There’s a different sort of machine at work in Bhupinder Singh’s 30-acre farm off the Delhi-Karnal highway.
The boom sprayer, as it’s called, looks like a hybrid between a tractor and an autobot from the Transformers; its definitive features are two 20-feet booms that spread out like outstretched wings. On them are equally spaced nozzles that spray bio-decomposers on the freshly harvested rice field.
The decomposers are a powder mixed in water meant to accelerate the process of turning rice stubble into compost. Untreated rice straw takes 4-8 weeks to disintegrate which is too long for the average farmer to wait to be able to sow the winter wheat crop. The other option is to employ farm labour, who will cut the stalk and pile it into bundles, but that’s expensive and unaffordable for more than 95% of the farmers.
“Which is why the simplest solution is a ₹1 matchbox and ₹100 worth of diesel,” Mr. Singh said with a smile but also claimed he’s never burnt his fields in the last five years.
Setting a harvested field alight is an age-old practice but in recent years it has been linked to worsening air pollution in the Delhi National Capital Region. With pressure from the Centre, States such as Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have been cajoling, threatening and fining farmers in recent years. While success of these efforts has been limited, many farmers, while less concerned about the environmental effects of the practice on urban Delhi, are open to trying other solutions.
Which is where the less-than two year old, Bengaluru-based agritech firm, “nurture.farm”, comes in with their boom sprayer. In an ambitious exercise, 700 of these machines will be at work across 5 lakh acres in Punjab and Haryana, spraying a bio-decomposer called 'PUSA spray.' A bio-enzyme developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Pusa, Delhi, this was initially formulated as a capsule. The capsule needs to be mixed with an organic liquid mixture to be usable. Last year, several States including Delhi had distributed these capsules as part of pilot trials.
But, says Pranav Tiwari, Chief Technology Officer of nurture.farm, it emerged that a capsule is not the best way to put the product into fields. Hence his company licensed the technology and made it into a powder that can be mixed with water, which is loaded into a tank in the boom sprayer. After spraying, the soil needs to be turned over and irrigated.
When done correctly — spraying, turning the soil over and irrigating it for four days — the straw can be disintegrated in eight days, said Mr. Tiwari. With the boom sprayer, he added, an acre can be be sprayed in 7 minutes whereas manually it takes half a day.
Mr. Singh has partitioned his 30 acres into small parcels. A few acres have already been harvested, and sprayed, with some sprouting cauliflower as well as shoots of mustard. But the bulk of his farm — 28 acres — is yet to be harvested. Mr. Singh said he expects to begin sowing wheat within 20 days. That means all the rice must be harvested and the stalks sprayed, decomposed and the soil readied for wheat within that time.
Proof of the practice
Mr. Singh said he’s optimistic of keeping the schedule but says the true test will be the yield of the wheat next year. The promise of the PUSA spray is that because it employs natural enzymes, it will improve soil fertility and because there will be no burning, carbon as well as essential soil-micronutrients will be retained.
The use of biodecomposers to accelerate rice-stubble disintegration isn't new and farmers have long used straw, cow dung and other products but nurture.farm’s approach to the exercise is scale.
While only a tenth of the total farmland under paddy, the 5 lakh acres under treatment this year is still ten times more than what anyone else has attempted at spraying with biodecomposers.
Nurture.farm is a subsidiary of the Mumbai-based agrochemicals company UPL, fomerly known as United Phosphorous Limited. Their approach towards farming is much like Uber’s towards cars — making it convenient for a farmer to hire a spraying service via an app. In fact, Mr. Tiwari and senior leadership at nurture.farm have led operations in Ola and Zomato, and bring this experience to agriculture. There is also a team of 600 ‘Kisan-mitra’, many of them young, college girls, who liaise with the farmers and convince them to use the app.
For addressing stubble burning, nurture.farm has also accessed historical satellite-derived data on how many fields have been set alight in previous years. With this data, said Arvind Dixit, Head of Operations, nurture.farm, they are able to precisely track which farms have been sprayed with how much decomposer and whether the farmers have stayed away from burning. Seventeen districts in Punjab and Haryana have been specifically chosen as those were where 40% of the fields were previously set on fire.
Nurture.farm has operations in several States that enables farmers across India to book everything from tractor services to trading at the mandis, but for about 25,000 farmers in Punjab and Haryana, the decomposer spraying will be free.
The plan, says Mr.Tiwari, is that over time farmers will see the value in spraying based on the improved yields. The cost of spraying works out to ₹600 an acre — significantly more than setting the field ablaze — and there are costs in preparing the field that roughly worked out to ₹3,000 an acre.
A farmer’s returns however, aren’t a function of yield alone but also the price obtained that varies annually. Mr. Singh and another farmer, Sukhvinder Singh, who farms an adjoining 20-acre plot, said that if they saw value, they would pay for such a product.
Meanwhile, farm fires are already underway in Punjab and Haryana and easily discernible from the highway. Early data from National Aeronautics and Space Administration suggests that there is no discernible difference in the number of fires this year when compared to the same time last year.
Moreover heavy rainfall in September over north India has meant delayed harvesting, reducing the time available for sowing the winter wheat, implying more potential fires to clear the fields quickly. The southwest monsoon has not yet withdrawn. But once that happens later this month, it will herald a change in wind direction and the smoke residue will be more apparent in Delhi’s air quality,
On September 23, the Centre outlined claims by several State governments to address crop burning. Haryana has reportedly allocated ₹200 crore to disincentivise farmers from crop burning. Uttar Pradesh will be spraying a decomposer using a cow dung manure over 1 million acres. Haryana in 1 lakh acres, Punjab 5 lakh acres and Delhi in 4,000 acres under paddy.
(The reporter was part of a media contingent taken on tour by nurture.farm )