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Taking science lessons out to the farmers

Anusha Krishnan

More than 50% of the Indian workforce earns its living through agriculture. Yet, there exists a huge gap in translating the knowledge gained through agricultural research into practice. Here, we chat with R.K. Patnaik, a former agronomist at the Orissa Institute of Agricultural Technology, who has single-handedly been training farmers from a small village in Orissa in better agricultural practices.

R. K. Patnaik
R. K. Patnaik 

In a small village called Rathipur in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, a class is in session. The teacher is not young, in his late sixties, but clearly passionate about the subject he is teaching. 

The students, however, are not what one would expect. They are all farmers. 

The weather-beaten faces engrossed in listening to the teacher are mostly in their 40s and 50s, with a sprinkling of younger men in the back rows. As the teacher pauses in the middle of a sentence, one of the farmers quietly pokes his neighbour and mimics a pen moving across paper – it’s a silent plea from an illiterate man to a literate one to note down a point in writing.

The teacher notices, and hides his smile – for him, this subtle gesture of understanding and interest on the farmer’s part is a proud victory, one that has come from two years of painstaking effort.

The teacher here is R. K. Patnaik, a retired agronomist who worked at the Orissa Institute of Agricultural Technology for nearly 40 years, and his mission is to get farmers to adopt better agricultural practices. Patnaik is pushing the farmers in Rathipur and nearby villages to improve their socio-economic standing by sharing with them his knowledge on improving agricultural productivity. 

He joins us in an interview to talk about his efforts in Rathipur and the successes and failures he has encountered in his endeavours.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what your objectives are in reaching out to farmers?

I am basically an agronomist — I studied the response of crops to different growth environments like types of soil, nutrient status, and varying moisture conditions. I worked for nearly 40 years at the Orissa Institute of Agricultural Technology. 

What I found out after retiring is that although thousands of graduates, post-graduates, and PhD scholars have been produced in my time at the institute, the farmers’ conditions in the agricultural field has not changed much. Of course, there have been improvements in crop production – India is now self-sufficient in food grain production – but the economic status of farmers is not improving.

So, I wanted to go to the farmers and analyze what understanding they have gained about improvements in agricultural science. Why have they not been able to improve their lot?

Tell us about the journey that brought you to Rathipur.

In the 80s and 90s, I was involved in surveying two medium-sized irrigation projects (in Kalo and Sunei) in the Mayurbhanj district. So, when I visited this place almost 30 years later, I was expecting an improvement in the agricultural production system. But to my utter surprise, although there was some improvement in paddy farming, there were few changes in cropping intensity (a measure of how many crops are raised in the same field in one agricultural year) and crop rotation (growing different crops in a field in consecutive years) was hardly being followed. 

Most of the farmers in this area were also marginal (with landholding size of about 1 hectare) and small (having 1 – 2 hectares) farmers, who were resource-poor. 

Since Mayurbhanj is located near Midnapur district of West Bengal, which is one of the major potato-growing districts of India, I wondered why farmers here did not practice crop rotation by growing potatoes as a Rabi crop (crops sown in winter and harvested in spring in India) after the paddy crops were brought in.

I went to many agricultural offices – met the deputy director, district commissioner, and other officers to find out why crop rotation wasn’t practised – but got no clear answers. That’s when I decided to simply talk to the farmers themselves, and so ended up in Rathipur.

What did you find when you interacted with the farmers in the district? How did the farmers react to your advice?

By talking to the farmers at Rathipur and few other nearby villages, I finally found out why crop rotation was not being practised in this region. 

Farmers here grow a long-duration crop that is sown in July and harvested only by mid- to end-November. This means that a Rabi crop, which needs to be sown by early- to mid-November, cannot be planted. Also, my suggestion that they shift to a shorter duration paddy crop was met with deep scepticism. This, I realized, was very valid, as the harvest time for such shorter duration paddy crops would be in the middle of the cyclone season in this area – farmers would have no way to dry and store the harvested grains. 

