No country for fallow land

| Updated on: May 12, 2011
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Anyone planning to improve the lot of farmers in the country would do well to begin with these wise words: “Fallowness is in one's mind and not in the soil.”

This was constantly uttered by C. Subramaniam, the architect of India's agricultural policies that led to the Green Revolution. While his policies and high-yielding varieties boosted production of cereals in the 1960s and 1970s and gave the country food security, in the 1990s he felt much more needed to be done to make agriculture more viable, particularly for the small and marginal farmers who did not really benefit from the Green Revolution. He felt integrated rural development was needed to bring prosperity to rural India and stop migration from villages to towns.

“Father said the first Green Revolution was from seed to grain; but that had not solved India's problems, so the second one should be from soil to market,” says his son S.S. Rajsekar, who is the managing trustee of the National Agro Foundation (NAF) that CS, as he was well known, established in 2000.

The idea was to bring about a quantum jump in farmers' income through firm handholding in various farming operations beginning with the soil and the seed, water resources, use of modern technology in planting and harvesting, and getting optimum price in the market. “He wanted to build a rural training centre and make it a model by bringing progressive farmers, and giving services and knowledge to boost their agri income. With timing being the essence, it would also give linkage to timely farm credit, inputs, etc.”

When CS passed away, the blueprint for such a centre was lying by his bedside, and Rajsekar, who calls himself a “professional beggar” took up the challenge of giving it form and shape.

Today, the Centre in Chunampet, which is about 110 km from Chennai, serves over 50 villages in Kanchipuram district and 20 villages in Tiruvallur district in Tamil Nadu. NAF gives farmers, mostly small and marginal, subsidised soil-testing facilities and advises them on best farming inputs, practices and technology.

Fallow to fertile

One of its success stories has been to demonstrate the CS axiom on fallowness being in the mind and not on the land. M.R. Ramasubramaniyam, NAF Director, tells the story of Tirupathi, a small farmer in Tiruvallur district, who had four acres. Of this, he sold 2 acres of fertile land to raise funds for his daughter's marriage. “He had set aside 85 cents as fallow, thinking nothing can grow on it. Four years ago, when he heard at our training programme that there is nothing like fallow land and all land can be used for agriculture, he said here is my land, tell me what to do with it.”

Soil tests showed crops could be grown with some nutrient input. But Tirupathi was keen on floriculture, which required certain processes. Once these were carried out, in the second year the farmer made a profit of Rs 85,000 from growing red roses on this “fallow” 85 cents; and in the third and fourth year, his profit was Rs 1.25 lakh. “He has bought back the land he had sold, and continues to grow roses which he sends to the Chennai market,” says Rajsekar.

He adds that CS's dream was to raise the Indian farmers' net annual income from Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000, by improving yield. He had also advocated a private-government partnership facilitated by academics, NGOs and other stakeholders. “The plan for this Centre was lying next to his bed when he died in 2000… complete with the classrooms for farmers, tractor mechanic shed, inputs centre, residential centre for 20 farm managers.”

With help from corporates — L&T gave “a very sweet payable-when-able offer, and Orchid Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals has promised some funds too” — the two NAF centres were put up at Rs 3.5 crore. A local zamindar in Kanchipuram donated 10 acres of “fallow” land, on which the NAF Centre has come up, and demonstration plots put up to show that high-value vegetables like French beans, capsicum, cauliflower, carrots, bottle gourd, and different varieties of brinjal can be grown here.

Practical, doable

(Retd) Brigadier R.I Raghunathan, CEO of NAF, says its work doesn't stop with recommendations. “Our extension staff ensures that the recommendations on soil, farming methods, etc are implemented. The economics of farming per acre are explained — land preparation cost (Rs 1,200), seed input (Rs 750), sowing and transplanting (Rs 850), fertilisers (Rs 3,000). For example, for inputs of Rs 8,500, a net profit of Rs 13,500 per crop per acre can be achieved, and they can have another crop of paddy or groundnut. So we give them end-to-end solutions.”

