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Repurposing farm waste to cultivate mushrooms boosts incomes and reduces migration

Villages in Odisha’s Sundargarh District are embracing principles of bio-economy by repurposing farm waste generated on the paddy fields as raw material to cultivate mushrooms and produce vermi-compost. This cost-effective activity provides an additional year-round income for the farmers who, earlier, were migrating out of the district, to find work. Reusing the stubble is also a way to limit the burning of the stubble which contributes to air pollution and soil degradation. Sundargarh, known for its industries and mines, already has air quality with unhealthy pollution levels. Aishwarya Mohanty has the story

Bharati Prusetch, a woman in her late 30s from Phuldhudi, a village in Odisha’s Sundargarh District, has transformed her previously barren backyard into a lucrative source of income. She reuses and recycles paddy field waste, to cultivate mushrooms and produce vermi-compost. Prusetch earns over Rs 1 lakh annually through this cost-effective activity. Adversely impacted by migration stemming from its reliance on rain-fed agriculture, Phuldhudi, located near the Ujalpur Forest range, faces several challenges. The farmers in the village have limited earning opportunities. Former Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Arun Mishra proposed an initiative to boost local income through mushroom cultivation. Teaming up with the non-profit SEWAK, Mishra facilitated training and awareness programmes for the residents. The forest department then encouraged people to use paddy straw as a raw material.

Kamala Pradhan, another resident of Phuldhudi, recalls how it all began, “Though we depend on agriculture, our income from it was not that steady due to a lack of proper irrigation. A former forest official suggested growing mushrooms in the village. The input cost was less, and we were provided guidance, support, and training to start from scratch.” Phuldhudi pioneered the initiative in 2018. As more and more people began utilising residue from paddy cultivation to grow mushrooms, the idea quickly spread to 15 other villages, claims Digambar Upadhyay from SEWAK. The activity is a significant boost to the local economy, as nearly 1,000 families across these 15 villages in the district have now embraced crop residue management systems, minimising adverse environmental effects, optimising crop yields, and generating an additional income. “Instead of viewing agricultural by-products as mere residues, they have transformed them into valuable resources in the bioeconomy model,” Upadhyay shares.

Farm ‘waste’ to ‘wonder’
Paddy occupies the highest cropped area in Odisha, at 46.28 per cent. Sundargarh, which falls under the North Western Plateau and experiences a hot and moist sub-humid climate, also has 75 per cent of the land covered with paddy during kharif, producing a good amount of paddy straws, which are generally discarded as waste. They are either left for grazing or burned to prepare the field for the next crop. And stubble burning of crop residues makes news every winter for its contribution to air pollution in the Indo-Gangetic plain.

Global estimates suggest that open-field rice straw burning causes air pollution, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (7300 kg CO2-equivalent per hectare), soil nutrient and biodiversity losses, and human health hazards. Nearly 800-1000 million tonnes (MT) of rice straw is produced globally, and India contributes to around 126.6 MT. Rice straw specifically contributes to 60 per cent of the total burned crop residues in India.

Crop waste from paddy fields in as many as 15 villages is now collected and stored instead of being burned.

In Sundargarh, however, farm waste including crop residues, manure, and leftover organic matter, is viewed as an asset than an environmental liability. The paddy straws are used to prepare natural beds to cultivate paddy straw and oyster mushrooms. Paddy straw mushrooms are typically grown on substrates such as cotton waste, thatched roofs, or paddy straw, allowing for year-round cultivation. Oyster mushrooms, which were once considered wild mushrooms as they primarily grew on decaying wood, are now extensively cultivated locally. After a 25-day cycle with regular watering and observation, each paddy bed has the potential to produce a minimum of three kilograms of mushroom harvest per day. One kilogram of the mushroom is sold at Rs 400 in the market.

Phuldhudi, for instance, has 18 mushroom cultivation units, each containing 200 beds. A single unit spans 25 decimal areas of land, the residents explain. In late 2021, Sundargarh’s villages began utilising the paddy straw waste leftover from mushroom cultivation for vermi-composting and producing natural manure instead of discarding it as waste. Crop residue from a paddy field is considered a crucial ingredient for improving soil fertility. According to a study published in the Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry, rice straw at harvest contains approximately 40 per cent of the nitrogen, 30-35 per cent of the phosphorus, 80-85 per cent of the potassium, 40-45 per cent of sulphur, and 80 per cent silicon taken up by the plant, which remains in the vegetative parts at maturity. The paper further notes that rice straw stands out from other straws due to its higher silicon and lower lignin content.

