Notes on farming & mechanization

July, 2021.

Another kharif season has begun. On the farms three week old saplings of soybean and pigeon pea await a good spell of rain. Here are a couple of observations from this season on our farms.

  1. Weather windows are getting considerably shorter. This leads to a very short period in which most cropping activities like sowing, spraying and harvesting are required to be completed. Shrinking time periods have made farming demanding irrespective of land holding.
  2. The cost of farm technology – irrigation, crop care, harvest, post-harvest etc, is beyond what farmers’ incomes can support. This holds true for over 90% of farmers. An Indian farmer is frugal not out of choice but compulsion. The capex intensity right now is disproportionate to the income yield of a farmer’s holding. 
  3. Agricultural financing is broken at several levels. A farmer is not creditworthy. He is deemed welfare-worthy of the government pennies and food aid driven by the very same food that farmers help grow. The paradox is phenomenal! 
  4. The net effect of all of the above is that a farmer is forever in savings mode. I see better now than seeing smallholder agriculture practices as suboptimal and lacking thought. 
  5. ‘Agri tech’ is a sham – The new age startups in agri who speak with buzzwords like IoT and intelligent farming, have no clue. At best, they are glorified call centers manned by armies of boys and girls from towns who are paid to incessantly call farmers to sell their ‘advisory’ services. One of the big name agri tech startup is busy pulling a fast one on farmers by pricing their soil testing services on per acre basis!

For our farms we bought a tractor this month. It is a Mahindra 65 HP 4WD tractor. In a district that has seen only sub-55 HP tractors, this is a first. By international standards, this is a utility tractor. From the dealer to the neighbourhood farmers, none seem to think that farming in the district can ever use a 65 HP tractor and yield returns. After going through a roller-coaster of financing troubles and loan procedures, we had a bank in town which was ready to finance 65% of the cost. Even this partial financing needed way more documents and securities than warranted for an agri sector loan. It is lost upon agri experts and bureaucrats alike that inadequate farm mechanization in India lies in hundreds of these processes in lending, knowledge support, farm extension services etc.

In summary, the kind of capital expenditure and investment that agriculture needs in India today, is beyond the capacity of the majority of its farmers. Governments have been primarily supporting welfare which keeps them a few steps away from falling over into impoverishment. The investment that does come in is by the way of capital earned from other sectors and invested in agri by entrepreneurs and new farmers.

13 thoughts on “Notes on farming & mechanization

  1. Most interesting. It’s a wonder that the farmer doesn’t lose heart altogether. Is there a loss of younger generations to the cities? How many new farmers such as yourself enter the system?

    1. From what I know, the younger generation from farming families in the region do not prefer to earn a living from farming unless it is the last resort. I am not sure how many new farmers enter the system. The numbers sure are much smaller than those opting out. I think it is a mix of cultural, social and economic reasons and not just one straight cause. For instance, a 9-5 job promises a different lifestyle than an ‘always on’ mode of a farmer.

  2. Everything you say is true. Then doesn’t it follow that the model is wrong, and we should move to sustainable methods, with low inputs. Of course, the output will also fall initially, so it can be a gradual switchover. And remember we will be gaining in health and environmental diversity.

    1. On our farms we are trying to experiment with what sustainability can mean for farming at scale. Scale is an important variable for me. The state of affairs I wrote about are partially explained by the way market processes and political economy stacks up in agri sector, I feel. The model of farming, which as I understand is a set of farming practices which use a given set of inputs and machines, is necessary to deliver at scale. From my brief experience, I find that the model has come up in response to the socio-economic and agricultural profile that we have. It is mainly characterized by small farm holdings but higher income expectation which the markets cannot deliver upon.

      Please if you could describe some sustainable methods with low inputs? We can surely experiment. We would like to continue cropping with respect to market demand. If that can be made sustainable from the level that it currently is, then we must.

