In a moment of exasperation an entire community in Vidarbha decided to sell off their village and migrate to the city in search for wage employment. All they could see around them were parched fields that had drained their last vestige of hope.
Located in a rain-shadow region of the Deccan Plateau, the Vidarbha region is characterised by low rainfall and a degraded environment that is prone to droughts. Of the total arable land, 78% is cultivated under rain-fed conditions.
To break this chain of dependency a project was initiated in January 2011 to work with small and marginal farmers. This intervention is designed to promote the techniques and practices of ecological agriculture that will reduce the dependency of farmers on external inputs such as seeds, fertilisers and pesticides to increase soil fertility and minimise the impact of climate variability on agriculture. It was implemented across 15 villages in Wardha district and 15 villages in Yavatmal district and has now completed 2 years in January 2013.
Replacement of the earlier practice of mixed crops, crop rotation and cultivation of food crops with cotton and later the use of hybrid seeds resulted in the loss of soil fertility and microbial activities in the soil due to blatant use of fertilizers. Dependence on external inputs and their rising prices have put a huge financial burden on the farmers without any corresponding increase in crop prices. This has led to large scale indebtedness of farmers. To add to their woes, in recent years, climate changes have resulted in recurring droughts, untimely rains, changes in temperatures, all with disastrous effects on the farming sector – Farmer suicide statistics for the country are highest in this region.
The scenario is more optimistic now with 1500 farmers across these 30 villages practising crop diversification, vermin-composting, making bio-pesticide, conserving seeds and doing tree plantation. The initial challenge was for project coordinators along with the field coordinators to visit 554 households and dispel their apprehensions about ecological farming. Among the interested farmers the first 2-days training was organised in which 67 farmers (51 men and 16 women) participated.
Till date, 746 compost pits of various types have been made and farmers were encouraged to apply simple cow dung to fields. Those who constructed vermi-compost pits were trained to collect vermi-wash and apply it to the plants. In addition, training was imparted with on-site demonstrations. For microbial proliferation the project trained the farmers to prepare ecological manure and a fish concoction using banana, pumpkin, jaggery, egg, and fish waste. Based on the availability of resources, farmers followed different techniques to improve soil fertility and yields. The project also promoted cultivation of Danicha (a green manure) just before the onset of monsoon and asked the farmers to plough it back into the fields.
Crop residue management was promoted on 50 acres in the first year to improve organic content in the soil. This was later adopted by more than 300 farmers in the second year. These techniques help improvement of soil organic content. To promote the availability of biomass in the villages the project contacted the horticulture department and ensured that tree saplings are distributed free of cost to the farmers. A total of 475 fruit bearing trees were supplied by the horticulture department and planted in the second year of the project. The fruit bearing trees will take about 3 years to bear fruits which will improve nutritional intake of the farmers and add to their incomes as well.
A pheromone trap is a type of insect trap that uses pheromones to lure insects. It is effective in monitoring new pests and can disturb the mating pattern of the insects thus reducing their proliferation. The project promoted Pheromone traps for Helicoverpa and Spodoptera. Nearly 80% of the target farmers have adopted them. In case this preventive measure was not sufficient and there was a sudden incidence of pests, the project prescribed and trained the farmers to prepare different types of bio-pesticides also known as decoctions. For example the project trained the farmers to prepare tobacco decoction which requires 1 kilogram of local tobacco leaves and 100 grams of soap powder. A total of 10 decoctions were demonstrated to the farmers and everyone adopted one or the other technique to control pests.
Today all the target 1500 families have adopted crop rotation. Though mixed cropping as a method to diversify incomes and minimize risk of crop failure was promoted by the project it did not find many takers with only 246 farmers out of the target 1500 farmers adopting mixed cropping.
As planned 30 village resource centres (VRCs) were created in all project villages. The local governing body (village panchayats) provided the physical. These VRCs were equipped with reading materials on ecological agriculture, pest management, decoctions and other resource materials.
At present, through various government programmes, the project is trying to diversify the family income with off farm activities like sericulture. More such activities are planned in the days ahead. Over the next ten years a milestone to achieve is to gauge the impact of ecological agriculture on soil and productivity improvement given the rising temperatures and climate variability.