Promoting Organic Farming: Lessons from Kheti Virasat Mission, Punjab

KVM

A number of non-governmental organizations promote the production and marketing of organic vegetables as an intervention to improve the health of the soil, the quality of water resources and the natural environment. It also provides pesticide-free produce to people and is seen as a means of sustainable livelihood to those involved in farming. Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM) in Jaitu, Punjab is a pioneering organization of this kind in the state of Punjab. This article looks at the prospects and challenges of organic farming based on the experience of KVM. It draws on the experience of one of the authors associated with KVM as a full-time employee for the last two years. It is based on a field visit by Santhakumar and Rema Devi in the areas where KVM operates and the discussion with seven farm-families who have been practising organic farming with support from KVM. In addition, we have also visited several households where the women members cultivate kitchen gardens using organic techniques.

The context

Those who support modern agriculture and others who oppose it, agree on the fact that chemical fertilizers, pesticides and water used for agriculture leads to the decline of soil fertility, pollution of water bodies, depletion of groundwater, and the degeneration of natural environment. There are multiple reasons for this state of affairs. The enforcement of scientific prescriptions (regarding the type and quantity of pesticide to be used, etc.) and safety measures (such as, how to use pesticides) is very poor in India. The doses, timings and even the nature of pesticides used for specific crops or against particular pests are not always based on the prescriptions of farm scientists. There is also no proper check on the product quality for pesticide residues while selling agricultural products. Hence, farmers use these excessively and carelessly. Most farmers in India use pesticides without considering the consumers’ or even their own safety. There are also different kinds of subsidies by the government for inputs and specific crops. These create a perverse incentive for the use of excessive inputs and the cultivation of crops which extract an excessive amount of natural resources. People do not have to bear the actual cost of natural resources that they use. The enforcement of regulations that control pollution is also weak. Hence, people pollute water bodies and atmosphere without bearing any cost. The collective action and coordination to address the issues of excessive and degenerating use of natural resources are also inadequate.

These problems have been acute in Punjab – a state that was at the forefront of the Green Revolution’ promoted in India. Agriculture is an important occupation and source of income in the state. Unlike many other states, farmers in Punjab have experienced notable income growth, and hence, they have the interest to continue farming. This is also one of the states which benefitted most from the government policies, like the minimum support pricing (for wheat and paddy), subsidies for agricultural inputs, expansion of surface irrigation and subsidies for the lifting of water from borewells etc. Hence, the state witnessed an expansion and intensification of chemical agriculture. This has, given the institutional situation described in the previous paragraph, led to the degradation of the environment and the depletion of natural resources used in agriculture. There is a critical need to address this issue in Punjab.

People in Punjab have for generations migrated to the developed countries and the present generation of girls and boys are also keen to build up their career and life abroad. (Advertisements for IELTS coaching centres are seen everywhere in the state.) However, the migration has not led to the fallowing of agricultural land in Punjab. When people shift to other metros or abroad, their landholdings are leased out to other farmers or landless people. The present lease amount is Rs 40,000 to 50,000 per acre/​year. Short-term leasing could be one of the reasons for the persistence of chemical farming as the lessee tries to extract maximum profit from the land and has no interest in sustaining the health of the soil. The loss of traditional knowledge of farming could also be the reason for people continuing with chemical farming, which was introduced during the Green Revolution and the current generation of farmers have no knowledge or exposure of the farming practised before the Green Revolution.

Given the institutional deficiencies in our country, there is not much hope in the practice of agriculture with regulated inputs. For this reason, and also due to the public discourses1 against modern agriculture, organic farming’ is becoming popular among certain circles and sections in India. The meaning of organic farming is widely known, and hence, we do not attempt a detailed description of the techniques of this kind of cultivation. In general, this form of cultivation does not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides but uses, instead, organic manure (cow dung, residues from the extraction of cooking oils, etc.) and other such growth promoters to enhance soil fertility. The cropping methods used, facilitate the bio-fixing of nitrogen. Natural-organic lotions (extracts of plants such as neem, highly fermented buttermilk and other such materials) are used for plant protection. Instead of mono-cropping, inter-cropping is practised, and multiple plants and animals are nurtured in organic farms.

