Friday, January 23, 2009

Where agriculture is a happy story

Savvy Soumya Mishra
Source: CSE/Down To Earth Feature Service
The New Nation, 23 January 2009

Ajith Kumar, an Air India executive posted in Hyderabad, India, does not linger over lunch on weekdays. Instead, he rushes to the agricultural cooperative store next to his office to buy vegetables. These vegetables are farm fresh and free of pesticides. Kumar's wife calls him to make sure he leaves office in time. "I don't mind the extra effort. These vegetables taste much better," Kumar said as he stood waiting in the queue outside the Hyderabad Agriculture Cooperative Association (HACA) store.

Kruppakar Reddy, the store in-charge, said the demand for vegetables, grown through non-pesticidal management, called NPM vegetables, is on a high. He said only one farmer is supplying NPM vegetables as of now. "We plan to provide him with exclusive space in the building. Refrigerated storage space will be given to other farmers as well," Reddy said.

The farmer who supplies the NPM vegetables to the cooperative store comes from Manchal village, 50 km away from Hyderabad. Srinivas Reddy, the 25-year-old farmer, started supplying pesticide-free tomatoes, okra, brinjals, gooseberries, chillies and leafy vegetables to the store five months ago.

"To meet the high demand other farmers send their produce through me. Many of them are switching to NPM in my village," he said. His increasing profits reflect the demand for the vegetables. From the initial Rs 1,500 a month, his profits have gone up three times.

Like Srinivas, other farmers are discovering that growing pesticide-free vegetables, grains and pulses is profitable. They have been able to cut the cost of cultivation by doing away with chemical pesticides-the costliest input in agriculture here. The yield remains more or less the same and the net profits go up.

In Manchal mandal, a women's self help group has cultivated a field with 29 varieties of vegetables and pulses. The state government's Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) and the horticulture department have helped to set up these vegetable farm models in a number of villages. Farmers are provided seed kits at 90 per cent subsidy. Several earn profits up to Rs 50,000 a year. Farmers have been able to reduce the cost of cultivation by Rs 2,500 to Rs 5,000 per acre (0.4 hectare) by doing away with pesticides.

The trend of NPM farming has grown steadily since 2005. NPM started as a campaign of non-profits to get farmers to give up pesticides to earn better. The state rural development ministry took it forward through SERP, which is currently implementing NPM in 3,000 villages across 18 of the 23 districts.

With farmers saying no to pesticides, dealers of pesticides and fertilizers have had to shut shop or switch to alternate vocations. Twenty seven-year-old Krishna Reddy of Todalapalle village in Kadapa district is one of them. From a fertilizer and pesticide dealer, he switched to products made from neem and other bio-formulations used to control pests and improve soil fertility. Krishna now sells neem powder, seeds and pheromone traps (for luring and trapping pests) among other things to the villagers.

"Eighty per cent of the farmers in my village had stopped using chemicals and asked me to keep bio-products. Though my earnings from the shop have gone down from Rs 10,000 to Rs 8,000, I am able to cover up the deficit by selling my own farm produce grown without pesticides," Krishna said.

NPM has made entrepreneurs out of some women. There are those who sell bio-products used for NPM farming. K Keija, a 30-year-old mother of two, earns up to Rs 3,000 profit by selling bio formulations from the shop she set up in Kondapatturu, Guntur district, two years ago. She sells ghanajeevastra, neemastra and brahmastra, which she makes by sourcing raw materials such as cow dung, cow urine, milk, curd, chillies, garlic, neem. She can also afford the treatment for her daughter who has polio. "My husband works as a farm labourer and earns very little. I could not take our daughter to the government hospital in Guntur for treatment earlier, but things have changed," Keija said.

Khairunnisa Begum of Vattam village in Mahabubnagar district is another woman entrepreneur. She set up her shop to promote NPM farming in 2007. "I give my products free to poor and needy farmers," said the 45-year-old. She now plans to have two more shops in nearby villages. Khairunnisa was a treasurer of a women's self help group (SHG) in the area. Many such groups operate in the districts and they train farmers to set up NPM stores. Currently, there are 300 NPM shops across the state.

