Pretty cool actually: How farmers across the country are innovating

  • HT Correspondents, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 28, 2016 16:12 IST
Gurwinder Singh Sohi, 35, grows gladiolus, which he fondly calls ‘glad’, in Punjab’s Nanowal village. The flower sticks fetch him Rs 2 lakh an acre — they sell for up to Rs 7 each in the wedding and festive season (keshav singh/HT)

From mangoes in Maharashtra to wheat in Haryana and apples in Kashmir, climate change has adversely affected agriculture produce across India. In the backdrop of less rainfall and resultant farmers’ suicides, experts are urging farmers to adopt newer technologies and think out-of-the-box.

Interestingly, a few Indian farmers are doing just that, and their efforts seem to be bearing fruits.

Strawberries, known as the mainstay of western Maharashtra, are being grown in Kashmir on what was once an apple orchard and a paddy field. A village in arid Rajasthan is now home to towering teak trees. A farm in Madhya Pradesh is teaching world experts the ropes of ‘natural farming’, a farming method, which, unlike organic farming, uses only natural ingredients — not even organic fertilisers and pesticides. In Tamil Nadu, a management consultant-turned-farmer is using hydroponic farming to produce exotic kale and spinach for consumption at fine-dining restaurants in the metros. Growing gladiolus flowers is in in Punjab, so is marketing produce via WhatsApp groups.

Individually initiated farm-level innovations can be seen as part of a broader response to the challenges faced by farmers, says Sudha Narayanan, an expert in agriculture and malnourishment, and a professor at Mumbai’s Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research. “Low returns from growing traditional crops, limits imposed by small landholdings and dysfunctional land markets, growing risks associated with climactic factors, and volatile and unpredictable markets, are some of the challenges farmers face,” says Narayanan. “At one level, perhaps, this is also a response to the recent failure of policy makers to put agriculture on a sustainable growth path.”


A mini-Holland, its tech-savvy farmers

The 10-acres of gladiolus growing on Gurwinder Singh Sohi’s farms seem more at home in Holland than in Punjab’s Nanowal village. The burst of colours breaks the monotony of a landscape that is otherwise dotted with wheat fields.

Sohi, 35, is preoccupied, though — the ‘glad’, as he fondly calls his gladiolus plants, have to be cut before they flower, since florists need ones with a shelf-life of at least two weeks.

His start-up RTS Flowers transports flowers to dealers in Chandigarh, Ludhiana and Patiala. The gladioli sticks and bulbs are marketed through a Facebook page, Indiamart, and even via WhatsApp.

The sticks fetch him Rs 2 lakh an acre — they sell for up to Rs 7 each in the wedding and festive season. After a one-time investment of Rs 1.6 lakh an acre, the seeds can be produced by the plants themselves. With a shelf-life of eight years, they bring him a profit of another Rs 1.6 lakh a year per acre.

This profit, though, has come in after many failed attempts, which included growing mushrooms, selling sweets in a neighbouring town, horse-breeding and customising jeeps. It was only in 2008 that Sohi switched to growing gladiolus, learning about subsidies on it offered by the state horticulture department.

Last year Sohi launched a 12-member farmers’ club, wherein for an annual fee of Rs 5,000, farmers can access power sprays and seed drills, and are encouraged to cultivate organic turmeric, pulses, maize and basmati to cash in on the boom in the organic food sector. Members also market their produce via WhatsApp groups.

Next on Sohi’s list is a website to compete with the big players. “Big stores are making a killing out of organic food,” he says. “Direct marketing will ensure that both the farmer and the consumer get a fair deal.”

Input by Sukhdeep Kaur


Strawberries are the flavour of the season

Known for cultivating crunchy, juicy apples, Kashmiri farmers, at least in Srinagar’s Gassoo village, are now growing strawberries, and making huge profits.

It all started with a local farmer, 70-year-old Haji Abdul Ahad Mir, who started growing strawberries, mainly as an experiment, on a small patch of land more than a decade ago. The crop yielded benefits. Next, Mir converted more than 10 hectares of his land into a strawberry field. “An apple tree gives fruit once in 12 years, while strawberry is cultivated every year,” says his son Tariq Ahmad Mir. “Strawberries don’t need too much sun or rain, making their cultivation suitable in Kashmiri weather. We cultivate in August and harvest around May. The fruit is picked almost every day for about a month.”

Haji Abdul Ahad Mir, 70, picking strawberries at his farm in Srinagar’s Gassoo village. Earlier grown in kitchen gardens for personal use, strawberries have now become this village’s primary crop. (Hindustan Times )

From Rs 70,000 per year, the Mirs now earn 3 to 4 lakhs, supplying mainly to the local market. Such profit margins are attracting even paddy farmers. In Gassoo itself, about 100 hectares of what were paddy fields, and were home to tomatoes, spinach, radishes and turnips 12 years ago, are currently under strawberry cultivation, with an annual production of 1,500 tonnes.

Recently, the state’s horticulture department is now encouraging farmers to process the fruit into jams and drinks.

For the Mirs, the crop has brought them both money and fame. Haji Abdul is the first Kashmiri to win the Taraqi Yafta Kisan Award by Delhi’s Indian Agricultural Research Institute in 2009. He also received the Chaudhary Charan Singh Award in 2010.

Tariq feels their success has led to strawberries now being the main crop in their village. “Earlier strawberry was grown in kitchen gardens for personal consumption. Now almost 80% of the land in our village is under strawberry cultivation,” he says.

