In Finding Solutions to the Farming Crisis Small Farmers Show the Way with Big Achievements

    Small scale farmers are coming up with innovative solutions to the farming crisis.

    Just as it is important for a journalist to report about problems, similarly it is important to report about achievements . While writing about agriculture for the greater part I have been reporting about problems because the overall strategy of farm development in India has been so problematic in terms of raising economic and environmental costs. But whenever I heard about a different kind of efforts to minimize these costs in such ways that small farmers could prosper in sustainable ways, I tried to reach these  places and speak  to these farmers as well as to those who were trying to help them. Whenever I wrote such reports, in the form of articles and booklets,  there was a good response from readers as people do appreciate such efforts and want to know more about them. 

              Here I am now trying to bring together some of  these various inter-actions with farmers in various parts of the country, but restricted as I am now by travel problems and  other difficulties in  new situations., I have not been able to update these accounts by new visits to same  villages and so the situations are represented as I saw and reported at the time of my earlier  visits. 

             The reason why I am making this effort is to present an alternative perspective on  how small farmers have  resolved their problems  in ecologically friendly ways at many places, at a time when a big debate on such issues is emerging in the country.

            Several of such success stories concern women farmers. Many of these are either organic farmers , or half-way in the process of shifting to organic farming. Many of these are not just individual success stories but part of  wider initiatives for eco-friendly agriculture initiated by some farmers’ organisations or voluntary organisations or both. These are inspiring stories of the ingenuity, innovativeness as well as traditional wisdom  of ordinary hard working farmers but at the same time these are also stories of the careful planning and well thought out ideas of some organisations who could provide conducive conditions in which the potential of the undoubted abilities of farmers could be realized. Indeed in many places I found the farmers full of praise for activists and organisations for providing them some training and other opportunities while activists and leaders of the organisations were equally full of praise of the hard work as well as the innovative genius of farmers and also their ability to find practical solutions to many sided problems. 

    The significance of these success stories is that these can provide some important indications for policy makers to find the way out of farmers’ crisis. For example in almost all these examples efforts have been to reduce the overall costs of farmers and more particularly to reduce their dependence on market inputs like chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Almost all these examples of the success of farmers increase the self reliance of farmers. Almost all of them are based on mixed farming systems and growing a diversity of crops on small fields while avoiding monocultures. All of them have the involvement of hard working farmers who love to nurture their fields very carefully and happily while also carrying out experiments to learn what works better.

    Firstly I will like to mention some examples from Nuapara district of Kalahandi region of Odisha as this region has been in news mainly for the poverty and problems of its farmers. Suresh Mallick and his wife Shobhavati Mallick cultivate about 2 acres of land in Chhata village of Komna block. I found them to be very happy cultivating their small but bountiful farm . In fact I was myself so happy in the middle of all the rich bio-diversity that despite my tight schedule of visiting several villages on the same day I felt a very strong urge to stay here for a longer time. This success is even more remarkable as this has been achieved on what was earlier considered to be the lowest category land on which hardly anything was likely to grow. Today this land once considered barren is smiling on almost every inch with greenery brought by highly diverse plant species. This is surely a message of great hope for the country’s agriculture.

    Suresh has a very innovative mind which could think of many brilliant applications of the technology of organic farming propagated by the SVA ( Sahbhagi Vikas Abhiyan), the organisation with whom he is closely associated now as a leading member of its farmers’ club in Chata village (Naupara district). He has also been helped by the considerable grafting skills he acquired in the course of his earlier training in Gujarat. At the same time he gives equal credit to his wife Shobhavati who works equally hard with him on their farm.

    Suresh believes firmly in organic agriculture. This is an essential principle of this farm which also helps to reduce the farming costs. A lot of attention is given to preparing adequate compost, vermi-compost and organic sprays which help to keep away pests and diseases while also helping growth of plants. The use of plentiful, high quality composts has made the once unproductive land so fertile now.

