Women farmers in Himachal Pradesh earn a living by growing mushrooms

Beena Bharti from Banjar in Kullu district was an ordinary homemaker about 6 to 7 years ago. Today, she earns around Rs 70,000 to Rs 80,000 a year by growing mushrooms. Not just that, women farmers in the area look to her for help and guidance. She has come a long way since 2006, when she got trained in growing mushrooms from the Himalayan Research Group (HRG), an organisation supported by the Department of Science and Technology for making technology accessible to empower women farmers and other villagers.

“A few days back my mobile was not working properly so I bought a brand new one. My daughter said I could have got my old mobile repaired. I told her, why I shouldn’t get a new one when I can afford to buy it with money I earned myself. Today I don’t have to look towards my husband or children for money and instead I give them if they need some cash.” she says proudly.

Meena from Sias village in Gohar block of Mandi district also took training from HRG at its Dhangiara field station close to her village. Now she grows not just mushrooms but also medicinal plants like chirayita and kodu, both used as liver tonics. The medicinal plants fetch a price of Rs 300 to Rs 500 a kg.

“Today people respect me and with income of my own I am able to spend the way I want,” she says.

The HRG, a core group of 20 to 22 people headed by Dr Lal Singh, provides a complete technology package that includes free training, provisions of raw material and link to the market in the cultivation of mushrooms, medicinal and aromatic plants and innovative fodder production.

Training in the cultivation of mushrooms is provided preferably to women living in villages that are accessible (since mushrooms have a low shelf life), have at least one room in the house that can be spared for mushroom growing and women who have time on their hands. Apart from free training, the mushroom growers are provided with raw material that includes compost, seeds for spawning and other ingredients necessary for growing mushrooms in the bags. Each of the bags costs Rs 70 and two kgs of mushrooms can be grown with it. The market price of mushrooms is between Rs 100 to 150 per kg. In fact, says Dr Lal Singh, the production of vermicompost has emerged as a household enterprise for women who are selling surplus quantity as well as saving on the use of chemical fertilizers.

Dr Maninder Jeet Kaur, member secretary of the executive committee of HRG and a recipient of the National Award for Women’s Development through Science and Technology says they ensure that technology they provide to rural folk does not involve capital investment they can’t afford, is easy to use, accessible, acceptable and sustainable and the resources are locally available. Also if they are not helped in marketing their produce, the whole effort is wasted.

Dr Kaur says to begin with they had to go from house to house to motivate women to grow mushrooms, later they approached them through Mahila Mandals or Self Help Groups and by holding awareness campaigns.

Today things have changed. In many villages mushrooms have become a part of the cuisine and in village dhams (dham is when the whole village is invited for lunch or dinner during marriages and other occasions in Himachal Pradesh), instead of the delicacy of peas and cottage cheese, it is now peas and mushrooms, says Dr Kaur.

Indira of Badhali in Shimla district and nearly 40 other women in the village got training in preparing silage, roughage treatment and plantation of improved and protein rich grass. This fodder, says Dr Kaur, is not only enriched with nutrients but has also soil binding qualities. The drudgery of the women she says is also reduced as they don’t have to climb up and down the mountains to fetch grass for their cattle because they are growing it in their villages.

Indira says now the rains don’t wash away the soil and the cattle after eating the enriched fodder give milk of a much better quality with lots of cream. The milk yield is increased by 20 per cent in winters.

Around 8,000-10,000 rural women have directly benefited from the complete technology package, claims HRG. Empowering women, providing livelihood and increasing farmers income through scientific interventions as well as conserving endangered species of medicinal plants through research is what we aim at, says Dr Lal Singh.