NPM farming has benefited from the centrally administered National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) after the state government integrated the latter into NPM. Labourers were paid from funds for rural employment scheme to dig farm ponds to irrigate NPM fields.

Ramachandrapuram in Khammam district was the first village to introduce employment guarantee scheme in fields under NPM cultivation. The works taken up under the scheme included digging of farm ponds, making compost pits, land development and removing silt from dried water tanks and ponds that can be used for improving soil nutrients. Other villages like Punukula, Mulukallapalle and Vepakoyyaramavaram, in Khammam, followed suit.

G Subbalakshmi, a 40-year-old farmer from Chhinnarasupalli village of Chhinnamandem mandal had no irrigation facility till about seven months ago. She was cultivating dry land paddy and other crops that need very little water. After a farm pond was dug in her field under NREGS, she sowed paddy on her 0.6-hectare plot. She stopped using pesticides. "From 10 bags of paddy last year, my yield may go up to 25 bags this year. I have also saved Rs 2,500 by not using pesticides," Subbalakshmi said. Now she is planning to take up pisciculture to augment her income.

According to D V Raidu, the state project advisor for NPM, digging farm ponds helped farmers irrigate their fields and recharge groundwater. "About 400 farm ponds were dug in Nizamabad district and as a result, groundwater levels rose by 4.5 metres in Ellareddy mandal," Raidu said. He added that work orders to the tune of Rs 6.76 crore had been executed and funds totalling Rs 2.44 crore had been disbursed.

With NPM making agriculture profitable, there is a noticeable decline in suicide deaths in the state. "There were no debt-related suicide deaths in any of the 3,000 NPM villages in 2007," said G V Ramajaneyulu, executive director of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a non-profit spearheading the NPM programme.

Though there is no study to link decrease in farmers' distress with decline in suicide deaths, farmers said that debt drove many to consume pesticides readily available in all households. "Women constantly feared their husbands or sons would consume pesticides. But now, even if they want to, the only immediate choices are bio-pesticides made from cow dung and urine, which they won't drink," said Khairunnisa, the NPM shop owner of Vattam village.

The motive for discontinuing the use of pesticides may have been to cut cultivation costs, but farmers are realizing that their medical bills have gone down. Most farmers used to complain of giddiness, skin problems, breathlessness and burning sensation in the eyes while spraying pesticides. "Some even had to be admitted in hospitals for treatment," said P Lalitha of Chittapur village in Rangareddy district. Her family's health improved after use of pesticides was stopped. "Our visits to the hospital have ceased altogether," she said. Lalitha earned Rs 30,000 from paddy and Rs 20,000 from vegetables in 2007. She no longer worries about the health of her family and has enrolled her children in good schools.

Sixty-year-old Doodakule Ghousia, another resident of Chittapur village, said her husband used to complain of stomach problems, nausea and restlessness when pesticides were in use. "At times he would get fits during the spraying season. We had to go to the hospital every other day and each visit used to cost Rs 500.

That has stopped now," Ghousia said.

Official figures for Ramachandrapuram village say there were nine serious hospitalisation cases due to spraying of pesticides between 1994 and 2003. There have been none since. The farmers of all the six districts Down To Earth visited-Warangal, Guntur, Mahabubnagar, Khammam, Kadapa and Rangareddy-said they are leading healthier lives after discontinuing the use of pesticides.

A board with bold letters announces the chemical free and GM free status of Enabavi village in Warangal district. The village stopped using pesticides 10 years ago and adopted organic farming five years later, much before the state rural development ministry decided to officially recognize NPM.

Enabavi, with over 110 ha of farmland managed by 52 families, has now become a learning centre for neighbouring villages. Located 80 km from the state capital, it has become a mandatory stopover for members of non-profits, ministers, planning commission members and international organizations keen to gain firsthand knowledge of how organic farming is changing lives for the better. Enabavi made news in Delhi last month at the Indian Organic Trade Fair organized at PUSA Institute where Enabavi rice packets sold like hot cakes.

