Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture

Building climate resilience

Farmers observing SRI crop

In distressed situations of drought and floods, tribal farmers of southern Bundelkhand region illustrated that System of Crop Intensification, an agro ecological method, helps build climate resilience. The socio-technical approach based on building upon the traditional knowledge and innovative capacities of farmers, proved to be effective in building climate resilient cropping systems.

The Bundelkhand region of central India has become synonymous with drought, distress and poverty. It repeatedly hit the media as it experienced severe water stress in 2014 and 2015. In the past, drought was experienced around once in every 16 years. But, of late, it has become a regular phenomenon. The region also witnessed erratic, high intensity rainfall, particularly in 2011 and 2016. Even in an year of average rainfall, the region faces acute scarcity of water for irrigation as well as for domestic use.

Lack of drought proofing measures, appropriate farming practices coupled with highly variable annual rainfall makes the poor of the region, vulnerable. Absence of mechanisms for compensating crop losses leads to increasing indebtedness, unemployment and land transfers to big farmers or non-agriculturists, thus trapping people in a “vicious cycle of poverty”. The region has witnessed large-scale migration by the landless and also marginal farmers over the last decade.

In December 2013, People’s Science Institute (PSI), initiated a long-term action programme in 10 villages of Panna district. PSI is a non-profit public interest research and development support organization based in Dehradun. The programme included 850 farm families having 1442 ha of agricultural land. The goal was to demonstrate and extend a model of climate smart self-reliant development by promoting drought combatting measures and innovative agronomic practices that would improve water, food, nutrition and livelihood security among vulnerable sections of the society, in a socially-just manner. The crop management strategy was developed based on PSI’s experience with System of Crop Intensification (SCI) in the States of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh for more than ten years. This innovative strategy was identified as a method with a potential to improve livelihoods, if not fully achieve local food and livelihood security.

Women farmers of Aloni village maintaining grid spacing using knotted rope under direct sowing

Farm trials

Farm level trials were initiated in Kharif season of 2014 with 25 farmers, mainly cultivating paddy on plots averaging 100-200 m2.  Farmers adopted or adapted the principles of seed selection. Seeds were treated with different materials like cow-urine, jaggery, ash, organic compost, soil from termite colonies, based on their availability, locally. Using soil from a termite colony was a suggestion made by a farmer to repel termites, which is a major problem in the area.

Direct sowing with grid spacing was taken up which is the usual practice in the rainfed areas. Weeding was done twice or thrice depending upon the availability of irrigation water. “Mataka Khad” (see Box 2) was applied. As this is primarily a rainfed region and rainfall is uncertain, farmers were reluctant to practice alternate wetting and drying (AWD) method for paddy.

The year 2014 was a serious rainfall deficit year and most rice plots (conventional as well as SRI) did not survive due to long dry spells of 25-30 days in September and October. Only eight plots of SRI could be harvested at the end of the season. Yet, the villagers observed that the SRI crops were healthier, had more tillers, and survived for a longer duration than the conventional crops. Crop cutting done in six of the SRI plots showed a 38% increment in the yield, when compared with some of the surviving conventional crop plots. While the average paddy grain yield in the SRI plots was 2.53 tons/ha, it was only 1.83 tons/ha in conventional plots.

Scaling up

In 2015 and 2016, the System of Crop Intensification (SCI) was promoted with various crops:  wheat, maize, black gram, chick pea, and mustard. Scaling up was accomplished by training local youth and/or progressive farmers as village level resource persons (VLRPs). These persons provided timely support to farmers and monitored the SCI fields. Dialogues with farmers to address doubts, exposure visits to successful demonstration fields, inter village farmers’ interactions, and post-harvest felicitation of progressive farmers were some of the tools used for mobilizing farmers and stimulating their curiosity about SCI. Learning and modifying the application of SCI in the context of farm conditions, rainfall pattern, and labour availability was a two-way process in which farmers participated, raised concerns, and made appropriate changes at various phases of cropping cycle.

A steady growth in the number of SCI farmers, from 125 to 573, has been observed from 2014 to 2016. An exponential growth in the area, from 3.7 ha to 224.4 ha., was observed during the same period.

A farmer in Makkepala village displays maize cobs of SCI and conventional method

Farmers adapt practices to suit climatic conditions

Farmers experimented in different ways to accommodate the principles of SCI to suit their farm conditions, crops and rainfall pattern as explained below.