The practise of organic farming is carried out for two main consumer segments. One is for self-consumption; for those who wish to consume chemical-free produce. They may not be that concerned about the slight loss of yield, if any, due to the non-use of chemical inputs, and also the prices of these products. Such cultivation, of say vegetables, can be seen in different parts of the country, including its urban areas. Second is the organic production for markets. (Some people may combine organic farming for both self-consumption and marketing). Since the yield in organic production for certain (not all) crops could be lower than that in chemical agriculture, the prices of organic products are higher to compensate the (possible) losses to organic farmers. Therefore, organic products can only be sold to those consumers who are willing to pay a higher price.

There is the issue of information asymmetry here. How can consumers be sure whether a farm product is cultivated through organic techniques or chemical agriculture? Finding this out can be very costly or almost impossible if consumers are not in touch with the actual production process. Usually, farmers and farms are far away from urban consumers. Even if the produce is sourced from a set of organic farmers in a demonstrable manner, how to ensure that this process is followed throughout the year and also for all products? People are forced to use signalling and screening devices to get information on the genuineness of organic products. (To some extent, this is favourable for organic production too. People may develop a general perception of the prevalence of a higher amount of pesticide residues in normal farm products, correctly or not, and they may see organic farming as a solution to this problem.) Consumers would be willing to pay a premium price for organic products, provided they are sure of it. This is one reason why the market for organic vegetables needs certain additional support systems. There could be certification agencies that assess periodically (and through reliable means) the cultivation process of organic farmers, and such certified produce may convince potential consumers. However, these measures are not effective in India. The supply of organic products facilitated by a known NGO which is committed to the protection of the natural environment may have higher credibility. The intermediation by such an NGO may be a signal to consumers regarding the authenticity of organic products.

The role of an NGO in organic farming could be two-fold. One would be to create awareness and encourage more farmers to shift to organic farming. Secondly, to facilitate or support the marketing of these organic products. The founder of KVM has been concerned about these issues and has made a pioneering effort to encourage farmers to shift to organic farming in Punjab. His interest in organic farming may not be mainly due to the problems arising out of chemical agriculture but may be based on a philosophical approach and influenced by the global discourses on this issue. However, we focus more on prospects of and challenges in the promotion of organic farming in India.

Organic farming enabled by the KVM: Indicators of success

Our discussion with the founder of KVM informed us that there could be around 5000 farmers, 500 among them active, influenced by KVM. We interacted with seven of them operating at multiple locations (different districts). The land areas that these farmers cultivate organically varies between 1 and 20 acres. In addition, we have seen three to four households which nurture kitchen gardens by following organic techniques. Our key observations are the following:

  1. All these farmers are convinced of the need for organic farming based on their understanding of the problems in farming (also due to the awareness created by organizations such as KVM). They continue to be strong advocates of organic farming in their respective regions. The reported reasons for adopting organic farming include serious health issues in their families, moving from jobs in metros/​abroad to farming due to health issues or stress and awareness about the ill-effects of conventional/​chemical farming. Some have started organic farming after an initial experience in conventional/​chemical farming or as a new beginning after retirement. Health and environmental degradation were common concerns for all these farmers. Most of them carry out farming with the support of other members of the family, and some women take an active part in farming, processing and marketing. Personally, they all seem to be personally satisfied and content in their lives after the shift. Overall, it has improved their general wellbeing and quality of life.
  2. The farmers follow certain common approaches in this farming. Cattles are reared and the waste is used as the main ingredient for enhancing soil fertility and pest control. Cattle manure is prepared by them along with neem leaves, jaggery and locally available organic materials. They preserve seeds which reduces the cost of purchasing from the market. A significant part of the produce is used for self-consumption, and hence, a major part of their food is from their own production and not from markets. Adopting practices which are appropriate to their specific location and practising multi-cropping are the other noticeable tendencies. The understanding of techniques that work and crops that grow together is acquired through involvement and experience.
  3. All of them consider their organic agriculture’ successful. This could be due to a combination of the financial success of organic farming when compared to chemical agriculture, the happiness they derive from the consumption of organic products and the satisfaction from doing right’ according to their own perception. Even those farmers who are involved in chemical agriculture seem to demand organic products when it comes to their own consumption. This is evident from the local demand for such products among other people.
  4. Based on their reading, awareness created through interaction with organizations such as KVM, and through experimentation, these farmers have developed innovative ways to generate farm inputs to practice organic farming. One can see them using a wide variety of growth promoters based on by-products or waste materials, and biological pest control means. All of them spend substantial time in farming, and they concede that organic farming requires much more attention than is needed for chemical agriculture. However, it seems from the interaction with this limited set of farmers, that they derive a certain joy in involving in these farming activities and hence, do not consider the additional work as drudgery.
  5. These farmers cultivate not only for self-consumption but also for income generation. They do not face any major problems in the marketing of their produce. They have used multiple strategies to enhance the network of consumers, such as distributing free samples. They also advocate organic produce to their relatives and friends. Some of them have experiences of their customers becoming the ambassadors of their products. Increased awareness regarding the benefits of organic produce among the public has reduced the risks associated with marketing. Some urban elites are their regular customers as they are more aware, health-conscious and can afford to buy these. According to them, building a relationship with consumers, winning their trust and being truthful to them remain the key determinants of smooth marketing. Most of them do not think certification is important because they feel that trust and honesty have more impact than certification. The weekly market facilitated by KVM in the district headquarters is an important platform for the sale of their produce.
  6. Almost all of them have noted a reduced yield from organic cultivation (compared to traditional agriculture). The production of wheat goes down drastically in the first few years after the shift to organic farming; it increases gradually over the years but continues to be low even six to seven years after the shift. However, they see higher prices compensating for the loss in yield. Interestingly, farmers find that it is difficult to get a higher price for paddy (and this may be due to the fact that paddy is not a widely consumed grain in Punjab), but there is not much yield difference in the case of paddy between organic and chemical agriculture.
  7. Farmers note that they do get a significantly higher price (than that of products of chemical agriculture) for most of the products, and this compensates for the loss in yield due to the absence of chemical inputs. Some of these farmers have also created value-added products, such as organic jaggery (by using sugarcane cultivated through organic farming and processing it into jaggery without using chemical inputs) or ghee from native (desi) cows. Some of them were also successful in convincing consumers about the difference (relatively, superior quality) of their products, for example, desi ghee. There is a higher demand for such products from these farmers. These factors may have contributed to their financial success.
  8. There is a general perception that an organic farm in the middle of an area where chemical agriculture is practised may attract a lot more pests. However, these farmers have not noticed this issue. They would advise newcomers to start organic farming in a part of their landholding rather than making a complete shift at one go so as to ensure income inflow as the production in organic farming is low during the first couple of years. According to them, the area under organic farming should be increased gradually and the whole farm can be converted into organic over a few years. Cultivating vegetables or paddy could be another strategy, as there is not much reduction in the yield compared to wheat and the marketing of vegetables is comparatively easier.
  9. Farmers note that organic farming is labour-intensive. In the absence of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, many other processes are required, such as weeding or the preparation of bio-inputs. We have not seen any labour shortage in the state. There are farmers who have workers employed on longer-term contracts. Some of this agricultural labour comes from the other states of India.
  10. A number of households involved in chemical agriculture have adopted organic farming for their kitchen gardens. We could see some of these gardens, and these are well-maintained. Women members of the households play an important role in maintaining (and have control over the produce of) kitchen gardens. One such garden is also giving a significant income (of around Rs 7500/- per month) to the woman homemaker who maintains it. Though organic farming is practised by only a small share of farmers, many others consider it desirable for self-consumption. The brother of an organic farmer who practices chemical agriculture buys products from him for his own consumption. Apparently, stealing of organic products for self-consumption is also a problem, according to one of the farmers whom we have interviewed. Hence, the popularity of organic farming in Punjab is widespread and goes beyond the small set of farmers who practice it.

Farmers: Socioeconomic conditions and influence 

There are certain common socioeconomic characteristics among the organic farmers that we interviewed.

