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Farmer Field School – Building knowledge on the farm

Farmer Field Schools serve as a platform for mutual learning among farmers and resource persons. Interactions, discussions and hands on training provides an opportunity to revive and sustain traditional knowledge while making improvements through modern science.

A farmer displaying bottle gourd grown on his mixed farm
A farmer displaying bottle gourd grown on his mixed farm

Southern districts of Odisha State in India are mostly hilly rainfed uplands with an average annual rainfall of 1200-1400 mm. Tribal communities in these regions practice a combination of forest based livelihoods and shifting cultivation for subsistence food crops which includes traditional millets, pulses, cereals, grams and oilseeds. But, in the last two decades, rampant destruction of forests for various commercial purposes has severely affected the livelihood of these communities. The changing pattern of rainfall combined with persistence of shifting cultivation has triggered extensive soil erosion and siltation in the low lands.

Excessive application of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides has reduced the natural fertility of the soil and increased the cost of cultivation. Farmers are in a vicious circle of indebtedness,  especially when their crop fails. To make the situation worse, most agricultural development projects launched by the Government in these regions encourage cash crops over subsistence crops – ignoring that the latter is critical to reinforce local economy and ensure food as well as nutritional security of the communities. Indigenous knowledge (IK) of farming and seed resources are now on the verge of extinction due to large scale use of hybrid seed and mono-cropping.

The concept of land-to-lab-to-land approach can be possible only when farmers and scientists work together.

The journey

Agragamee, a grassroot organisation committed for the development of tribal and other marginalised communities of Odisha, has been promoting agroecological models ensuring livelihood, food and nutritional security of the communities and conserving bio-diversity. It has been working with the local communities in two blocks of Kashipur and Thuamulrampur through a knowledge empowering process like Farmer Field School (FFS).

Through a series of interactive meetings with farmers the critical issues of farming were identified and discussed. Several documentary films based on successful agroecology models and the “exposure visits” provided first hand field experience, fostered close interactions and stimulated cross-cultural learning among farmers. These events led to increasing exchange of information and debates on traditional seeds, farming systems, diverse food and their cultural practices.

Reviving traditional millets through mixed cropping
Reviving traditional millets through mixed cropping

Co-creating knowledge in farm schools

Farmer’s Field Schools (FFSs) established at the village level provided a platform for knowledge building and sharing on agroecology where farmers of 4-7 neighbouring villages meet, interact and find solutions locally. They learn through hands-on training on various topics like indigenous method of soil, water and nutrient management, seeds varieties, crop cultivation, pest control, pasture and fodder management while conserving biodiversity.

By interacting with farmers, many indigenous practices were documented. These were validated through a series of field trials carried out by farmers during the FFSs. Farmers observed the results and are convinced to practice the indigenous practices with some modifications on their fields. For example, traditional practice of mixing neem leaves to stored grains has been modified in FFS to include leaves of karnaj and amari to protect it from fungus and ants resulting in better and longer storage. The entire complex web of information flow is depicted in figure 1 where learning is a multi-directional flow of information and knowledge

Realizing the pressing need to revive these age-old varieties, field trials on selected crops like paddy, millets, pulses, and a host of vegetables were undertaken by farmers. Farmers were involved in seed multiplication of many varieties which are close to extinction, through selection of ideal location for trials, using ecological mapping, and selecting advanced lines.

The exchange of knowledge on agro-ecological experiences during ‘Farmers Fairs’ brought out systematic analysis of various problems that bother certain classes of farmers. This knowledge exchange helped scientists to understand the factors for success and failure. In turn, they modified the field trials, which is now based on the availability of local resources, farmer’s ability and his economic status.

Of the 150 field trials taken up with different highland indigenous paddy varieties like Matidhan, Bodhidhan, Pradhan and Tippadhan, Matidhan was found to be superior to others in terms of high yield, short duration, pests and disease resistance. Also, its combination with Arhar is superior to other combinations. Farmers also found that in vegetable mixed cropping, solanaceous vegetables mixed with leguminaceae is superior. Among crop combination of maize and pulses, a second crop of mustard with the residual moisture was successful. Scientists too learnt that involving farmers in field trials helped to convince farmers in adopting superior varieties and follow successful crop combinations.

As women have a sound knowledge of seed preservation, they were involved in setting up  Grain-cum-Seed Banks (GCSBs) in 15 villages. Women manage the GCSBs, deciding the amount of seed and selecting the varieties to be stored, resulting in preservation of varieties of paddy, pulses, millets, tubers, and vegetables. Efforts for linking these GCSBs with plant breeding research institutes are on-going.

Women preserve many indigenous seed varieties in the grain-cum-seed bank
Women preserve many indigenous seed varieties in the grain-cum-seed bank

New learning for farmers

Farmers learnt that pests and diseases thrive in monocultures because of abundance of food and few or no natural enemies. They learnt about crop diversification and the importance of including some specific crops to avoid pest occurrence. According to Dr. Debesh Prasad Padhi, a horticulturist associated with Agragamee, “domestic and wild grasses help significantly to protect the crops by attracting and trapping the stem borers. By including plants like Desmodium in between the rows of maize/sorghum, stem borer will be repelled owing to the chemical emitted by Desmodium.  Scientists realized that a scientific explanation convinced farmers to adopt suitable practices. Farmers are trained and sensitised on various beneficial insects, their role in food production by way of pollination and controlling pest attacks. For example, farmers are happy to see Ladybird beetles (Coleoptrera) which feed on soft-bodied pests like aphids, whiteflies, mites and scale insects, and prevent crop damage.

Similarly, farmers who grew a second crop of mustard with the residual moisture following maize and pulses crop found it rewarding. On the other hand, scientists learnt the decision making process of farmers which is based on need and existing marketing demands.

Farmers are now growing live fencing with plants like Simarouba glauca, Pinnata and Cassia tora, thus enhancing biodiversity and access to fodder and fuel. They are glad that these border plants serve as wind breaks, thus conserving soil moisture.

Need for working together

Agroecological systems are knowledge intensive. They call for in-depth understanding of local conditions for building on the indigenous knowledge already existing with the communities. The concept of land-to-lab-to-land approach can be possible only when farmers and scientists work together, building sustainable linkages. Involvement of farmers in the research process is vital which helps the scientists acquire knowledge about traditional practices and redesign their strategies. The outcome of such a process is not only relevant to farmers but is also sustainable in the long run.

Acknowledgements: The author is grateful to Debesh Prasad Padhy, Senior Program Adviser, Agragamee for providing his technical inputs and key insights to the earlier draft of the article.


Abhijit Mohanty
E-mail: abhijitmohanty10@yahoo.com
Blog: developmentalternativesblog.wordpress.com

Ranjit Sahu
Research Associate
University of Virginia, USA.
E-mail: sahurk9@gmail.com