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Lessons in scaling up

System of Rice Intensification is a knowledge intensive method, which is evolving continuously. To be able to spread widely and sustainably, a different approach is required altogether. Knowledge empowerment, participatory processes, continous hand holding, institutional convergence and government support are instrumental in spreading SRI.

Farmers doing agro ecosystem analysis in Ragi FFS
Farmers doing agro ecosystem analysis in Ragi FFS

Traditionally, small farmers in drought prone districts of Andhra Paradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in South India, have been growing locally resilient, nutrition rich millet crops for meeting their family food needs. However, over time there has been a shift and many farmers, even with little access to irrigation, started growing paddy in small patches, using high external inputs.Droughts, a regular phenomenon in the region, coupled with erratic rainfall patterns substantially created water stress in the region. Besides, unmindful drawing of groundwater and lack of water conservation practices have further aggravated the soil moisture stress.

This has resulted in low productivity and degradation of natural resources. To help such dryland farmers in using the scarce water resources judiciously, AME Foundation (AMEF) started promoting SRI, initially in paddy crop, gradually extending to finger millet (ragi) and redgram.

Trying a new method

In 2004-05, a few farmers in Andhra Pradesh who were consistently getting low yields were desperately looking for a way to better their yields. Then, SRI was a new concept. But farmers with the support of AMEF, wanted to try it out on small pieces of land and see if it could work. The yields were very encouraging. It motivated a few more in the area to adopt SRI in the next season.

Excited with the results, we started motivating farmers in other working areas also to visit Andhra Pradesh by organizing exposure visits. By the end of 2008, more than 250 farmers, not only from Andhra Pradesh but also from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu started following SRI practices in paddy.

In 2008-09, the support from WWF and Deshpande Foundation enabled us to expand our work. We started working with farmers in nine districts – Mahbubnagar and Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Peramabalur, Pudukottai and Tiruchi in TN and, Dharwad and Hassan in Karnataka.

AMEF also had a unique challenge of promoting SRI under rainfed conditions in Dharwad area. By 2009-10, more than 4900 farmers were practicing SRI. With additional support from NABARD, we could reach 13000 farmers in 2010-11; 16000 farmers in 2011-12 and 19000 in 2012-13.

Learning, innovating, empowering

Participatory processes helped in fostering innovative spirit in farmers. Farmers came out with a number of innovations during Farmer Field Schools.

SRI being a knowledge intensive process, we started our SRI journey by helping our farmers understand the principles as well as. For this, we chose the Farmer Field School (FFS) method, as it provided an opportunity to facilitate the learning process over a full season. Farmer groups were formed. Farmers were guided throughout the season through Farmer Field Schools.

Through FFS, farmers learnt by practically observing and doing it on their farms. This was essential as it was necessary to break the mindset of age old traditional practice of growing paddy under flooded conditions. This continuous handholding helped in farmers taking up SRI with conviction. Besides FFS and PTD, trainings, field demonstration, study tours and field days were organized to enable sharing.

Farmer to farmer sharing has been the most effective in spreading the practices. On an average, more than 250 training events, two sharing events per year, field days at the end of the season in each village were organized, each year.

To help farmers identify the best practices suitable to their conditions, we encouraged farmers to try out alternatives on their farm. PTD (Participatory Technology Development) trials were facilitated especially in new areas of intervention, with willing farmers interested in trying out and assessing various options available for dealing with a specific problem. Trials were taken up on seed rate, transplanting age, weed management and quantification of water use efficiency. In all, 18 such trials were initiated.

Participatory processes helped in fostering innovative spirit in farmers. Farmers came out with a number of innovations. For example, as the metallic seed drills provided by the Department were heavier and prone to damage, farmers designed light weight wooden seed drills with help of local artisans. In another instance, the iron blades in the cycle weeder were modified and an additional hoe was attached, which helped in ploughing in wet soil conditions.

Farmers had however, several constraints in adopting all the SRI practices and these varied across the regions. All through, AMEF positively responded to farmers needs, providing necessary support. For instance, farmers in Somanakoppa village were finding it difficult to find labour for transplanting young seedlings at the right time. To motivate such farmers dependant on labour, a transplanter was provided to the group. By using the eight row paddy transplanter, farmers not only completed transplanting in time but also reduced their labour costs by one-sixth of what they were incurring earlier.

Enabling spread within the villages

Paddy farmers harvested enhanced yields by adopting SRI methods
Paddy farmers harvested enhanced yields by adopting SRI methods

SRI being a practice which challenges conventional method of growing paddy, it required constant reinforcement, guidance and hand holding to be able to spread and sustain. As it was not possible for AMEF, an external agency to provide such support continuously, we started identifying local farm youth and trained systematically and intensely to serve as locally available Sustainable Agriculture Promoters (SAP). These youth, besides practicing alternatives, share their learning as well as guide others.More than 500 farm youth have been trained as SAP who have been contributing immensely to the spread of SRI. Continous guidance through SAPs has resulted in many farmers in a village adopting SRI. For instance, DP Halli in Kolar district can be termed as “SRI Village” as all the farmers cultivating paddy have switched over to SRI method.

