Feature story

Growing gains

More than 115,000 farmers in four districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh are reaping the benefits of modern agricultural practices by thinking in multiples

Sushma Radheshyam needs all the help she can get. This 62-year-old marginal farmer from Kachnapur village in Uttar Pradesh’s Shravasti district will soon require money to arrange for the marriage of her two daughters. That would have been a situation near impossible for her to deal with back in the day, but that was then.

Ms Radheshyam’s income used to be limited to what she could garner from a 1-acre plot of land, where she grew two crops in a 12-month period. Things started taking a turn for the better a few years back when Ms Radheshyam learned how to cultivate higher-earning produce such as mustard, black gram, groundnuts, pumpkins, beans and cucumber.

The training that put Ms Radheshyam on a more profitable farming track happened through a Tata Trusts-supported programme called Sujalam Sufalam, and it has provided her with agricultural inputs, advice and technical support.

“I'm earning more than ever before,” she says, “much different from the low-income, low-production days of old.” A neighbouring farmer, Kiran Sugriv, echoes the positivity: “Earlier we could barely make ends meet. Now we are saving for the future.”

Sujalam Sufalam, classified as a climate-smart agriculture and livestock intervention, covers 115,304 households in 600-plus villages spread across four districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh: Shravasti, Bahraich, Balrampur and Pratapgarh. Agricultural distress was the common condition in every one of these households, with menfolk being forced to migrate to cities for manual-labour work that rarely fetched enough.

Ms Radheshyam and women like her were left to hold the fort on the home front and that meant taking care of whatever farming there was. This was easier said than done, given that much of the Terai region in eastern Uttar Pradesh is prone to monsoon flooding. That delayed the sowing of wheat, shortening the season and resulting in lower yields.

The struggles of local farmers were what brought the Tata Trusts to the region in 2015. “We decided to focus on livelihoods,” says Rakesh Singh, the Trusts’ regional manager for Uttar Pradesh. “The farmers here had barely any significant income even though the quality of soil and water was good.”

Doubling of incomes

The objective was to double the farming incomes of targeted households. The means adopted revolved around modern agricultural practices: improved cropping patterns, irrigation technology, high-quality seeds, three-season farming, the introduction of cash crops, mechanisation and poly houses (where crops are cultivated under a synthetic roof in temperature-controlled conditions).

Dairy farming is another key revenue stream for those covered by the programme. In Pratapgarh district, there are some 20,000 women driving their own white revolution. In 2016 the Tata Trusts helped to set up Shwetdhara, a milk producer company, with the help of the National Dairy Development Board’s services. This all-woman company is in the business of collecting, processing and selling packaged milk.

The women dairy farmers, the shareholders of the company, have received dividends for the past three years and earned performance-related incentives for four years running. In 2022 the company had sales of 1.25 billion.

There’s an organic component blended into the intervention. Women dairy farmers use traditional methods to dry and sell cow dung to be used as fertiliser. Hundreds of litres of slurry from the dung is used for biodigesters, thus producing bioenergy that can supplement power from the grid.

The building of community institutions is a vital component in the programme. “Our aim is to make the farmers self-sufficient, with enough knowledge to do well without our support,” says Abdullah Faizan, an area manager with the Trusts.

A key restricting factor for the farmers was that they grew only two crops a year, paddy and wheat. But as the Trusts found out after consulting experts, the land was suitable for three crop cycles and intercropping too. Doing that would buffer farmers from losses due to bad weather or stray animals ravaging their fields.

One of the practices introduced was line farming, a method where seeds are sowed evenly in lines, as opposed to the traditional way of scattering handfuls of seeds across the land. Line farming improves productivity since there is an even distribution of minerals and nutrition and also makes it possible to use mechanical harvesters, which is needed as farmers have a tough time finding labour during the reaping season.

This became especially useful when the farmers started to add a third crop, between wheat and paddy, instead of letting the land lie fallow. High-income cash crops such as potato and onion started gaining ground as a third option and mechanisation enabled the farmers to make better use of their time and their land. 

“The time taken for sowing and harvesting is crucial,” explains agriculture expert BS Bisht, a former vice chancellor of Pant Nagar Agriculture University and now a consultant with the Sujalam Sufalam project. “Take potatoes, for example. The farmers now use potato-seed planters to sow and a potato harvester to reap. These machines take just a few hours to do their work, saving days spent in manual harvesting. It’s a similar story with sugarcane and groundnut. This has made a huge difference to the farmers.”

Sufficiency and more

Chitore Guha Sarkar, another expert associated with the project, adds that food sufficiency and much more are achievable goals for these farmers in the coming years. “Crops such as groundnut and sugarcane can be grown side by side with wheat, and farmers are now getting a second income in the same season,” he says. “It’s a miniature green revolution that’s happening in eastern Uttar Pradesh.”