For farmers in rainfed areas, timely sowing during the Kharif season and tapping moisture at the appropriate moments in the Rabi season are critical steps for successfully sowing and establishing the crop. Farmers choose their cropping pattern for both seasons based on rainfall patterns and in-situ soil moisture content. Over the three years, farmers experimented and modified their practices for operations like seed treatment, seed rate and spacing – both under grid pattern as well as line sowing. The choice, preparation and application of organic manure, soaking of seeds for quick germination, procuring an appropriate weeder based on soil type, and many more specific details were worked out with farmers. For example, in the event of low soil moisture during the Rabi season, farmers soaked the seeds of wheat and chick pea for quick germination and early establishment of the crop. In case of availability of partial irrigation, farmers preferred not to soak the seeds.

In paddy, most farmers shifted to transplanting from direct sowing in 2015. Due to long dry spells and inadequate rainfall, however, farmers could not transplant their seedlings early. Based on seedling age, farmers adjusted their line-to-line distance: the older the seedlings, the closer the line spacing of rows. Based on 2015 experiences, some of the farmers set up community based cascading nurseries.  Cascading nurseries are nurseries that are grown in sequence at an interval of 7 days, to ensure availability of appropriately aged young seedlings for transplantation with the onset of rainfall.

Figure 2-Farmers and area coverage under SCI

Farmers who continued with direct seeding, revived the traditional practice of machau, where the field is ploughed when the crops reach 20-25 days growth. While the stronger plants survive, weaker plants and weeds are uprooted. In drought years, farmers had the option of using a dry soil weeder to uproot excessive plants and weeds, and maintain uniform distance between lines.

For wheat, mustard and chick pea, farmers preferred line sowing as grid spacing was considered as labour intensive. In the absence of a proper seed drill, sowing one or two seeds per hill by hand is a tedious task.  The practice of line sowing has been enhanced by the introduction of the Tifan, a three-pronged multiple type seeder designed and fabricated by farmers. It can be used with the traditional ox-and-plough system, and the line spacing can be adjusted according to crop and soil moisture conditions.

SCI trials conducted with transplanting of mustard crop (PBold variety) in the Rabi 2015 were not so successful. Next year, a young farmer, Mahapat Singh  from Ghutehi village used Tifan for line sowing of the PBold variety of mustard on half of his land (2000 m2), while broadcasting in the conventional way on the other half. He got an additional 40 kgs of mustard (25% productivity enhancement) from the plot where line sowing was done.

Singh asserts that “line sowing is as good as SRI, as in principle, many fewer plants should be maintained in the field no matter which way you sow them. I have been asked to use ¼th seed rate as compared to what I would have used in broadcasting. Mustard seeds are too tiny for seed drills. Hence to maintain the lower seed rate, I have mixed the seeds with cow dung compost. Next time, I will try to reduce the seed rate further as it should give more productivity.”  When asked what he will do in a low rainfall year, Singh said that “success in sowing of mustard depends on the soil moisture. In a drought year, I will either reduce the seed density by increasing line spacing using Tifan or I will shift to chick pea.” He was sceptical about increasing line spacing as that might enhance the loss of soil moisture. However, Krupal Singh, the VLRP with more experience, suggested to cover the open spaces with mulch.

Outcomes

Panna district received 60% and 65% of its average annual rainfall in 2014 and 2015 respectively. The farmers recalled that dry spells in 2014 varied between 15-20 days, and exceeded up to 25-30 days between the last September rains and the first October rains. In 2015, although the early monsoon helped in timely sowing, the subsequent dry spells varied between 15-20 days, while the rains tapered off in September. In 2016, the area received heavy rainfall of high intensity, particularly in July and August causing flooding in some parts.

The high variability of rainfall, seriously affected agricultural production across 2014-16. Initially, it was difficult to convince farmers about the merits of SCI as their major concern was with the stability of their crop production rather than increasing it. PSI’s initial efforts therefore focussed on establishing successful demonstrations with the aid of progressive farmers. This was followed by frequent dialogues with the communities and exposure visits to demonstration plots at various growth stages of the SCI crops.

