Value chains for Climate Resilient Agriculture: Building farms of the future
Climate change is inevitable and its effects are already being felt by the farmers across the country.
A few major ecological issues that farmers face today are:
- Droughts and excessive rains: While some farmers have their crops destroyed due to excessive rain and waterlogged farms, just a few 100 kms away another farmer’s land is barren because of no rainfall and saline underground water.
- Reducing soil fertility: Excessive use of chemicals has led to decreased soil fertility. Farmers are being forced to rely more and more on fertilisers to get good yield while the fertilisers are getting costlier due to increased demand.
- Increased pest & disease attacks: As climate become more and more favourable to certain disease and pests, while the natural ecosystems disappear due to use of pesticides, pest and disease attacks are increasing both in intensity of damage and frequency of occurrence.
In the specific context of India, there are some additional financial issues that farmers face due to historical reasons:
- Low market prices: In Rabi 2021–22, 48.7% of total cultivated land in India will be sown with wheat as per Govt. records. Such practices has led to excess supply of a handful of commodities in the market and hence poor rates.
- Increasing debt: With an average landholding of just 1.08 hectares, most of Indian farmers have extremely low agriculture incomes. Due to this many farmers have to take debt every season to cultivate their land and are just a single bad season away from losing their land.
From high-tech IoT and AI based precision farming to low-cost Zero Budget Natural Farming, many solutions are being tried and promoted to help farmers achieve Climate Resilience.
Scalability of any high-tech solution is restricted due to the high cost involved and hence is currently focused only on medium and large farm-holdings which constitute under 14% of total landholdings.
For the rest of 86% farmers, diversification of crops and adopting sustainable agricultural practices is the practical solution. While a huge traction can be observed for such practices and new crops & agri-businesses which promise better income but the adoption is still low. There are a few major reason for this:
- Sustainable practices take time: Most of the sustainable practices and agriculture systems do not yield instantaneous results. In fact, a general trend is that it takes 2–3 years for a farm to achieve economic efficiency. Generally, . With already low incomes and debt at hand, most farmers are not in a position to survive for 2–3 years with this reduced income.
- Everything comes at a price: While it may be called Zero Budget Natural Farming, it involves huge investments and so do most other sustainable practices. Since this cost doesn’t yield any direct returns in short time, for a farmer living on debt, it is an investment that doesn’t make sense.
- Lack of linkages: Every form of diversification requires new linkages. Due to dependency on local traders for inputs, debt and market linkages it is tough for a small or marginal farmer to diversify to new crops and practices.
- Risk of unknown: Diversification of practices and crops requires proper knowledge of the same. Without a proper knowledge and support system the risks involved are pretty high, hence adding to a farmer’s inertia.
A new approach: Value chains for climate resilience
Without solving for the financial realities of a farmer, it is not possible to build a sustainable climate resilient solution. Any solution that contributes to climate resilience shall involve small investments and must lead to direct financial returns in short periods. Further, it can scale only if the required input and market linkages are available along with a reliable support system.
The financial impact of most of agricultural practices is indirect and depends on the economy of underlying value chain. It is hence crucial to first build strong value chains which ensure good financial returns while improving climate resiliency.
Such value chains are expected to have certain patterns:
- Inherent RoI: Value chains which inherently have better returns on investment as compared to traditional value chains like rice and wheat.
- Low risk: The inherent climate risk associated with the value chain shall be low so that the value chain contributes to climate resilience of the farm.
- Sustainable cultivation: It should be possible to take good yield from the underlying crop/livestock without excess use of chemicals and other unsustainable practices.
Correspondingly, promoting such value chains require:
- Market demand & linkages: There shall be enough demand and corresponding linkages in the market that the farmer can be confident of being able to sell and fetch a good price for his produce.
- Input linkages: Accessibility to quality inputs at low cost.
- Knowledge & Support: A reliable support system that would help a farmer at each and every step to achieve the maximum efficiency possible.
Adoption of such value chains ensure:
- Enhanced resilience: If the value chains involved crops & livestock which are inherently at lower risk with changing climate then it ensures improved resilience of the farm.
