Helping the smallholder farmers of Tonk district, India, to help each other
The district of Tonk lies in the semi-arid eastern plains of Rajasthan in India, a farming region with low productivity, limited rainfall and a high incidence of poverty.
The main crops grown in the area belong to two seasonal categories. Kharif crops, sown at the beginning of the rainy season, include pearl millet, sorghum, black gram (a variety of bean), sesame and groundnuts. Rabi crops, sown at the start of the winter season, include mustard, wheat and gram (chickpeas). Farmers with access to irrigation also cultivate vegetables during both seasons.
Many of Tonk’s farmers are women, who are struggling to provide food security for their families due to poor crop yields. The average size of their farms is less than one hectare, and these tiny holdings face huge challenges. Annual rainfall across the region is only 500-650mm, and less than 30% of the area is irrigated. A high proportion of the soil is poor quality and low in nutrients. Disease and pests cause widespread crop losses, and farmers lack access to education about sustainable agriculture.
In 2020, working with the Louis Dreyfus Foundation and the Centre for Microfinance, an agency supported by the Tata Trust, LDC embarked on a two-year program to enhance the food security and cash incomes of women smallholder farmers in the region.
“Rural women in India – and across the globe – are the backbone of agriculture and the guardians of household food security in their communities,” says Vipin Gupta, LDC’s CEO for India. “They are vital contributors to sustainable and robust supply chains as smallholder farmers.”
The project aims to train women farmers from 50-60 villages across the region in improved agriculture practices (IAPs) that can contribute to higher productivity and incomes. Training covers best practices in field preparation, selection of appropriate varieties of crops, seed germination test and treatment, use and dosage of chemical products, preparation of natural fertilizers and nursery management.
The training curriculum is delivered by professional agricultural technicians, and the farmers themselves also actively disseminate their new-found knowledge, sharing best practices in crop and vegetable cultivation with their neighbors, and thus helping to upskill women farmers across the region.
“Previously I was using urea fertilizers, which affected the quality of the soil,” says Ratni Devi, a project beneficiary. “Now I know how to make organic manure, which is better for the soil and saves a lot of money.”
Since it began in 2020, the project has empowered over 2,350 local smallholder women farmers to improve their livelihoods and increase their incomes. Local farming communities have so far seen a 10% increase in incomes, which represents 30% of the overall project target and positive progress despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.
“A pond was built on our field as part of the project. Before we depended on the rainy season to grow pearl millet or other crops. Now we can pull water from the pond to irrigate our land and cultivate mustard and chickpeas throughout the year,” say project beneficiaries Lali and Savitri Devi.
So far, 2,338 farmers have been trained in field preparation, seed germination testing, seed treatment methods, use of fertilizers and crop diversification. The 211 who grow vegetables were introduced to the drip and mulching irrigation system, and 31 soilless nurseries and 178 raised-bed nurseries have been installed. The introduction of protected vegetable cultivation methods and the promotion of vegetable farming is helping to improve the food security and cash income of these farmers.
“When I was growing black gram, I only received an income five months after sowing. Now I am getting more income from selling tomatoes on a weekly basis,” says Ramghani Bai, a project beneficiary.
The training was delivered through a combination of audiovisual lectures, live demonstrations, demo-plots and field visits, taking into account local safety and hygiene measures in the context of Covid-19. The project will continue in 2021, with training for 36 more self-help groups and the involvement of some 1,650 additional women farmers.
“It is essential for local food supply chains to continue functioning, not just for small-scale farmers, but for the populations that rely on their production,” says Vivek Saraswat, LDC’s Head of Operations in India. “It’s a great source of satisfaction to support a project that empowers women farmers in our country and strengthens their decision-making role in agriculture.”