  1. Though the majority of them have a family background in agriculture, most of them have a non-agricultural source of income – a couple who was working in Delhi and then decided to come back to the native village and take up organic farming as a full-time occupation, a retired army soldier, a retired school principal, a former truck driver (for five years) in the United States, one whose wife is a teacher in a senior secondary school, and a commission agent (money lender). It is the seventh farmer who seems to be depending solely on the income from agriculture. However, he was also a stenographer before taking up farming. Though he currently cultivates only one acre, the remaining three acres owned by him are leased in by the KVM for organic farming. Hence, he gets the lease income in addition to the revenue from organic cultivation.
  2. This description of the non-agricultural source of income is not to argue that organic agriculture is not the main source of income for these farmers. The first farmer is emphatic that he gets notable income (around or more than Rs 50,000/- per month) from farming and his pension is saved. The second farmer and his brother (who returned after working in the middle-east) and their families (including one grown-up son) see organic farming and the production of organic jaggery as a full-time occupation. The only occupation for the person returned from the USA is also farming. Hence, it is possible that organic farming can give significant incomes that are needed for the subsistence of these farming families.
  3. However, the non-agricultural background of most of these farmers may be influencing their work and decisions in other ways. Their backgrounds indicate possibly higher levels of education, exposure, and wider social networks. This may have helped them to get in touch with organizations such as KVM, enhanced their awareness of organic produce and enabled the marketing of products through wider and non-conventional channels.
  4. The non-agricultural incomes may have enhanced their readiness to take risks initially. Income from other sources can serve as insurance and social security for contingency purposes (such as the sickness of a family member) if the revenue from agriculture is not adequate.
  5. There could be an intrinsic motivation (which is different from the objective of gaining more monetary income) for these farmers to do what they consider right’, which may have also turned out to be financially viable. Since all farmers may not have such motivation, it is interesting to speculate on whether the (different) backgrounds of these farmers have contributed to these (different) motivations.
  6. It seems that these farmers have a hands-on approach to farming by spending a lot of time and energy. They do not seem to find this effort (participation in agricultural work) as drudgery. Instead of the disutility’ associated with the work, they may be gaining some satisfaction from it. Profits may not be the main objective of this type of agriculture, work is not for wages and instead, it may give certain joy, and the opportunity cost of time is not high, and finally, they get the joy in consuming what they consider quality’ food. This may not be the case with all farmers. What makes these organic farmers different, and does it have something to do with their backgrounds is also an interesting issue.
  7. By and large, these farmers are somewhat different from a typical small peasant farmer in India or Punjab, who is likely to have less education, may be working in agriculture throughout life, and it could be the main source of income. They may not have human and social capital that these organic farmers have and may be financially vulnerable which can be a possible negative impact on their readiness to risk trying out something different from what they have been doing.
  8. Though most of these organic farmers could influence some people within their district or the state, their influence in the same locality is minimal. One farmer notes that he could not even influence his brother. Others note that they have been considered insane’ by the traditional farmers in the locality. This is despite, as noted earlier, the general perception in these villages that organic products are safer for consumption than their chemical equivalents.
  9. To some extent, this is noted by the KVM too. The founder notes that though they would like every farmer to do organic cultivation, they are conscious that this may not happen. Hence organic cultivation, in the perception of the proponents and also based on the reality, remains as the practice of a small set of people.

Organic farming: Possible challenges

  1. One major issue highlighted by the farmers is the requirement for suitable and adequate storage facilities. This may be more important for grains or value-added products, like jaggery or ghee. Since there could be some seasonality in their production, and all the products cannot be sold immediately after the production through conventional market channels (which is the practice followed by the normal farmers who sell their grains to government depots immediately after harvest), ability to store the materials in an appropriate manner is much more important for organic farmers. Such storage would also mean certain changes in the cash-flow or requirements of money for recurring expenditure, which requires access to credit (or own money).
  2. Organic cultivation requires a higher labour input. The state of Punjab is yet to face severe scarcity of agricultural workers. This is also aided by the migration of workers from other Indian states such as the UP and Bihar, and also from Nepal. The wage rate of an agricultural worker (which is around Rs 350/- per day) is not as high as in certain other parts of India. However, the possible impact of an increase in the wage rate could be an issue. Farming is a production process which uses both capital and labour, and as labour becomes scarcer, there could be a tendency to move towards capital-intensive agriculture, and chemical agriculture could be one such form. (In modern agriculture, certain processes such as weed-control are carried out through the use of chemicals bought with the money and minimal labour is used.) This would mean that the tendency to save labour as and when its price increases could be real and unavoidable. There could be (a combination of) two responses to this situation on the part of the organic farmers. First, is certain mechanization in organic farming. For example, there could be a use of sprays or mechanical/​electrical devices to control pests. Secondly, a part of the additional labour involved may be seen as something that gives certain happiness (say, in tendering plants) and is not drudgery. The way this issue is going to be addressed in organic farming would be interesting to watch.
  3. Currently, organic farmers get a higher price for their products compared to those produced through chemical agriculture. (Paddy seems to be the only exception in this case). This higher price could be interpreted in two ways. It can be a reflection of the higher cost of production of organic products which require more labour, and do not use inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides which are subsidised by the government. The other way to make sense of the higher price for organic products could be due to the scarcity of the supply of such products (there are only a few farmers in any area practicing organic farming). If this is true, organic farmers are getting a rent’ due to minimal competition. The expansion of organic cultivation may reduce this rent. Though this could be beneficial for the consumers of organic products (and society, in general), will it reduce the incentive for farmers to practice organic farming remains to be seen.
  4. Making more farmers interested in organic farming continues to be a major challenge. If the concern is about the pollution of water bodies, decline in soil fertility, and degeneration of natural environment, these cannot be mitigated with a small share of farmers moving away from chemical agriculture. What is discouraging many others from pursuing organic farming, even when many people perceive that organic products are safer, is an important issue to be explored. Is it merely an issue of awareness and attitude? Does it have something to do with the material circumstances of these farmers? Questions such as these are relevant here.
  5. According to the founder of KVM and the farmers whom we interviewed, one reason for the continuance of chemical agriculture by the majority of farmers is the subsidies and other interventions by the government. Minimum support price and government procurement means that the chemical cultivation of paddy and wheat has minimum risk. Then, there are subsidies for chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides. The continuation of a part of these subsidies could be due to the influence of the companies which produce these inputs. Though these subsidies and support can be seen as beneficial, they cause the overuse of chemicals, pollution of water bodies, and decline of micronutrients in the soil.

