Small farmers move towards diversification

N. Lalitha, J. Diraviam and Arun Balamatti

Adding various components on to a farm and integrating them has helped small farmers in Tamil Nadu reap rich harvests. The bio intensive farm models promoted by the Department of Science and Technology and based on agro-ecosystem principles, have resulted in a sustainable farm production and livelihoods.

Small farmers of Perambalur district in Tamil Nadu have been depending on cotton and groundnut crops for their livelihoods. But increasing costs of production and labour, coupled with severe pest problems, forced them to think of an alternative crop. It was the time when maize was being recognized as a high value crop, primarily for its use as poultry feed. Also, it had less labour requirement than cotton crop. Naturally, farmers in this region started showing interest in maize cultivation.

Farmers initially benefited from growing maize. Owing to its cash generating nature, farmers focused only on maize, neglecting other crops. But, over a period of time, farmers started realizing the problems of continuously growing maize – some directly related to maize cultivation and some were its impacts on other aspects. For example, the yields were reducing while the costs of production shot up. At one point of time, the costs of fertilizer and labour alone accounted to 81% of the production cost.  Reduced fodder availability for livestock and absence of vegetables and pulses affecting family nutrition were the other impacts.

Initiating change

AME Foundation, a development agency has been working with the farmers in Perambalur area since 2001. To address the challenges and issues concerning the livelihoods of small farmers, during 2005, in collaboration with The Department of Science and Technology, initiated action oriented and location specific projects in 4 selected villages, through appropriate technological interventions. The objective was to ensure nutrition and livelihood security for small farmers by  developing bio-intensive model farms based on agro ecosystem principles through participatory research.

Five farmers each from Mazhavarayanallur, Vaithayanathapuram, Milaganatham and Perumathurkudikadu villages actively took part in the action research. These farmers, also called as ‘experimenting’ farmers were selected through a participatory process. The group also consisted of farmers who did not try out the experiments in their fields, but kept constant track of what was going on in the experiment fields. These farmers were the ‘observer’ farmers. There were about 52 observer farmers in all the four villages. The experimenting farmers together with the observer farmers formed a farmer affinity group in each village.

The farmer groups were taken through a learning process of PTD and FFS for strengthening their capacities on managing natural resources and integrating allied activities with agriculture. The topics for the FFS sessions were planned in consultation with the farmers with an objective of improve the productivity of the present cropping system and also integrating newer components to strengthen the present farming system. FFS sessions provided opportunity to the farmers to learn about natural resource management, which included soil and water conservation, soil fertility management, modified cropping practices and income generation activities.

Besides participating in the learning process, the four groups also formed a federation with a representative from each group. Cross learning and collective action were the major aims of this federation. 

Increasing diversity

When the project started, farmers had very basic farm components like crop cultivation, livestock, kitchen garden etc., which lacked diversity within themselves. For example, maize was the only crop grown and fodder sorghum was the only crop and exclusively grown for feeding the livestock. Farmers generally owned only one type of livestock – either cow or goat or hen. Vegetables like gourds and lablab were grown in the kitchen garden, for home consumption. The method of composting was also crude. There were hardly many trees which could generate enough leaf biomass. Only species like Neem and wild moringa were grown on the farm. Each activity was carried out as a separate entity. Thus the present farm system was highly dependent on external inputs, which also was the reason for high production cost.

With the intervention through the programme, the diversity of various components increased substantially. Firstly, the number of crops grown increased. In the first year, intercrops like red gram and sun hemp were introduced in maize crop. During the second year crops like castor, green gram, cymphopogan and Napier grass were included and in the third year, some farmers took up mesta as an intercrop. By the end of three years, there were almost 7 new crops included in the cropping system.

In livestock, from a single type of livestock, farmers started rearing a combination of livestock – For eg., cattle & goat; goat & hen; cattle & hen. Subsequently turkey was also promoted. To provide adequate feed to these increased livestock, fodder crops were integrated. Sun hemp and azolla were added to supplement fodder during the first year. Napier grass, Cumbu Napier hybrid, hedge lucerne, lucerne, multicut fodder sorghum, stylo and Calpagonium were few more fodder crops grown in the second year.

