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Agriculture not always a dead end: Here are young, successful farmers who made the cut

In 2014, 61% of farmers, especially youth, surveyed by academic institution Lokniti, said they would like to quit if they had a choice. The National Sample Survey’s 59th round on the Situation Assessment Survey of Farmers, 2003, had revealed that only 60% of Indian farmer households wanted to remain in agriculture. But the profession need not be a dead-end, as these examples show.

india Updated: Apr 02, 2018 20:27 IST
Zia Haq
Zia Haq
Hindustan Times, Majuli
Agriculture,Farmers,Indian economy
Rural women trained by Kabya Jyoti Bora (below) walk home with wild water hyacinth stalks, which serve as a cost-free raw material for their woven products such as flower vases and office folders in Assam’s Kamrup district.(HT Photo)

In 25-year-old Pallavi Baruah’s homeland, the Brahmaputra river island of Majuli, making a living is as vulnerable as the place itself. Farmers grow chickpeas, green leafy vegetables and rice, but farm tracts can “disappear” overnight.

Two braided channels of the vast river encircle this island in eastern Assam, in a deathly grip, systematically knocking off land, mostly loose soil, from its fragile shores.

This process of massive erosion has been going on for decades, causing the island to continuously shrink. Many of Bora’s co-inhabitants have seen their land melting away into the Brahmaputra.

Waves from the river last year shaved off a huge chunk, creating a 40-foot gorge along its southern borders, known as Salmara, from where the river stretches out endlessly into the horizon.

Many villagers are constantly moving inwards, their agricultural tracts having been chipped away by the river.

Seasonal flooding routinely inundates crops and homes in this important religious centre of Vaishnavite Hindu monasteries. Baruah’s landless father, a carpenter, is old and incapable of doing much.

In the lakes and lagoons of Majuli, like in the rest of Assam, water hyacinth, an invasive aquatic weed (eichhornia crassipes), is considered by locals as a big nuisance. Rowing boats through them becomes difficult. Thickets of hyacinth, which spread aggressively, usually grow across ponds and fisheries. They also don’t let sunlight in, which hampers fishing.

In this battered island, hyacinths are now being hailed as a saviour, thanks to one man’s efforts to turn this weed into a source of wealth and rural income. About 135 women from below-poverty-line households now farm hyacinths in their neighbourhood lakes and lagoons to use their stems as a virtually cost-free raw material.

Their products: fruit baskets, flower vases, mats, office stationery, hats and even small furniture.

Over one-fifth of rural agricultural households have income less than the national poverty line, while agriculture’s share in rural employment is a whopping 64%. (Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

Kabya Jyoti Bora, a 47-year-old veterinarian, started farming hyacinths in 2013, after training under the Agri-Clinics and Agri-Business Centres scheme from the Indian Society of Agribusiness Professionals in Guwahati in 2010.

Bora then formed an association called ALPED or the Association for Livelihood Promotion and Entrepreneurship Development. With technical and financial support from the state-run North-Eastern Development Finance Corporation Limited, Bora now trains disadvantaged women to make a variety of products from hyacinths.

The technology is utterly simple: the stems of hyacinths are sun-dried and flattened through portable iron press.

The hay-coloured dehydrated stalks become strong to be woven into virtually anything. Thermocol blocks are used as moulds. They can even be used in handlooms. Before taking his project to Majuli, Bora trained 100 low-caste rural women in Kamrup district in the art of making bags, office folders and files from water hyacinth.

In Majuli, the rural artisans now sell their products to foreign tourists and at local fairs. “Most of the 135 women like me make Rs 3,000 a month,” Baruah says.

Bora, the agriprenuer, says Rs 3,000 is “like Rs 30,000” for poor households in this island. “They have basic needs, you see.”

Bora is now in talks with Majuli’s district administration that could transform hyacinth farming and products made from it into a cottage industry.

“The additional deputy commissioner says his office will source all their stationary needs from these women,” Bora says.

Addressing farmers this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called for turning agricultural waste into wealth.

Assam’s water hyacinth farms are just that.

Bringing innovation to the small farm for a bumper crop

A farmer shooed away a young man in 2008 when he asked to borrow the man’s mechanical seed sower, a novelty those days in villages of Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich district.

Shailendra Awasthi was humiliated. The angry man murmured a vow to himself before leaving: “Take it from me, tomorrow farmers like you will line up for guidance from me.”

