About a month ago, a story from Vietnam hit the newswires1. A cane grower in Vietnam from the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai imported a cane harvester from the USA at the cost of VND12 billion (US$558,000). With the support from the local sugar factory Ayun Pa, the farmer Tran Dinh Manh “put all of his assets such as land, houses, and motorbikes as collateral”. With dwindling supply of manual labour required during five months of campaign, the local cane growers welcomed the purchase as they could contract Manh to cut their cane. The harvester can cut 300-500 tonnes cane/day. Manh charging VND200,000 (US$9)/tonne hopes to recoup his investment in five years. The local sugar factory too has welcomed the initiative as it now receives timely cut cane not exposed to post harvest losses in field.
It is increasingly apparent that in the cane sector access to supply of manual labour for the soul destroying cane harvesting has become a major issue. In India, where less than 1% of cane production is mechanized, shortage of manual labour is beginning to accelerate the adoption of mechanization. The likes of John Deere and Holland have recently set up in India to manufacture harvesters for the local market, which cost over quarter million US dollars. The government of Karnataka has pencilled in support measures of some US$ 23 million for supply of farm equipment like tractors, rotovators, ploughing machines and harvesters through public-private partnership. In China, where cane mechanization is also around 1%, driven in part by terrain, the government sees farm mechanization as a key tool in countering the decline in rural productivity. It has introduced subsidies for farm equipment. These are typically around 50,000 yuan (US$8058) or 30% of equipment’s sale price, but the amount can be as much as 600,000 yuan in some cases.
The challenge in the cane sector where productivity of smallholders is significantly lower than larger scale producers – for example in Philippines, productivity from large farms (>100 ha) is 73.4 t/ha while that from small farms (<5 ha) is 50.3 t/ha – informed both by lack of access to knowledge and capital inputs, is how best to rise to it? As the case of the Vietnamese farmer Manh suggests, support from the local factory was vital. The public-private partnership that the state of Karnataka is promoting in India certainly has merit. Along similar lines, with some local organization, support from local mills and or opportunistic entrepreneurs to exploit the challenge, smallholders can have access to services supplying mechanized operations.
The key step change that has revolutionised the exploitation of mechanization has been the advances in information communication technologies which have given rise to precision farming, which now is widely seen as a must. For smallholders forced into adopting mechanization, transformative advances in technology are within their reach. Smallholders in Germany “have virtually consolidated their plots by working across field boundaries using GPS-guided equipment and a smart data-driven approach. This technology allows them to precisely allocate yields to each of the group’s members, who realize the synergies and benefits of scale enjoyed by large farms without having to unify ownership of their plots.”2
It is probably a blessing in disguise that the unavailability of manual labour in the cane sector has become an issue recently when supporting technology to fully exploit benefits mechanization is in place, and also affordable. While aging farming community raises another issue, as the Boston Consulting Group report2 notes that in foreseeable future, this too will be adequately addressed as, precision farming is likely to be informed “by the increased use of sensors, software and wireless connectivity on farming implements, thereby turning ploughs, planters, spreaders, sprayers and other add-ons into intelligent equipment. Such implements will control the tractor through two-way communication.”
2 Boston Consulting Group (2015) Crop farming 2030: The reinvention of the sector