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Knowledge exchange on agroecology – Does it influence practice?

In agroecology, farmers solve their problems adopting practices relying on judgments based on their local conditions, resources and knowledge levels. Farmers continuously learn developing better farming methods, and hence, knowledge becomes central in agro ecology.

It was in early eightees that a silent revolution towards eco friendly agriculture started in India. Disappointed with the conventional, chemical agriculture, farmers in small numbers started to make a shift towards alternative agriculture – agriculture which produced enough without depleting the natural resources and that which nurtured the resources for the future generations to survive. Agroecology is one of many terms used to describe such an approach to farming – others being sustainable agriculture, ecological agriculture, low-external input agriculture or people-centered agriculture.

Knowledge on agro ecology is dynamically generated on the field, by those who are actively involved in agricultural activities. In practising such a method of agriculture, farmers become more observant about their crops while fostering adaptation and innovation. Farmers solve their own problems adopting practices that rely on farmers’ judgments based on their local conditions, resources and knowledge levels. Hence, in agro ecology, there isn’t a set of practices that one could follow as is done in conventional systems. In agro ecology, farmers continuously learn developing better farming methods, and knowledge becomes central.

The necessity for upgrading knowledge makes farmers look for sources of information on agro ecology and opportunities to interact with like minded farmers and researchers. Also, knowledge sharing and knowledge exchange facilitates faster upscaling of agro ecology. While farmer meets, farmer exchanges, interactive meetings, largely organised by the civil society organisations have served as platforms for knowledge exchange, they have been serving farmers for only a brief periods of time. Of the very few initiatives that have been serving the purpose of knowledge exchange on agro ecology for a long time, is the LEISA India initiative. LEISA India as a knowledge initiative has been promoting ecological agriculture, since 2000. LEISA magazine has been recognised as one of the primary sources of inspiration and to an extent practical knowledge on ecological agriculture. A study was therefore done with the readers of the magazine to understand the impact of knowledge dissemination on acceptance and adoption of agro ecology as a farming approach in 2009.

Methodology

As we were interested in looking at the outcomes of the decade long effort in knowledge exchange, we employed the outcome impact assessment method. Attempt was made to understand and assess the efficiency of our task on hand (reaching the readers on dissemination of LEISA practices) – the sphere of control. Further, we also tried to find out how best this information shared is being put to use – the sphere of influence and to what extent our efforts are able to address the issues of small scale agriculture – the sphere of interest. All these were studied using a number of approaches like Readers surveys; Group discussions; Individual interactions; Field visits and Impact workshops. This article focuses primarily on the ‘sphere of influence’ – how the information on agro ecology has influenced readers mind and their farming practices. Also, how different categories of readers have been influenced in different ways in promoting agro ecology, is interesting.

Around 1500 readers responded to the readers survey. We had in depth interactions with 21 readers – 8 were farmers, 7 were NGO representatives, 3 were from media and one each from the Government, research Institution and Credit institution. They served as detailed ‘Cases’ as to how they utilised the magazine content and their outcomes. Group discussions were carried out with groups of LEISA India readers with various reader categories at different places, involving around 50-60 readers representing institutions like University of Agricultural Sciences, Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Indian Institute of Science, Agriculture Marketing Board, FRLHT and RDT. Field Visits were organised to four farmer readers as we wanted to see how they have been practicing LEISA on their fields. Of the four farmers whom we interacted during our field visits, three were small farmers owning 2-3 acres of land, while the fourth farmer was a big farmer owning around 15 acres.

Sphere of influence

It was interesting to look at and understand what readers are doing with the information they receive through the magazine and how it is resulting in a change in their thinking, behaviour, and practice. While surveys did indicate the nature of use and its impact on their thinking, the actual outcomes of such use have been elicited from much more deeper interactions done at individual level with selected readers.

