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Editorial – Farmer Organisations

No other ‘Producer’ faces more challenges than a farmer does. He has to grapple with resource degradation, uncertain and unpredictable climatic conditions, poor advisory and other support services, unfavourable policies and the priorities of the government, all resulting in making him helpless, much more than what he/she already is.

On the other hand, agriculture continues to be a major contributor to the nations production. The current crisis of food insecurity, poverty and hunger levels of the rural and urban poor, accentuated climate changes are one way or the other linked to the way agriculture is being practiced. Therefore agriculture, being pursued as the only livelihood option by millions of small holders, can no longer be ignored. The increasing failure of industrial models of production and agribusinesses has shown that ‘more of the same’ and ‘business as usual’ approaches do not work anymore. In such a scenario, how can the small holders survive?

Amidst all these uncertainties, there are plenty of examples of farmer’s own initiatives providing multiple solutions. In recent years, a broad variety of institutional innovations have emerged in response to small-scale producers’ constraints. Primarily, they are based on the basic principles – ‘Together, we are stronger’; supported by enabling agencies believing in ‘helping those to help themselves’. This issue focuses on showcasing few such experiences which not only offer inspiration but also bountiful learnings.

Triggering points

Fragmented and dispersed in remote areas, small producers face a number of challenges which cannot be tackled individually. Most of the times, the problems that farmers face are well known and similar – for instance, recurring crop failures, limited access to resources, farmer’s low bargaining ability in markets, lack of facilities and linkages, lack of vision and abilities to work together, isolation and neglect leading to loss of rights and raise in hopelessness. Interestingly, instead of waiting for outside support, many farmers are organising themselves around a common interest to address one or more of these challenges. Fresh approaches are being tried out to tackle these ‘old’ and ‘well known’ challenges and farmers are able to perceive a number of benefits.

When farmers come together, they see it as an opportunity to socialize, share and learn. Learning through Farmer Field Schools is a well known approach which banks upon the group approach for learning. Farmer groups as learning platforms have resulted in changed farming practices. They are changing the way they are farming – from conventional to organic.

For instance, women groups in Tamil Nadu came together to produce healthy organic produce for self consumption and included new crops into their cropping systems (Suresh Kanna, p.32). In another instance, farmer groups in Karnataka chose to grow hardy medicinal plants, mixed with traditional cropping systems, thus increasing their net incomes substantially (Shirol, p.36). Also some farmer groups have come together to conserve and protect their natural resources which forms the basis for their farming. (Singh, p.28 and Pujari, p.9)

Starting with production, many farmer groups move towards collective marketing to benefit from economies of scale. The strength and unity that comes from cooperating and working together can be empowering for small-scale producers, who often lack the skills, knowledge and experience to successfully participate in the market. By working as a group, farmers can take increased risks and gain confidence.

For instance, farmer groups in Maharashtra were able to tap the nearby urban markets through collective marketing of flowers (Andhale and Wagle, p.6). Also, shrimp farmers in Tamil Nadu organized themselves to profitably cultivate and market their produce for over two decades (Kumaran, p.11). Tie-up with large companies is also being tried out by some farmer organizations enabling them to earn better returns with minimal market risk. (Shirol, p.36)

Farmer organizations can also serve as a platform for farmers to advance their interests and influence policies, starting from the local level. For this to happen, farmer organizations need to network at a higher level, often including other grass root organisations and individuals, to build up the necessary support. For instance, guided by KRAPAVIS, an NGO, Rajasthan Charwaha Vikas Sanghathan, developed as a platform to help tribal communities regain their traditional rights over the forest resources. With more than 1000 pastoralists as members of the Association, the Sanghathan with its persistent lobbying efforts, succeeded in bringing about policy amendments that saw pastoralists included in the Scheduled Tribe and Forest Dwellers Act 2006.(Singh, p.28).