The farmers in the programme were trained in the use of fertilisers and drip irrigation and were provided with solar-powered water pumps for use when required. Many beneficiaries have received grants and loans to build poly houses to grow vegetables.

Schooling springboard
Rekha Devi (left) and Gayatri Devi with potatoes harvested from the land they have rented in Shankarpur village in Bahraich district (they also grow onion and groundnut)

Spud story

There’s never an end to learning when it comes to agriculture. Managers at the Tata Trusts didn’t know how to react when farmers in the Sujalam Sufalam programme, supplied with expensive seed potatoes to sow, ended up consuming a good chunk of them. “They actually look the same so it’s not their fault,” says Sunny Rawat, an agriculture expert associated with the initiative. “We probably didn’t communicate their use well enough.”

Eating instead of planting them was a costly mistake because seed potatoes are not only difficult to find in adequate quantities but also expensive. They are especially developed at research institutes to become high-yielding seeds and take as much as three seasons to get ready. However, the mistake led to a new turn: training the farmers to save their own seed potatoes so that they would not have to buy the raw material.

Another addition to the intervention has come about because of the mounting climate change crisis, which affects crop production, especially during the rabi (or winter) season. “By November farmers have to finish sowing potatoes and other high-value crops, but unseasonal rain can be a disaster,” adds Mr Rawat. “The high water table in the region leads to waterlogging and crops get destroyed,” explains Mr Rawat.

The Trusts have tied up with a Hyderabad-based online platform called EDvara, which offers weather prediction services. Most households in the programme use the service to help them determine when to sow crops.

For Nurjahan Subrati, a resident of Domai village in Shravasti district, the homegrown vegetables have an added benefit: they have enhanced her family’s health quotient. While she manages the land, her husband has adopted a machan (multi-tier) system where different crops can be grown concurrently using vertical growing spaces. “We now know which vegetables can be good as companion plants,” she says. “We have also learned to make compost and biopesticides.”

The farmers have been encouraged to grow potato and onion, high-value crops that are relatively high in demand. In 2019, the programme launched trial runs in onion cultivation with 851 farmers. The onions were sowed right after the potato harvest, before the wheat sowing season commenced.

“We chose high-yield varieties and the results have been positive,” says Sunny Rawat, an agriculture specialist who is involved in building agribusinesses and community institutions for Sujalam Sufalam. “These varieties can be stored for a longer duration and fetch better prices.” [By March 2023, potato cultivation had been taken up by 16,664 farmers].

The Trusts have, alongside, worked to build awareness about seed quality. To get around the shortage of seeds, cold-storage facilities can be set up so that farmers can stock these safely. “The programme has taught farmers how to save seeds for the next cropping period and set aside land for the purpose,” says Mr Bisht.

The Trusts are exploring whether farmers can earn more by supplying their yield directly to large organisations under buy-back agreements. This will ensure better returns and create a much-needed safety net.

Dayawati Verma (in orange), an agricultural entrepreneur from Naya Nagar village in Balrampur district, with customers who have purchased bottle gourd saplings from her

To ensure the sustainability of the programme, the Trusts have built up a network of some 350 agriculture entrepreneurs (AEs), who are trained to provide farming services. Each AE works with 200-500 farmers, renting out sowing machines and harvesters, supplying high-quality seeds and fertilisers, and setting up shops to sell the farmers’ produce.

An AE who has done well for himself is Sunil Kumar Dubey, a 34-year-old from Bardehra village in Shravasti district. A diploma holder in computer applications, Mr Dubey had to leave Delhi and return to his village during the Covid pandemic. Realising that farming alone could not generate enough money to meet the medical expenses of his ailing father, he decided to do something more.

Mr Dubey became a reseller of animal feed for the Lehra Agro Producer Company, an organisation set up by the Trusts. He also started supplying saplings of mango, guava, lemon, papaya and eucalyptus from nearby nurseries to farmers. Business has grown and he now has an income of around 20,000 per month.

Covid affected the Sujalam Sufalam programme in an unexpected fashion. Farmers who had migrated to urban areas returned to their roots. With extra hands available, more machans got built, drip-irrigation pipes were laid, solar panels fixed and poly houses set up. “It was almost a blessing in disguise,” says Mr Singh. 

The Sujalam Sufalam programme’s longer-term objective is to reach 500,000 farmers. The way the effort has progressed thus far suggests that target is well within reach, which means more resources flowing into farmlands in eastern Uttar Pradesh and more farmers reaping the fruits of the soil.

At 60, Nand Kumar Maurya is delighted that he and his wife, Sukhrani, can make a decent living from their two acres of land in Nawgaiya village in Bahraich district