Thinking differently

One of the major outcomes of knowledge exchange on agro ecology has been a change in mindsets – across different types of people like farmers, NGOs, students, Academics etc. For instance, for farmers, who have not been able to make a decent living on farming, the knowledge on agro ecology came as a ‘hope for agriculture’. The existence of alternatives and the fact that there are many farmers around the world who are like them and have made it possible through LEISA approach, has rebuilt their confidence in farming. “Determination to continue as a farmer”, as one farmer puts it, has been the major outcome.

On the other hand, access to practical knowledge on agro ecology brought in a different type of change in the development community. For them, knowledge on alternative agriculture as a means of livelihood has enabled them to look at development holistically. Earlier, they were involved in promoting discrete income generating activities, not really having knowledge on how to promote safe agriculture. With access to information on alternative agriculture to promote among farmers and participatory methods to work with rural masses, they find their interventions, now more meaningful. Around 74% of the respondents expressed that they had much more clarity on alternative agriculture and agro ecology. The articles helped them to understand the concepts much better like IPM, SRI and living soils.

Trying on own farms

These changed mindsets are reflected in terms of changed field practices and changing cropping systems. Farmer readers have been practically applying the ideas, practices and systems resulting in changed practices and systems on the farms.

Changed practices in the field are quite visible. About 58% of the farmer respondents have used it for field application. Practices like organic manure application, use of compost, vermicompost, azolla, to name a few have gained momentum. For example, a farmer in Shimoga district started cultivating rice on raised beds after being inspired by an experience on ‘Growing paddy on permanent rice beds’, published in the magazine. He feels the method helped him reduce the cost by 50% which equal to making a profit by 50%.

We can observe many farms shifting to a total non-chemical type of farming. Farmers are going in for recycling farm wastes to organic manure. Some farmers in Shimoga believe in irrigating water mixed with organic manure, which also help them in saving labour as compared to soil application of organic manure. Many farmers are becoming chemical free farms. Some innovative farmers are trying out alternatives like growing green manure crops and thus totally avoiding application of organic manure. For example, Mr. Nandish, a young farmer in Shimoga, grows various varieties of green manures, mostly leguminous and follows green culture method.

Helping others to practice

From the knowledge gained on agro ecology, the development community have been promoting ecofriendly practices on the farmers field. The survey indicated that around 39% of the NGO respondents promoted practices like vermicomposting, green manuring, SRI etc., among the farmers with whom they work. For instance, vermicomposting as an enterprise was introduced into the community of Akot, a remote village in Uttarakhand, the idea of which was taken from the LEISA article; Based on the article on azolla as a livestock feed, it was promoted in the milksheds of Maharashtra and Goa with a good feedback. Azolla was also tried out in dairy company by one of the readers who finds good results now. Mr.Sachin Suresh, a development agent, guided farmers on management of Gundhi bug using crabs, which was mentioned in one of the issues. Similarly, SEEDS, an NGO in Tamil Nadu started promoting Azolla, vermi composting etc., the knowledge of which was gained from the magazine. Starting with 4-5 farmers, these practices has spread to many more in the project villages.

Researchers have used the knowledge on agro ecology in a different way. They too have translated the knowledge into action. For example, model organic farm for arid zone was developed in CAZRI based on the ideas discussed on soil health and EPM. The Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVK) which are the extension units at the local level are also using a lot of ideas from the magazine. For example, KVK in West Bengal has taken up marketing of organic cotton.

Integrating new ideas, approaches

Researchers are getting more inclined towards people-centered research; location centric research and traditional knowledge. Methodologies to follow such methods have built in a confidence in promoting such people centered approaches. Particularly for methodologies like PTD and FFS, the magazine has been a primary motivating source. To quote an example, the Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, tried out participatory varietal trials on one of the sugar factories and helped in its revival. Similarly, many readers/NGOs have found FFS interesting and have tried it out in their contexts.

Majority of the researchers and academic readers are finding LEISA India as a source of ideas for alternative agriculture. They are not just gaining knowledge but are also bringing about changes in development research programmes by incorporating these ideas in their project proposals. The survey also indicated that some of the research and also Ph.D research is being guided on these lines while some of the ideas are being incorporated in preparing new project proposals.

