By Arjun Sharma and Sukhcharan Preet.
With traditional wheat and paddy cultivation proving economically unviable and ecologically damaging, farmers embrace new crops to resuscitate the struggling agricultural sector.
Barnala: Declining soil quality due to the constant overuse of pesticides and other chemicals in wheat and rice cultivation has driven many farmers in Punjab to shift to alternative crops that have shown promising results.
Punjab, famously called the 'food bowl of India', is currently witnessing a downward spiral in the cultivation of traditional crops, with farmers turning to relatively new crops such as turmeric, strawberry and mushroom.
For the first time, Punjab was not the largest contributor of wheat in the country as Madhya Pradhesh usurped the title in 2020. The share of Punjab in the central pool has either remained constant or declined since 2018, which has prompted agricultural experts to press for diversification of crops in the state.
The area under paddy cultivation has also fallen over the years as many farmers have abandoned the traditional wheat-rice cycle. Govt data shows that the paddy cultivation area in Punjab in 2009-10 was 28.02 lakh hectares, which remained almost constant until 2011-12 at 28.18 lakh hectares. The area increased in 2015-16 and reached 29.75 lakh hectares, and the ascent continued until the following year, reaching 30.46 lakh hectares. In 2017-18, however, the area decreased to 28.45 lakh hectares that further declined to 27.36 lakh hectares in 2019-20, a 2% decline in ten years.
As per the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the soil health of Punjab has declined over the years after the green revolution. "Under intensive agriculture, the alluvial soils are showing multi-nutrient deficiencies and low organic carbon levels. The declining soil health is causing a reduction in factor productivity and stagnation in crop productivity. The central part of the state (3.16 million ha) under the rice-wheat system faces the problem of falling water table due to overdraw of groundwater. The southwestern part (1.41 million ha) is underlined with poor quality groundwater on the one hand and is threatened on the other hand by waterlogging and secondary salinity with the introduction of canal irrigation and rice cultivation in place of cotton," a study by ICAR stated.
Rashpal Singh with officials from the Krishi Kendra (Picture credit - Arjun Sharma)
Exotic crops trump water-intensive wheat-paddy
Atinder Pal Singh, a farmer from Kattoo village in Barnala district of Punjab, worked as an assistant professor in a private college after completing his MSc in Agricultural Science from Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) before leaving his job to start farming. After much deliberation with family and friends who had considerable farming experience, Atinder decided to cultivate turmeric.
Buoyed by profits from the new crop in 2017, he decided to process and package the produce himself before selling it at a retail outlet in 2019. This year he planted turmeric on nine acres of land. He said that if a farmer sows and processes the turmeric himself and sells it for Rs 200 per kg, the farmer can earn Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1.5 lakh. "I have set up a processing unit based on the research of a friend who is an agronomist. It cost Rs 1 lakh. The unit cleans the turmeric with steam which keeps the nutrients intact compared to boiling and cleaning," he told 101Reporters. He has also planned to set up a lentil processing project at the cost of Rs 4 lakh.
Dr Harjot Singh, Assistant Professor, Center for Agricultural Sciences, Barnala, conceded that farmers could profit from processing and selling high-quality turmeric under alternative farming.
Dr PS Tanwar, Associate Director of Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Barnala, said alternate crops are becoming more popular among farmers. "While wheat and paddy do not bring much profit to the farmer, exotic crops, on the other hand, sell as soon as they reach the market. Farmers also understand that the future lies in alternative crops. That is why many of them are leaving wheat and paddy and are gravitating towards high valued crops," he explained.
(top) Strawberries being packed at Rashpal Singh's farm; (bottom) Deepak Kumar stands next to his mushroom harvest (Picture credit - Arjun Sharma)
Mushroom and strawberry fields usher in regeneration
Another crop that has attracted many young farmers is mushroom which is both viable and profitable. Generally, farmers in Punjab cultivate only seasonal mushrooms, but Deepak Kumar, a farmer from Barnala, has installed an indoor facility to grow button mushrooms. Kumar, who opted for agriculture as a profession, conducted much research and concluded that rice and wheat crops were not as lucrative as they used to be.
Mushroom can be cultivated throughout the year in Kumar's indoor unit, giving him an edge over other farmers who grow only seasonal crops. He revealed that he had spent nearly Rs 50 lakh on this project. "I am quite satisfied with the quality of mushrooms from my facility. I have also provided employment to nearly 20 women as farm labour for mushroom cultivation," Kumar told 101Reporters. Punjab Agriculture University has also invented the technique of drying mushrooms with which farmers can generate more revenue by turning them into powder.
Once an alien crop for Punjab, strawberries are now being grown in different parts of the state. In the Malwa region, though not very common, many farmers cultivate strawberries and sell the produce in the markets to register sizable profits.
Rashpal Singh, a farmer from Baloke village, has secured a niche for himself. Singh has been cultivating strawberries since 2012 — starting from less than one acre, he gradually increased the cultivation to four acres of land. He explained that strawberries are grown in Punjab only in the winter season. The crop is sown in October and starts bearing fruit in January. He said that by planting strawberries correctly, a farmer could earn anywhere from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 2.5 lakh per acre.
Besides selling in Punjab, Rashpal also sells his crop in Delhi. "Earnings depend on the quality of fruit produced. Sometimes there is damage to the fruit due to weather or disease. However, strawberry is better than rice crop as it earns more income for a farmer," Singh said.
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