Armed with an alternative farming method that cuts down on water consumption and costs, farmers in Haryana’s Karnal district are enhancing productivity

Farmers in Haryana have started looking for a way to check the ever increasing rate of lowering of the groundwater table. For this they are adopting not only a new, less water requiring way of growing paddy but are also showing interest in exploring less water-consuming alternatives that could possibly replace paddy.

Kalvehri village is only eight km from its district headquarter Karnal. The village comprises nearly a thousand households, of which around 60 per cent do not own cultivable land. They work as agricultural labourer either within the village or in nearby villages. Or else they go out to adjoining cities and towns to earn their daily wages. Around one-third of the households own land ranging from half an acre to five acres and around five per cent households own lands ranging 30 acres and above.

Previously, the land in the village was water-logged; farmers recall how the water was pumped out — carrying it away through canals. Dr. Baldev Raj Kamboj, in-charge, Haryana Hub, Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) housed in Central Soil Salinity Research Institute, Karnal, explains that paddy was the only crop that could be grown in the given situation and thus it found favour with farmers. He adds that because of excess water at the time of harvesting paddy crop, the sowing of wheat gets delayed often. This affects wheat productivity and farmers’ income.

The farmers admit that they took advantage of abundant water and expanded the paddy cultivation. But with consequent lowering of water tables, they had to go in for tube-wells. With the increase in the number of tube-wells and their running-hours, groundwater level went further down. Today the level has gone down to 250 feet.

Worried at the declining water level and spike in cost of production, the farmers started participating in meetings held at Karnal to discuss the problems emerging in agriculture. Agricultural scientists told them that the crisis was mainly due to deteriorating soil health and that they needed to follow zero-till farming method. The farmers were advised to leave residue from previous crop within the field. To combat the problem of lowering water table, they were asked to bring changes in paddy-wheat production cycle.

When a young farmer Harpreet Singh decided to try out the suggested method, he found that the fellow farmers were unwilling to join him and even ridiculed his decision. Earlier, Harpreet, like other farmers of the area, used the method of deep ploughing and puddling in standing water for preparing paddy fields. For wheat and other crops also, they practised deep ploughing as they considered it good for the soil health. They also felt that it would help in controlling harmful insects and weeds.

Shifting from the age-old method, Harpreet instead of removing and burning the crop residue started leaving it in the field. He stopped ploughing the field; got his fields laser-levelled to check the water ponding in any part of the fields; started placing seeds and fertiliser in his crop residue-carrying fields with the help of specially designed Happy Seeder. In adopting this new method, the soil was least disturbed that helped in modifying soil structure and would go a long way in improving soil health.

Earlier Harpreet had to irrigate his paddy fields for a total of 32 hours whereas now he can manage it with 21 hours. Tensiometers are installed in his fields that provide details on timing and amount of irrigation to further bring precision in water application. He did not raise nursery for paddy transplantation but went for direct seeded rice. He used weedicides and insecticides/pesticides for controlling weeds and insects/pests. He understands that with improvement in soil health there would be lesser need of fertiliser and residue, mulch and permanent crop cover would help in controlling weeds thereby eventually reducing the herbicide use to the minimum.

In agriculture a major difficulty in raising crop and getting potential production is the availability of proper growing period with appropriate temperature and other climatic conditions so as to carry out timely agricultural operations. Farmers are now contemplating that after harvesting wheat if they plan for maize instead of paddy, they may get additional 40 days of growing period in which they can possibly take pulses and vegetables. This may help them come out of the wheat-paddy cycle and help them introduce crop rotation which is a must for maintaining soil productivity.

Farmers following conventional agriculture are also getting attracted towards this new method in view of reduced cost on ploughing and irrigation and they can foresee reduction in cost on fertilisers and chemicals progressively with improvement in soil health and productivity. The change in farmers’ perception was expressed by farmer Raj Kumar, “Because of programmes like MGNREGA, the in-migration of labour has become uncertain. Thus farmers see their future in this new way of doing agriculture.”

Farmers realised the significance of Harpreet’s efforts when the State Agricultural Secretary, Haryana, visited his fields and appreciated his hard work. The State government awarded him for initiating the much-needed changes in agriculture.

Confronted by myriad problems in carrying out agriculture, farmers appreciate the necessity of support from the agricultural scientific community. Dr. Kamboj, who is playing a proactive role in bringing changes in agricultural trend among Haryana farmers, emphasises on the need for agricultural scientists to work closely with farmers to bring desired changes in agriculture.

(The writer is Managing Trustee, Volunteers in Service to India’s Oppressed and Neglected [VISION], New Delhi)