The term “small farmer” applies to India perhaps more than anywhere else in the world.
Although 140 million hectares are cultivated across the country, just 0.83 million are on farms greater than 10 hectares.
A medium farm, of which there are 5.56 million, is considered to be between 4ha-10ha.
Another 25.80 million are on plots of 2ha-4ha, while some 100.25 million are marginal farmers, trying to get by with less than one hectare.
Despite the small farm size, averaging just 1.08ha, agriculture provides the livelihoods of about 55 per cent of the population, with 230 million, some 45 per cent of the workforce, employed directly on the land.
Overall, farming contributes some 20 per cent to India’s Gross Domestic Product.
Not so long ago, India depended on importing food. Today, however, it is exporting to neighbours and further afield.
Indeed, it is major producer of wheat, rice, groundnut, cotton, tea, fruits and vegetables, potatoes and sugarcane.
For many small farmers, however, there is no notion of supplying a supermarket nor the luxury of specialising in one crop with the expectation of making a killing come harvest.
That is perhaps why some five million farmers have turned to a style of cultivation pioneered by Dr Dubhash Palekar.
At an experimental private research centre, used to illustrate his methods to other farmers, it is clear to see why.
The plot at Wa Wagdo farm, outside the city of Surat, some three hours journey north from Mumbai by train, runs to just 1.2 hectares.
It consists of row after row of marketable crops, fruits and vegetables, all intermixed rather than grouped.
The variety grown throughout the year is immense, running to some 60 different fruits, vegetables, trees and even flowers – from coconuts, grapes, apples, bananas, figs and gooseberries to cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes, sugarcane and herbs.
The trees and flowers cultivated for sale include bamboo and roses.
No fertiliser of any kind, not even manure, is applied directly to the ground.
Instead a mulch, made up of the leaves and waste products from the farm with the addition of animal dung, is used to provide nourishment around the produce.
The farm is situated some 10 miles from the Arabian Sea on land best suited for growing rice, the main crop in the area.
Considerable work had to be undertaken to neutralise the salt in the ground before the varied growing could commence.
Water is in short supply, and the mulch is only soaked when every last drop of moisture from the previous watering has been absorbed. The “black” soil of the region is said to have good water retention qualities.
Plants attacked by pests or disease are left untreated and allowed to rot into the ground, enriching the soil.
According to the owners, the farm has only been operating for two years but is already proving a success as it always has something to sell to the market regardless of the time of year or price pressures.
The Palekar method recently received the endorsement of the Indian government and those who subscribe to it are hoping additional monies will become available to train other farmers in this low-cost natural system of producing.
Another innovative business, situated just a short distance away, is Vanita Farm.
It has five acres under cover where it grows a variety of plants on racks, including using coconut husks to grow ornamental flowers.
n Steven Moore travelled to India courtesy of BKT tyres.
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