Centre stage

Gold in the fields

Turmeric is the spicy solution a group of tribal farmers in Andhra Pradesh have turned to as the means to improve incomes and their lives

It’s hard to get Dharma Rao to smile for the camera but the reticent 50-year-old has plenty to be happy about. A ‘progressive’ farmer from Lingaputtu village in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam district, Mr Rao’s prospects have improved considerably in recent times. And he has turmeric to thank for it.

Mr Rao is part of a two-year pilot project being implemented by the Tata Trusts in Paderu, a predominantly tribal region in Visakhapatnam. The turmeric project is a comprehensive attempt to improve the incomes of tribal farmers through training in new crop practices, the introduction of high-yield varieties and by expanding market access for growers.

At the heart of this ‘agriculture experiment’, as it is called, is turmeric, the golden spice. The turmeric grown in Paderu is naturally high quality and, hence, fetches a premium in the market. The wrinkle is the time local farmers use up to harvest the crop: about two years, which compares poorly with the average nine months it takes elsewhere in India.

Launched in early 2018, the turmeric project involves more than 500 farmers. The objective is to help put more money in the hands of farmers. Shortening cropping cycles, enhancing the yield of local turmeric varieties and introducing new strains of the spice — many methods have been pursued to take the incomes of these farmers to a higher level.

Turmeric is in demand globally and right through the year. The flavour of the popular seasoning has always been its biggest attraction but, of late, many of its health and curative properties — attributed to the curcumin content in it — have come to light.

India never needed convincing about turmeric’s goodness, in food or inside the body. The country is the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of the spice, and the varieties here are high in curcumin. Andhra Pradesh is a big producer of turmeric and Paderu accounts for a sizeable share of the harvest. That made the region an apt choice for the pilot exercise.

A tribal farmer in Panasalapadu village in Paderu region with her freshly harvested turmeric crop

The economic development of tribal communities is a priority for the Trusts.”

— Abhay Gandhe, head, special projects, agriculture, Tata Trusts

A rich haul

Paderu grows about 4,000 tonnes of turmeric in a year and the variety here has an exceptional 5% curcumin content. This fetches Paderu’s turmeric a premium in the market. “The tribal community follows traditional agricultural practices and organic inputs are used during cropping,” says DK Balaji, a project officer with the state government’s Integrated Tribal Development Agency. “But the gestation is long and that affects farmer's income.”

The Tata Trusts are being partnered in the project by the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), an autonomous society of the state’s Department of Rural Development. The initiative comes under the umbrella of the Andhra Pradesh Rural Inclusive Growth Project, a multisector effort supported by the World Bank. The Trusts’ principal role here is to provide knowledge and technical support, and this is delivered through the Vijayavahini Charitable Foundation, an associate organisation.

“The economic development of tribal communities is our priority,” says Abhay Gandhe, head, special projects, agriculture, Tata Trusts, as he begins explaining the logic of the project. “Turmeric, along with coffee and pepper, is the most commonly grown cash crop in Paderu. And it is safer and easier to grow than other crops.”

These natural advantages were being eroded by the reluctance of Paderu’s tribal farmers to adopt modern and scientific techniques. Rooted in tradition, the farmers were apprehensive about employing new methods. For instance, when Mr Rao was first approached to join a demonstration exercise, he allocated only a small portion of land for the purpose. This, he said, was to limit his risk.

A farmer in Kodapalli village with the lucrative Pragati variety of turmeric

Underwriting change

The attitude of the farmers took time — and a lot of coaxing — to change. They were trained in scientific farming practices through the local Horticulture Research Station in Chintapalle. Better farming practices, such as the use of bioagent inputs, land preparation, efficient irrigation systems and intercropping with pulses, became a feature of the project. Meanwhile, high-yield varieties of turmeric, developed by the Indian Institute of Spices Research, were introduced for field trials.

The project also identified ways to improve the post-harvest process. The traditional way was to boil raw turmeric in large tar drums. This led to the skin of the spice turning blackish due to dirt deposits it gathers. Farmers used would polish the dried turmeric by scrubbing them inside gunny bags, a time-consuming procedure.