So, I shifted my attention to looking at the quality of the crops. Here, I found that the farmers were using poor quality seeds to sow their crops. According to the certification system, there are five levels of quality – Breeder, Foundation, Certified 1, Certified 2, and Certified 3. The farmers were using 3rd-grade Certified seeds, which are of the lowest quality and which they procure from the local agricultural co-operative societies and panchayats. 

In 2017, I advised the farmers to obtain Breeder seeds for their next crop. I even arranged for a waiver of the license fees usually charged for such seeds. But the farmers did not go to the Institute to collect the seeds – they were hesitant to leave their homes and travel to such a far-off place and also thought the trip might be too expensive for their slender means. That year, the crop was even poorer than usual.

Did the farmers finally take your advice? What results did you see?

Finally, I found 7 farmers willing to travel to Bhubaneswar for Breeder seeds in 2018. I even added a small incentive for them – I covered all their expenses for the trip and gave them Rs. 500 for their efforts. That cash incentive went a long way in encouraging the farmers to take up this project.

I went to meet the farmers when the paddy seedlings were ready for transplanting and found that they were very happy. The seedlings were healthier than any they had seen in a long time.

When I went back next, it was during the harvest season. There was a lot of agony on my mind about what I would find. You see, in November, just before the harvest, cyclone Bulbul had ravaged Odisha, and I was afraid that the farmers had lost their crop.

But when I met the farmers, I saw such joy on their faces that I was taken aback! They told me that this type of cyclone hits the area every year and that they always lose some crops. This year though, the quality of the plants was so good that they had almost doubled their usual yield! 

I arranged for a seed certification officer to certify these farmers’ seeds as Foundation seeds so that they could sell them for a better price. The officer was so impressed that he declared the fields as demonstration plots (fields usually used to teach about and explain the results of agricultural experiments). After seeing these demonstration plots, farmers from other villages are now asking me for help for the next year. 

Crop field: Before and after Cyclone
A field planted with Breeder seeds, before cyclone Bulbul — standing crop in September 2019 (Left) The same field after the cyclone (Right)

What changes do you see in the farmers since you first startedtalking to them?

Initially, when I conducted my meetings, I would find that most of what I was saying was not getting through to the farmers. They would listen but implement none of my suggestions. Now, they are more willing to argue points and use my suggestions practically. 

Another thing I have noticed is that while replanting the paddy, the farmers were not maintaining the proper density of plants in their plots. To avoid spreading of diseases and pests, they plant too few seedlings in the plots. Here, again, when I advised them with the proper density, the farmers are taking note.

One very interesting change I have noticed recently is that in the earlier meetings, I would only see older farmers. Now, after the Breeder seed example, I find many of the younger generation farmers attending my sessions in the back seats. 

How have you funded this project of yours?

I fund this project on my own, because at this age – I am 68 years old – I will not be able to manage getting funds from a funding agency, submitting returns and progress reports etc. My contact with the farmers will suffer, and I don’t want that to happen. So, I spend about 25,000 rupees for each of my visits (for travel and stay near Rathipur) out of my own pocket. However, it would be good if the government makes some arrangement to encourage retired agricultural scientists to adopt villages and do something like what I have started.

How do you plan to take this forward?

I have several more plans for Rathipur. The first is to continue supporting paddy farming since the land here is mainly suited for paddy. In addition, farmers here can also take up Paira cropping, where a second crop (like black gram and other pulses) is sown while the first crop (paddy) is still standing. I also want the women farmers to begin growing flowers, vegetables, and herbs in their backyards for extra income. 

There is a lot of unsupervised grazing by unproductive cows – I’ve been trying to get farmers to stop this and am trying to get the animal husbandry department here to provide milch cows for dairy farming.

Apart from all of this, I’m also trying to get the younger men in the village to take up and manage agricultural service centres where machinery for efficient farming can be maintained. This will help in reducing farming costs and raise the socio-economic status of the whole village. 

Written By

Anusha is a part-time science writer and editor and a full-time mum. She loves writing about new scientific discoveries, and believes that the art of storytelling is crucial for successful science communication.