Harpreet Singh Bains is a true global rural citizen.

The 39-year-old owns two farms, the first one at Rawalpindi village in Phagwara Tehsil of Kapurthala in Punjab, where he and his father, Jaswinder, grow sugarcane on 60 per cent of a 120-acre holding. On the balance area, which gets rotated after every two cane crops (one plant and one ratoon), they raise paddy and wheat.

But Harpreet is in India only from mid-November to mid-March during the cane harvesting season. The remaining eight months he spends mostly at Surrey in British Columbia, Canada.

There, Harpreet — besides running a doors and mouldings manufacture-cum-assembling business with his father’s two brothers, Balwinder and Kalwinder — has a 180-acre blueberry farm that he bought in 2005. It yields half-a-million pounds of berries, which he wants to quadruple in two years’ time.

Here in Phagwara, though, Harpreet’s main worry is finding labour to harvest cane, not just from his field but also of others supplying to the Wahid Sandhar sugar factory.

This mill, with a cane crushing capacity of 4,500 tonnes per day, belonged to the Abhey Oswal Group before Harpreet’s father — along with Jarnail Singh Wahid (Chairman of the Markfed cooperative and a close acquaintance of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal) and Soukhbir Singh Sandhar (a second-generation British immigrant with garment retailing interests in Birmingham) – acquired it in 2000.

Limits of man

“A single labourer can barely harvest one tonne daily. So, even 15 people can cover just half-an-acre, assuming 30 tonnes yield from a 11-month (February-planted) crop. For the 14-month September-sown cane, giving 40 tonnes an acre, even that is impossible”, notes Harpreet.

But it is not only him; labour is an issue for smaller growers too.

“A big zamindar can negotiate a bulk rate of Rs 250-300 a tonne with labour contractors. Others have to fork out a Rs 50 premium to get the already booked labourers to do any additional harvesting work”, complains Gurpal Singh, who farms 20 acres, including 10 taken on lease, at Virk village near Phagwara town.

In 2011, Harpreet bought a Case IH Austoft-4000 self-propelled sugarcane harvester from New Holland Fiat. He harvested about 600 tonnes with it, including the crop of other farmers.

“My target this season is 2,500 tonnes. I am losing money by charging Rs 270 a tonne, but it is an investment for the future, when labour problems will worsen. With this, I can do 15 tonnes or half an acre in a single hour”, he says.

Using the machine — which is of 174 horsepower, yet pretty compact because it has no gearbox, belt drives, pulleys, roller chains or sprockets and runs on hydrostatic pumps pouring oil directly to the motors through control valves — is, however, not a straightforward affair.

Adjusting to machines

It requires growers to first plant cane by maintaining a minimum four feet distance between two rows, as against the 2-2.5 ft norm followed now.

“You need to convince them it (increased spacing to allow the machine to move freely) does not reduce yields. Rather, the crop gets more sunlight and air. Better photosynthesis means instead of 2-3 tillers per shoot, there will be 11-12, of which 5-6 would grow into millable canes”, explains Harpreet.

The Wahid Sandhar factory sources cane from 3,500-odd farmers across 20,000 acres. “My aim is to touch 1,000 acres, which will really set the mechanical harvesting ball rolling”, he reckons.

That threshold has already been reached in the South and the West. New Holland, till date, has sold 323 cane harvesters: 140 in Maharashtra and 79 in Tamil Nadu, followed by Karnataka (43), Gujarat (38), Andhra Pradesh (14) and Madhya Pradesh (8).

The Chennai-based Thiru Arooran Sugars alone owns 30 machines that harvested 2.6 lakh tonnes (lt) or 12 per cent of its entire cane crushed in 2011-12 — which it expects to raise to a fifth (4.6 lt) this season. Sakthi Sugars’ mill at Sivaganga today harvests nearly half of its cane mechanically.

Other significant adopters include EID Parry (also in Tamil Nadu); Godavari Sugar Mills, Shri Prabhulingeshwar Sugars, Nandi Sugar and Nirani Sugars in Karnataka; NSL Sugars in Andhra Pradesh; and a host of Maharashtra mills, both private (BJP President Nitin Gadkari’s Purti Group and Natural Sugar & Allied Industries) and cooperatives (Warana, Kisanveer Satara, Karmayogi Shankarao Patil, Malegaon and Purna).

Northern indifference

The Northern industry, on the other hand, is yet to buy into the idea of mechanical harvesting — Harpreet’s factory’s sole machine being proof of that.

One reason for it is that the manual harvesting rate of Rs 250-300 a tonne here, while more than the Rs 100-150 levels five years back, is still low relative to other States. In Tamil Nadu, cane growers pay Rs 400-450, or a fifth of the Rs 2,350 price they now get from mills.

The above differential may partly have to do with cane harvesting in the North happening during the winter and spring months, which is pleasant compared with the more humid and hot weather in the tropics.

Secondly, northern farmers use sugarcane green tops to meet the fodder requirements of their animals during November-April, before bhusa (straw) from wheat becomes available.

“One tonne of cane gives 75-80 kg of tops, which can feed almost three cows and costs Rs 150-160 at Rs 2/kg. For labourers, too, getting the tops free, in addition to Rs 250-300 in cash, is a major incentive for harvesting cane. Mechanical harvesters will not work unless the tops can be recovered without damage”, opines Bharat Sawansukha, whose family cultivates 300 acres at Fazilka in Ferozepur district.

While he isn’t sure, Gaurav Sood, Head (Crop Solutions) at New Holland Fiat India, assures that top recovery is possible with the special ‘topper’ in the company’s machine.

The ‘topper’ removes the green tops first, before the harvester’s base-cutter blades cut the cane stalks below and then carry to chopper drums for further chopping into 9-10 inch billets.

“Elsewhere, the topper shreds the tops into fine pieces for incorporating in the soil. But for the machines here, we have specially designed it to just cut and spread these on the ground in even rows, for being collected as fodder”, he avers.

Plant wide and deep

But even mechanical removal of the tops is feasible only if farmers ensure their cane grows straight and does not lodge. That requires proper anchoring and crop stand, which can come only through deep ploughing.

Farmers now mainly use cultivators that till up to 6 inches and break just the upper soil crust, which is then pulverised by a rotavator. This, however, also ends up creating a sub-surface hardpan that does not allow air to percolate into the root zone, which is fairly deep in crops such as sugarcane and potato.

“We are advising them to use mould-board ploughs to break up and turn over the soil at 12-16 inch depths necessary for deep-rooted crops. These can be used with power harrows that do not pulverise, but only vertically cut the soil to leave enough gaps for aeration”, adds Sood.

In other words, just as global agri-equipment majors such as New Holland are being forced to adapt their machinery to suit Indian conditions, farmers, too, would have to change their cultivation practices — whether to four-ft spacing or deep planting — to enable mechanical harvesting.

“It may be slow, but the labour market dynamics will eventually force them in this direction”, predicts Harpreet.