Radical changes are difficult to implement. However, with their back to the wall, farmers have little option but to take a leap of faith. Alternatives to chemical agriculture are especially useful for small and marginal farmers like Satyabhama, who can’t afford expensive pesticides to protect their crop. Can the larger ecosystem help farmers like Satyabhama adopt similar practices more easily?
42-year-old Satyabhama is a marginal women farmer from Keonjhar district in Odisha. Her family owns 2.5-acre land where she cultivated paddy with line transplantation during Kharif season. After 15-20 days of transplantation, Satyabhama saw that the paddy leaves were turning yellow and slowly drying at some patches in the field. The nearest market for Satyabhama was the Harichandranpur Block, market which is 7 km from her village. Satyabhama travelled to Harichandanpur alone, to buy insecticide for her crop, as farming is the sole source of livelihood for her family. A failed harvest could spell disaster for them. The shop owner recommended her to buy a product that costed Rs 450 for 500 ml. Hopeful that the insecticide would solve her problem, she bought and applied it over her field twice. However, even after repeated application the plants continued to suffer. Dejected, Satyabhama revisited the shop and complained about the ineffectiveness of the product. In response, the shop owner suggested her yet another insecticide costing Rs 580 for 250 ml, assuring her of its potency.
But this time Satyabhama didn’t have the funds to buy the prescribed insecticide. She belongs to a poor farming family of five members. Apart from farming her husband doesn’t have any additional livelihood options and her children are going to school. Buying the additional bottle would have meant foregoing the school fees of her children. She decided against buying the product, and returned home, despair and hopelessness filling her mind.
A desperate search for alternatives
The next day, Satyabhama discussed her situation in an SHG meeting with other Cluster Level Federation (CLF) members. They advised her to try out a bioformulation called Agniastra which had been prepared during a training session on the topic of preparation and use of bio formulations by the master trainer of Foundation for Ecological Security (FES). FES trains frontline field functionaries i.e. Krishi Mitra of Odisha Livelihood Mission and Krushak Sathi of the Department of Agriculture and farmers’ Empowerments Government of Odisha (DA&FE) in 8 districts viz. Angul, Balangir, Dhenkanal, Deogarh, Keonjhar, Koraput Nayagarh, and Sambalpur. These frontline workers do village-level training on Seed improvement (Seed selection, Seed Germination test & Seed treatment), Crop Geometry (Line sowing or Transplanting), Plant care and Nutrient management, and Integrated pest management sustainably. Usually, in such village-level training, 20 to 30 farmers are trained in a group.
Owing to her financial conditions Satyabhama could not make any other monitory expenditure on insecticide. Seeing no other way, she decided to use Agniastra, for which she did not require to spend any money. Satyabhama sprayed Agniastra into her paddy field and after first application she observed positive changes. The paddy leaves stopped yellowing, and the plants started to look healthy.
Sharing experiences and instilling confidence
Many of the SHG members were also having the same issue in their paddy fields and were planning to apply chemical insecticides in their plots. Satyabhama took a lead in discouraging them from using pesticides. She recounted her experiences and shared how Agniastra had been more effective in reviving her crops, and the pesticides had mostly just increased her expenses. Listening to her testimony, 3-4 SHG members decided to use Agniastra as well. They were able to make the concoctions through training sessions, and used them in their fields. They also had positive experiences, and slowly other SHG members expressed interest in preparing Agniastra for their fields as well.
Transitioning to non-pesticidal management of crops
Managing pest and diseases in paddy crop adds a big cost to the budget of small and marginal farmers. They can rarely afford to spend money on a cocktail of chemical formulations to control the infestation, which often result in ecologically adverse impacts as well. Research has shown that pests tend to develop resistance over a period of time, leading to a vicious cycle of increased pesticide use with limited success. These harmful chemicals are often equally dangerous for other living beings and humans. Although the pesticide containers recommend the use of protective equipment and small doses, most farmers can’t afford the equipment. They rarely abide by the dosage recommendations, mostly out of the fear of losing the crops. Erratic climatic conditions, increasing number of pests have only made the situation more desperate. Studies estimate that about 385 million people, particularly among farmers and agriculture workers, are poisoned by pesticides every year including 11,000 deaths per year. Among the fatalities, nearly 60% or 6,600 deaths per year occur in India.
Satyabhama was fortunate to be able to make the choice of using Agniastra and seeing positive results. Her experiences encouraged other women farmers to choose alternatives, thereby reducing their costs and preserving the ecosystem. This choice would not have been available to Satyabhama without the training sessions facilitated by FES. Farmers need such supportive institutions and alternatives available to help them transition from conventional agricultural methods. Once a desperate farmer, Satyabhama has now become a vocal supporter of alternate practices based on her own experiences. She should not have to undertake the journey of transition alone.
Harihar Pattanaik is Senior Project Manager at FES, Regional Office East, Bhubaneswar.
Krushna Chandra Barik is a Master Trainer at FES, Harichandanpur block, Keonjhar.