    Suresh places a lot of emphasis on growing a very wide diversity of food crops and plants including cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits and spices. As all these have to be grown within a small plot of land, a lot of emphasis is given to making the best possible use of scarce land and water. Ginger and turmeric are grown under the shadow of mango trees to protect them from heat stress and also make good use of available space.

    On their two acres Suresh and Shobhavati have been able to grow paddy, pulses, mangoes, oranges, bananas, papayas, coconut, lemons, jackfruit, anvla, beans, bitter gourd, carrots, sugarbeet, onions, turmeric, ginger, chilly, coriander, supari, pomegranates and other crops.

    Hemlata Majhi plays the role of the main farmer in her family’s 4 acre farm in Haldikhol village of Sinapali block as her husband Habelal is more active as a social activist with SVA organization. Hemlata says that now she is fully following organic agriculture. No chemical fertilizer and pesticide is used on this farm, she says. Compost and organic pest-repellents are prepared on the farm. This farm has many diverse activities in a small piece of land including over 100 poultry birds, 4 bullocks, 2 cows, 6 sheep, mango and lemon orchard, banana and guava trees. Many vegetables are grown including cauliflower, beans, okra, bitter gourd and local green leafy vegetables, onions and coriander.

    Hemlata says that she grew cauliflower on just five decimals of land (one-twentieth of an acre) and cauliflower worth Rs. 33000 was marketed within 3 months or so. She says that organically grown vegetables are more tasty and nourishing. She says that she can testify to this by comparing the vegetables grown on her field with those grown in her mother’s home using chemicals. 

    This is a successful example of mixed farming by a small farmer. I had a highly nourishing meal prepared by Hemlata which was so tasty that I couldn’t resist overeating.

    Both these examples are from the work area of a voluntary organization Sahabhagi Vikash Abhiyan (SVA) which has been very active in promoting eco-friendly agriculture, horticulture and agro-processing in and around Kalahandi region as a part of its many sided activities to reduce poverty and resist injustice. Dozens of such inspiring success stories can be found among the several farmers’ organisations promoted and supported by this organization. This organization is  emphatic about promoting the self-reliance or swaraj of farmers and other villagers. The SVA with the close involvement of villagers has been helping in the preparation of decentralized village plans . Hence these success stories should not be seen in isolation but as part of wider efforts for longer-term and sustainable improvements but at the same time these efforts are constrained by many difficulties.

    Similarly the work of another voluntary organization the Gorakhpur Environment Action Group (GEAG) has helped to create conducive conditions in which the innovative talent of farmers, particularly women farmers , could find very creative outlets. The GEAG has emphasized training of women farmers in organic farming in its main work area of Eastern Uttar Pradesh and also helped to organize their self-help groups in several villages, particularly in Gorakhpur district. 

    It was truly a pleasure to visit the garden and farm cultivated by Prabhavati and her husband Suryabhan in Dudhai village (Sardarnagar Block).  They own only 1.5 acre of land, but use this small piece of land very intensively (while practising organic farming) and wisely to grow a wide diversity of crops. When I started writing the names of various crops and trees grow in her garden and farm, Prabhavati laughed and said  – “your notebook will fill up and yet you will not be able to write about all that we grow.”

    This gentle confidence, this smiling pride is well-deserved, for this couple indeed succeed in growing a lot of diversity in their small plot of land. From what I could see under cultivation (at the time of my visit) there was paddy, bajra (cereals), Maruwa  (millet), groundnut, til (oilseeds), lobhiya, tori or nenuwa, lemon, bottle-gourd or lauki, kathal or jackfruit  guava, papaya, mango, chakotra, blackberries, mulberry, mahua , trees and shrubs with pest repellent properties like neem, madaar, kaner, trees of timber value particularly saagwaan, several medicinal herbs, spices like ginger, haldi and even laung, also bamboo. Satyendra Tripathi, a co-ordinator of GEAG said that counting all seasons Prabhavati is able to grow 52 crops on her small patch of land in a year.