At this centre, farmers are given crucial advice on the soil. Rajsekar explains how an agri-scientist said that there is a hard pan below the top soil in many places, thanks to which instead of going down, the roots went sideways, eating into other nutrients. “He said till deeper; instead of 9 inches, till down to 18-24 inches, this way water is better utilised, the sub-soil gets recharged and the top soil retains moisture for three weeks instead of one. We give such quality inputs to our farmers and also link them with bank credit,” says Rajsekar.

The NAF also has demonstration plots; taking a cue from another CS axiom that “agricultural demonstrations should be done in the farmers' backyard and not your backyard”, the NAF sets up demo plots for the more enterprising farmers eager to adopt new farming practices and technology. Such farmers are supported to increase the number of crops a year, grow different crops such as corn, chicken feed, flowers like marigold for industrial use, high-value vegetables such as sun-dried tomatoes, capsicum, Hungarian peppers, and the like.

Raghu, a marginal farmer in Tiruvallur district, with less than an acre, made a profit of Rs 32,000 in just two months by planting musk melon between two crops.

Labour blues

The Brigadier adds that the NREGA scheme has adversely impacted agricultural labour. “People are happy to work for a few hours and accept truncated payment — some people get only Rs 60 instead of Rs 100 and are told ‘you are old so be happy with this amount' — rather than come to the fields and earn even up to Rs 200 a day for the men and Rs 125-150 for women.

With labour shortage looming large, NAF is promoting new techniques and technology in raising seedlings, planting and harvesting, to reduce both labour and input cost.

For example, paddy is normally broadcast or just thrown. In the traditional method of sowing, 30 kg seeds are needed for an acre. But if direct seeding is done using a contraption designed by Manila's International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which has changed from the original metal to plastic so that women can handle it, only 3 kg, or one-tenth the quantity, is needed. Not only are seeds saved but the yield too improves by 28 per cent with targeted sowing. Then there are different plant transplantors that can be hired by farmers.

Similarly, groundnut is now being planted in furrows instead of flat land and this saves water.

To supplement a farmer's income, related activities such as animal husbandry are encouraged; India is a huge milk producer but the yield per animal is among the lowest, so this is being addressed through artificial insemination. A mobile unit offers these services to farmers at their doorstep at subsidised rates. Also, each farmer is asked to set aside just 5 cents of land for fodder and these initiatives have increased both milk production and the quality of milk, resulting in enhanced incomes.

Rajsekar adds that NAF is now trying to obliterate division of agri land with each generation. If two or three acres is inherited by three brothers, while one is helped to do profitable farming and pay some rent or lease to the siblings, the latter are encouraged to take up some other vocation, such as mobile repair, driving, and so on for which training is organised.

“We are partnering with Nokia for mobile phones, TAFE for tractor mechanic or driver's course and TVS Motors for two-wheelers,” he says. With land-to-market transfer being the biggest hurdle for the farmer, talks are on with some big departmental stores and Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) to explore the possibility of the farmers bringing their produce — particularly perishable vegetables — to IOC petrol bunks located on motorable roads from where they can be picked by hypermarkets. “We've told IOC to give us 10 petrol bunks across Tamil Nadu that can be made collection centres for farmers,” adds Rajsekar.

Ramasubramaniyam adds NAF has improved farmers' yield by 20-30 per cent and is now trying to get them better prices by addressing market mechanisms. “We're confident the moment we improve the yield productivity per unit, cost will come down."

NAF Joint Director S.V. Murugan, who is just back from Israel after studying farming practices there, says only two percent of Israel's population is engaged in agriculture, where agri income is taxable and “this 2 per cent are major contributors to the national income because they go for high-value horticultural crops and fruits… such as olives, peppers, mango, oranges and flowers. Their climate allows cropping for up to eight months, and they are strategically placed to export to Europe.”

And yet, adds Ramasubramaniyam, “The Israelis admit nothing comes close to Indian mangoes and how they learnt so much about mango growing from our farmers in Krishnagiri.”

Published on May 12, 2011

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