Making dry farming the second front of agriculture development

Farming is no more a simple “way of life.” It is now a key economic segment, under development. The first goal of development is poverty alleviation. But, this development has not found the right track. For, there is no development without change. There is no farming without a farmer. Changes in farming result only when farmer begins to change. And, farmer is not yet the focus of development.

There is a pervasive impression among the concerned that the pace of agricultural development in the country is rather slow. Poverty is still unacceptably high. Most of this poverty persists in the rural areas. This poverty cannot be alleviated, as some people think, just by transfer of income from other sectors. The reality is that in India, the farm sector is much larger than the nonfarm sector.

A better route for alleviating rural poverty is not merely the rapid development of the non-farm economic segments like industry, trade and service, but also the rapid development of the farm sector. This ensures better farm incomes. India seems to have missed the steps here. A perusal of policy and programme making, that overlook the ground realities, confirms this view.

Then, are there some blind spots?

1. Assumption that Green Revolution (GR) suits the entire farm sector.

Of course, GR did enhance food production in the country, which is a historic reality. But, one must not miss the point that it did not benefit the entire farm sector. The revolution did not reach the middle and lower level farmers, nor did it benefit the dry farming segment. Thus, there is now a big development gap. Attention to dry farming seems to be the present need. To tap the potential in dry farming, a different bunch of technologies is required. In fact, if focus on assured farming is the first front of agricultural development, improving rainfed farming is the second front.

2. Belief that GR extension approach suits all segments of farmers.

Those who are handling agriculture development without the basic knowledge of rural society easily assume that the adoption behavior of farmers is the same at different levels in the farming community. While the top level farmers are mostly innovators, the middle level farmers remain as conservatives and imitators and develop a mind-set of living “within the means” as their destiny, having low levels of aspiration. Hence, working with these two levels of farmers requires different extension education approaches. To reach the middle level farmers, not known to be keen “information seekers”, a different kind of extension approach is necessary.

3. Means of reaching farmers with external knowledge sources is not setup.

With the green revolution, external source of knowledge has become important. The absence of an agriculture extension system to relate external knowledge to the local needs, problems and opportunities, is felt more keenly now. Tapping the potential in dry farming is more difficult, while preparing middle-level farmers needs keen extension efforts. Also, the literate farm youth who form the bulk in the general education stream, do not get initiated into present-day farming. Also, there no District Agricultural Schools and Farmers Training Centers now.

4. Ignoring the role of mixed cropping in dry farming.

Since dry farming is totally dependent on the rainfall, the traditional farming evolved with ages of experience, a mixed cropping system. It included short and long duration crops, deep and shallow rooted crops as well as cereals and pulses. These mix of crops was mainly designed to cope with an unpredictable rainfall, enrich soil fertility and provide a diverse, balanced and nutritious food for the family and fodder for the livestock. These ideas are rarely found in present day projects.

Is there a more rational approach to dry farming development?

Any development strategy is really a process of adopting solution to a problem. Thus, it is necessary that the problems in rainfed farming are properly defined along with goals and strategies. The public projects in this regard, generally, ignore the ground conditions, seeking to push “technology demonstrations”, unmindful of cost-effectiveness or manageability. Also, there is no in-built approach in public undertakings to look around and learn from people’s own initiatives. Karnataka has some considerable experience with some NGOs (MYRADA and BAIF).

In the last two decades, AME (Agriculture, Man, Ecology) Foundation, an Indian NGO emerging from an European venture, has established, in a NABARD supported Project, some simple measures to improve dry farming. Rainfed farming, (known to be a fragile eco system in contrast with irrigated farming), depends heavily on the environmental conditions. Hence, the dry farming development strategy leans more heavily on rebuilding the ecological conditions. The dry farming conditions are quite harsh in Karnataka. An approach found useful here can be an adjustable basis elsewhere.

Development of rainfed farming in Karnataka, as a case

In 2010, AMEF with NABARD’s support, implemented a dry farming development project in Bangarpet taluk in Kolar district with an overall goal of augmenting productivity in lead crops. The specific Project Objectives are:

1. Organising Eco Farmer Groups (EFGs) as entry points to the village community.

2. Organising quality seed production of the selected crops, locally.

3. Promoting Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA) reducing costs.

4. Selecting and training literate farm youth as Promoters of Eco Farming.

The project which was implemented initially in five villages was later expanded to ten villages. Since yield improvement was the keen desire of the participating farmers, it became the central goal.

Kolar is the eastern-most dry district in Karnataka, with a low rainfall pattern. Bangarpet is a well-known dry taluk of the district with an average annual rainfall is 701mm. The taluk experienced drought in the last two years of the Project. Even then, the eco farming system performed better than the conventional farming system. The details are given in Table 1.

Table 1: Performance of the LEAD CROPS in the Project period 2010-11 Normal year (Rain fall 1016/701mm)
Villages Farmers ac Local
Yld q/ac

Yld q/ac

Ragi 10 208 221 8.5 12.5 48
Redgram 7 40 15 3.5 6.0 71
Groundnut 5 10 5 3.5 5.5 57
Rice-SRI 5 70 40 25.0 32.0 28
2011-12 Drought year (Rain fall 613/701mm)
Villages Farmers ac Local
Yld q/ac
Yld q/ac
Ragi 10 387 485 6.30 9.5 50
Redgram 7 23 16 1.25 2.75 120
Groundnut 5 105 71 1.36 2.89 112.5
Rice-SRI 5 78 52 18.60 30.33 61
2012-13 Drought year (Rain fall 619/701mm)
Villages Farmers ac Local
Yld q/ac

Yld q/ac

Ragi 10 606 505 6.5 8.5 30.7
Redgram 10 32 18 NA NA NA
Groundnut 10 302 128 1.25 2.5 50
Rice-SRI 10 30 20 NA 32.5 NA

What was the strategy adopted for these gains?

