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Editorial – Education for change

Farming in India can be visualized as having multiple faces. The farming majority are small holders, caught in fragile eco systems. For them, it is a means to pursue livelihoods with small marketable surpluses. For the enterprising few, it is a market driven enterprise.

Trainees learning to handle a hand tractor for land preparation. Photo: Dipendra Pokharel

Trainees learning to handle a hand tractor for land preparation. Photo: Dipendra Pokharel

Changes are seen on many fronts – the types of crops grown – less for sustenance and more for the market; nature of inputs that go into farming – more chemical and less organic; hybrid seeds in place of own, traditional seeds etc. These changes are happening at a rapid pace. Most of them are triggered and supported by government policies, too. Along with these, there are a number of national policies which have a short term welfare perspective too which pose new challenges.For example, farm labour threatening programmes like MGNREGA, the recently approved Food Bill…, the leaning towards public private partnership based industrial agriculture models, all these do have an impact on the small farmers and their ability to pursue farming. With globalization and trade distortions, farmers need to be aware of new challenges which are emerging. Moreover, the farmer is burdened heavily to cope with accentuated climate changes.

Thus, small farmers who are already grappling with a number of challenges like low yields, natural resources degradation, uneconomic holdings, lack of access to resources etc., are lost in an environment which is continuously changing at an alarming rate. Also, with a non existing extension system, the farming communities are increasingly getting disillusioned. There is an urgent need to motivate, encourage and educate small farmers in adapting quickly to these changing circumstances.

Most importantly, today’s farmer’s needs are not just technical. Farmers need to be educated and empowered to manage his farming livelihood. His knowledge and skills need to be enhanced to expand his opportunities to earn income from various farm related enterprises.

More of the same doesn’t work

Farming communities are not a homogenous lot. They have different needs, aspirations and abilities. Agricultural education is a complex, social engineering process. It requires clear goals, synergies of competencies to guide farmers to improve their livelihoods as well as contribute significantly to economic well being, locally as well as globally. There needs to be an urgent appreciation of this stark reality. Also, constantly ignored is the evergrowing food needs of the growing population, the ecological degradation threatening survival of the planet earth, and, clueless future on how the vast displaced farming majority could be absorbed into alternative vocations.

Since long, educating farmers has been perceived as one of the development activities by the government, through its extension systems. The focus of these extension systems has been limited to providing inputs, reaching out to mostly the elite ones. The focus now needs to be shifted to small farmers, who form the majority and contribute significantly to the food security of the nation. They need to be guided on what they know and want to pursue, with dignity. Being resource poor and risk shy, they need to be organized into groups, so that they can learn and pursue practices that are sustainable and locally relevant. In many areas, we see that this is happening, mostly with the support of NGOs. Farmers are being organized and educated through a season-long process called Farmer Field Schools (FFS). FFS provides farmers an opportunity to organize themselves, meet, discuss and learn the agro-ecological way of farming by way of ‘discovery learning’.

Of late, we see that the mainstream programmes also in some countries are reaching out to small farmers by organizing them into small groups. For eg., the National IPM Programme of Government of Nepal organized FFS for farmers in Takuche village in Nepal. Having empowered with the knowledge of raising a ‘healthy’ apple orchard through Farmer Field School, these farmers are now less concerned about pest attack (Kafle Narayan and Binod Ghimire).

Agriculture is no longer seen as a remunerative livelihood option, especially among the youth. Also, youth lack the knowledge of sustainable agricultural practices and see no hope in continuing farming the way their parents have been doing. Disillusioned with farming, these rural youth are migrating to towns and cities seeking non-agricultural opportunities. It is important to see that the younger generations do not abandon agriculture, lest the food production would seriously be hampered. Many initiatives are therefore aiming at holding youth in agriculture.