All-year income and reduced migration
Farmers in Sundargarh rely heavily on rain-fed agriculture and forest produce with little or no income during the non-monsoon period. This has led to large-scale migration from the villages. “Many men from the village have migrated in search of work, while we stayed back to look after the house. Daily wage labour jobs were common until now. There is no source of irrigation in the village, making it challenging to grow any crops in the winters and summers,” shares Surama Kalu, 42, from Phuldhudi.

Kalu’s family owns three acres of farmland where they traditionally grow paddy and vegetables. Her annual income ranged from Rs. 60,000 to 70,000, before engaging in mushroom cultivation and vermi-composting. “This year, I earned Rs. 1 lakh in addition to the income generated from paddy. My son is getting married soon. I plan on using that money to construct a pucca house for him,” she says. Most families have started using this vermicompost on their farms, reducing their dependence on chemical fertilisers and also selling them to make an additional income. Bharati produced nearly 70 quintals of vermi-compost this year (2023), selling 65 quintals at Rs 15 per kg and generating revenue of Rs 97,500.

Since 2022, the 15 villages have produced 2891.4 quintals of vermi-compost. After personal use, 2471.4 quintals were sold, thus generating an income of Rs 49,42,800. During the same period, mushrooms worth Rs 30,63,320 were also sold. In 2023 alone, 56.26 quintals of mushrooms and 2,244 quintals of vermi-compost were produced (till the time of writing). “Most people have put their unused water tanks in the backyard to use as vermi-compost pits with no additional construction cost. The only initial cost was for the earthworms (Rs 700 per kg), but now they are multiplying themselves. After initial success, government departments also came forward to set up mushroom units, thus providing further assistance,” says Upadhyay. Most mushrooms are sold at retail, while the vermi-compost is procured by the forest department.

Approximately 10 km from Phuldhudi, in Sagarpali, a village in the Mangaspur Gram Panchayat, the residents have also established a fodder bank and raise cows, thus eliminating the cost of cow dung for compost. “Our idea is to produce whatever raw materials are required and keep using and reusing them to minimise costs and reduce waste. So far, we have managed to use every raw material from the village. Our dependence on market purchases has completely reduced,” shares Jyotsna Patel, 49, resident of Sagarpali. “The crops we usually grow are seasonal, leading to uncertainty. But now we have year-round income that the family collectively works towards. No one leaves home looking for work outside,” she adds. The mushroom spawns, once planted, usually take between 20-25 days to mature and fruit. The fruition continues for at least six months before a new cycle begins.

Mushroom beds are prepared using waste paddy straws. They are later reused in vermi-compost.

Managing air pollution and forest fires
Sundargarh is recognised as an industrial district on the map of Odisha and holds a prominent position in the mineral map of the state, being rich in iron ore, limestone, manganese, dolomite, and fire clay. The air quality usually falls under the category of unhealthy pollution levels. While there are no specific studies on stubble burning in Odisha and its impacts, research has shown that it impacts local and regional climate and health risks to local people.

“Stubble burning is in practice in the district but does not contribute to pollution as much as mining activities do. But its role cannot be denied as well. There are other factors to consider as well. Apart from contributing to air pollution, stubble burning also adversely impacts soil and land health and kills many crucial organisms that are important to keep the soil fertile,” explains Laxmipriya Pradhan, senior scientist, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Sundargarh.

The vermi-compost is also used in vegetable farms to reduce pest infestation.

In addition to such risks, stubble burning in these villages has also led to forest fires, adversely impacting the flora and fauna. “These villages are very close to the forest area. The practice of burning stubble, which is left unattended, often leads to the spread of fire in the forest areas as well,” Pradeep Mirase, DFO, Sundargarh, highlights.” According to data on the Forest Survey of India website, Ujalpur Block under Ujalpur Forest Range surrounding these villages reported 33 fire points in 2023.

The local residents are trying to address pollution at its source by reusing and recycling farm waste. The conventional practice of burning agricultural residues releases harmful pollutants into the atmosphere and contributes to soil degradation. Embracing bio-economy in agriculture ensures that waste is repurposed, reducing harmful emissions and conserving soil health. The people were using alternatives to paddy straws to cultivate mushrooms or buying them. “When we observed closely, we suggested that they could instead use the crop residue from their own fields, thus minimising the cost. But there was still a question of what about the residue after that, so vermi-composting was also initiated,” Pradeep Mirase adds.

(Courtesy: Mongabay-India/ india.mongabay.com)

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