Muthumari’s day starts at 4 a.m. She milks her cows in the cowshed behind the house and keeps cans of milk ready to be collected by a pickup van from a private dairy company. Then she turns to her household chores and sends her children off to school.

Packing the day’s food for herself, she proceeds towards the fields in her village at Udayanpatti. She is not just a farmhand. Muthumari belongs to a new breed of “agricultural entrepreneurs.”

Rapid urbanisation has led to the migration of menfolk from the village to cities in search of work. “Women don’t want the lands to lie fallow and have taken to farming, an increasing trend in the last 10 years or so,” says Shankar Narayan, Assistant General Manager, National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development.

“Rising input costs, power scarcity and scanty rainfall over the last couple of years have also been the cause of men migrating to towns and cities,” he points out.

Women are slipping into the shoes of the menfolk and taking over the abandoned fields. Says Indrani, a native of Udayanpatti, “While most men leave their villages to work as lorry drivers or in mills and factories as daily wagers, many others take to gambling or drinking and don’t pay much attention to the fields. So, we decided to look after the fields.”

The journey for many of these women hasn’t been smooth.

Gandhimathi N, an agricultural officer with Madurai west block, says that gender discrimination is reflected in the reluctance shown by families to allow women to take up farming.

“Since most women are still not involved in major decision making, men are reluctant to let them take charge of the land,” she explains.

Umadevi, a farmer from Kodimangalam, recalls the difficulty she faced in convincing her husband to let her manage their fields.

“I was beaten and told that my rightful place was the kitchen. Once my family was convinced that I could supplement my husband’s earnings with an income of my own, they reluctantly let me take up farming,” she says.

Umadevi, now a successful farmer in her district, has put her daughter through college and motivates other women to take up farming. “I dress like a man, go to work in the fields and guard them at night. It isn’t uncommon for me to get taunted and teased, but I am determined to succeed,” she says with resolve. Apart from managing their fields, most of the women farmers also rear cows, buffaloes and goats for milk. “We have a tie-up with dairy companies to supply milk daily. We get paid fortnightly,” says Palaniammal, a woman farmer.

Vermicompost units have also been set up by these agricultural entrepreneurs at their villages. “We have a full-fledged vermicompost unit in our village at Thenur near here. We initially used the compost in our fields but owing to excess production over the last year, we have begun to sell it in the farmers’ markets,” says Deivajyothi who received the ‘Best Farmer Award’ for 2011-2012 from the district administration.

The women cultivate land holdings that are three acres or less. The crop of choice is vegetables such as brinjals and tomatoes, rather than paddy.

“We work in each other’s fields on a rotation basis. Since land holdings are small, we don’t need to work in our own fields continuously,” says Punitha Devi from Panniyan.

This has also proved to be an effective way of combating the shortage of farm labour in many of the villages, the women say. Many people now choose to work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGS) which assures them 100 days’ paid work.

The women farmers have formed self-help groups (SHGs) where they aim to collect and save funds. In the Madurai west block, the Department of Agriculture’s ‘Atma Scheme’ is in place, where SHGs are offered financial support as well.

“A revolving fund of Rs.10,000 is given to an SHG. The members can either decide to jointly invest it in a project such as a vermicompost plant, or the money is divided and given according to the needs of the members,” says Ms. Gandhimathi.

Apart from the agriculture department motivating and supporting these SHGs, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) too support them in the villages. The Association for Rural Development (ARD), for instance, has encouraged women in Udayanpatti and Panniyan to form SHGs.

Monthly meeting

“We hold a monthly meeting where we decide if we should jointly invest in a project or if anyone needs the money individually. Education and healthcare are given primary importance and if someone needs money, we provide it,” said an agricultural entrepreneur from Panniyan.

The women sell their produce at markets close by. However, they are clueless about pricing. As a result, they are often cheated by middlemen and agents.

“Fixing prices for our products is not in our hands and we would like it if we are consulted by these agents and buyers while fixing the selling price,” says Kamatchi, a woman farmer from Panniyan.

The women say that after becoming agricultural entrepreneurs, their social status has risen. “Moneylenders now lend money to a man only if his wife is present too. They have faith in us, knowing that we work hard and can be trusted,” says Udayanpatti resident Indrani. The fact that they can put their children through school and college as well as become self-sufficient is what motivates them, say the women farmers of Udayanpatti.

“Why should we be restricted to the home when we can achieve greater heights?” Muthumari asks.

“I’ve single-handedly raised both my children who are now studying in colleges in the city, and I am able to run my household comfortably with my income. I’ve set an example to other women in my village. I have shown that I can survive independently,” she says with pride.

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