By Toufiq Rashid

Madhya Pradesh

A ‘natural farm’ near narmada

Krushi Teerth, a nondescript farm on the banks of river Narmada, about 130km from Indore, has become a mecca for organic farming enthusiasts.

So what’s so special about this farm?

“More than the farm, it’s about my style of farming,” says its owner Deepak Suchde, 66.

“We call it NatuEco science, which means a natural and eco-friendly method of farming. It is different from organic farming because we don’t even use organic manure and biological pesticides.”

Even as organic farming — agriculture that excludes the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides — gains ground, some farmers, like Suchde, have gone one step further and taken up natural farming. It uses multi-crop patterns and biomass to enrich the soil.

More than 500 people, including students and agriculture experts from countries such as Israel, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, visit Krushi Teerth every year.

Deepak Suchde, 66, surrounded by sweet lime trees at his multi-crop farm, Krushi Teerth, in a village near Indore’s Dewas town. No chemicals, or even organic fertilisers, are used in this all natural farm. (Arun Mondhe/HT)

Suchde, a Gujarat native who has spent decades farming in rural Maharashtra, moved to Madhya Pradesh in 2006 to set up this half-acre model farm in Bajwada village, that’s now home to more than 135 crops, including vegetables, fruits, spices, herbs and food grains.

“Nothing is special in the farm except for the soil, which is not tilled or dug up,” says Suchde, urging visitors to smell the soil and feel its texture. The biomass — leftover leaves and stems after a harvest — is crushed and mixed back with the soil at regular intervals to replenish it.

“It is clearly visible how a barren land was converted so green and made self-sufficient in its biomass production. The natural farming being done by Deepak Suchde is outstanding and it needs to be extended to all corners of the country,” says Ashok Patra, director of Indian Institute of Soil Science, Bhopal.

Manoj Ahuja


Towering teaks in an arid land

As a tea planter in Darjeeling, Radhe Shyam Tiwari, 78, loved being surrounded by teak trees. So when he retired and moved to Daulatpura, a village 20km from Jaipur, in 2000, he wanted to plant teak saplings on the periphery wall of his six-acre farm, where his sons were already growing lemon, wheat and gooseberry.

To procure the saplings, Tiwari approached the Jaipur forest department but his request was turned down. “I was told that I must be crazy to think that teak could grow well in a place as hot as Jaipur,” he says.

Not satisfied with the response, Tiwari decided to take matters into his own hands.

Radhe Shyam Tiwari, 78, owns 185 teak trees in Rajasthan’s Daulatpura village. Back in 1995, he was called ‘crazy’ to think that teak could survive the region’s harsh climactic conditions (himanshu vyas/HT)

“I brought 250 saplings, for Rs 10 each, all the way from Darjeeling and planted them on my farm way back in 1995,” he says, walking in the midst of the now two-decade-old trees.

Of the 250, 185 survived.

“Back then, I thought if teak can grow in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh then why not near Jaipur? So I took up the challenge, and the results can be seen,” he says, smiling.

Was it a smooth ride? “It was a challenge to grow teak in Jaipur, as the support and ecosystem were lacking,” Tiwari admits.

Plus, it takes about 20 years for a teak tree to mature. But with a life of more than 100 years, teak also fetches a good price. “At present, the cost of teak is Rs 3,500 per cubic feet. I am not looking to sell my trees, but yes, I am a proud owner of 185 teak trees and have an asset of

Rs 185 lakh,” he says. “Maybe my grandsons will reap the benefits of what I have sown.”

For now, Tiwari has distributed more than 500 teak saplings to farmers in and around his farm. “Teak trees have become a common sight in Daulatpura,” he says

P Srinivasan

Tamil Nadu

Kale cultivation in mineral-rich water

How do you grow exotic moisture-rich greens on an arid land? The answer was simple for farmer P Sai Krishna — hydroponic farming, or to grow in water and not soil.

“I was told that I will fail in this barren land,” says Krishna, 70. “The area gets baked in temperatures between 40 °C and 45 °C most times of the year.”

But with his farm, Super Greens India, Sai is set to change things.

S Satyanarayanan, CEO of the Chennai-based Fruitmarts, markets Super Greens’ produce, mainly to five-star hotels (U Karunakaran)

His sprawling 1,000-sq ft greenhouse — located in Edayarpakkam, in Sriperumbudur, a 70-km drive from Chennai — is home to exotic varieties of spinach, Russian and American kale, and a wide variety of chillies, basil and pak choi.

The reason behind growing these greens, which typically need cooler climates, was to cash in on their demand at five-star hotels and fine dining restaurants, where cuisines like Thai and Italian have become a mainstay.

“It had to be hydroponic farming. It uses no pesticides and instead of soil — that can often be pesticide-contaminated — we use mineral solutions. The water is treated at an RO plant and solar energy is our source to do reverse osmosis to reuse water. It is , in fact, better than organic farming,” he adds.

The method is quite simple. First the seeds are sown in coir peat (made of coconut husk) and rice husk, for two weeks and then saplings are transferred to cups filled with foam sponge. For a month, these are placed in a horizontal floating system that contains nutrient-rich water and then placed in the pipes that are vertically located.

“This has led us to be able to control temperature, sunlight and humidity,” says Krishna, who feels the cost-effective technique also uses minimum space. “Cultivation is now a 365-day-affair round-the-clock.”

Next on Sai’s list are a variety of chillies, tomatoes — black, white, red; and peppers.

KV Lakshmana

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