Towards a new (agri)culture in India Deepanshu Mohan is Associate Professor and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES) at Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University. Sakshi Tokas and Lakshita Singh are university students and Research Assistants at CNES Raj Singh is a resident of Sersa village in Haryana, currently in his early 30s, working as a full-time farmer. Roughly around 4,000 people live in his village, and more than 60% of the residents are engaged in active farming throughout the year, cultivating rice, wheat in small acres of land. In recent years, some farmers like Raj Singh, with varied degrees of success, have tried to diversify their crop-patterns by growing more onions, as against rice and wheat- otherwise seen as the more popular crops to grow in the region (offering higher Minimum Support Price too). This allowed him to increase his profits in a relatively short span of time. Apart from Sersa in Haryana, one can see similar experimental efforts being made by farmers across the state, and grow more vegetables to increase their profitability (despite concerns of asymmetric market access and price fluctuations). A few kilometres away from Sersa village is the village of Bidhnauli, where, Ravinder Singh is one such farmer amongst a few others who is trying to increase cultivation of ‘onions’ on his land, as against rice and wheat. As part of a recent study undertaken by the Centre for New Economics Studies, while inquiring about conditions and practices of farming in villages of Bidhnauli, Sersa, Radhdhana and Jagdishpur, farmers like Ravinder explained how amongst other concerns, most farmers at this point, primarily lack exposure and market information on prices of higher profitable crops like onions, corn and other vegetables. As a result, there remains a more linear approach to cultivate same crop patterns - mostly rice and wheat across lands, which also offer higher minimum support price relative to others. Ravinder’s own view is a common sentiment shared by most farmers, where farmers like any other entrepreneur stand to lose greatly from a lack of market awareness and exposure affecting their decisions and incomes. Furthermore, with everyone growing more rice and wheat, there remains a stiff competition amongst most to increase their supply via raising per acre yields for each crop cycle. Still, there are a few groups of farmers who are constantly trying to break-through these limitations and turn farming into a more profitable vocation through greater cooperation. A few kilometers away from villages of Sersa and Bidhnauli, is the village of Aterna, where conditions of farmers and farming are structurally different, offering a note of greater optimism for the farming community in the area. In Aterna, young farmers in their early 20s and 30s, have taken up farming and constantly been making efforts to shift their cropping patterns (from rice and wheat) towards new crops like baby corn, and thereafter, selling their (collective) supply directly in markets across Haryana and northern parts of Delhi, where growing demand has helped them in doubling their incomes (tripling in some cases) within a year of changing their crop cycles. When asked about benefits accrued from such change in farming practices, Mr Mohak, as one of the farmers of Aterna, in a more cheerful tone, replies: “I would rather not do anything else than farming. The returns are significantly higher here if you keep yourself better informed about the market, make appropriate investments with help from others, and are able to increase land acreage for scaling-up production. Most farmers known to me in other neighbouring villages, due to limited incomes, usually undertake multiple jobs like working as a security guard at private companies, where, one signs up for a salary of something like 15,000 Rs/per month, but is actually paid much less for the labour it involves, and sometimes you are asked to work for more hours than required….” While others shake their heads in agreement with Mohak, he adds: “In farming here in Aterna, we meet once a week to discuss our farming methods, day-to-day concerns and work together closely in groups to share knowledge and good practices within the village. And as a result have been able to increase incomes… baby corn and sweet corn cultivation has been a game-changer for us.” In Aterna’s successful experiment with sweet and baby corn, we observed the role of two critical factors that can structurally alter both, conditions of farmers and the processes involved in stages of farming in Aterna as against the observations gathered from other villages of Sersa, Bidhnauli, Rathdhana in Harayana. First, is the importance of farmer-based cooperative networks within the village that, with better exposure and market information on more profitable crops, can induce significant supply-side changes (as seen with the introduction of baby corn and onions). Farmers in Aterna spend a significant amount of time doing preliminary research before every crop-cycle, while undertaking travels to farmer-markets in other states and watching online videos on fertilizer use, soil utilization etc. (mostly from digital access to YouTube videos). One of the farmers who first experimented with growing sweet and baby corn cultivation got information on the potential of growing corn from listening to an Israeli farmer’s interview published on YouTube. Then, as an application from classical economics wisdom, an increase in supply of baby-corn helped create its own demand in mandis (rural markets) located closer to the villages, later expanding the supply-chain of grown vegetables to cities (where demand for vegetables like baby-corn is already high). As more and more farmers within the village pool increased their land acreage and other resources to expand yields of baby-corn, this has allowed aggregate cost of inputs (seeds, fertilizers) to reduce and incomes to maximize. More importantly, the presence of such farming cooperative networks, as observed, help in creating knowledge network effects, further helping new entering farmers like Mohak to make more informed choices on: What to produce? How to produce? How much to produce? Where to produce and sell? Therefore, based on observations gathered from more than 45 farmers across villages, one can see how the intrinsic knowledge to successful farming remains accrued either in form of cooperative networks (where farmers in Aterna meet almost every week to discuss the process of farming and how to improve productivity) or rather through an inter-generational transfer of farm-knowledge, gained through oral interaction by current generation of farmers from previous generations’ experience. A second, and equally vital factor responsible for increasing farmers’ income in Aterna is closely related to their ability to scale-up production as demand for supplied vegetables picked up across nearby mandis. In studying average land-size under cultivation, our study, saw how around 68% of the farmers have acreage of less than 5 acres (ie. with 16% land harvested anywhere between 1-2.5 acres; 24% owning anywhere between 2.5-5 acres, and 28% with less than an acre). The issue of lesser acreage is entwined with concerns around processes of land ownership and availability of credit (to purchase more land) for farmers. And, this seriously undermines most farmers’ ability (as seen especially in the case of Rathdhana, Jagdishpur) to increase their incomes, even if they have access to better market information and farmer’s choice-architecture. Although, a lot is otherwise written and discussed on issues affecting farmer’s welfare and interests across states in India, and as important and true that may be, there is useful knowledge and guidance offered from the degree of success seen in farming practices within Aterna of Haryana. The success of farmers there is associated with seeing how farming as a collective entrepreneurial set up- like any other business can substantively benefit from available tools of information on market prices, shared farming practices on soil use and inputs utilized (from other states and countries), with further complimentary efforts to help farmers scale-up production. While the latter requires much needed reforms in land ownership regulations, for the former, steps taken in form of establishing community radio services; linking digitally available information on farming methods in an ecologically sensitive way. Further, to make these accessible, there is potential for the state governments to create decentralized communication points in form of agri-science correspondents, to provide the much needed ‘last-mile’ help farmers require, while helping them nurture their entrepreneurial instincts and earn higher incomes.
…better exposure and market information on more profitable crops can induce significant supply-side changes