Organic farming: Possible scenarios

Given the situation of the organic farming described here, what could be its future in Punjab? We identify two possible scenarios and discuss these briefly in the following paragraphs.

1. A future with a set of successful organic farmers 

There are many people including farmers who practice chemical agriculture in Punjab who perceive that organic produce is safer for consumption. They may not be very concerned about the impact of chemical agriculture on the environment or natural system. These people buy organic products and are willing to pay a higher price for them. There is also a set of farmers (and we do not want to speculate on their number since we do not have any reliable data) who are convinced about the benefits of organic farming for themselves and others, and have taken it up as a full-time occupation and have been successful. There could be another set of people (and their number could be much higher than the first set mentioned here) who may be willing to practice organic farming in their kitchen gardens for their own consumption (even if they continue with chemical agriculture for commercial purposes). Hence, chemical-free products would be available to a set of people, and these include consumers and producers. These people may be supported by organizations like the KVM. The facilitation of organic fairs in a few districts once in a week is one such strategy, and this can be tried out in other places. The awareness creation and support for kitchen gardens carried out by it could be one such strategy, and this effort can be extended. The process by which farmers are connected directly to urban consumers of organic products can be strengthened. Here, consumers get to know more about the farmers and their methods of cultivation. Farmers also get some assured orders from these consumers. This direct, informal connection may address the problem of information asymmetry to some extent.

2. How likely is a possible shift towards less use of chemicals in farming in Punjab?

Will the presence of a set of successful organic farmers in the state, and the general perception of the safety of organic food products, encourage the majority of farmers in Punjab to move away from agriculture which uses chemical inputs excessively? Such a movement is needed if the negative impact on soil, water and other dimensions of the natural environment is to be reduced. However, such a transition does not seem very likely in the current situation and may require a substantial change in government policies and the strengthening of collective actions for this purpose. Some of the changes in government policies that may bring about such a change include (a) direct transfer of a lump sum amount as the subsidy (There is already an amount of this kind transferred to farmers.) instead of subsidizing each chemical input and also for the production of specific crops (through minimum support prices); (b) the regulation of agricultural processes so that these do not pollute natural resources. It may also require scaled-up actions on the part of organizations such as the KVM. These may include awareness creation, greater standardization (and hence, simplification of the methods of cultivation), development/​strengthening of local-level farmers’ networks to ensure that the products are made through organic methods, the federation of networks and the linkages with national or international chains for the marketing of these organic products.

Authors

V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangalore

Rema Devi, Field Practice team, Azim Premji University, Bangalore

Rupsi Garg​works with the Kheti Virasat Mission, Punjab. She has completed her Masters in Development from Azim Premji University, Bangalore. At KVM, she looks after the various aspects of rural development and is actively working with women through organic kitchen gardens and with women artisans in reviving the traditional arts and crafts under the umbrella, TRINJAN.