Farmers’ parameters for assessing soil fertility in semi-arid regions

B.Suresh Reddy

Sustainable soil fertility is key to food and livelihood security of millions of people living in semi-arid regions. Soil fertility management (SFM) in agricultural production is a crucial aspect. In addition to technical factors, there are many social issues, which significantly affect the SFM. Till now, in India, little research has been done to focus on the social, economic, ecological and livelihood dimensions of soil fertility management.

Soil quality is an important aspect.  It is generally believed that to know the quality of a soil it has to be tested in the laboratory. But, it is possible that farmers in the villages can also tell about the quality of various soils based on their experience. They use a wide range of parameters which are sometimes beyond the imagination of a Soil Scientist.

Farmers have criteria for classifying soils, such as their workability, inherent fertility, suitability for certain crops, responsiveness to particular inputs and water-holding capacity. In the mainstream scientific circles, issues of soil quality and fertility are dealt with as an extremely specialised knowledge, which borders on mystification. It is also a common belief that unless farmers get their soils tested in the scientific laboratories and understand their strengths and deficiencies in “scientific” terms, what they know about soils is not a viable knowledge. This is a highly questionable proposition.

Farmers’ knowledge on soils and their assessment of soil fertility is a valuable resource that is being lost with time. There are several local indicators of soil quality. Rarely, attention is paid to listen to farmers to find out their method of assessing soil fertility, which often can be more precise than the soil testing laboratory results.

Understanding farmers parameters

Keeping in view the above aspects, a study was taken up with an objective of understanding the farmers parameters for assessing soil fertility in semi-arid regions. The study was done in 25 villages covering 6 districts of Andhra Pradesh namely Medak, Mahabubnagar, Nalgonda, Kurnool, Anantapur and Prakasham. Care was taken to include women, female-headed households, widows, small and marginal farmers, the landless, shepherds and cattle herders. Focused group discussions and participatory approaches were used.

Rainfed agriculture is predominant in the region. These areas have low annual rainfall (below 900 mm) and high inter-annual variations in precipitation. The soils are mainly shallow, barren, stony and only marginally fertile. Most farmers are ‘small and marginal’ and grow a large variety of dryland crops like millets, pulses, oilseeds and fibre crops.

Farmers are not in the practice of getting their soils tested in the labs for various reasons. They generally cannot comprehend the soil test results which indicate a variety of parameters and measures that need to be taken to improve fertility. Moreover, majority of the farmers are illiterate and too poor to rely upon external inputs for fertilizing their soils. However, they have developed a comprehensive knowledge system by which they can understand their soils and the problems in a very practical way.

How do farmers assess soil fertility?

Farmers understand their soil types based on soil qualities such as texture, colour, smell and composition.  They are also aware that a mixture of sand, soil and clay is a good soil, as they opine that presence of only silt is not good. This they come to know by the stickiness of the soil. Similarly, farmers believe that they can never get a good crop if the soil is sandy. They are aware that a fertile soil is one which holds enough rain water and can be worked through inspite of heavy rain. Water stagnation is indicative of infertile soil (See Table 1).

Farmers in the region assess the soil quality by its physical structure and also with the help of indicator plants. For instance, a poorly drained saline soil becomes hard during normal days and becomes slippery when it rains. They understand that such soils do not allow water to percolate. Similarly, indicator plants help farmers know their soil quality. For example, presence of cyprus grass indicates low crop yields and presence of tunga grass indicates fertile soil.

Farmers are also aware of the importance of the biological activity within the soils. Presence of earthworms is considered as a great indication of soil fertility.

Some local methods of soil quality assessment also exist within the farming community. They taste the soil by putting it on the tongue. If it is sour and hot it is considered to be a fertile soil, if it is tasteless, it is considered as infertile. Of course, from ages, the feel of the soil has been one of the best indicators of soil fertility.