Four sets of mechanised boilers and polishers were provided during the 2018-19 harvest season and this has made a noticeable difference to the appearance and quality of the processed turmeric. Moreover, farmers can process 50kg at a time now as opposed to the old method, in which just 20kg could be handled. “We spend only half the time we used in boiling the turmeric,” says Seedhari Samba, the village head of Paradesi Puttu.

Linking the farmers to the market, rather than leave them to the mercy of middlemen and agents, has been a crucial feature of the turmeric initiative. Farmer collectives function in cohort with farmer producer organisations (FPOs) to sell the turmeric. Previously lukewarm to the FPO concept, the farmers veered around after seeing the success of local women self-help groups (SHGs).

Farmers in Panasalapadu harvesting their turmeric crop

Groups on the go

Farmer producer organisations (FPOs) are a critical cog in the turmeric pilot project in Paderu. At the heart of this initiative is a niche group of farmers who champion the cause of building and sustaining farmer collectives – the FPOs, promoted by Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) under the World Bank funded Andhra Pradesh Rural Inclusive Growth Project (APRIGP).

Small and marginal farmers have been mobilised into farmer producer groups (FPGs) in villages, with FPOs acting as a federated structure at the sub-district level. Adopting a commodity-centric approach to value chain development, FPOs rally farmers in the project and help them through a range of services across the value chain, such as extension services, capacity building in production and post-harvest practices, and marketing. Last year, about 12 tonnes of turmeric, worth more than 1 million, were sold by the turmeric FPOs of Paderu.

Registered under the Andhra Pradesh Mutually Aided Cooperative Societies Act, these FPOs are led by a 15-member board of directors who, in turn, are assisted by FPG leaders at the village level. Modelled on women self-help groups (SHGs), these farmer collectives meet once a month and maintain proper books of accounts. At the FPO level, the board meets once in a month to discuss and plan activities.

Each FPO is supported by a six-member team comprising a community coordinator, an agriculture extension specialist, a veterinary extension specialist, two rythu mitras (progressive farmers) and an accountant. The team works to enhance the capabilities of FPO members in institution building and provides them with technical knowledge.

So far, 168 FPOs have been formed by SERP across Andhra Pradesh under APRIGP, with some 290,000 small and marginal farmers as members. Each FPG has access to a revolving fund and an activity fund for agriculture and allied activities. Based on the seasonal activity plan prepared by an FPO, the initiative also provides working capital to implement these activity plans.

“Our experience with SHG-related work helped us bring the group discipline of savings, monthly meetings and internal lending to these male-led farmer groups,” says Remya Devan, a consultant with SERP. The Trusts have pitched in as well, developing the capacities of FPOs and training influencers among the farmers. They were also taken on field trips to visit successful FPOs in the region and in neighbouring Odisha.

Paderu’s farmers are no longer limited to selling their produce in the local market. Events like a buyer-seller meet, organised in March 2018, have made them aware of other opportunities. “We once thought we could sell our produce only here; now we realise there are buyers in other places, too,” says Kimudu Swami Naidu, president of the Paderu FPO.

Room for improvement

It is evident that the Paderu turmeric project is showing signs of success on multiple fronts, but there are aspects of it that could improve. For instance, the small-scale introduction of a new variety, Pragati, has delivered quicker and better yields, but this is offset by the fact that it fetches a lower price in the market.

The different partners in the initiative are, for the future, pinning their hopes on an upcoming 850 million programme funded jointly by the central and state governments. This will involve controlled farming across 5,000 acres in the region before spreading the intervention over a larger canvas.

“The Tata Trusts are going to be vital going forward and we are looking to scale up this initiative with their help,” says Ms Devan. As for the Trusts, the turmeric project is just the beginning. “We expect to replicate this approach with other commodities,” says Satya Narayana, senior executive, programmes, with the Trusts.

Dharma Rao from Lingaputtu village with the Pragati turmeric that he farmed