- Improved sustainability: Being able to get good yield without relying on excessive use of chemicals will improve long term sustainability of the farm.
- Improved incomes: Since the value chain inherently involves better RoI, the farmer would earn more income while still reducing risk and improving sustainability of his farm.
Arid zone medicinal herbs
Arid zone medicinal herbs require less water and fertilisers. They are generally less prone to diseases and pest attacks. They can easily be cultivated organically without any loss in yield. They have good financial returns due to high demand for traditional medicinal systems (AYUSH). Their cultivation also reduces the stress on forests due to over-harvesting of these herbs from their natural habitat. Unlike cereal crops, a larger part of these crops is used and hence the resultant waste produced is lower.
- Improved income: Typically 3–4 benefit to cost ratio while the same for rice and wheat tend to be around 1.5–1.8.
- Resilience: Resilient to drought, diseases & pests.
- Sustainability: Requires less water, fertilisers and pesticides. Acts as a good starting point to switch to sustainable agriculture while the farm returns to efficiency in 2–3 years.
- Indirect ecological impact: Contributes in preserving forests by reducing stress on them for harvesting of these herbs.
Mushrooms are fungi which generally grow on decomposing matter. Since they are cultivated in dark enclosed spaces, they do not rely much on external climatic conditions. They are grown on farm & associated industrial waste like straw, husks etc. Chemicals are mostly required for sanitation and can easily be avoided in favour of sustainable alternatives. They require a very small space, allowing a farmer to easily diversify while still using most of their land for other open field crops.
- Improved income: Typically 2.5–3 benefit to cost ratio with extremely efficient use of land.
- Resilience: Being protected cultivation, resilient to most environmental conditions.
- Sustainability: Requires less water and chemicals. Grows primarily on farm & associated industrial waste.
- Indirect ecological impact: Can be used to prevent burning of straw or other unsustainable ways of decomposing waste.
Vermicompost is an organic fertiliser that can be easily prepared by a farmer using livestock and farm waste. Earthworms can be reared in a controlled environment and native species are generally resilient to extreme conditions. It provides a farmer an additional income source, a sustainable way of managing their waste and a nutritious fertiliser for their farm.
- Improved income: Typically 3–5 benefit to cost ratio with efficient use of land and small investment when produced for commercial purpose. Additionally the cost of production is reduced when consumed at farm level.
- Resilience: Organic fertiliser hence produced improves the fertility of the soil, increases bio-diversity and enhances water retention capacity of the soil. Making the farm more resilient in longer run.
- Sustainability: Locally produced organic fertiliser drastically reduces use of chemicals on farm.
- Indirect ecological impact: Reduced Greenhouse gas emission that would have happened if the waste used for vermicompost were to be decomposed by micro-organisms.
Bamboo is essentially a hardy grass that can grow in almost all types of conditions. They act as a good buffer zone crop protecting the farm from diseases & pests, forest fires and strong winds.
- Improved income: Typically 2.5–3 benefit to cost ratio with a single harvest. Additional harvests are possible every few years. Apart from the logs, bamboo leaves & shoots can also be used for various purposes.
- Resilience: Bamboo is a hardy grass and can sustain almost all kinds of environmental conditions once established.
- Sustainability: Bamboo do not require any additional fertilisers or water once established. Bamboo leaves can be used as fodder or mulch or can be decomposed to make fertiliser.
- Indirect ecological impact: Bamboo is a versatile crop that can be a good alternative to wood preventing deforestation, can be used to produce bio-fuel and has many other uses like making clothes, shoes utensils etc.
Similarly aquaculture can be used to make any investment in water harvesting profitable & lucrative to a farmer.
Millets and legumes (pulses) can easily be grown without use of any chemicals, are generally more resilient than common cereals and the crop waste can be used as mulching or to make compost.
Most horticulture crops provide good recurring income and are easier to grow sustainably. Multi-cropping systems provide additional resilience and incorporation of trees in farms provide strong ecological impact.
At Seed Savers Club, we are helping farmers diversify across such value chains which are inherently financially and ecologically sustainable by providing them end to end support in form of knowledge support, input access and market linkages.