‘When I Tell People I’m a Farmer, They Laugh at Me’

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Benjamin Nworie writes that Dr. Emmanuel Onwe, the Ebonyi State Commissioner for Information and State Orientation, has taken the lead in driving the state government’s rice farming policy

Over the years, farming has been the main business of Nigerians and the pride of the people. Nigeria is a great country through its massive agricultural potential. However, the discovery of oil has swayed the flair of Nigerian farmers, which was also worsened by over dependence on importation of food and cash crops into the country. Government on its part has discouraged farmers from farming through policies and programmes.

Also, worrisome is the fact that those enthusiastic farmers have dumped this glorified vocation to search for white collar jobs, while few find solace in politics. Farming has become a laughing stock or misconceived business for vulnerable people. Nobody wants to farm
because of the urgent need and desperation to make quick money from the liquid black gold- crude oil.

The problem of Nigeria’s economy started the day; agriculture was jettisoned and relegated to the background on the discovery of oil. Though, Nigeria has lived and hoped on oil as the major source of revenue but the “doom” being witnessed in the sector today occasioned by the activities of the Niger Delta militants and vandalisation of pipeline installation has placed the country with unprecedented opportunities to explore.

Instead of holding forth, the potentiality of agriculture, the federal government delved into oil exploration, forgetting the unpleasant story of its beginning in the hands of the colonial masters, when agriculture played “sacred” role of life sustenance.

With the floodgate of food importation, it became so awful and excruciating to venture into farming when any type of food can still be gotten at the door step with money. As the economy heads into deep recession and the foreign exchange keeps rising to topmost, it is therefore expedient to take agriculture as the only means of Nigeria’s survival.

In Nigeria today, most successful rice farms are owned by foreigners, in Kwara, Nassarawa states and other places and they are making a whole lot of money. This point, Nigeria is on the right track to get things done appropriately. If the ban on rice importation subsists, it will spur Nigerians into farming and there will be food sufficiency and job opportunities for the teeming unemployed youths.

It has become a policy in Ebonyi State that agriculture is the only alternative and priority of the government and its people with the special interest in rice production. The need for rice production in Ebonyi State cannot be over emphasised because it is the identity and pride of the people. The state is known for rice production.

Ebonyi State has enjoyed the bragging rights of rice production. The popular Abakalki rice is second to known because of its unique taste and quality. It’s naturally salted. The state governor, David Umahi, insisted that all government appointees and workers of the state civil service, schools of all categories owned by the state government must have verifiable proof of rice farming.

It was however amazing and incredible that a London trained legal luminary and exemplary politician, Dr Emmanuel Onwe could set the pace with the cultivation of 100 hectares of rice. It gives him joy and self esteem. Because of his position as Ebonyi State Commissioner for Information and State Orientation, Onwe said he would take the lead and drive Umahi’s policy to fruition.

Onwe’s experimental rice farm has further shown that no investment made in agriculture would be a waste if given the needed support and attention. It has also hit the record to have been the biggest ricefarm since the creation of Ebonyi State.

It’s a personal farm, not government. The farm has been lying fallow owned by the National Youths Service Corps. The governor and Onwe negotiated with NYSC and took it over and decided to use it and show example. NYSC has not been cultivating the land for good reason. They said it was because of the Ezza-Ezillo crisis and all their workers were reluctant to come.

Situated at Abakaliki-Enugu Expressway, the experimental private farm has remained a reference point that indeed, much hope and succour are embedded in rice production. This standard and uncommon feat has equally shown that rice production excludes no one. In the state, for instance, farming is always seen as the business of the poor people who could not afford government job.

Onwe said “when I tell friends and certain people that I am cultivating rice on the large scale, they laugh. When I tell young people that I am cultivating rice, that I have a rice farm, they laugh. When I tell people of certain level that I think know, what it’s all about, they will also laugh. That has baffled me. Why are you laughing? And I answered my question. They think that people like me should not farm. That some categories of people are exempted from doing certain things.

“This is an experimental farm of one hundred hectares of land with the investment of about 15 million naira. It is a calculated experiment and a calculated risk as well. If it yields to the expected experiment, it will yield six times over and there’s no other business that will give you that. I was born in a rice farm. No technicalities. What you to do is to make sure you have the right land. This is the combination of upland and swampland.

“It is a traditional stuff. It was also a joy for me to do that because it shows that the traditional method can still get us to good place. Though the governor had said that agriculture with local technology is not going to drive Nigerians out of the dungeon we are today. Off course, I am a lawyer. I am a British trained lawyer. I have not cultivated rice for years. It’s congenital. It never dies. What I am doing here helps me to save 10 dollars of foreign exchange. If one million Nigerians do so, that will reduce the ridiculous exchange rate at least by a factor of about three per cent.”

Because of the free flow of importation, the sweat and pains of rice farming becomes a nightmare to farmers but remains the only condition to meet up with family needs. Ebonyi has always been known for its quality of rice, the exceptional nature of its rice. Abakaliki rice became the gold standard. And the governor once said that Abakaliki rice should not die on the lips of Nigerians. Because when once that happens, there is no other thing that identifies them as a unique
entity.

However, this giant stride is imbued with enormous challenges. Supervision was herculean and tedious. To work round the farm takes about six hours. Considering the landmass and the swampy nature of the land, transplanting system was used to enable the rice grow while broadcasting system was used for the upland sections.

About 56 bags of rice were used for the broadcasting with about 850 bags of fertiliser. Different species of rice were used. For upland, he used Ferro 44. Ferro 44 was also adopted by The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh. When the minister visited Ebonyi, last month, he said that Nigeria should use one specie of rice and that is Ferro
44.

Onwe said he experimented with Ferro 52 and 57, but it failed spectacularly. In Ikwo, there were reports of the failure of the Ferro 52 and 52. “But the Ferro 44 is so adaptive, resilient. At the start, all efforts to do mechanisation failed because them cultivation was started in August when the rain had come to the degree that tractors could no longer move on the field.

This necessitated the use of manual labour. And because there was no time to apply pre-chemicals, every day, about 500 local workers were deployed from Ikwo Council areas and other areas in the state to work on the farm
for grass clearing, tilling and weeding. Labour at this stage cost about four million naira.

Onlookers are startled that it was a great risk to invest such huge amount of money for experimental purposes when the country is still not certain on its policy direction. Onwe said he ventured into the business because he would no longer buy rice from the market.

“Unless the Federal Government becomes crazy and lifts the current ban on the importation of rice, they will ruin people like us. They will ruin this huge investment. They will ruin young, old and poor farmers in the villages that depend on this for their livelihood. The ban on the importation of rice should be maintained and enhanced so that morem people who see that people like us are into farming would be driven
into it.

“We have gone from oil boom to oil doom. This country is faced with grave errors which is our direct dependence on crude oil. It’s a great challenge but presented with unprecedented opportunities. I tend to keep doing this. The day I will stop is the day, they will lift ban on importation of rice,” he said.

“As the rice nears yielding stage, the anxiety of birds already gathering at the season raises great concern because when one go to battle with weaver birds, he or she can’t ever win it. This is where technology is needed to be absolutely deployed. There are devices you use that emit ultrasonic sounds, emit microwave sounds specifically designed for the way birds behave. If they hear the sound, they run away. There are tapes that are designed in such a way that when birds see them, they may not want to go near it.” Onwe added.

In the next planting season, Onwe noted that arrangement was in top gear to acquire about 1000 hectares of land in Ikwo for rice farming and cassava production. If this feat is sustained and enhanced, no doubt, Ebonyi State would be capable of feeding over 90 per cent of the Nigeria’s population.