Sukumati Sikoka of tribal-dominated Rayagada district is not spending sleepless nights over damage to her paddy crop by unseasonal rains as she has other crops to depend on in this mixed cropping belt of Odisha.This at a time when 30 districts in the state are facing farm distress because of unseasonal rainfall and a pest attack, leading to suicide by more than 15 farmers since October. Over 600 villages in Rayagada where farmers cultivate at least a dozen varieties of crops, including paddy, to escape vagaries of nature, present a different picture, which the state government now wants to emulate elsewhere. “I am not depressed about losing paddy as I have millets to fall back on,” said Sikoka, even though she lives in a drought-prone region. Over 10,000 farmers in the region grow short duration paddy during monsoon and 33 varieties of millets, pulses, sorghums, maize, niger, sesame, tubers, spices and vegetables on the upland. They have been doing this for last two and half decades.This traditional agriculture practice could be a possible solution to farm distress, say agriculture experts. “Unbalanced use of fertilisers has decreased soil fertility. Mixed cropping helps in guarding soil fertility. If farmers plant crops with different genome base as happens in mixed cropping, there is less chance of suffering from pests like brown plant hopper or other such insects,” said SN Pasupalak, vice-chancellor of Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology, Bhubaneswar.Agriculture consultant Ananda Prasad Swain said mixed cropping shield farmers from vagaries of nature which has increased in recent past due to climate change. “Besides, input costs are less in mixed cropping and so the farming is profitable in the long run,” he said.The economics of mixed cropping works well for mostly tribal farmers as inputs cost is almost negligible.Topa Nambalaka of Tada village in Muniguda block says they preserve the seeds and the crops require very less fertilizers.“I spent just next to nothing per acre as millets don’t need any fertilizer. Even if one type of millets gets affected by a disease I would still be able to harvest other millets,” he said, unable to recall when he took a farm loan last time. “We get everything that we need from the field and the rest from forests,” he added.Rayagada’s deputy director agriculture RN Khuntia says mixed cropping is not widespread as farmers are rooting for cash crops like cotton and eucalyptus. “In coastal areas or irrigated areas, farmers want better yields from their products, which crops like paddy can provide,” he said.Debjeet Sarangi of Living Farms, a non-governmental organisation working with small and marginal farmers in Rayagada says the mixed cropping needs to be replicated in a big way.“The practice improves soil health as the legume crop that the tribals plant replenish the nutrients used by other plants. This ensures that soil fertility is maintained throughout,” said Sarangi.State government has taken cue from the success and has started a pilot programme on mixed cropping in Malkangiri district this year under special programme for integrated farming in tribal areas.It has also started a millets mission this year through which it is popularising growing of millets in 27 blocks of 7 districts including Rayagada. State government also plans to include various millets in mid-day meals and anganwadi foods, officials said.