Institutional convergence

To have a wider spread, AMEF started associating itself with likeminded NGOs and NGO networks, providing them training and field guidance. We worked with NGOs and NGO networks like PSSS, BEST, SPPD in Tamil Nadu and Eco club and AVF in Andhra Pradesh. In areas where AMEF was not working at the grassroots, we started influencing the mainstream institutions. We started building working relationships with local development agencies like departments and educational institutions, so as to strengthen the initiative.

For example, AMEF initiated a convergence program in Sakleshpur taluk of Hassan district, Karnataka, with Dept of Agriculture (DoA) in summer 2009. In Tamil Nadu AMEF was the resource agency for the FARM schools organized by the Department of Agriculture in five districts. SRI was the major focus in these Farm schools.

Special Campaigns

Special campaigns like SRI Abhiyaana were taken up. In 2009, AMEF launched SRI Abhiyaana, a programme aimed at sensitizing not only the farmers but also diverse agencies, people’s representatives and media to foster support for SRI in the district. It helped in reaching around 1500 farmers spread across 25 villages.

The approach was later extended to Kolar and Chikkaballapura districts in Karnataka. Use of mass communication mechanisms like banners, charts, wall paintings and video shows across 30 villages in Dharwad district created awareness about the SRI principles among a large number of farmers.

Spreading SRI to other crops

Once farmers were convinced of SRI in enhancing yields in paddy, they were keen to apply the principles of SRI to other crops that they were growing, i.e., ragi and redgram. In 2010-11, around 290 ragi farmers tried out some of the SRI principles, like using low seed rate, planting young seedlings, weed management.

These farmers belonging to 14 villages in Kolar, adopted SRI principles in Ragi on 209 acres. Farmers obtained 22% more yield and 33% more net income by following SRI practices. In subsequent years more number followed the practice and presently more than 900 farmers are following SRI in ragi. Similarly, in 2010-11, around 35 redgram farmers in five villages of Kolar district adopted SRI practices on 16 acres realizing an yield increase by more than 70%.

Learnings

Today, SRI has reached more than 19000 paddy farmers, 977 ragi farmers and 70 redgram farmers in the three drought prone districts. Looking back into last 8 years experience, we find that there are several factors which contributed to this achievement. We strongly believe that the season-long participatory process (FFS) that we adopted has paid immensely. SRI is a knowledge intensive method and not input intensive. Processes like FFS and PTD provided the time and space for the farmers to understand, innovate and try out alternatives. And the good results which emerged on the field was enough to convince farmers to practice it. Also, working with farmers as a group had many advantages particularly enabling knowledge exchange.

As the farmers we work with are the small farmers who are risk shy, we understood that they needed continuous hand holding, atleast for three seasons to continue to practice SRI. While FFS provided the support for a season, this support was continued by regular follow up visits through our Sustainable Agriculture Promoters. Hence, most of our efforts were towards building the capacities of human resources – be it farmers or the local youth.

Our experience taught us that spreading SRI, leave alone the entire district but even to go beyond our own working areas, required working with other organizations. This meant that we had to have common areas of convergence, be it ideologies or methodologies. And this depended heavily on building institutional relationships and funding support.

Large scale adoption of SRI is needed to be able to have an impact on food production, resource conservation and the climate change. In the absence of support and involvement from the State Government, SRI will continue to remain in pockets. Support in terms of investments in knowledge, research as well as extension is needed to bring both small and large farmers into the ambit of SRI. While small farmers need to be motivated to adopt SRI by providing hand holding support, large farmers who control the major chunk of paddy production also need to adopt SRI. Presently, majority of the large farmers find it difficult to adopt SRI for various reasons. For such farmers, government needs to invest, for example in evolving location specific labour saving devices.

Most importantly, wide scale adoption depends on how SRI is taken to the farmers. SRI should not be seen like any other technology which is forced on the farmers by providing inputs. SRI is a method which needs to evolve suitably for every location. This calls for the government to work with grassroot organisations in reaching farmers through participatory processes. Only then SRI spread will be faster and sustainable.

T M Radha

AME Foundation
#204, 100 Ft. Ring Road, Banashankari,
2nd Block, 3rd Stage, Bangalore – 560085
Email: amebang@giasbg01.vsnl.net.in

References

Sangeetha Patil, Upscaling an innovative practice in rainfed paddy cultivation, LEISA India, Vol 11, No.4, December 2009, p.15-17

AMEF, Producing more food grain with less water, Project Completion Report of AMEF-WWF Collaborative Programme, 2011