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Involving Youth in Conservation Agriculture for a Sustainable Future- A Farmer's perspective

Globally agriculture is being practised under different agro-ecosystems using numerous technologies for crop production in order to have higher production. This is done through exploitation of natural resources like soil, water, air and solar radiation. Conservation agriculture (CA) on other hand is based on sustained yield level through resource optimization and is central to safe and healthy natural resources as well as a means to improved agricultural and rural livelihoods

But what is conservation agriculture?

Conservation  Agriculture  (CA)  is  defined  as  a  concept  for  resource-saving  agricultural  crop production that strives to achieve acceptable profits, high and sustained production levels while concurrently  conserving  the  environment. CA is based on enhancing natural biological processes above and below the ground. Interventions such as mechanical soil tillage are reduced to minimum possible extent. CA is characterized by three principles which are linked to each other, namely: the minimum mechanical soil disturbance throughout the entire crop rotation; the permanent organic soil cover; and the diversified crop rotations in case of annual crops or plant associations in case of perennial crops.

Impact of conservation agriculture on farmers’ livelihood

Conservation agriculture over time has shown higher and more stable yields with  lower  input costs  and a  better  adaptation  to  dangers  of  climate  change. It  clearly  has  a positive  impact  on  farmers’  livelihood through reduced labour requirements for tillage, land preparation and weeding. CA also offers real opportunities for crop diversification options.Most  farmers introduced  new  crops  and  diversified  their  crop  rotations which  could  have  been  done  also under  conventional  farming  but  is  more  likely  to  happen  under  CA.  These  effects  lead  to increased  farm  income  which  combined  with  the  reduced  production  costs  resulted  in significantly higher net income. As a result of the saved time and labour, most of the farms introduced other alternative farm enterprises for higher income. 

CA under Rice-Wheat cropping system 

Both rice and wheat produces more than 8t/ha of straw, but wheat straw has more profitbility compared to the rice. Disposal of paddy straw in the very short time available between the harvesting of rice and the sowing of wheat is a potential problem for the majority of farmers in the rice wheat cropping system, which is widely practiced in large part of India. Presently there is not much alternative use of paddy straw out of agriculture, so best viable use at present can be in-situ management in the field. The combine harvester spreads the residue in the field, which is difficult to collect.

The rice residue can be incorporated in the soil before sowing wheat but requires high energy and 2-3 weeks to decompose which delays the wheat sowing and leads to reduced yields. There are different management practices such as burning, removal, or incorporation being followed in south Asia but all in all,residue removal/incorporation in soil requires extra man power/energy. Due to lack of awareness, farmers find it easier to opt for burning the residue in the open field which adversely affects the air quality, leads to nutrient loss, degrades soil properties and cause wastage of residue that is now considered tremendous resource worldwide.

Burning contributes to green houses gases viz. carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide etc leading up to global warming. Sometimes residue burning results in burning of trees in addition to adjoining standing crops. Also, the ash on the surface of the soil, if not mixed properly, adsorbs the applied herbicides, which results in decreased efficacy of herbicides. Therefore, burning of rice residue is not advisable. Rice straw mulching in the no-till sown wheat with Turbo Happy Seeder machine is being followed by number of farmers in different wheat growing areas. This machine is capable of cutting, lifting and spreading the standing rice stubbles and loose straw along with sowing and fertilization in single operation. Due to reduction in cost of cultivation, farmers have shown great interest to adopt this technology.

Similarly,direct seeded rice(DSR) is also becoming popular due following reasons; No puddling required, unavailability of skilled labour for transplanting, decreasing water table and increasing per unit water cost and also reduces the drudgery on women workers. Mr. Yatin chaudhary, who is working on DSR in close association with  the CIMMYT project since 2010 says “During initial one month DSR requires intensive care and nourishment like a child”. Another farmer from Karnal District Mr. Harpreet Singh has reported higher returns and yields in rice-wheat under CA due to following reasons; residue present on surface act as mulch which reduces the weed emergence and evaporation losses. Mr Suresh Kumar, a small farmer from Taraori says that infiltration rate under Zero tilled field is better compared to Rotary tilled fields. A major group of farmer in basmati growing belt of Haryana, believes that only Turbo happy Seeder is the best available solution can ensure the timely sowing of succeeding wheat crop

Crop diversification and Legume intensification through CA: 

Here, we see the third principle of conservation agriculture which aims at adoption of appropriate crop rotations. As such,CA is not confined to tillage and establishment and explores the possibility of new crops which can replace the existing crop or fits in to existing cropping system. For particularity rice wheat cropping system summer moong has been quite successful and is being grown widely in Punjab and Haryana. Due to reduction in water availability, diversification of rice with maize is getting important year after year. Maize-wheat system under cultivated under conservation agriculture has similar returns compared to conventional rice-wheat system. Even the productivity of wheat under Maize-wheat system is 0.5-1.5 t/ha higher than rice-wheat.

Options for nutrient management under CA: 

When conservation agriculture is adopted with balanced and sufficient nutrient supply by through integrated nutrient management, results are more fruitful. Nutrient Expert, which is a decision support tool for nutrient supply developed by International Plant Nutrition Institute. This software is available free of cost and is recommended for Rice, Wheat and Maize. This tool is capable of managing both spatial and temporal variability. It can work with or without soil testing reports. Nutrient Expert recommends the nutrient supply be based upon field history, management practice, residue availability and source of nutrient supply. Another optical sensor ‘GreenSeeker’ guides nitrogen supply based upon the plant vigour and chlorophyll content.     