In kitchen gardens, the basket of vegetables expanded to include tomato, brinjal, snake gourd, bhendi, bitter gourd and cluster beans.

Trees like Glyricidia, Mango, Sapota, Amla and Tamarind were included on the farm in the first two years and Acacia was added in the third year. These trees provided the fodder for livestock, manurial biomass for farm, as timber, fuel for household and market. Additionally fish rearing, mushroom production and biodigestors for compost making were also included which helped in recycling resources.

Diverse benefits

With increasing crop diversity, farmers realized more maize yield by 25 per cent in the first year and by 15-25 per cent in the second year. But, in the third year owing to dryspell during the critical stages of the crop, the yield of maize got reduced.  However, they got additional income from the intercrops to the extent of about Rs.2000-4000 per acre. It was also observed that the effect of drought was more pronounced in maize (observed by reduced yield) as compared with the intercrops. This is because maize crop cannot tolerate moisture stress during flowering and cob maturity stages. Apart from income, legume intercrops also served in meeting the nutrition (protein) requirement of the family.

There was efficient utilization of the resources emerging from increasing farm diversity – green fodder from the farm was fed to the livestock, vegetables from homestead garden was used for household consumption, while, the stalk of the plants served as fuel for the household. The farm wastes and biomass from trees were turned into compost, which went back to the soil again. Introduction of legumes as intercrops helped in building up the fertility of soil.

In the case of livestock, farmers had only one type of livestock such as cow or goat or hen, due to scarcity of fodder. With the availability of fodder through different sources, farmers started rearing two or more types of livestock. Thus, the improvement in fodder availability generated income for the farm families through increased milk yield from 2740 lit to 3480 lit for a pair of milch animals per annum. Through value addition of maize as a cattle feed and inclusion of green fodder, azolla, the purchase of external concentrate feed was reduced.

Farmers also benefited through other activities like homestead gardening and mushroom cultivation. Homestead gardening became very popular. It ensured vegetable availability (like field bean, cluster bean, brinjal, chillies, snake gourd, bitter gourd, pumpkin and mesta) for 6 to 8 months in a year. It also increased the frequency and quantity of vegetable consumed by households. An analysis on vegetable consumption revealed that all the families could meet out the nutrient requirement up to 75% of the standard calories needed. There was also a reduction in the household expenditure on vegetables Because, earlier, farmers used to purchase vegetables from the weekly shandy, spending upto Rs.50-75/week. The consumption of vegetables was also limited as the market is located far off from the village.

Spinoffs of farm diversity

Increasing farm diversity had many other unintended benefits. There was increased productive employment for the family members. Integrating intercrops, livestock and homestead garden particularly increase the employment of women. With effective utilization of fuel wood and cow dung and with reduced use of chemicals and crop residues not being burnt, the environmental pollution also reduced.

Beyond the support

The farmer groups are continuing to practice the intercrop system. They meet regularly to discuss on various farm related issues. They are now keen to learn as group. On their own, they visited farmers’ fields in villages of Pudukkottai district to understand the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method of paddy cultivation. They also visited at Veterinary College & Research Institute, Namakkal district of Tamil Nadu to know more about livestock and fodder production. These groups are now also recognized by National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) as ‘farmers club’. Farmers are now looking at farming with a different perspective with increased confidence levels to face newer challenges.


Authors are thankful to Science for Equity, Empowerment and Development (SEED) Division, Department of Science and Technology, Govt of India for funding the project “BIO-FARMS for the livelihood development of Resource poor farmers”. They are also grateful to the AMEF team and farmer groups who have made this project a success.

  1. Lalitha, Area Project Officer
  2. Diraviam, Area Unit Coordinator

AME Foundation, No.5/1299-B-2, NSCB Road, Lakkiampatty, Dharmapuri – 636705, Email:

Arun Balamatti, Executive Director, AME Foundation, Bangalore



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