"My father had always grown cotton. But today, after a lifetime of work, he is left with a Rs 25,000 debt that I must now pay back,” says Sahebrao Mhaske.
Mhaske explains why he joined a 250-and-growing collective of farmers in Vidarbha’s northwestern Buldhana district.
These farmers — propelled by the diminishing returns of cotton cultivation — switched to grape and, to a lesser extent, pomegranates and horticulture. Their farms cover over 1,200 acres; over 70 per cent of the farmers own five acres or less.
State government data since 2001 shows that 2,200 farmers have committed suicide in Vidarbha’s cotton belt, 399 in Buldhana alone, which demonstrates the importance of experiments like this.
The centre of this quiet agrarian movement is Amdapur village, which lies off National Highway 6, 500 kilometers from Mumbai. Its leader is the soft-spoken engineer-turned-farmer Ajay Deshmukh who chucked a job in Mumbai in the 1990s to return to attend to an ailing father. He soon realised the family had to earn a living out of agriculture but cotton, with its low prices, was not going to give that.
Sitting at the head of his 40-acre farm that now sees rows of Sharad Seedless and Thompson grapes, Deshmukh explains the switch: “I had a loan on my head but had seen grape orchards in Nasik, and felt Buldhana’s climate was equally suitable for vineyards, but nobody had pushed the crop here.”
Deshmukh planted grapes and encountered success. “The minimum temperature here is 10 degrees compared to 5-6 degrees in Nasik, which makes grape vines go dormant. Compared to the 150 days in Nasik, fruiting here has a 120-day cycle.”
In 2003, Deshmukh along with 125 other farmers submitted a plan for growing grapes to the Akola brach of UCO Bank, asking for a Rs 9 crore loan. “We fortunately came across an official who believed that the right amount of credit extension could help farmers increase productivity, earn well and pay back. He took the risk.”
Several farmers from Amdapur and neighbouring villages who have over the past three years joined Deshmukh's grape movement, helped by visits from the National Research Centre on Grapes, join in the conversation.
Prahlad Baburao, 41, says, “I owned three acres, but it earned me little. I would stand at the village naka on the highway each morning looking for contractors who could give me work.”
In 2004, Prahlad sold his three acres for nine acres of hilly land. Today, it is a patchwork of grape vines, pomegranate trees and gram. The crops provide round-the-year work for his five-member family.
Deshmukh says the experiment is making small, incremental gains. “When I started out, few grew grapes and the produce was only sold in and around.
Today, our produce is travelling to Nagpur and Indore. Traders are coming to us
because there are so many of us, growing good grapes.”
In its report on the Vidarbha crisis, the Planning Commission commends Amdapur's as “very successful crop diversification effort”.
Member Abhijit Sen, who accompanied the Prime Minister in his June-July visit to Vidarbha, says: “Farmers here have to look beyond cotton. Horticulture will give better returns but state and financial backing is critical till the farmers can begin getting returns. Also, jowar will help create food security while also providing fodder.”
But the experiment is struggling to stay alive, the biggest hurdle for the farmer being assured credit for the first two to three years till the vines grow, and for expenses on agricultural infrastructure like a well, drip and sprinkler irrigation systems.
Smaller farmers who approach Deshmukh to replicate his experiment are having a hard time convincing local banks to lend the financial push.
Deshmukh and his group also believe that the state is discriminatory towards Vidarbha.
The day HT visited the farmers, they were writing letters to Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar to include grape on the district’s Horticulture Mission list of crops, which will help farmers access subsidies in activities like digging a well on the farm as well as attend training courses.
Deshmukh argues: “We have successfully demonstrated that growing grapes is possible in a region like Buldhana. We need the state to facilitate, not place hurdles.”