Table 1: Performance of SCI and conventional crops in seasons of droughts and excess rain

Crops
2014 (drought year)
2015 (drought year)
2016 (excess rains)
Avg. grain yield (t/ha)
% Increase
Avg. grain yield (t/ha)
% increase
Avg. grain yield (t/ha)
% Increase
Convent
ional
SCI
Convent
ional
SCI
Convent
ional
SCI
Paddy
1.83
2.53
38 %
2.53
3.7
46%
2.83
4.27
51%
Maize
2.2
3.4
55%
Black Gram
0.72
1.08
50%
1.14
1.55
36%
Wheat
2.2
2.9
32%
2.75
3.72
35%
2.5
3.4
36%
Chick Pea
1.46
2.14
47%
0.64
0.8
25%
0.77
0.96
25%
Mustard
0.72
0.92
28%
0.74
0.92
24%
Average
1.83
2.52
38%
1.59
2.27
43%
1.59
2..22
40%

Despite the extreme climatic conditions, SCI with its variations has proved to be a promising climate smart technique that can help farmers to not only minimize their risks but also to enhance their yields (Table 1). It was observed that as farmers gained experience and skills, they were able to improvise, by manipulating the practices for different crops according to their farm and climatic conditions. This was most evident for paddy and wheat production. For wheat, farmers have adapted to line sowing as grid sowing has not made significant difference in the enhancement of productivity. Maize was sown only in 2015, because it needs the favourable conditions of an early monsoon and low rainfall in the later months.  It was not taken up in 2016 because of excessive rainfall. Other crops like black gram, chick pea and mustard have shown further scope for improvement. Farmers are now looking forward for conducting more trials to check out possibilities for enhancing grain production by further reducing the plant density and using less seed rate.

This experience from Panna, a rainfed region prone to serious and frequent weather uncertainties, highlights encouraging innovative capacities of farmers to enhance grain yields under their respective conditions and to build up crop resilience.  Various experiments conducted by farmers illustrate that the introduction of SCI involves many technical as well as social adaptation processes that are highly location and farmer specific. SCI has brought in new concepts and new options for farmers, helping them to extend and diversify their practices for coping with the growing weather and climate vagaries.

Bhaddi Ahirwar, a hard-working farmer of Sonmau Kalan village in Panna district of Madhya Pradesh, owns 2 acres, mainly rain-fed land with average fertility. He grows paddy, maize, and pigeon pea during Kharif season and wheat, mustard, and chick pea in Rabi season.

In Kharif 2015, when other farmers were still experimenting with the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) on just small fractions of land, i.e., up to 100-200 m2, Bhaddi took the risk of experimenting on 1500 m2, despite being ridiculed by elders. He reasons out that “I was convinced that this technique strengthens the roots and hence a single plant is strong enough to tolerate a dry spell, heavy rainfall, and diseases. Despite the low rainfall in 2015, I got 2 quintals of extra paddy from the SRI plot. In 2016, I doubled the area under SRI paddy and got 4 quintals of extra paddy despite floods.” After obtaining yield increases of 56% (2.6 tons/ha to 4.05 tons/ha) and 49% (2.8 tons/ha to 4.17 tons/ha) in 2015 and 2016, respectively, Bhaddi subsequently started applying SRI principles in other crops too. In Rabi 2016, he practiced SCI for wheat and chickpea on more than half of his land.

He observes that “farmers need some time to realize that SRI is not labour intensive and time  consuming. Rather it is a matter of their getting accustomed to the idea that their old practices can be changed for the better”. Bhaddi has invited other farmers to his SCI fields. He believes that “indebtedness is the main reason of farmers’ poverty in this region. SRI needs less seeds, less investment, no market dependency and brings higher output. Hence it freed me from the clutches of the landlords”. 

Acknowledgement: We are thankful to Dr. Willem Stoop, International consultant on SRI for his guidance in PSI’s SCI activities in the Bundelkhand and Himalayan regions of India. Special thanks to Dr. Norman Uphoff, Professor of Government and International Agriculture at Cornell University for encouraging us to share the Bundelkhand experiences and his very useful and timely suggestions.

References

Planning Commission of India, Inter-Ministerial Central team, “Report on drought mitigations strategy for Bundelkhand  region of UP and MP”, 2009

Seema Ravandale, Vinod Niranjan and Debashish Sen
People’s Science Institute
No. 653, Indira Nagar,
Dehradun – 248006, India.
www.peoplesscienceinstitute.org
Email: psiddoon@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

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