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Farmer Field Schools: A laudable initiative to nurture learning and experimentation

‘Learning by doing’ is an effective pedagogy emphasised by modern education that can be put to use in every field, even agriculture, the oldest practice of tilling the land. A specially positioned intervention of Farmer Field Schools by the S M Sehgal Foundation provides a platform to showcase modern agricultural techniques and promote learning and experimentation among farmers. The model was tested in different districts in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh and has garnered appreciation from the farming community and shown positive results. This article is by Kailash Prasad Gupta and Akhilesh Sharma

Most farmers in Northern India have a good awareness of agriculture practices and mechanization; though not in equal terms throughout the region, they at least have exposure to the developing trends in the agrarian sector. Since the early Green Revolution, Punjab has been at the core of boosting agricultural productivity and meeting the food security of the nation, with more focus on cereal crops and pulses. Over time, landholding size was reduced and the following two generations had to survive on the portion of land they received in lineage as per the applicability of the law. Currently about 54 per cent of the population is dependent upon agriculture directly or indirectly. However, there is a meagre 20.3 per cent of the total GDP contribution from the sector.

Agriculture has the scope to evolve and produce much more diversified and quality products to capture a better portion of the GDP. Farmers benefit when their produce fetches good remuneration from the market, which motivates them to continue the crop cycle. However, in the case of an open market, farmers face stiff pricing due to the perishable nature of the produce and the demand curve in the regional context. In general, produce collected from the farm gate is sold at a regular price which often fetches low returns and, most importantly, the nature of the produce also limits its demand in the market. Cereals such as wheat or pearl millet have a limited produce and price set, which doesn’t remunerate much to the farmer. Perishable items such as vegetables and flowers have enormous potential but, due to climate change and erratic patterns of rain and wind, these can also incur huge losses. Thus, farmer’s motivation and willingness to continue farming as an informed livelihood option is a must.

In order to address issues such as mono-cropping, flood irrigation, and traditional methods of farming, the Sehgal Foundation formulated the concept of Farmer Field Schools in 2020 and tested the model in different districts in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, which paved way for a positive response garnering appreciation from the farming community along with positive results. This model has been a promising intervention, aligning with crop diversification, catering to market demand, changing climatic patterns, and availability of forward and backward linkages throughout the year. Learnings from the area were broad-based for replication within the semi-arid areas of Haryana. Furthermore, it was planned to convene farmer meetings at different village development committee (VDC) levels to increase awareness about the field schools. VDCs are social institutions that lead holistic development activities and help select appropriate beneficiaries for project-related interventions. The committee also governs the project activities during and beyond the project period. Farmer Field Schools thus integrate modern and climate-resilient agriculture techniques for assured crop productivity and diversity, focusing on climate-suitable off-season vegetables.

Success in Nuh, Haryana
With advice from thematic experts, and collaboration of farmers, a Farmer Field School was established at the field of Md Akhlak, Hamzapur Village, under the HDFC Parivartan Project being implemented by the Sehgal Foundation. Akhlak and his father, Iqbal, are hardworking and progressive, despite a small landholding of three acres collectively. Both showed keen interest in new practices such as on-farm seed trials and crop diversity. However, they did not succeed. When the VDC proposed them for Farmer Field School intervention, they were sceptical, largely about the practices involved, such as staking in tomato, but their inherent willingness to do something new prompted them to move forward.

Farmer Field Schools are well suited to the trans-Gangetic plains, which come under agro-climatic zone VI, with a semi-arid climate and higher temperature during summers. It features technology, implements, and farming practices that can be adopted throughout the crop cultivation cycle. These practices include a poly house, soilless nursery, fencing, solar spray pumps, mulching and drip, and other agriculture equipment such as light traps and yellow stickers. All these work for the benefit of the farmer and also as a demonstration for other farmers, providing continuous assistance.

Built at a total cost of Rs 380,000, the beneficiary farmer contributed 25 per cent of the total project cost. As the engagement of both the farmer and the field specialists intensified, the Farmers Field School readies itself as an income-generating model along with climate-resilient techniques. The field schools will be studied as a cropping cycle is completed. The crop basket was considered to include tomatoes as the major crop in the field, and ridge gourd and bottle gourd as border crops. Subsequently, with healthy saplings raised in-house, they were transplanted in January 2023, following all customised practices along with the judicious doses of micronutrients and timely bamboo staking of the tomatoes for enhanced plant growth and prevention of soilborne diseases.

It was observed further that as the plants remained healthier throughout the flowering and fruiting stages with more than 1.5 times the yield of regular crop production in tomatoes. Furthermore, the intervention led to improvement in the colour, shape, size, and quality of the produce. The area that was averse of crop diversification, and the notion that vegetable farming would incur losses, were broken by the intervention; and about 314 farmers from the nearby villages visited Akhlak’s farm to understand the practices. Over a dozen farmers also introduced some of the practices such as mulching, fencing, and staking into their fields. On the contrary to conventional farming, farmers followed integrated nutrient management and integrated pest management across the season harvested bumper produce.

Akhlaq and his father have used the increased income to fund education and repaid loans against their mortgaged 0.5 acres of land. Out of the gross income of Rs 162,000, they reinvested about Rs 30,000 for the next cycle of strawberries and tomatoes from September onward. As the count (yield) spread to 19.75 tonnes, fetching more income, it can further continue in the coming years if the production is maintained.

The farmer observed that not only is there increased income from the new practices, but the intervention has allowed for soil health management by crop rotation and enabling regeneration of soil microbial activity along with nutrient management. During the concurrent season, the farm school is being utilised by raising seedlings for tomatoes, and strawberry saplings will be procured through genuine sources. It is expected that by the onset of winter, crops will be at the flowering stage and another set of strawberries will be demonstrated. Akhlaq noted that “ab sanstha walo ki jarurat nahi hai, hum log khud hi saksham hai behtar kheti ke liye” (referring to Sehgal Foundation, he cites that now he and fellow farmers can adopt climate-resilient agriculture practices by themselves without the support of the NGO).

(Courtesy: Sehgal Foundation. Kailash Prasad Gupta is project associate and Akhilesh Sharma assistant programme lead at the Foundation.)