Enabling Our Farmers and their Families

Improving Access to Agri-Extension Services

Small steps can lead to big changes. And Kanhaiya Yadav willendorse this.
Forty-five-year old Kanhaiya, is a small farmer with less than two acres of land in Sakaldiha in Chandauli district in UP. But unlike many other farmers in this indistinct village, he is an under grad, was a state-level athlete and is obviously driven. So when you walk through his village and spot several banners with his photograph alongside the title “Lead Farmer” it could easily make you doubt whether you heard right about him being a “small farmer.”And when you do meet him, his dress and demeanor – which is one of amazing confidence capped with an easy smile –might only just compound this confusion!
But two-years ago, the narrative was very different. Like many others in his village, his livelihood depended on a small piece of agricultural land which he had inherited from his father. He had little qualms of following his father’s footsteps, but admits now, what he had not factored in was the sinking levels of the ground water and the weather patterns getting increasingly unpredictable, making this traditional occupation no longer simple. Try as he might he could not coax the land to yield more. The father-of-four was soon in a tight spot and found it difficult to even meet their basic needs.

Background

Historically in the 1960s and 1970s, the Green Revolution led to dramatic gains in agricultural production and raised farmers’ incomes. As a result, rural poverty fell from 64 percent in 1967, to 56 percent in 1973 and later to 50 percent in 1979-80. Production gains from Green Revolution technologies continued through the mid-1980s and then it started to drop.
In the early 90’s India instituted a series of sweeping macroeconomic reforms. Although these initial reforms were not directed toward agriculture, it helped stimulate a rise in agricultural growth through increased private investment in this sector. But by the late 1990s falling world prices of most agricultural products impacted our agricultural growth and it dipped to average about two percent between 1997-98 and 2003-04.
But apart from the global plunge, often we miss another important fact. In the seemingly abundance of net sown area of 141.2 million hectares or total cropped area of 189.7 million hectares (1999-2000), that this vast acreage is actually divided into small and scattered holdings which are often economically unviable because of the limitations by our marginal farmers both in terms of resources and information.
The reality is a large section of our farmers are marginal farmers and have small and fragmented land-holdings. In some states like Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala the average size of land holding has dwindled to as low as 0.5 hectare against the average size 2.28 hectares of holdings in 1970-71 and later to 1.82 hectares in the early eighties and further to 1.50 hectares in the mid-nineties. It is evident that with each decade the size of the holdings, continue to decrease because of the division and sub-division of the land holdings.
Large holdings, above 10 hectare, accounted for only 1.6 per cent of total holdings but cover 17.4 per cent; thereby highlighting the wide gap between small farmers, medium farmers and big farmers and it is obvious that these big farmers enjoy more clout and influence and are able to reap the benefits from existing agriculture extension services more easily.
But with 100 million small and marginal farmers contributing to 86% of Indian agriculture we sure cannot afford to ignore our small farmers. In India, where they occupy most of the farmland, they are the mainstay for most of the food produced, and are an important part of the socio-economic and ecological landscape.Unfortunately they continue to be ignored or sidelined when it comes to the rapid developments in technology and information. As a result most of them are left struggling to grapple with complex situations like indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers or the changing marketing didactics.

Enabling Our Small Farmers

So what changed the story for Kanhaiya? According to him, “It was DRF’s MITRA project that rescued me. The hand-holding and step-by-step guidance helped me to not just comprehend the techniques but it also instilled confidence.” And this undoubtedly was the game changer. For according to Kanhaiya, “I was reluctant to do something based just on hearsay that could wipe away all my investment or yield. As a small farmer with the responsibility of feeding seven mouths (his ailing father lives with him)I could not afford to take a chance.”

But apart from Kanhaiya’s testimony, objectively, the paradigm change supported by MITRA involved training by scientists,monitored experimental leanings on “demo plots” and farmer-to-farmer exchanges where farmers gained through interactive processes. And this is not something new. The “lead farmer” or the Community Resource model has been adapted in several countries, including Africa, China and India, with different rates of success. It underlines the bottom-up approach which most practitioners advocate to encourage participants to make their own decisions.

