Sun, Mar 17, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Indian farmers think big,
but grow micro to enrich their soil

Agriculture in Karnataka State is enjoying a spurt in productivity as farmers rejuvenate the soil using micronutrients

By Mark Tran  /  The Guardian, BENGALURU, India

“If we found the soil in one area has enough potash, there is no need to apply it, as it will end up in the water. The farmer saves money as well, while increasing yield through the use of micronutrients,” Wani says.

Having the information is one thing, getting it to farmers is another. To spread the word, Karnataka hired, on a seasonal basis, “farmer facilitators” from within communities rather than outsiders, on the assumption that villagers were more likely to listen to their peers than strangers.

These 10,000 facilitators, each covering about 500 hectares, are the link between the state authority and its farmers. They are backed up by a logistical effort as the state prepositions seeds of chickpea, finger millet, maize and groundnut ready for planting, as well as fertilizer and micronutrients. Noticeboards have been erected in villages outlining the quantities of fertilizers and micronutrients to use.

Ravi Kakiyayya, who also grows coconut — this part of Karnataka is covered in coconut plantations — did not know about micronutrients until Bhoo Chetana. From the district of Hassan, a three-hour drive from Bengaluru, Kakiyayya was reluctant and it took five meetings with a facilitator before he started using micronutrients on his maize. However, after boosting his yield and making an extra 9,000 rupees (US$166.61) last year, he is a convert.

“It was the information from the facilitator that made me change my mind. I also reduced my spending on fertilizer by 50 percent because prices have doubled,” he says. “Now I want to grow potato and banana.”

The facilitator who persuaded him is Geetha Vasanth Kumar. The mother of two says she made an extra 10,000 rupees using Bhoo Chetana techniques. Of the 500 farmers she talked to, she succeeded in persuading three-quarters of them. For her work, which typically lasts six months, Kumar was paid 150 rupees a day. Facilitators also spread the word on techniques such as vermicompost (made from earthworms feeding on organic matter) as an alternative to chemical fertilizers.

Bhoo Chetana receives support in state subsidies. The farmer pays only half of the price of the micronutrients, with the state government picking up the rest. State officials insist there are no plans to withdraw subsidies, but some question whether smallholder farmers will continue using micronutrients if subsidies are withdrawn. The state spends a fifth of its budget on agriculture.

Some farmers say that although their yields have increased, they remain at the mercy of middlemen who charge high interest rates on fertilizers and micronutrients. Farmers are locked into selling their produce to middlemen in return for loans.

“We are not getting the price that we see advertised on TV or in the newspaper,” says one farmer, who paid 4 percent interest a month for fertilizer loans. He does not want his son to become a farmer but to work for the state’s agricultural department, a reminder that life for smallholder farmers is a grind.

Others say the state government should be pushing for more organic farming. Karnataka has identified 100 hectares for organic villages, but this is a separate program from Bhoo Chetana. For KP Suresha, executive director of the Green Foundation, a group in Karnataka that promotes traditional seed varieties, this is a missed opportunity.

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