A paper has appeared recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA(PNAS) titled: “Integrated farming with intercropping increases food production while reducing environmental footprint” (see: Q. Chai et al.,PNAS September 21, 118(38)e2106382118 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2106382118). This work found that (1) “relay planting” enhances yield, (2) within-field rotation or “strip rotation”, allowing strips for planting other plants (such as grass, fruits) besides the major crop was more fruitful, (3) “soil munching,” that is, available means such as crop straw, in addition to the major crop such as wheat or rice, and (4) “no-till” or a reduced tillage, which increases the annual crop yield up by 15.6% to 49.9%, and decreasing the environmental footprint by 17.3%, compared with traditional monoculture cropping. This led to the conclusion that small farm holders can grow more food and have reduced environmental footprint.
How do these factors apply to the small farmers of India? Current statistics reveal that our country has a significant population of small farmers, many owning less than 2 hectares of land. About 70% of its rural households still depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihood, with 82% of farmers being small and marginal. The total production of food-grains in 2017-18 was estimated to be 275 million tons. Some others have pointed out that only 30% of all farmers borrow from formal sources. The farm loan waivers from the state governments have been helpful in this regard, but yet, over 50% struggle to borrow from Shylockian sources.
The site “Relay Cropping- GK Today” explains this in some detail. Relay planting means the planting of different crops in the same plot, one right after another, in the same season. Examples of such relay cropping would be planting rice (or wheat), cauliflower, onion, and summer gourd (or potato onion, lady’s fingers and maize), in the same season. Why do this? Well, less risk since you do not have to depend on one crop alone. It also means better distribution of labour, insects spread less, and any legumes actually add nitrogen to the soil! We have read about how small farmers in Telangana, Karnataka and Maharashtra are actually doing this and earning money out of such relay farming. They plant onions, turmeric, chillies, ginger, garlic and even some native fruits, thus making profit, during these relay times. ‘GK Today’ does, however, point out the difficulties involved in such relay cropping, namely mechanisation here can be difficult, plus the management requirements are somewhat higher. It is here that women come in handy. Women plant materials for home food, such as greens, leafy vegetables and pulses such as green grams, Finger millet ( ragi in Hindi, kezhwaragu in Tamil) horse gram ( chane ki dal in Hindi, kudure gram in Kannada, and kollu in Tamil), cowpeas, and also grass (all of which add to the nitrogen to the soil and also to the world around us, fixing nitrogen not just under our feet but also in the air we breathe; the carbon dioxide, ozone, and the oxides of nitrogen and phosphorus that we inhale every day from the filthy atmosphere is at least nullified a little, thanks to relay cropping)!
Strip cropping has been used in the U.S. (where the fields are larger than those in India), where they grow wheat, along with corn and soyabean, in the same farm in an alternative manner. However, this needs large lands. In India, where there are large fields (such as the ones owned by cities and state governments), the land is divided into strips, and strips of grass are left to grow between the crops. Planting of trees to create shelters has helped in stabilising the desert in Western India.
“Strip crop - a ray of hope” is the title given by the site ‘Vikaspedia’, which discusses Western Karnataka (and the nearby Telangana and Northern Tamil Nadu), dry belts with frequent droughts, where 80% of the farmers depend on groundnut as their option. The Karnataka Watershed Development (KAWAD), together with the AME Foundation, persuaded the farmers to stop using finger millets, fodder and groundnuts.
Soil mulching and no-till
While these methods are not easy for small farmers in India, they could be practised at least in larger farms such as the ones owned by industry and governments. Soil mulching requires keeping all bare soil covered with straw, leaves, and the like, even when the land is in use. Erosion is curtailed, moisture retained, and beneficial organisms, such as earthworms, kept in place. The same set of benefits are also offered by not tilling the soil.
These four methods suggested by the international group are worth following in India.