It is estimated that about 65% of the world’s population lives and/or works out of small farms. The size and evolution of small farms vary across countries and correlate with their economic and social development. Thus, the role of small farming must not be undermined, especially in a country such as India where agriculture and development play a pivotal role. As we know, agricultural development in India contributes almost 20% to the gross domestic product and employs more than 50% of the workforce. It is estimated that about 80% of farmers in India work on small-size farms less than 2 hectares.
Though small farming plays an important role in food production for India’s vast population, most small farmers in India are poor, food insecure, and have limited access to agriculture and sustainable development and face a diversity of challenges. They often engage in the informal economy activities to supplement their incomes. Many have to raise capital and invest in productive assets for their own consumption as well as generate adequate returns for capital investments. Small farm holders try to operate their farms as entrepreneurs.
Small farming entails making decisions fraught with a high element of risk. Decision-making involves
1) what crops to plant;
2) what inputs to use and how;
3) timing for plowing, seeding, and harvesting;
4) quantity needed for personal household consumption; and
5) quantity of produce to sell or store.
Risks emanate from the external environment like the market, adverse weather, input price surges, crop failure, etc. Implications of their decisions are significant and affect their livelihoods and social and human capital objectives, such as education and health.
Some issues that marginal-small farmers in India face:
- Low realization of production due to structural irregularities in input costs and imperfect markets.
- Lack of access to capital that leads to higher investment costs.
- Human resource base that is suboptimal.
- Poor access to extension services that leads to a lack of proper knowledge of technology and agricultural know-how.
- Lack of access to infrastructure such as irrigation, electricity, and other agricultural development efforts.
- Poor land quality and its management.
- Role of women. Despite the increasing role of women in agriculture, the patriarchal system denies them land rights and thus access to resources critical for agriculture and sustainable development.
- Social inequality. Socially disadvantaged groups such as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes dominate marginal and small farming. These groups face discrimination and lack ready access to public inputs and services, capital, markets, etc.
- Low literacy and skills. Small farmers lack a reasonable level of awareness regarding information on agriculture, and their limited education restricts public dissemination of knowledge.
Added factors that put pressure on the small farming ecosystem include globalization in agriculture and development, climate change, and a dwindling water supply that put this vulnerable section under existential pressure.
THE WAY FORWARD
There have been suggestions at the policy level that small land holdings are not viable for agriculture and development. As the government set about the task of doubling farmer income, the focus area was defined and targeted toward small farmers. Innovations in agricultural development in India have attracted some attention such as integrated farming. Integrated farming involves a host of diverse practices on small farms such as the judicious use of pesticides, water harvesting, apiculture, composting, dairy management, etc. However, adopting new approaches to promote agriculture and development by financially stressed small farmers is a long-term approach that requires a radical mindset and change. Small interventions that are investment-light and easy to implement have the potential to make small farming profitable.
Some simple interventions that could make an impact in the short to medium term:
1) No-tillage / minimum tillage. An integrated approach combined with other farming techniques can help conserve soil moisture, increase water infiltration, reduce nutrient runoff, and thereby raise yields.
2) Nutrient management. A balanced application of nutrients depending on soil parameters involves a judicious use of nitrogen along with phosphorus, potassium, and sulfur that leads to efficient nitrogen use. This can have a significant effect on yields and improve soil health.
3) Information technology. India is a leader in information and communication technology, which has the potential to break the barrier and provide small farmers much greater access to information. Mobile phone coverage in rural India is expanding at a breakneck speed. Linking and communication with small farmers has become easier, and they can derive important information about markets, weather, and other related information on agriculture.
4) Biotechnology. A wider range of scientific techniques and products can be used in agriculture to enhance productivity of crops, livestock, fisheries, and forests. Some measures already making an impact on the ground are genetic modification, genomics and bioinformatics, marketed-assisted selection, testing procedures, micro propagation, tissue culture, and artificial insemination.
The range of measures that can be taken for improving the agriculture and sustainable development in India are huge, and the scope immense. In such a large country, gaps stem from a lack of resources in terms of investment and qualified manpower. The intent is good, but the implementation requires a collaborative effort from state and private players.
Interventions on the ground
S M Sehgal Foundation has being helping the small farming community in their quest for food and economic security. The missionary zeal of S M Sehgal Foundation has helped farmers by uplifting and building their capacities, thereby increasing their income. Simple interventions in cultivation practices through modern technology and extension outreach have helped small farmers to realize their potential and move toward economic freedom and self-sufficiency. Foundation work in rural development in India, especially in small farming communities has been recognized globally for their efforts in water management, local participation and sustainability, transforming lives, community for development, and the sought-after agricultural development.
Farm Mechanization: Zero tillage as an enterprise
S M Sehgal Foundation implemented Project Gram Utthan of PTC Foundation, and since 2017, has helped farmers benefit from mechanization. Chalitar Bhagat, a small progressive farmer of Nariar village, Muzaffarpur, Bihar says, “Getting timely agricultural labor is a major problem in agriculture. It increases the cost of production and so decreases the profit to farmers. Hence, mechanization in agriculture is beneficial for farmers.” In 2018, the Agricultural Development Program team in India provided a subsidized zero tillage machine to Chalitar and trained him on its operation. Now he uses the machine in his field and is an entrepreneur through renting his service to neighboring villages such as Pakhnaha Shivram, Akuraha, Prasad, Puraina, Bhilaipur, Birpur, and others. After using the machine for more than three years, Chalitar says that it has revolutionized his agriculture and development.
Small farming contributes to growth by reducing the price of agri commodities and increases the demand for labor in rural areas. Undoubtedly, small-holder farmers have to overcome considerable constraints to make profits from their farms.
In order to make small farming profitable, policy intervention and a public private partnership approach is crucial for the last-mile connection. Only then will the reforms envisaged in institutions, investment policies, incentive policies, and globalization policies, reach the small farmer. With structural issues in the demographic profile of India, profitable small farming has an immense potential to make India an agricultural superpower.