bagging. The products are stored in bags and packed in dry rooms. She said the farmers must avoid letting the harvest to have contact with water till the next planting season. And the crops have to be protected by setting traps for rats and applying insecticides against invading weevils and other pests.
“We are very careful with rice storage. Last year, I lost nearly four bags of 100kg rice to weevils. Once they sneak in, you may not notice it till everything in the bag is consumed. You are left with just dust. That’s why we apply insecticides and other means of protection in due time.” But that leaves the question of the safety of the seed in case of excess application of insecticide.
Before the rice is finally pushed to the market, some more hurdles must be crossed. Local farmers have to wash the seeds clean of dirt. First, the rice is parboiled. Parboiling takes an average of 35 minutes. The timing is very important because the process does not need to exceed 35 minutes, otherwise it be difficult to grind or dry; worse still, it might get swollen during cooking.
“After parboiling, a farmer will have to dry the red rice for, at least, two or three days depending on the intensity of the sun,” Mrs. Nkechi Akpa said.
“When the moisture in the rice has reduced considerable, the rice is ready for milling. Then the framer is faced with the burden of avoiding drying the rice too much as this would result in the seed breaking into tiny fragments during milling.
“Rice is poured into a milling machine to separate it from the husk. After this, you sieve stones from the rice, as stones usually filter into the rice during harvesting.
“Sometimes, people complain that local rice has stones. This is where the problem comes from.
“Recently, we heard that the government would soon introduce a machine that could perfectly eliminate stones from local rice and we were happy. In Abakaliki, we heard that the machine can do everything to make our rice become like foreign rice.”
Now, this cheery piece of information from Mr. Ukah is gladdening. “Local rice does not cause beriberi. It has no deadly chemical content in the name of preservative, as you have it in foreign rice. People complain of stones and all that. Just tell them to come and see the rice we have in this village. Thank God, the president is promoting the consumption of local products. That is why local rice consumption cannot be ignored. It tastes better. It is also cheaper and healthier,” he boasts.