Boosting farmers’ income

Diversifying Agriculture

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

Recent reports indicate that the demand for Indian wheat has picked up in recent years. At the same time, the government is seeking to step up exports further with a 50 percent jump during the current fiscal.
The Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Turkey, Algeria and Lebanon are among other countries on the radar, with Agricultural & Processed Food Products Exports Development Authority (APEDA) sending delegations to explore the possibility of boosting wheat exports. India’s wheat exports, which went up 3.5 times last year, were driven mostly by the demand from countries such as Bangladesh, UAE, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Oman and Malaysia.
Both the Union Finance and Agriculture ministers have repeatedly made known the government’s intent to take measures for enhancing higher agricultural productivity through the use of latest technology and high-yielding crop varieties to help double the farmers’ income. However, experts have suggested an increased focus on harnessing potential of allied activities such as animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries which have helped raise incomes as farm holdings are fragmented.
In an endeavour to make agriculture high-value, experts have recently suggested encouraging States to undertake reforms, create corpus fund for promoting farm mechanisation and micro irrigation as well as provide interest subvention for term loans, among others, to increase incomes within next five years.
While the need for agriculture exports cannot be denied, these are related with issues of long term sustainability and domestic food security concerns. The thrust is in areas of spices, tea, cotton etc. In recent years, rice and wheat are too being exported, though these entail a huge cost on environment, as their production uses lot of water. It has been estimated for one kg of produce it typically takes between 3,000 and 5,000 litres of water for rice, 2,000 litres for soya, 900 litres for wheat and 500 litres for potatoes. Plus, one kg rice generates up to 4 GHG while wheat, which needs a high application of chemical fertilizers, emits up to 200 kg of CO2 per tonne produced.
Depleting water tables due to excessive use of groundwater is a major concern vis-à-vis the sustainability of farming. Exporting more would only hasten the destruction of the agricultural ecosystem. Thus, there is need for a rethink if we want to prevent irreparable damage to the environment. Incentives which reward farmers for shifting to producing environment-friendly crops, could be an option even if they don’t get the country more in export earnings.
In fact, an environment-friendly readjustment of agricultural production need not necessarily be contradictory with farm incomes. Instead of focusing on rice production, there is a need for agriculture diversification into pulses, not just because imports are stopped but also the per capita consumption of protein-rich pulses has increased. Besides, unlike rice, pulse cultivation can improve soil health as these help in increasing nitrogen content, which is a crucial soil nutrient.
Notably, after the green revolution, white revolution helped in raising milk production and yellow revolution increased cropped area of oilseeds. However, there’s still scope of increasing all-round production to cope up with the huge population demand. There is need for people to treat agriculture as a profession, in the true sense of the term, and carry out activities accordingly. Meanwhile, the government has initiated steps to address two major areas – soil health and water conservation, both critical to improved agricultural production.
Thus, it goes without saying that agricultural incomes need a boost to make it lucrative and ensure higher returns for farming community. Apart from increasing productivity, diversification of agriculture is also a very viable need and successful scientific inputs and technological support necessary. While not much has been done over the years, some successful initiatives have been noted.
For one, the lab-to-land approach has been spoken of for a long period but strictly not implemented. What augurs well is that sub-divisions and blocks, which earlier received support from agricultural universities, will now get IITs to take up experimentation projects in villages, as per a government directive. This shall help in higher output and diversion plans. Such as in rice fields, where experts opine it would increase the cropping intensity with additional returns and generate more job opportunities. This is particularly relevant to Assam as rice is the major crop which occupies 2.5 million hectares of land area.
Integration of horticultural plants with field crops such as rice and pulses becomes extremely important to achieve inclusive growth so that together it can boost production in the agriculture sector. The main objective of this combination is to grow rice, pulse, kharif and rabi vegetables on the same field during the same period of time, contributing towards nutritional security and ensure soil sustainability in the long run.
Agricultural scientists have pointed out that the main advantage is that vegetable crops grown on soil columns can make effective use of resources applied on rice fields with reduced requirement of irrigation, which makes it cost effective. Adding the horticulture sector, would provide greater economic importance as its demand is growing at both national and international markets.
Thus, diversification of the agri sector with value addition in horticulture, floriculture and spices and on-farm processing for production of various types of oil, both for domestic and export markets, is the need of the day to ensure higher incomes on a sustained basis. Oil seeds production in the country is way below world average and needs to be given a boost with proper usage of micronutrients and mechanisationother than raising processing centres with latest technology.
Production of fruits with an eye on the export market should too get special attention. Agricultural institutes must help small and medium farmers to increase all-round production and productivity, specially of value-added crops. Demo farms would bring in more efficacies in helping raise output.
Recently, Rajasthan has come up with a unique initiative with its first olive oil brand in the country to reduce dependence on imports for edible oil. India imports 50 to 55% of edible oil needs and virtually all the olive oil its urban consumers use, which is 14,000-odd metric tonnes. The State has 1000 hectares under cultivation, which over next three years should increase five times. The idea is said to have emerged from Israel, which is highly successful with olive plantations in the Negev desert.
As per reports, farmers have started earning Rs 3-4 lakh per acre from olive cultivation as against Rs 1 lakh from traditional bajra or millet. As India consumes over 25,000 metric tonnes this would further rise to 40,000 metric tonnes by 2025. This is just one example of how oilseeds production in the country could be substantially increased to cope up with domestic demand and bring down steadily the imports. Other States should consider emulating this trend.
In sum, efforts must be made on priority basis to raise income of the farming community through experimentation and producing value-added crops. The government has assured support by making available appropriate technology or in developing software applications. Much more is needed. Unless agriculture drawbacks are tackled in an all-round professional manner, it would be difficult to stall the growing lack of disinterest among generation next in the sector. Serious thinking and growth of fresh ideas is urgently required. — INFA