By Alina Paul-Bossuet
The farms look surprisingly green given two successive years of drought in Hassan district in southern Karnataka.
Farmers talk of higher yields of millet, pulses, ginger, maize and bananas instead of destroyed harvests. They also say their cattle are producing more milk and that it has a higher fat content, meaning they get more money per litre they sell.
This is not what you’d expect to see in a region where 90 percent of the farms are experiencing drought. So what’s the secret? Bhoo Chetana, a mantra (meaning words considered capable of "creating transformation") that’s changing the face of farming not only in Hassan but all over Karnataka.
“Bhoo means land and Chetana means rejuvenation,” explains S.V. Ranganath, chief secretary of Karnataka State Government. “This initiative to revive our agriculture involves farmers, farm facilitators, extension workers, universities, research institutes and government.”
“Karnataka is the second largest dryland area in India after Rajasthan. Agricultural growth in our state was negative four years ago largely due to depleted soils and water deficiency. Since 61 percent of our population depend on agriculture, we needed to act fast and change things round,” he said.
Their economic advisor K. Raju insisted the government needed low cost, ecological, science-based and scalable solutions to insulate farmers from climate change and protect rural livelihoods from frequent droughts and low yields.
Given that the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) specializes in dryland agriculture, its principal watersheds scientist Suhas Wani was asked to develop a holistic programme to efficiently manage natural resources and increase food production at the same time.
POOR RAINS, GREAT CROPS
The result? Since Bhoo Chetana started in 2008, agricultural production has risen almost 6 percent despite poor rains.
So what does Bhoo Chetana mean to farmers?
Guruswami and Shanta own 2 hectares, 4 cows (2 for milk and 2 for labour on the fields), and 3 sheep. They learned how to test their soil through a farm facilitator who was a neighbouring farmer. When they got the results from the local farm centre, they followed the guidance and added the recommended dose of missing micronutrients (in their case it was zinc and boron) to their land.
They diversified their crops and rotate them with leguminous nitrogen fixing crops to prevent soil exhaustion. They also plant fertility boosting crops between ones that use up soil nutrients.
They also started rearing more livestock. “We learnt that growing duckweed (azolla) fern in ponds was good for feed as well as the soil,” says Guruswami. “We mix a handful with millet and pigeonpea for the animals. The fern hosts the nitrogen fixing algae anabaena which makes it a good natural fertilizer as well.”
They also make vermicompost (resulting from earthworms feeding on organic matter) to use as an organic fertilizer on their land, and they make a traditional biofertilizer out of cow manure, which helps their soil retain moisture.
“This is a carefully measured recipe known as ‘jeevamrutha’ meaning ‘giving life to the soil,’” says Shanta. “We mix up 5 kgs of cow dung, 5 litres of cow urine, 2 kgs of pulses ground as powder, with 1 kg of jaggery and a little water. We wait for two days for it to ferment.” Jeevamrutha promotes plant growth and soil microbe development, and increases worm activity and humus in the soil.
Guruswami and Shanta also drip irrigate using water from their bore well, use ridge and furrow planting systems and have dug trenches and built bunds to conserve soil moisture and prevent runoff.
Their main teacher was a farm facilitator who plays an essential role in helping farmers change their way of farming. There are now over 10,000 farm facilitators (farmers who serve as community representatives) recruited by the local government agriculture officer and trained by the university, ICRISAT and government staff on land management practices.
They are paid 150 rupees (£1.8) a day. Since Lakshmi became a farm facilitator in Hassan, she has been conducting farmer field schools with 25 farmers at a time.
“I cover techniques such as soil testing, micronutrient application, intercropping, azolla preparations, vermicompost, manure fertilizer and seed treatments,” she says. “I am responsible for 8 villages meaning 1,250 farmers. The best thing I see is the farmers I have trained continuing what they learned the following year. Neighbouring farmers are now coming to me since they see the increase in yields and want this on their own fields as well,” she adds
GOVERNMENT COMMITMENT KEY
Suhas Wani, an ICRISAT scientist who came up with the Bhoo Chetana initiative when the Karnataka government asked for his help in implementing a farm management programme, feels that the government’s commitment has been the key to the large-scale success of Bhoo Chetana.
“From the policy makers at state government level down to the district- and village-level agriculture officers – everyone believed in this and wanted it to work,” he says. “They use creative ways to ensure the success spreads throughout communities.
“From wall paintings on bus stops and tea stalls to tractor-led poster campaigns and farmer field days, they are encouraging villagers to improve their farming. And farm facilitators link researchers and the government to farmers, helping them learn and apply better techniques,” he said.
The Bhoo Chetana revolution is slowly turning into a farmer-led one. Farm facilitators are using popular tunes to make Bhoo Chetana songs, where they change the lyrics to sing about different techniques. They are also using street plays as a way to communicate with villagers.
As farmers feel they have a big part to play in its success, they are keen to find innovative ways to scale it up and out.
“That’s the beauty of Bhoo chetana,” says Wani. “It is not a government or ICRISAT scheme. It’s now being driven by the farmers themselves. What better way is there to see real change on the ground?”
The proof is in the outcome. Last year 3 million farm families increased their yields 35 to 66 percent and despite poor rains the project saw the gross value of crop production increase by $130 million.
How have fields remained green despite the drought? Shivaraju, Hassan’s agriculture officer, is eager to explain.
“Our district was recognized for having the highest agricultural production in the state of Karnataka last year even though rainfall was almost half the usual level,” he says. “By adding micronutrients farmers have boosted the soil’s capacity to resist drought. The water harvesting and groundwater recharging techniques have helped manage the water scarcity and given some access to water despite the lack of rain. We have also encouraged farmers to develop livestock and dairy which gives them a further source of income as well as manure for improving soil water retention and fertility,” he adds.
What’s clear is that everyone from the farmer to the state government is fired up about their role in Bhoo Chetana’s land rejuvenation and that’s what’s making it work. And the more success they see, the more they believe things can really change for the better.
Alina Paul-Bossuet is a communications specialist for the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).