TERENGGANU is not the rice bowl of Malaysia, with the state contributing just 3.8 per cent to the country’s production area of nearly 700,000ha.
The total land under padi cultivation in Terengganu measures less than 20,000ha, with a production volume of about 17,000 tonnes for local consumption.
Although there are plans to open another 24,000ha to enable the state to achieve self-sufficiency, they are not expected to become a reality anytime soon.
With the state’s population rising to more than 1.2 million people, a long-term plan is needed to organise the rice industry to match its population growth.
However, two factors that may impede the industry’s growth are the limited availability of manpower and land.
Like fishermen, padi farmers have the poverty stigma attached to them. The industry is also facing urban migration issues. The current generation prefers jobs with a stable income and to work in air-conditioned rooms.
The use of modern farming techniques has also failed to persuade the younger generation to take over from their fathers, which leads to another potential problem: the once-productive lands could become idle.
Special attention had been given by the government since the pre-independence era to alleviate poverty, achieve self-sufficiency and ensure food security.
Noble as they are, the one thing that is hampering these efforts is the mindset of older padi farmers, who are slow to acknowledge the millions invested by the government to provide the infrastructure needed to support and improve farming.
In the more established granary area in Besut, it took several years for padi farmers there to change their thinking. Relentless efforts by the Northern Terengganu Integrated Agriculture Development Area changed the mindset of 4,000 padi growers in Besut and Setiu.
The government spent RM430 million to irrigate 10,000ha of land by supplying 200 million cubic metres of water from the Paya Peda Dam through a 230km-long canal. The dam also acts as a flood-mitigation measure.
Padi growers in the Ketara region received guidance from agriculture experts, and by adopting the accepted agriculture practice, the farmers now produce seven tonnes of rice per hectare compared with 5.2 tonnes a couple of years ago.
Accepting good agriculture practice has never been easy for the older generation. But, the slow and steady introduction of technology and scheduled cultivation have opened the eyes of these farmers, who are earning more than RM3,000 per hectare.
However, the same cannot be said for padi growers in Jelapang, Setiu, which was opened for cultivation in 2009 and slated to be the second biggest granary area after Besut and the northern area of Setiu.
The government has spent close to RM50 million to transform 174ha of land into padi fields. A total 119 villagers were selected to work. However, only 80 villagers are still active.
The introduction of Jelapang as the new granary area was part of a plan to develop 24,500ha of land to produce 146,000 tonnes of rice, with the goal of achieving self-sufficiency by 2020.
Terengganu’s rice production volume, however, can only meet about 60 per cent of the local demand and the state needs to import rice from other states.
The initial plan was to make Terengganu self-sufficient in 10 years, but six years have passed and the slow progress means the target may not be met.
Maybe it is time to change the approach in padi cultivation by attracting new blood to work on the padi fields. But, it is difficult to convince the next generation to venture into rice farming without the full support of the government.
It is probably best to group padi farmers under cooperatives to manage the cultivation and processing of padi and the marketing of rice.
This move eliminates the manpower shortage by providing salaried jobs to the younger generation and the adoption of systematic farming practices to increase yield.
Cooperatives can also re-cultivate idle land. There are about 1,300ha of padi fields in Terengganu left unattended after the death of owners or due to the lack of interest among family members to cultivate padi.