    Prabhavati said that her family, her farming and village have benefited hugely from the inter-action with GEAG ever since this organisation came to her village. Earlier also she used dung as manure but this was done arbitrarily so that a lot of its nutritive value for farmland was lost. “GEAG taught how dung should be put in a trench and composted, how green manuring can be done in a better way, how cow-urine is very useful and how we can do vermicomposting, how NADEP can be prepared. If we could not afford wood and cement for NADEP, we used home-grown bamboo and tree-branches. Similarly we learnt to use produce from various local trees and shrubs to prepare pest-repellents.” She also has a vermicomposting unit, one of the earliest in this region.

    When we visited their farm, Prabhadevi and her husband Suryabhan were busy in packing just-harvested guavas for the nearby market. Of course we reached in good  time to get a taste of the freshly plucked guavas!

    The extent to which the agricultural practices promoted by GEAG can benefit small and marginal farmers is evident from the results achieved on the farm of Ramrati. This 50 plus woman (along with her husband Rambahal) is reputed to grow a diversity of about 32 crops in a year (not mentioning fruit trees). According to accounts kept by GEAG activists, during one year her expenses and earnings were in a ratio of 1:13. On a farm of just one acre owned by her family (sometimes she also leases in half acre or less of land) she has been able to earn about Rs. 33633, apart from feeding a nutritious, organic diet to an 11-member family (including four grand children).

    As we asked her about the various crops grown by her, Ram Rati replied, smiling, that there is hardly anything she doesn’t grow. While earlier, before coming into GEAG, she had concentrated on rice and wheat, now in addition she has been growing  sugarcane, banana, turai, potato, cauliflower, cabbage, ramdana, rajma, bakla, latra pulse, moong, peas, methi, spinach, carrot, radish (up to 2.5 feet long), parval, kundru, karela, lobhiya, maize, cucumber, kakri, okra, mustard, garlic, ginger, guava, mango, anar, kathal, groundnuts, dhaniya, Jimikand, arbi,….. She has four animals – one bullock, one buffalo, two buffalo calves. All the cultivation is done using organic manure and home-made pest repellents.

    Similarly favourable conditions to tap the creativity of farmers could emerge even in several villages of crisis ridden Vidarbha region where a project titled the Integrated Sustainable Agricultural Programme (INSAP) was implemented by a voluntary organization YUVA-Rural. This project helped farmers in over 200 villages to reduce cost and improve net income significantly while spreading organic and eco-friendly farming methods.

    The technologies followed by INSAP are essentially local variants of known environment-friendly technologies like composting, plant based pest repellants and watershed management. Keeping in view the economic crisis of indebtedness of the farmers of this region, from the outset a lot of emphasis was placed on making the best possible use of local resources available right there in the village. Cattle-dung, cow urine, tree-leaves etc. which were being wasted earlier suddenly become very important resources for a farming system which could be economically viable for the region’s distressed farmers.

    In the villages of Washim and Akola districts that I visited, farmers happily talked in detail about the improving viability of their farms and that too in sustainable environment friendly ways. They also said giving up indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and replacing these with compost and tree-leaf based pest-control has proved helpful for those insects and birds who are known to be friends of farmers. Vidarbha is a region from where  many tragic suicides of farmers caught in debt trap of economically and ecologically expensive farming have been reported.  However thoughts of depression and suicide seemed to be far, far away from minds of these farmers as they talked cheerfully about the various innovations they are trying, the cheap implements for water-conservation evolved by them, their bio-gas plants, kitchen gardens and their manure mixtures found most nourishing for crops and soil.

    Sunjay Bhagat, a farmer of Washim district and a co-ordinator of INSAP as well as the local farmers’ organisation says that before he came in contact with this project he had given up all hope in his life. He had been contemplating suicide for quite some time, he said. The reason was that his family had become highly indebted.

    It was at this stage that Sanjay came to know about INSAP and decided to give it a try. As his first experiments with the INSAP technology proved successful, he adopted it wholeheartedly and became an enthusiastic messenger for spreading this idea. Now his wife complains smilingly that he comes home only for eating, such is his enthusiasm for spreading the message of INSAP to more areas.