CA and Machinery requirement

Machinery for conservation agriculture generally refers to the cultivation systems with minimum or zero tillage and in-situ management of crop residues. Minimum tillage is aimed at reducing tillage to the minimum necessary that would facilitate favourable seedbed condition for satisfactory establishment of crop. Zero tillage is however an extreme form of minimum tillage.

With the development of direct drilling machines,almost all research work was based on the criteria of first attempting to define the responses of direct drilled seeds in relation to soil micro-environments. Thereafter machine design specifications especially of critical components were finalized to bring about the more desirable micro-environmental conditions. Selection of most appropriate equipment (combinations) for specific situation is essential in respect of field requirements (alleviate soil compaction, soil loosening only in crop rows or surface soil loosening with or without straw mulching); soil working condition type of equipment (discs or inverted T’ openers, narrow rotary strips or wide rotary gangs) and cultivation practices. Besides the chosen equipment (design: implement geometry) should match the power unit. Skilled operation is important to maintain work rate and avoid fuel losses. Machinery like Zero till seed cum ferti drill, strip till drill, Turbo happy seeder. Zero till muti crop planter are being manufactured by no of industries and easily available on local market. Farmer requires machinery which requires less expenses on wear and tear, with minimum possible operational cost. Its energy/horse power requirement should be low so that small famer may afford it. Machinery must not be too heavy to operate in fields.  

Institutional initiatives for CA 

The transformation from conventional agriculture to conservation agriculture requires a combination of technological innovations and institutional innovations or new/modified ways of working. Institutional arrangements that helps in promotion of conservation agriculture more widely in varying contexts.

As we see various institutes are working for the upliftment of agriculture through conservation agriculture which includes Indian Council of Agricultural Research trough its research institutes(IIWBR, CSSRI, IARI, NDRI etc) and state agriculture universities(CCS HAU in Haryana), state agriculture department through various schemes. Some international organizations/institutes like CIMMYT, IRRI, ACIAR etc. through various CGIAR’s research programs are working in association with ICAR and its research centres. Some organizations are promoting farmer’s participatory research platform by working in closely with farmers. Increasing evidence of several sectors/organizations playing active and varied roles in agricultural/rural innovations offers a new set of lessons that will alter conventional wisdom about knowledge/technology generation and its utilization. Role of private organizations is also very crucial in CA. Although till date private partners for CA promotions are very few, so number of private leaders should be increased. When various institutes/organizations works jointly with farmers, then technology dissemination is very fast. State or central government should include the farmer’s representatives for policy formulation and its implementation. Like for discouraging residue burning, it requires a multidisciplinary approach because it requires strategic policies, scientific, technical and social measures for sustaining conservation of environment and agricultural resources of the country. Role of government institutes is very important in monitoring and ensuring the availability of agricultural inputs well in time both quantitatively and qualitatively. 

Capacity building and CA

It takes special effort to develop the capacities for individuals/institutions or ways of working to exist and evolve in different partner organizations. Institutional changes can be achieved by encouraging a spirit of experimentation and learning in the agricultural development. Conservation agriculture demands initiatives which aimed at multiple benefits (instead of an exclusive focus on soil fertility/resource management/crop productivity) in various locations. This will force organizations in research and policy-making, farmers, resource conservation, rural inputs or finance, agricultural markets and post-harvest sectors to form need based partnerships to address the key rural livelihoods issues through conservation agriculture. Given that there is no single given set of technologies or one prescribed way of making conservation agriculture work, these partners can then identify the ideal entry point and set of tasks to be taken up in each context. It is important that‘training’programmes for conservation agriculture are not the only source or main tool for building capacities. We need small projects which will facilitate hands on training within organizations and its partners including farmers. Capacity development is extremely urgent for upscaling of technologies needed for success of CA.

Role of Farmers Cooperatives Societies in promotion of CA: 

One of the major constraints in adoption of CA machinery especially for small and marginal farmers is affordability of CA machines. Farmer’s cooperative society is the best solution where a group of 10-15 farmers purchases the machinery and is used by all group members. It has been also observed that some farmer societies are also earning income through custom hiring by proving service to other farmers. So benefits are shared among the group members.

Why youth engagement is crucial in CA:

Modern agriculture is total about decision based production system, like crop and crop cultivar, crop geometry, nutrient and water management, crop protection measures etc.  So for efficient and timely decision making as well as risk management, technological advancement is necessary; under such situation young farmer cum researcher can lead to sustainable production. To be a progressive farmer, a person has to be fast learner cum adaptive researcher. For economical production,  huge information need to be gathered for efficient decision making and this is possible only through youth empowerment. There are few organizations like YPARD(Young professionals for agricultural development) which are working particularly on youth and its engagement in agriculture. Youth is the one of the best available resource with India, which can play a significant role in sustainable agricultural development. If we see the capacity development, it seems easy to train about the new technology and innovation to the young generation. It will be easy for young farmers to work on decision support tools like ‘Nutrient Expert’ and Green Seeker. Moreover it is the need of hour to motivate and encourage the young and educated youth toward agriculture through latest IT based tools and high tech machines.