MITRA’s research further highlighted that the most reliable and sustainable solutions are best provided by local “experts” who are familiar with both the community and the topography. So in effect, while it was easy to help the farmers to connect to the right people and resource; the acid test was to instill confidence and ensure the transfer of this knowledge on the field.

A point underlined by Kanhaiya as he hands over a folder of paper clippings of farming-related articles to show the depth of his research. “When I was scouting for information, I did not hesitate to talk to fellow farmers or visit the local KVKs (Krishi Vigyan Kendra.) I also avidly watched Krishi Darshan (a popular Indian television program that aims at disseminating agricultural information to farmers.) But to get information that is proximate, relevant and reliable was not always easy.
“For example, after watching Krishi Darshan programs I got to learn more about peanut and sugar cane farming but little about my specific problems with paddy cultivation! And when I talked to my fellow farmers either they were as clueless as me or they shared information which was not always correct or complete.
“I also tried to reach out to some local KVK staff in the hope that their expertise would be of help. But apart from the practical challenges for a small farmer to get their attention, when I finally did get to them they asked me if I could read and gave me some literature which I was not sure was adaptable. In short I was totally lost and desperate.”

Inclusive Partnerships

It is evident that despite Kanhaiya proactively seeking out information, he was hesitant to adapt this knowledge. “Our entire livelihood depends on this farm and we cannot afford to experiment. If we fail we are doomed” And Kanhaiya is not alone in voicing this. Most of the 93 “lead farmers” shared this sentiment.
To empower marginal farmers, MITRA forged a community platform that would be sustainable and also integrate preparedness, prevention and response to help small farmers to cope with their challenges.The MITRA blue-print includes leveraging public, private and digital extension systems for elementary issues from soil testing, access to better seeds, inclusion of innovative irrigation practices as well as links to markets and access to financial services. More importantly, it is people like Kanhaiya Yadav, who drive it and disseminate it to other farmers. (Yadav, like all MITRA’s lead farmers was nominated by his own community.)

Technical Support

At a local KVK center in Chandauli, Kanhaiya along with 24 other farmers from the district, focused on learning how to improve paddy and wheat crops. The MITRA team was always close at hand to guide and monitor how they adapted this knowledge in their farming and transferred it other farmers.
Says Kanhaiya,“these trainings provided me complete step-by-step knowledge on a how to cultivate a particular crop. As a result, I was able to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers & pesticides which in the long run helped me to reduce my input costs. The methods that I now practice are systematic and based on research inputs provided by the scientists who tested the soil and assessed the PH values – which I may not understand but I can see it works.”
To underline the importance of these changes, Kanhaiya showcases his small “demo plot” – a half-acre land, which he uses as a “lab” to learn and teach other farmers. He loves to explain how he started with soil testing and seed sorting followed by seed treatment and land preparation for line sowing. It is obvious that he has learnt a lot from his training for he takes on questions with confidence on drip irrigation, nutrient management, weeder application or pest management.
Yadav clarifies “these changes might sound inconsequential but these are crucial for small farmers like me. Till now, like many of my fellow farmers,I never took this seriously but today my annual savings is between Rs 35,000 to 40,000 and I am able to think of buying cattle so that I inch closer to my dream project, which is to start my own dairy.”
Today, the MITRA project works with marginal farmers in 542 villages across seven states and has shown promising results. 90% of the Lead Farmers are active for the past 12 months. While income has increased by 14% per haand input costs reduced by 15-20%. With 60-70% of targeted farmers adopting advanced agricultural practices and 40% of them availing government schemes, productivity per ha has increased by 21%.

Conclusion

MITRA focuses on empowering small and marginal farmers by nudging them to adopt latest technologies and best farming practices. The program bridges the lack of last-mile delivery of agriculture extension services at the grass roots by helping marginal farmers to access existing public extension facilities, engage with agri-scientists, embrace best farming practices and more importantly, to impart this to other farmers through peer learning and sharing.
Our experience shows us that small farmers with strong institutional support can grow and prosper. If we could supplement this by strengthening the network of support services like credit, technology and access to information; then these small farmers will be able to independently address the last mile delivery challenges.
Our aim is to scale this model and replicate it across the country in order to reach 100 million small and marginal farmers.

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