The fields in the village look unkempt as friendly weeds are allowed to grow. "Now we don't spray bio-pesticides as there are no pests," said Ponnam Mallaiah, a 60-year-old farmer who owns about 8 ha. He grows paddy, red gram, sesame, tobacco and vegetables in his fields.

The villagers used pest repellents for just the first two years. After that pest attacks stopped, said Narasamma, Mallaiah's sister. "We have also stopped using urea as it makes the plants grow faster and succulent, which attracts pests. Organic farming has created a balance between friendly and harmful pests," she said.

Twenty-year-old Ettaboina Mahender said only natural fertilizers are used. "Cow dung, cow urine and vermicompost is used while preparing the soil for cultivation." Demand for cow dung in turn has led to villagers increasing their livestock. "Now we use cattle for ploughing and have stopped using machinery," he said. Tractors used for ploughing charged Rs 2,000 per acre, but bullocks on lease charge Rs 1,000. Mahender is thus saving Rs 1,000 per acre.

In place of synthetic urea, farmers use azolla, a fern-like plant, as fertilizer in their paddy fields. "Azolla spreads rapidly. It helps to suppress harmful weeds. Panchagavya, prepared by combining cow dung, urine, milk, ghee and curd, is used as a growth enhancer. It improves the taste, colour and texture of vegetables and fruits," Mallaiah said. The paddy fields have a one-foot-wide gap after every three metres to help aerate the plants and also prevent snakes, rodents and the brown plant hoppers from destroying the crops. The pests use the alleys to move about and leave the crops alone. The savings per acre of paddy by creating alleys is over Rs 5,000, said SERP officials. The villagers ensure seed quality through mutually beneficial arrangements. The farmers who grow good quality grains are offered incentives for preserving their harvest as seed. "A farmer gets Rs 900 for a quintal of paddy. If his grain quality is good, he is asked to keep the yield as seeds for the next
and offered Rs 1,200 per quintal," Narasamma said. This saves money as buying seeds from the market would cost Rs 2,000 per quintal.

One of the driving forces behind Enabavi's success story is R Lingaiah, secretary of the Centre for Rural Operation Programmes Society (crops), a non-profit. The village has become famous in the neighbouring districts and people travel miles to buy Enabavi produce, Lingaiah said.

Organic farming has helped the villagers repay their debts. "If the farmers had continued to use chemicals, their debts would never have got cleared," Narasamma said.

Ramachandrapuram is another success story. The village has over 120 ha of farmland and nearly half of it was mortgaged by 2005. The farmers of the Koya tribe who were growing cotton, the most vulnerable of all crops, started mortgaging their land after yields started decreasing and farm input prices went up.

"Within two years of switching to NPM farming, the villagers were able to free their mortgaged land," said Lakshmi, who along with her husband M Rajulu, was the first to take up NPM. Besides reclaiming their mortgaged land, 10 farmers in the village have also taken about eight ha on lease.

Rajulu has been recognized as the best farmer in the district for growing high yielding non-Bt cotton using NPM methods. "I have managed to grow eight to 10 quintals of cotton along with a quintal of green gram and 15 kg of pulses and millet in just one acre of land," he said. Rajulu expects to net Rs 15,000 on an investment of just Rs 1,500. His paddy yield has also gone up to 18 quintals per acre as against six quintals an acre when he was using pesticides.

Ramachandrapuram was nominated by SERP this year for the Citibank's change makers award given out by US based Ashoka Foundation after it became completely debt free.

The farmers of Ramachandrapuram now send their children to private schools for education. Lakshmi's son, Ramesh Babu, is the first postgraduate in the village. From debt-ridden status to a debt-free society; the villagers of Ramachandrapuram have made their own destiny through hard work.

See also:


Organic Cotton Beats Bt Cotton in India

Getting Clean: Recovering from pesticide addiction

"Is ecological agriculture productive?"

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