NGOs have also been instrumental in bringing about new institutional forms like producer company, after understanding the concept from the magazine. Farmers in the Attapady region in Kerala were organised and formed into a cooperative called FARMA with the support of AHADS, an NGO. AHADS contacted the authors of an article on fair-trade, learnt much more on organizing farmers which led to the formation of FARMA.

The readers in the development field are able to add greater value to their programmes, based on the knowledge they have been gaining. Many of the NGOs have started incorporating the farming content into their trainings as they feel this brings about a real change. Moreover, most of the NGOs lack sources for alternative agriculture to include in their trainings. In such cases LEISA India comes in handy. A syllabus was also developed on organic farming for training a farmers network.

Making inroads into the mainstream

Research Institutions have used the contents for designing demonstrations as well as for developing project proposals, for eg., ideas for a project on climate change was taken from the magazine. Indian Institute of Horticultural Research received a project worth 9 lakhs on para agents, the idea of which was used from the article on para-veterinarians. Similarly, based on an article on soil reclamation, IIHR prepared two proposals on consortium of microbes in a compatible medium.

Academic institutions have been using LEISA India for teaching as well as in training. LEISA India has been source for developing education material on topics like Sustainable agriculture, Sustainable development, Organic agricultural practices, Farm business management, soil health, water management, Insect ecology etc. Courses and curriculum have also been developed using the content. Gandhigram Rural University, Tamil Nadu has included LEISA as one of the five units in its course. Every three years when the syllabus is revised, a lot of content from the magazine is used. Fundamental courses in extension have been developed. The University is also planning a Center on Climate change, inspired by the issue on climate change in LEISA. This indicates that sustainable agriculture is finding its way in the mainstream thinking and practice, though in a small way. This could be either due to the shifts in priorities and strategies of institutions or could be purely driven by the enthusiasm of select individuals.

Nandish, a farmer who adopts LEISA practices
Nandish, a farmer who adopts LEISA practices
Green cover on Nandish's farm which conserves soil moisture
Green cover on Nandish’s farm which conserves soil moisture

Spreading beyond

Knowledge gained from the magazine is spreading beyond the readership. Many of the readers are spreading awareness on alternative agriculture in various ways. Around 54% of them reported sharing with farmers, 41% in workshops and meetings; 53% are sharing with professional colleagues.

The Academics, researchers and students are sharing a lot of content during workshops and meetings through their presentations. LEISA India forms the source material on sustainable and ecological agriculture, which are referred to for preparing papers and presentations. They are based not only on the LEISA articles, but also by referring to books and sources provided in the magazine.

Besides practices, many farmers have started believing in integrated farming systems and have switched over from conventional farming systems. Particularly the one acre model that was described in the magazine caught the attention of many farmers to adopt the same. Many farmers also visited this model farm and followed some of the practices and systems.

Media is using the content/message and repackaging reaching wider readership – in the print, AIR and TV programmes. Readers from the print media have used the content in rewriting articles in local languages. For instance, a reporter from the Kannada language daily – Prajavani, wrote about one acre farm model (which was earlier published in LEISA India) for which he received 5000 calls asking for more information. Many of the readers also translated into various languages like Bengali, Oriya and Malayalam, enabling further reach of knowledge on agro ecology. Similar efforts are made by All India Radio in spreading the message through their farm programmes. AIR-Gulbarga had interviewed Shri. Narayana Reddy, the columnist of LEISA India, which received an excellent feedback. Infact, Prasar Bharathi, Doordarshan Director says that LEISA India has been “the source” for ecological agriculture and is being recommended to his staff in developing farm related programmes.

Knowledge as a tool for triggering change

Especially in a system which is largely influenced and controlled by corporates and multinationals, bringing about a change that is people centric is a challenging and a long drawn process. In such change process, knowledge is the trigger for change. Besides knowledge exchange initiatives, supportive systems, capacity building and favourable policies will go a long way in bringing about this change, which is necessary to make agriculture and livelihoods sustainable.

 

T M Radha
Managing Editor, LEISA India
AME Foundation
Bangalore – 560085
E-mail: leisaindia@yahoo.co.in