For example, through an innovative pilot programme on training rural youth in sustainable agriculture, the Ministry of Agriculture Development in Nepal succeeded in addressing two major issues – food security and rural employment. The Department found that youth who were familiar with the locality, were much more acceptable by the communities and their words, ideas and techniques were easily heard and adopted. (Dipendra Pokharel and Resona Simkhada). The School of Biodynamic Farming is another example where in rural youth are trained in sustainable agriculture through a two-year course (D.Thangapandian). Many such interesting experiences have been shared earlier in our issue on rural youth (LEISA India, Volume 13, No.1, March 2011).

The ICT enabled extension educational systems are emerging as a key opportunity for changing agrarian situation and farmers’ lives by improving access to information and sharing knowledge. ICTs like internet, village knowledge centers, digital videos and mobile phones are being increasingly used to impart agricultural education (Saravanan). Plant health clinics is another ICT initiative tried in Bangladesh to link the coastal farmers with the scientific knowledge, which is proving successful. (Tithe Farhana

There are a number of players involved in providing educational services to farmers, in their own way – government through their extension systems, research institutions through their research agendas, NGOs through their field programmes. Also, we see many private institutions, like the fertilizer and pesticide companies providing technology transfer and advisory services. Each agency promotes what it thinks to be best – generally for increasing yields, often neglecting the farmer and the resources involved in promoting a particular technological option. While every institution is bound to operate within its institutional framework, increasingly organizations are working in partnerships to complement the strengths of each other.

Plant health clinics in Bangladesh is one such initiative tried through a partnership between the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute and the Department of Agricultural Extension. The E-Arik Center is another example of partnership between the Central Agricultural University and the Krishi Vgyan Kendra. (Saravanan)

The role of a farmer as an educator cannot be under estimated. Increasingly innovative farmers with tremendous knowledge and experience are perceived as resource persons in educating not only other farmers but also those interested in the farming sector. Farmer to farmer exchanges are being encouraged. Attempts are also being made to educate the young professionals across the globe in organic agriculture by linking them with the farmers in India. For example, WWOOF INDIA through its various programmes, is providing hands on experience for the students from various countries on farming and organic production. (Harish Tewari and Poonam Tewari)

Building social capital

Education to farmers needs to be an empowering process. It ought to be a dynamic and systematic process bringing an overall change in the behavior of the farmer. It should help the farmer cope with the changes that are happening around him and influencing agriculture. Ultimately, it should help him/her in pursuing agriculture in a sustainable way, while producing safe and healthy food for the family and the community at large. By the end of the process, it is not that a group of farmers become adept at practicing alternatives, but are motivated to guide the whole community to adapt to changing situations. The education process should result in building ‘social capital’ in the villages.

While some of the initiatives mentioned above bring in a hope, yet they are seen only as ‘islands’ of success. If farmer education has to become a truly educational experience, then there needs to be a complete overhauling of the extension and educational systems, prevailing, if any. Firstly, what is the content which should be delivered? Do we continue to promote high chemical, high expensive options or do we offer the alternatives which are less resource intensive and less expensive. Is the local knowledge being integrated or ignored? We need to be cautious about whether the message is relevant for the local conditions. This means that the curriculum or content should be tailor-made and not a blanket/ universal prescription offered to all. Secondly, how are we delivering it? Are we simply pushing the technologies, are we using only the ICTs for the ease of their use and reaching a larger number of people? Are we spreading out thin without having an impact? Partly, the answer lies in using a multitude of methods and tools to have an impact and not just a single one. And finally, who teaches and who learns? Is it the farmer alone that learns, all the time? Does the external person also learn from the process? Is he/she competent enough as an outsider to educate farmers who know much better than them about local practices and situations? What attempts are being made to upgrade oneself as an educator? Are the educators empathetic and sensitive to farmer’s needs, changing aspirations and circumstances?

There are a number of questions that we need to think through before embarking on a process of educating a resource poor farmer. It is ironical that farming is the only profession where in a farmer who is the practitioner, experienced with his ground realities, has to listen to people who are totally alien to the situation. If we really mean to educate farmers, let’s make this process a more interactive and meaningful one, where ‘learning’ and ‘unlearning’ are equally important.