Table 1:  Diverse Parameters adopted by farmers for assessing soil quality 

Farmers’ Parameter Technical indicator
Balamaina bhoomilo molka manchigosthadi”(In the fertile soils the crop germination will be good), Swaroopamma, Yedakulapally, Medak district Germination percentage
Garaka gaddi unte urve panta radu” ( If the cyperus grass is there there wont be much crop yiled)- Harijan Gangamma,Gaddiralla village, Anantapur. Indicator plant
“Bankamannu unte panta radu”( If the soil is sticky, the crop yeild wont be good)- Sarojamma Kummari, Sanagala, Anantapur Presence of only silt is not good
Garpanela manchidi”(The soil which can be worked inspite of heavy rain is very good soil)- Jawli Osman Saab, Devanakonda Village, Kurnool. Workability
Balam leni bhoomilo panta pilaka laga untadi”( In infertile soils the crop will not grow properly and is thin)- jookuri Anusuyamma, Pagidipally Village, Nalgonda district. Stunted Crop growth
Metthaga unte kooda manchidi”.(Soft soil is good)- Meesala Pentamma, Kotakadira, Mahbubnagar district. Soil Texture
“Chavudaithe uttigunnapudu,  railaga untadi, chavudu neetini diganiyyadi, Yekuvaithe Kalupedithe payilannaithadi ledha digabaduthadi, thakkuvaithe gattiguntadi”( During ordinary times the saline soil is hard. It wont let the water to percolate. If there is more water on the saline soil it will be slippery or sinking and if less water, it becomes hard)- Yanapati Venkata Subbamma, Nikarampally Village, Prakasham district. Drainage
Nalla maska bhoomi aithe manchi guntadi”( Black soil is more fertile)- Permangari Narsamma, Metalkunta Village, Medak district. Soil type
Tunga unte balamaina bhoomi”( If tunga grass is present, the soil will be generally to be fertile)- Kuruva Pedda Anjaneyulu, Kunkunoor village, Kurnool district. Indicator plant/uncultivated plants diversity
Khanda khallaga undi”(Good clods indicate fertility)- Pyapili Alivelamma, Dosaludki village, Anantapur. Presence of clods
“Cahavudu bhoomilo panta pettinka pacchagai rali pothadi” (The crop turns yellow in the saline soils and hence such soils are not fertile. If the paddy crop turns yellow and leaves fall down then  the soil is infertile)- Gajjela Nagaiah, Gundepally Village, Mahbubnagar district. Salinity
Mannu naaki choostham, koddiga pulla pullaga, karamkaramga unte manchi bhoomi antamu, sappaga matti vasana unte sappidi bhoomi antaru”( We taste the soil by putting it on the tounge and if it sour and hot we call it fertile soil, if it tastes tasteless with soil smell we call it infertile soil)-Kuttchula Mallesha, Choudharypally village, Nalgonda pH of Soil
Ralla bhoomi manchi guntadi”( The soils with presence of stones is fertile)-Sangamma, Gopanpally Village, Medak district. Presence of stones
Dubba, matti, usike kalisunte manchidi”(If  a soil has sand ,silt and clay, it is called a good soil)- Gavdi Surya Naik, Venkatampally Thanda, Ananthapur district. Proper ratio of Sand, silt and clay.
Midhu rashi oka vana lekunna panduthadi, tayaniki oka vana lekunna lepukosthadi”(The fertile soil yields well even if there is one rain less and if there is also some delay also it helps the crop to come up well- Kattela Ramchandrudu, Bhairanvani Kunta, Kurnool. Moisture Holding Capacity
Yerra nelalo pannendu pantalu panduthai”(In the red soils we can grow 12 different crops)- Polgaari Manemma, Metalkunta, Medak district. Soils where diverse crops can be grown
Dubba bhoomiaaithe panta radu”(In the sandy  soil we wont get crop). Korra Salamma, Venkatampally thanda, Anantapur. Soil type
Lothaina bhoomaithe kandagala bhoomani thelthadi”( The soil with good depth will be turning to a fertile soil)-Gaddam Alivelamma, Kodur, Mahbubnagar district. Effective Depth
“Balam leni mannu thookam undadhi”( The infertile soil is not heavy when one takes into hand)- Bandaru Hussain, Dosaludki, Anantapur. Heavy ness
“Baga leni nalla ryagadilo neellu nilabadatha” (In, infertile black soils, the water stagnation is there when it rains)- Jawli Osman Saab, Devanakonda Village, Kurnool. Infiltration
Mannu pattukoni choosthe thelusthadi”( By touching the soil by hand we can say whether a soil is fertile or not)- Barkam Das, Chityal, Nalgonda district. Feel  of the soil
“Colour choosi chepphochu”( By seeing colour of the soil, we can indentify the fertility of soil). Pamula Susheelamma, Metalkunta village, Medak district.  Colour
“Mannuthine pamu unte bhoomi balamainadhi antam”(The presence of mud eating snake is considered as a great indication of soil fertility)- Rajamma, Metalkunta Biological activity


It can be said that farmers have a wealth of knowledge about soils, their nutritional strengths and deficiencies. It is only that the terms and definitions they use are very different from the ones used by the formal science. What is probably needed for the community in formal science and formal research is deciphering the meanings of these terms and translating them into a language that they understand. Speaking about the ability of a farmer in soil fertility assessment, Kattela Ramachandrudu, Bhairavanikunta village of Kurnool district says: “the way a weaver or person selling the clothes tells by just touching the cloth about its quality and possible price, similarly the farmer can also tell whether a soil is fertile or not”.

This paper is the output of author’s work with Natural Resources Institute (NRI), Greenwich, U.K. with which he was associated as a freelance consultant.

 Mr.B.Suresh Reddy, PhD Scholar, Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS), Begumpet, Hyderabad – 500016, Andhra Pradesh.


Barbara. A and Butterwoth, J., 2002, Soil fertility management in semi-arid India: Its role in agricultural systems and the livelihoods of poor people, Natural Resources Institute, U.K.

Barrios, E., 1995. Agroforestry on tropical flood plains: Indigenous Know-how from Venezuela. Agroforestry Today 7(1): 13-15

Poinetti, C. and  Suresh Reddy, B., 2002, Farmers’ Perceptions of Crop diversity in the Deccan Plateau, SEEDLING, Quarterly news letter of Genetic Resources Action International(GRAIN), Spain.

Scoones Ian, 2001. Dynamics and diversity : soil fertility management and farming livelihoods in Africa: case studies from Ethiopia,Mali and Zimbabwe.



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