Patterns of governance

Most of the farmer organisations start off as informal groups. They are unregistered groups to start with. They continue to work together and avail benefits and will only register once the benefits of doing so are much more and evident. Interestingly, several groups operate successfully without being formally registered. For example, the Shrimp farmers association in Tamil Nadu remains an unregistered entity even after several years of functioning successfully. (Kumaran, p.11)

Farmer organisations can transform from informal farmer selfhelp groups to farmers’ associations, producer organizations, federations and unions based on the need. For instance, the shrimp farmers organised themselves into Shrimp Association for availing the economies of scale (Kumaran, p.11); the fishery farmers group (an unregistered group) associated itself with a mandatory organized group – tank users group (registered society), recognizing the close link between tank water resources and fishing (Shirol, p. 36). In such cases, the roles and responsibilities of each were well defined and executed along with transparent revenue and benefit sharing procedures. Some of the groups, though informal in nature, handled a range of functions, such as, production and marketing; bulk purchases for quality and better economics and management of common infrastructure.

Also, in many cases, strict regulations and procedures were in place with a voluntary code of conduct and transparent dispute and conflict resolution procedures. Some of the other services offered were credit guarantee by the association, servicing requests by resource persons identified and certified by the association, obtaining competitive pricing by inviting tenders from traders.

While the governance mechanisms differ from group to group, so also the governance may differ at various levels. For instance, Rajasthan Charwaha Vikas Sanghathan is still an unregistered association but has its district level chapters handling different set of activities based on their local concerns, agendas and issues. (Singh, p.28).

Whatever be the form of the organisation, there are some characteristics which hold farmer organizations together – a common interest, mandatory membership, rules, regulations and discipline, adherence to quality standards in production, shared roles and responsibilities on a rotation basis.

Partnership models

Traditionally, farmer organisations were promoted and supported by the Civil Society Organisations. But gradually, this ‘group approach’ was recognized as a sustainable mechanism by various actors in the field of development. While the mainstream agencies used these ‘farmer groups’ as a ‘safe means’ to deliver their schemes, the corporate agencies primarily focused on using these groups as ‘commodity groups’ and strengthening their value chains. In the ‘contract farming’ model described on page 20, buyers/end users/ exporters/ industrial users are in agreement with farmers/ group of farmers/ farmers association (Reddy, p.20).

However, it is interesting to note that the farmers are paid higher when market prices are up and paid agreed price when market prices are lower. Also, the knowledge support by research institutions and creation of infrastructure by private sector were noteworthy. On the other hand, ‘collective farming’ by Women Farmers Collective, focused on organizing widows and landless women enter into a leasing arrangement with the owner with clear procedures for sharing crop yields. The objective of some of these initiatives was not profit maximization but getting access to organic produce for household consumption.

Along with globalization, came an institutional innovation in the form of farmer producer companies. These companies, which started as a small farmer organization, initially focused on learning and technology adoption and slowly moved on to become producer groups. Many agencies, including the government, started promoting Producer Companies, where farmer is a shareholder. For example, in Orissa, ATMA initiative leveraged expertise of KVKs and NGOs in organizing farmers into 1400 producer groups handling different agro enterprises based on suitability and their own preferences. (Mishra, p.24).

Issue of sustainability

Farmer organisations are often formed hastily, especially in the agriculture sector, for promoting collective action. Evidence shows that viable farmer groups can be promoted which can survive over a longer period only when an enabling environment is provided and backed up with capacity building and support for collective action. Presently NGOs are providing this support playing multiple roles. They are providing empathetic educational guidance and imparting management and negotiation skills, besides fostering processes of self reflection and learning. (Andhale and Wagle, p.6, Singh, p.28, Tinning, p.14).

It requires considerable time for the farmer groups to mature and work independently (Mishra, p.24). Strengthening the groups by building capacities of members, developing mutual trust and cohesion, allowing leaders to emerge, all these need a lot of time. Farmer organizations must be allowed to develop at their own pace and must be driven by the objectives of their members, not by the objectives of the development agencies. Therefore, time, effort and long-term investment are needed to build successful, effective, competitive and sustainable organizations of small holders that are able to achieve members’ objectives.