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Conservation Farming Help Rural Farmers In India To Be More Resource Efficient

Millions of rural Indians, mostly farmers, are at the mercy of changing weather and climate change. Rising temperature and heat stress, unpredictable rainfall patterns, increasing drought-like situations, soil erosion and depleting water tables are leading to poorer yields and reduced income for farmers. While the agricultural sector and farmers are most affected by the adverse impacts of climate change, it is also one of the sectors significantly responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, contributing about 14% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the country.

Good agronomy and soil management through conservation agriculture practices such as no-till farming, crop rotation, and in-situ crop harvest residue management are resource efficient and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly. The intensification of these conservation agriculture practices by the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA)—a regional project led by CIMMYT to sustainably enhance cereal crop productivity and improve smallholder farmers’ livelihoods in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal—and partners is helping smallholder farmers to improve their yield and income with less input costs.

Climate smart agriculture

Over 70% of Bihar’s population is engaged in agriculture production, with wheat and rice as the two major crops grown in the state. Bordering Uttar Pradesh, Buxar, is one of the many rural districts in Bihar, with over 108,000 hectares of land used for agriculture. The area is plain, fertile and has good irrigation facilities. The rice-wheat cropping system forms the dominant practice here, and pulses and other non-cereal crops are grown additionally during winters.

CSISA began promoting zero tillage in wheat cultivation in the area in 2010. Along with Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs), and local agriculture departments, awareness and frontline demonstrations on different best management practices were conducted to inform farmers of alternative approaches to cultivating wheat and rice sustainably. Farmers were used to conventional farming methods, with more input costs and labor-intensive practices. In addition, as farmers were growing long-duration rice varieties, they typically sowed wheat in late November to early December, which meant harvesting in late April/May. Harvesting wheat this late caused yield losses due to terminal heat stress at the grain filling stage. With increasingly hot temperatures in recent years due to climate change, yield loss in wheat is imminent.

To help curb these yield losses, researchers and officials began promoting early sowing of wheat through a technology called zero tillage in the region, with sowing recommended before mid-November. As expected, this helped farmers to escape high temperature stress at the time of the dough stage, thus, saving grain shrinkage and yield loss at harvest. Zero tillage technology is a tested method with the potential to increase crop productivity through better time management and reduced input cost.

Deepak Kumar Singh, scientist at CSISA who has been supporting agri-extension efforts in the region for nearly a decade recalled how CSISA and partners were able to get more farmers on board with zero tillage and early wheat sowing:

“The best practices of zero till technology and early wheat sowing were encouraged widely through exposure visits, demonstration trials on progressive farmers’ fields, and providing support from local KVKs for machines and quality seeds, including the promotion of private service providers,” he said.

As more farmers were reached through field events, with visible on-field results during public harvest activities held at demonstration fields by CSISA and KVKs, the region gradually adopted early wheat sowing, zero tillage and direct seeded rice technologies. Currently, in the district, it is estimated that over 40% of wheat cultivation under the rice-wheat system is through zero till, helping farmers obtain better yield and profits.

Rice-wheat cropping systems, resilient and sustainable in increasingly changing climate

Rajapur, a small village in Buxar district, boasts 100% adoption of zero tillage in wheat cropping. We met farmer Rahul Rai whose family has been involved in farming for generations. The family owns over thirty acres of land with agriculture as the primary source of income. His father and his siblings were used to conventional farming methods. The produce from their farm was sufficient for household consumption and with the little extra left, they sold and made some income. On the significance of agriculture and farming for his family, Rahul Rai says, “this farmland has been feeding and supporting 17 members in our joint household.”

When young Rahul Rai got down to work in the family fields in the early 2000s, he was keen to explore possibilities to improve the income generated from the farm. Initially, like many others, he was engaged in intensive farming. According to Rai, “with the input costs rising daily, including scarce labor and soil health deterioration, bringing in some extra income seemed unsustainable”.

He first met researchers from the CSISA project and local KVK scientists in early 2011 in the neighboring village. The team was there to inform farmers about conservation agriculture practices and how to better manage yield and maintain soil health. Rai soon became more curious about the benefits of adopting these new methods over conventional practices. He started with a few acres with zero tillage and began sowing wheat by early November, as recommended by the scientists. In Rabi 2022-23, his wheat fields were sown by November 11, compared to the early years when the sowing date was around December.

Wheat yield data gathered meticulously over a decade from Rahul Rai’s fields (Data: CSISA MEL team)
With more participation and engagement with CSISA, in 2017, he joined other farmers from the region on an exposure visit to Patna organized by the CSISA-KVK network. In Patna, at the Indian Council of Agri Research – Research Complex for Eastern Region (ICAR-RCER), Rai and the visiting farmers were introduced to conservation agri-technologies for rice-wheat and other cropping systems. During the visit, they were informed about crop rotation and diversification, new seed varieties that are resilient and adaptable to changing climates, efficient use of plant protection chemicals and fertilizer and various subsidies from the center/state government to farmers. He later accompanied other progressive farmers on a CSISA-led travel seminar to Gorakhpur in 2017, where he observed acres and acres of wheat fields cultivated through zero tillage and early sowing that had yielded 6-7 tons per hectare (t/ha) on average.

At present, Rai’s family cultivates only zero till wheat in their fields and direct seeded rice on a few acres where irrigation facilities are well established. Rai asserts that until 2014, the wheat yield was about 10-15 quintals per acre (3.5-4 t/ha), rising to around 20-25 quintals per acre on average (5.5 t/ha in 2023) in recent years, thanks to conservation agriculture practices.

Today, the CSISA team has system optimization and demonstration trials on fields owned by Rai’s family where they conduct trials to demonstrate the importance and feasibility of different agri-practices and compare yields at harvest. Rai, a champion farmer who has been involved with CSISA for nearly a decade, said, “I am a collaborator with CSISA now. The data gathered from my fields on the compounding benefits of conservation agriculture technologies is used to promote the best practices and technology adoption across our district and state.”

One village at a time

Presently, Rajapur village has 100% zero tillage adoption. Despite most farmers being smallholders, this level of zero tillage adoption in wheat is impressive. Zero-till-based crop establishment, with appropriate diversification in crops grown, is economically beneficial and improves soil health. All these practices and technologies ensure lower greenhouse emissions and support climate change mitigation efforts. Above all, smallholder farmers are food secure and contributing in their small way to national and global food security.

To scale the adoption of conservation agriculture practices, CSISA and partners are collaborating with farmers in the district/state – many of whom are already 50-80% in zero tillage adoption. The team on the ground are conducting system optimization trials on farmers’ fields to generate data and evidence to support and strengthen policies and assist in integrating market intelligence to support access and availability of technology to all smallholders. Every year steadily, through a smallholder farmer, a village, a district, the effort is to slowly expand the area under conservation agriculture across the state and region and ensure increased system productivity and sustainability of agriculture.


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