True to his promise, the 32-year-old Shailendra is now an expert dishing out advice to farmers on scientific techniques to enhance farm productivity.

The man from Asmanpur village under Mahasi block in Bahraich has become an award-winning agri-consultant.

His success lies in growing 125 quintals of paddy on a single hectare, using a technique called system of rice intensification (SRI).

“Before I adopted SRI (in 2009), I was producing 35 quintals a hectare,” he says.

He has eight hectares and grows paddy on 50% of his land every year. “Instead of planting three-week-old rice seedlings, I plant young seedlings (10-15 days old) by maintaining a distance at 25cm intervals in a grid pattern,” he explains.

He has convinced a farmer in a neighbouring village to try the line-sowing technique for wheat.

“He gets three quintals a hectare. But I told him he will get 50 quintals or more from each hectare. And I promised to compensate any shortfall,” he says.

Shailendra provides free consultancy to farmers and visits fields to monitor crops grown in accordance with his advice.

“I have all major farm implements and rent them out,” he says.

He believes agriculture is a profitable venture, if “it is done with a little application of the mind”.

(Brajendra K Parashar, Lucknow)

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A farmer-teacher’s apps for healthy cotton crop and pest control

Armed with three farm management degrees and an MSc in agriculture, Parikshit Bokare from Maharashtra’s drought-prone Nanded could have stayed put with his cushy job of an assistant professor at a college in Aurangabad.

But his passion remained in the family farmland to which he belongs. The 30-year-old quit his job and started growing sugarcane, interspersed with groundnuts and soya bean on six acres. His dream is to help farmers get financial security, and encourage youngsters to take up farming.

And so he designed two Android phone apps to help farmers. “I chalked out plans for managing crops, fertilisers and pesticides for my father. My education in agriculture management gave me the advantage. And I want everyone to benefit.”

His “cotton app”, launched in 2015, gives information on growing a healthy crop. It has recorded over 38,000 downloads. “Cotton is most vulnerable to pests and can fail miserably when the slightest thing goes wrong. It has a long gestation period, so there is considerable investment. Plus, a majority of central Maharashtra’s farmers grow cotton,” he says.

There is also an IPM, or integrated pest management, application that gives information about controlling bugs that affect crops grown in Maharashtra. Launched in 2016, it has over 18,000 downloads. “On my farm, I do the same things that others do, but at the right time. Farmers use pesticides after an infestation is discovered. I use preventive pest control measures. I also learnt the optimum physical distance between crops to allow them to breathe, or the amount of pesticides to be used. This planning has helped increase farm productivity,” he says.

Bokare travelled across Maharashtra when he worked with a World Bank-driven programme in 2012. Those trips gave him a repository of hands-on knowledge that he applies now on his farm.

Eeshanpriya MS, Nanded

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Making it big with bajra-lassi, a local energy drink

Lassi with fresh cream is a classic, but Haryana’s favourite refreshment blended into an energy drink when 32-year-old farmer-entrepreneur Sanjiv Singh fused pearl millet and whey to whip up a hot-seller that he calls bajra-lassi.

He started his business with a bank loan of ₹20 lakh, operating out of a small dairy farm in Nagla Roran village of Karnal.

His Mishti brand now competes with big businesses in Haryana and has an annual turnover of over ₹20 lakh.

“Bajra-lassi got a good response. Now we sell about 100kg of the product at ₹100 a kg every day in several districts of Haryana,” he says.

He bought the formula from the National Dairy Research Institute (NDRI) in Karnal in 2015.

“Bajra and lassi are traditional food and drink of Haryana. But people generally don’t get both together. Therefore, the NDRI scientists researched and prepared bajra-lassi, which is a good source of energy,” Singh says.

The young agriprenuer is driven by a knack to think out of the box.

In 2002, he grew remunerative
crops such as mushroom and sweet corn to make a good profit from a small patch.

“I started from zero and sold mushroom on the roadside like a street vendor,” Singh recalls.

In 2013, he switched to food processing and opened a dairy farm, selling mostly milk, curd and cottage cheese. The sweet and savoury bajra-lassi is an outcome of this effort.

He now plans to set up a plant in Palwal district to tap the market in Delhi and its satellite cities.

Named after daughter Mishti, he wants his brand to become one of the market leaders in the norther.

(Neeraj Mohan, Karnal)

First Published: Apr 02, 2018 07:45 IST