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Harvesting herbs: A farmers forum shows the way

Farmers in North Karnataka region have organised themselves and have found solutions together in overcoming crop failures. Their initiative in including medicinal herbs in their cropping systems is paying rich dividends.

AFF member showing Ashwagandha plants
AFF member showing Ashwagandha plants

Gadag district in north Karnataka is a drought prone area receiving an average rainfall of 300-350 mm annually. Farmers in this region have traditionally been growing crops like jowar, sunflower, cotton and horsegram, exclusively under rainfed conditions.Due to erratic and unreliable rainfall pattern, farming was most uncertain and majority of the farmers migrated to places like Goa, Mangalore etc., to earn their livelihoods. Farming was also not viable due to high cost of inputs and dwindling net returns.

Moreover, the farmers in villages located on the fringes of the forest areas have to face yet another problem – browsing by deers.

In 2006, about 65 farmers belonging to six villages in Gadag and Koppal districts (Belvanki, Kotumachigi, Mannapur, Itagi, Bannikoppa, Chikkahandigol) came together to address the issue of crop failure under dryland conditions.

They tried including Ashwagandha, a medicinal crop, in their cropping system owing to its hardiness requiring less moisture and the absence of threat from deers as they are not preferred as feed.

To gain from collective marketing, AFF has arranged buyback arrangements with noted pharmaceutical companies.

Also, the presence of fertile black cotton soils rich in organic matter and the fairly wide spread Kharif and Rabi rains made Ashwagandha a preferred crop under rainfed conditions.

The members of the group started growing Ashwagandha along with pulses and cereals, as a mixed crop. They followed low external input methods. They started benefitting, continued to grow and also motivated other farmers to grow medicinal plants.

The famers then formed a society called “Ashwagandha Belegarara Okkuta” (Ashwagandha Farmers Forum – AFF) under the Karnataka Society Registration Act 1960. Membership to the group is open to any farmer, willing to grow herbs, paying a nominal fee. The members of the group are supported with a financial assistance from the Department of Horticulture under National Medicinal Plants Mission.

AFF started promoting medicinal species like Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Kalmegh (Andrographis paniculata) and Nelanelli (Phallanthus amarus) among farmers of neighbouring villages. Since these species require minimum moisture and can be grown successfully in drought prone areas, small farmers started showing great interest. The forum also trained interested farmers in growing these crops under organic conditions.

Farmers were also trained to integrate the cultivation of medicinal plants in the normal cropping systems being followed in the area. Experts from Agriculture Universities and Research Institutions were invited to train the farmers on technical matters. Exposure visits to neighbouring states where herbs are being grown were organised.

Also, AFF has been guiding farmers at every stage – from selection of species, developing organic farming systems, integration of cereals and pulses with medicinal plants to meet nutritional requirements, good agricultural practices, harvesting procedures and storage principles. Group certification is also being organized and farmers are in the first year of conversion to organic methods. To gain from collective marketing, AFF has also arranged buyback arrangements with noted pharmaceutical companies.

Today, Ashwagandha is grown over an area of 500 acres by these farmers. Farmers are convinced in this sustainable organic farming system which has also improved their net incomes.

Rajendra Shirol

President, Ashwagandha Belegarara Okkuta Nehru Road, Gadag – 582101 Karnataka.
E-mail: rajendra_shirol@rediffmail.com