Professionals working with farmers will quickly perceive two basic conditions, here. One, the farmers here are considered “localites,” being conservative, inward-looking farmers. They generally are not very familiar with the larger world beyond. They like to live within their means. With their low aspirations, to get them to adopt modern practices in farming is quite difficult, since they believe firmly in destiny. It is critically important to convince them about the value of the advocated practices. Also, since dry farming means working with a fragile eco system, where the returns are not assured, and large investments either in the form of land-shaping activities or purchased inputs are not easily acceptable, to begin with. In these circumstances, the development approach has to walk on two legs – ONE, simple alternative farming practices in relation to known limitations. This includes three on-farm and two off-farm measures. TWO, building the social capital in terms of institutionalized abilities to seek and adopt changes for development, including raising vegetation within the terrain for cooler atmosphere and creating surface water bodies.

Under these circumstances, AME in consultation with university scientists formulated a tentative approach to dry farming development, in the shallow, un-retentive soils in the project area. This approach was further discussed with the farmer groups in PRA meetings for their consideration and acceptance.

Limitation one: Moisture stress in the root zone of shallow rooted seasonal crops during the dry spells.

Measure 1 – Ploughing across the slope, starting with early rains, minimising runoff and maximizing infiltration.

Limitation two: Depleted soil productivity due to continuous cropping and erosion.

Measure 2 – Upgrading the soil quality with application of tank silt for one part of the farmland at a time.

Measure 3 – Adding, year after year, copious quantities of organic manure.

Measure 4 – Re-doing anti-erosion measures on a yearly regular basis.

Limitation Three : Monsoons being erratic, unable to predict the rainfall pattern

Measure 5 – Adopting a resilient mixed cropping system evolved over ages. It combines early-maturing with late maturing crops; shallow-rooted with deep-rooted crops; and legumes with cereals.

Limitation Four: Degraded environment in dry farming areas.

Measure 6 – Increasing the tree crops in the terrain, trees being nearly 60% water, helps in maintaining humidity in the air. Also, the bee and bird population helps in pollination and pest control. Further, creating within the terrain, small surface water bodies by impounding rain water in the depressions helps in maintaining humidity for a few weeks beyond the rainy season.

In adopting these six measures there is a definite rationale. Two factors count, here. One, as already stated, dry farming is a fragile eco system. Apart from poor soils, rainfall is also erratic, causing crops to suffer. Therefore, the development measures must be taken in relation to these facts. Otherwise, even the lower yields which the farmers were getting earlier will be lost. This nobody likes. Hence, too sophisticated technologies, that are expensive and risky, and also beyond the easy comprehension of farmers, are carefully avoided. Second, these are middle level farmers. In their social status, economic resources and management abilities, they are not equal to the GR farmers. If they lose one harvest, they may face starvation for two years. As such, the farmers prefer no-cost or low-cost and non-risky measures. Hence, the improvements suggested here are mostly low-cost alternative farming practices and just one step beyond what the farmers already know. This approach is deliberately formulated for working with resource-poor dryland farmers.

Lessons learnt from the Project

1. Rapid agricultural development is not only necessary but is also possible.

2. The farm sector is not one uniform production base. It has two distinct production segments, Irrigated and Assured farming area and the Rainfed dry farming area.

3. Dryland farmers are not equal to the top-level innovative farmers. They require as middle level farmers a different package of practices and extension education approach.

4. Development of dry farming requires the formulation of separate vision and mission, different from that of GR era.

5. To start with, no high-sounding technologies are suitable. Farmers are shown a couple of Alternative farming practices to be tried in combination with their own farming practices in an exercise called Participatory Technology Development (PTD). From this experience they gain confidence in the new practice and share with others.

6. Having no regular Extension Agency, AME formed Eco farming Groups (EFGs) to start with and trained local educated farm youth as Sustainable Agriculture Promoters (SAPs) and used Lead Farmers (having above average comprehension and articulation), made use of them as village volunteers.

7. Opportunities need to be created throughout the project period for farmers to collectively discuss, evaluate and accept the suitable new practices in their regular farming system.

8. Focusing on development of dryland farming serves many purposes: supporting better livelihoods for the farming majority, better household access to nutritionally rich millets and pulses in the food basket, and an ecofriendly farming system.

9. A further noteworthy point is that the dryland farmers are mostly small and poor farmers, and it is seen that the public programmmes generally link up these farmers with some external corporate agencies for seed, fertilizers or farm machinery which may degenerate into an exploitative relationship, where farmers suffer. On the other hand, the approaches of NGOs have been generally to empower the farmers to upgrade their farming practices within their circumstances, which is sustainable.

10. Agricultural development is a practical solution to rural poverty in India.


R Dwarakinath

AME Foundation
No. 204, 100 Feet Ring Road, 3rd Phase, Banashankari 2nd Block, 3rd Stage, Bangalore – 560 085

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