Smallholders, the food providers of the nation, are becoming increasingly vulnerable to a series of challenges like the changing climate, markets, finance, input availability etc. These challenges have made crop production more risky and uncertain in already fragile food production systems, in which these small farmers operate. While majority depend on a single crop, these challenges limit them further to remain at the subsistence level. This in turn pushes them to poverty. Poor nutrition results in poor health, further impacting their productive capacities.
Many small farmers are however, trying to address a range of issues like food security, family nutrition, year round employment and additional incomes, by two ways – practising eco-friendly ways of crop production, and diversifying their farm production. This issue brings out experiences of some of those enterprising farmers who have made their farming lives better by diversifying and integrated farming.
Farm diversity is the key
Agro ecology and farm diversity go hand in hand. Farmers switching to eco-friendly ways of crop production focus on nurturing a healthy crop without disturbing its agro-ecosystem. Farmers following such agroecological practices are able to grow crops that can withstand vagaries of nature. For example, Malleshappa applies plenty of compost and vermicompost to the soil to enhance the organic content of the soil. Such organic soils hold rainwater better. He also applies ‘keetajanya nashaka’, a biological pesticide to control pests, instead of pesticides (Ganga Ankad, p.10)
Farmers are increasingly including enterprises like kitchen gardens, mushroom production, backyard poultry etc., to their existing crop production. Besides generating additional income and employment, integration of enterprises encourages resource recycling – an output of one enterprise becomes an input to other, thus facilitating efficient resource use and also reducing production costs. Farmers are recycling resources in several ways. For example, Malleshappa uses the agriculture wastes of jowar, maize, soyabean, tur, cow pea as hay and dung is recycled as vermicompost and biogas. (Ganga Ankad, p.10). Mrs. Indira in Alappuza uses fodder and natural grasses to feed livestock while its urine is applied to crops. She uses coconut residues as mulching material (Anithakumari, Merin Babu & S Indhuja, p.16). Farmers in Chikkayemmiganur village sell maize cobs to a company in Challakere which transforms them to briquettes, a greener alternative to fossil fuels. (H R Mallesh & T Parthasarathy, p.32). Sukhjeet Singh, a farmer in Punjab washes the dung, goat and pig feaces into the fish pond which serve as feed and fertiliser. He feeds the goats with agriculture waste and pigs are fed with kitchen waste, thus keeping the costs low. (Amandeep Singh & Gurpreet Kour, p.27)
Majority of the farmers add on farm based enterprises, primarily to enhance their farm incomes. Experience has shown that farmers with very small pieces of land too can make good income from such enterprises, especially in the off-seasons, when there is no crop nor income to support the family. For instance, Maheshappa earns more than two lakh rupees annually from a meagre one hectare of land through sale of vegetables, fodder and milk. (Ganga Ankad, p.10). However, over time, farmers also recognise that they realise many more benefits beyond incomes, when they integrate enterprises. Family nutrition is foremost among them. With better access to home grown vegetables, milk, chicken etc., they get better food and nutrition over a longer period of time. For example, in Kerala, most of the home food needs are met from the homestead itself – pulses, roots and tubers, green leafy vegetables, fruits and vegetables. Other enterprises provide fresh water fish, milk and milk products, eggs, etc., providing a complete, balanced and healthy nutrition to the family.(Anithakumari, Merin Babu & S Indhuja, p.16)
Moving towards collectivisation
Farm based enterprises could be at the farm household level or graduate to operate at a community level. While operating as a collective enterprise, farmers tend to realise more returns as it cuts down costs and enhances bargaining power. For instance, the tribal communities in Jharkhand, who started producing mushrooms individually at a subsistence level, moved on to commercial scale production by pooling their resources. They could reduce expenditures on mushroom substrates, spawn, maintenance of substrate preparation yards and transporting mushroom to markets etc., by collectivisation (S. Maurya, et.al., p.13). Similarly, the maize growers in Chikkayemmiganuru village, as a collective, bought inputs together, marketed as a group gaining better control over the price and also recycled maize cobs as fuel, gaining additional income. (H R Mallesh & T Parthasarathy, p.32)
Collective enterprises, however, need external support to start and takeoff. To operate successfully, they also need handholding for a longer period of time. For example, National Agricultural Innovation Project (NAIP) played a pivotal role in setting up the mushroom group enterprise in Jharkhand and inspiring the women farmers by exposure visits, demonstration programmes, hands-on trainings, providing backstopping support when they faced problems. Even after the project closure in 2011, the capacity building, hand holding and backstopping which continued till 2014-2015, has empowered the women to manage the enterprise successfully and sustainably. (S. Maurya, et.al., p. 13)
Identifying key activities and building local capacities are crucial for managing the enterprise sustainably. Agencies that support projects should focus on these aspects, before they withdraw their support. For instance, the Rural Desi Backyard Poultry (BYP) programme, trained local women members as para-veterinarians on health care practices related to chicken and other livestock. Since deployment of para-veterinarians, the adoption of prescribed health care practices has increased reducing the mortality rate of chickens. (Kanna K. Siripurapu, et.al., p.6)
The nature of external support is normally dependent on the mandate of the organisation. While Agriculture department focuses on promoting crop based improvements, the Animal husbandry department is more concerned about livestock. But, rural livelihoods are interdependent and therefore have to be viewed holistically. This limitation could however be overcome by coordinating efforts of multiple agencies, so that communities gain. For example, in Upparahalli village in Karnataka, while the State Department of Agriculture supported an organic farming project, BAIF, an NGO supported the communities with organic milk production. These complementary activities helped communities to reap rich dividends (M N Kulkarni & T Suresh, p.22). In the same way, the Department of Animal Husbandry (DAH) and the Tribal Welfare Department (TWD) of the Government of Andhra Pradesh (AP) came together to design the Rural Desi Backyard Poultry (BYP) programme for improving the income and nutrition of 13000 Adivasi households. (Kanna K. Siripurapu, et.al., p.6)
The experiences in this issue show that farm based enterprises that are easy to manage, less risky and generate better incomes, when promoted, have the potential to alleviate rural poverty, eradicate malnutrition and create employment opportunities too. With a little external support, small scale farmers can go a long way improving their health and livelihoods.