Sustainable Farm Practices

Across the length and breadth of India over 600 million farmers wake up to challenges which a IMG_20160229_211146white or blue collared worker can never imagine.  He is operating with three major resources – Earth, Water & Sun of which he has scant control over two of the elements. He is also under constant attack from natural as well as manmade elements like pests harmful to his crop and governmental policies detrimental to his survival.  He has to overcome many a challenge on a daily basis.  He has to innovate enormously to bring together the best of resources such as land, water, animal and labour along with perfect timing, ploughing weeding, nourishing the friendly bacteria on a daily basis to bring the crop home.  He needs to be the best time manager, decision maker and systems creator to seamlessly integrate all processes in an uncontrollable environment. A corporate manager is not faced with as many challenges as a farmer is.

Such is the prowess of an Indian farmer, who is a born innovator and a manager whose skills will make even the best management talent from the B-schools look like a novice.  However why is it that the average farmer, not able to make a good living out of all his skills.

The reasons are not far to seek.  The farming profession is mired in unsustainable practices brought about by aping the western models.  On the one hand, the mindless use of chemicals in the farming has severely affected the quality of the land and the increasing greed of the big businesses in pumping more and more of these chemicals into the agricultural operations jeopardising the entire economics of the small farmer who is sinking into more debt rather than make more revenue.

Agriculture is the field on which future of nations would get built upon and we already have an enormously talented pool of manpower available for building a sustainable agricultural society.  Without a sustainable agriculture, human life, in the long run, is not sustainable.

So how can an average farmer lead a debt free and comfortable life on his small holdings.

Leveraging Knowledge

The average holding of a small farmer in Tamil Nadu is said to be about .33 hectares.  With a land holding  of less than an acre, it is important that farmers become knowledge workers and leverage knowledge rather than land holding.  A study by TNAU of 100 successful small farmers has highlighted innovations introduced as the primary reason for their successes. More than land holding these farmers have benefitted from new knowledge, agricultural practices which have reduced input costs, increased productivity and yield per acre, a market orientation, access to markets at the right time and entrepreneurial spirit which has increased income to an average of 2 lacs per acre. Such knowledge needs to be widely disseminated to the small farmers through regular farmer meets in villages, training classes and widely publicizing such practices.

Practices like switching to cash crops, integrating allied activities such as dairying, fisheries and poultry farming with agriculture, direct to consumers from farms are some of the value additions practiced by successful farmers. Intensive farming by raising 3 or even 4 crops a year along with 100’s of innovative practices are documented and available in the TNAU site.

Water Management

Every year, there is so much noise about water sharing from neighbouring states.  Water sharing is a major problem between neighbouring states through the country and the cause for much of the bad politics, creating a divide among friendly farmers.  This is primarily due to dependence on a canal and river-based irrigation. A small farmer needs intensive cultivation of his small holdings with 3or more cash crops for earning adequate incomes and this is just not possible with only with dependence on rains or canal based irrigation.  He needs innovative rain harvesting capabilities at low cost.  This is now possible with small pond liners to hold water, ground water recharge and economical water management through drip irrigation.  There are several innovations now available, which are an entire article subject in itself.

Small farmer to be prosperous has to first cut his dependence on canal and rainwater based cultivation and adopt these practices to succeed.

Focus on High-Value Cash Crops

Most farmers to tend to stick on to what they have been growing for generations.  These may be wheat, rice or cereals.  For generations, farmers continue to grow what they have been accustomed to.  Over the generations, the cultivable area has also got reduced within a family due to split in families or the land-holding getting divided between the family members.

To make a switch to cash crops, the farmer needs regular training.  A small farmer is better off focussing on cash crops like vegetables and fruits which would give higher yield and quick returns.  A better cash flow would reduce the borrowings and thus create a more comfortable situation for the farmers.  But the major deterrence for the farmers to switch to cash crops is there are no minimum price supports for such crops.  The farmer is subject to volatile prices and production shocks.

The farmers require training in reaching the customer direct to avoid the price and production shocks.  The small farmers also need a platform where he can reach the customer directly.  Weekly ‘Sandhais’ and ‘Haats’ are a traditional mechanism to come face to face with the consumer.  But in the current situation where the town/cities are far from the growing centres, the farmers need facilities like cold storage, transport and selling infrastructure at very low costs to reach the consumer directly in the major towns and cities nearer to his farm.

An integrated value chain that focus on growing, preservation, processing, and marketing would go a long way in improving the small farmers prosperity.

Creating Models of Vertical Integration

A farmer must be trained as entrepreneurs.  As entrepreneurs the small farmers can look at vertical integration of a range of income producing farm activities.  Dairying is one such example.  Creating a small dairy could produce, milk which a cash product, converting the animal waste into organic manure either as direct manure or value added product like vermi-compost could give a small farmer additional revenue.  Similarly the farm nursery could be used to grow seedlings and profitably sold to other farmers, raising chicken, composting vegetable waste and selling them as garden manures or use in his own farms and bring down the fertilizers cost which is major input cost, processing the vegetable grown into high value products  are all options available to a small farmer.

A good training in an integrated value addition for small farmers could easily double their incomes.  NGO’s have contributed significantly to small farm productivity while governmental efforts in these areas have been disjointed and riddled with corruption.

Small farmers play a very important role in maintaining the rural communities and provide social, cultural and economic benefits to the entire nation.  A large community of prosperous small farmers could be significant contributor to the economic development being a huge consuming marketplace in themselves.