    That this is not an isolated story is confirmed in a  study by Raghav Narsalay. This study using a sample of 90 farmers found that irrespective of farm size, INSAP technology  proved highly cost-effective compared to earlier technologies being used here. As many as 88% of the respondent farmers who have adopted sustainable farming (INSAP) techniques said that they want to continue farming because they have regained their confidence to farm. On the other hand 67% of the farmers practising earlier techniques said that farming in increasing debts and they’ll like to get out of this if an alternative is provided.

    The respondents who have taken up sustainable (INSAP) farming said that they now feel at peace as they are eating healthier food, there is growing cooperation among villagers to implement the new ideas and there is more self-reliance.

    Inspiring as these examples are they could not help the weakest section consisting of landless farm workers. On the other hand a voluntary organization of Bundelkhand region called the ABSSS first made very patient and difficult efforts for ensuring that thousands of tribal and dalit households are able to get land papers and are also able to cultivate this land overcoming the stiff resistance of feudal forces. Then the next step was to implement a series of watershed projects which could provide irrigation to several of these newly emerging farmers. This helped several landless peasants to finally emerge as successful small farmers in Chitrakut district of Uttar Pradesh. Similarly several organizations associated with Ekta Parishad have been able to ensure land rights for the landless  and then extended irrigation and other help so that they could emerge as successful small farmers.

    In villages of Garhwal ( Himalayan region) farmers told me about their mix farming system of growing together about a dozen millets, legumes, spices , oilseeds etc. which is very useful for meeting their food needs while also maintaining soil fertility on land  regarded as relatively less productive in upper areas. As leading activist of save the ( traditional) seeds movement Vijay Jardhari told  me,  at one time some government scientists had started saying that this haphazard cultivation of so many crops should be given up and replaced by soyabeans monoculture, and they had to struggle hard to convince that this barahanaja ( twelve crops) mixed cropping system is actually much. much better  for food security and is more sustainable too.

            In the course of my travels in Bundelkhand region I came across a farmer scientist Mangal Singh who had invented a device called Mangal Turbine for lifting  water from small rivers and streams without using diesel or electricity , and while this was widely admired in writing by several top experts, authorities victimized him instead of rewarding him. Since then for almost two decades I tried to spread the message of the even higher utility of this device in times of climate change with greater need to reduce diesel consumption, I even obtained the help of several members of Parliament in this effort, but despite all our efforts we still could not   convince the government to take up this work on a wider scale.

           Similarly in other places I found reluctance on the part of the government authorities to spread widely  the ecologically friendly successful mixed farming of several farmers as the officials are closer to agribusiness controlled, expensive, ecologically  harmful, green revolution technologies.

           It was my good fortune in the course of my travels to  receive the affection of the most famous rice scientist Dr,. R.H. Richharia and the opportunity to spend some days with him in the course of which he told  me how while occupying very senior positions in the country he tried to introduce rice farming improvements ( he even prepared  a special plan when asked to do so by Prime Minister ) based on indigenous rice varieties and methods which involve very low  economic  costs and are ecologically beneficial, bur his efforts were sabotaged time and again. He said that many farming communities particularly tribal communities of Chattisgarh with whom he worked are very rich in terms of their knowledge and conservation of rich diversity of indigenous varieties capable of giving good yields without chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

          These are only a few examples which indicate the potential and possibilities even in the middle of several difficulties and problems. If suitable opportunities and conducive conditions are provided then farmers particularly women farmers are very eager to contribute the hard work which is necessary for reducing costs and ecological risks and in addition they also contribute in many innovative and creative ways to improve productivity and sustainability of farming. Such examples have shown in very creative and encouraging ways how improvement of productivity and net income can be combined with protection of environment.

    Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. He has written on public interest issues for 49 years, contributing about 9500 articles and 400 booklets and books. His recent books include ‘Man Over Machine’, ‘Protecting Earth For Children’ and ‘Planet in Peril’. 

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