      1. As you know, tiwarisac, I’m an amateur farmer who is reading, experimenting and learning. I don’t feel qualified to advise successful professionals like you, who are actually managing to make a living from the land. However, from my limited understanding of the land and the people that it feeds, I feel it would be good to move in the direction of no-till or low-till, using all crop residues plus live mulch and crop rotations to enrich the soil, and minimising the use of soil amendments that create a burst of fertility only to leave it more impoverished than before. In my blog, I had described my efforts to prepare our soil for a crop after the last harvest. In one of the brief weather windows that you talk about, we sowed groundnuts, beans, tuvar and corn. I hope to be able to report some success in the next few months. Rats, pigs, elephants and weather permitting! I wish you a successful harvest ☺️

      2. Another thing I can recommend is to diversify into horticulture. If you convert say two or three fields into mango orchards, some output and return is assured. As bungling as we are, we managed to make something out of mangoes this year. And though it’s been a five year wait, the trees have matured beautifully and the mangoes are now really first class. This, without even spraying against fruit fly, which we were told was a must. Some of our trees do still attract fruit fly, but we hope they’ll learn to deal with it on their own, as the others have done. We only throw

      3. Apart from giving the trees some manure and pongamia leaves once a year, the only thing we do is to pick up and throw the spoilt fruit far away from the orchard.

      4. Thank you for sharing methods that you’re using on your farm. As I see, we probably share the broader set of values about ecology, least human impact and sustainability. The only difference I see is of scale. We have four scattered plots with a total of 17 acres under cultivation.

        I m not a professional farmer. Also, I dont rely on farming as a source of income.

        The following is what we do with respect to the methods you have shared –

        1. Tilling – we practice moderate tilling. No tilling does not seem to be an option given that weed management becomes a serious problem necessitating weedicide application or manual removal at later stages. For 17 acres that adds up to a substantial expense.

        2. Crop residue – we plough it back into the soil but this depends on the type of crop. Cotton or Pigeon Pea stalks and stumps have to be removed. We do not cultivate paddy. Wheat residue is ploughed back in.

        3. We enrich the soil with several tons of farm yard manure once in two years to ensure soil health and physical characteristics of soil.

        4. Brief weather window – becomes critical with scattered holdings. It is a logistical challenge (workers deployment, inputs stocking, machinery rental) than just achieving sowing within a shot span of time.

        5. We sow similar crops – groundnuts, pigeonpea.

        6. Wild animal intrusion is real here too – wild boars, Nilgai, monkeys (during sowing) and hares. All of them with serious crop damaging potential.

        7. Orchard – we developed a half acre citrus orchard this season. It is likely to expand. But this has a substantial gestation period.

        8. In the spaces between citrus saplings in the orchard, we have planted chillies.

        I also wrote a bit about these challenges earlier – https://contestedrealities.com/2021/05/26/the-many-mirages-in-indian-agriculture/

      5. Thanks for the detailed and interesting description of your farming practices. I realise that experimenting in a small piece is land is very different from the scale you are dealing with. We only have four acres, of which maybe two are arable. I can suggest one thing for the scale at which you work: why not try growing millets instead of wheat? They need far less rain, and very little in the way of soil amendments. They are also less attractive to animals and insects, and less exhausting of the soil. You can intercrop any kind of pulses with them. Cow peas and jowar, ragi and avare, bajra and tuvar are well known combinations. You could also try the barah anaj method, which I want to do next year: https://www.thebetterindia.com/238341/uttarakhand-vijay-jardhari-baranaj-intercropping-organic-farming-how-to-save-lakhs-india-gop94/
        Looking forward to reading about your further adventures!

  3. This is interesting, and scary.
    Curious, how much does a 55 HP tractor cost? and what’s the price diff with a 65 HP one?

    1. A 55 HP tractor ranges between INR 8-9 lakhs (on road). A 65 HP, 4WD goes for INR 12 lakhs (on road). More importantly, government subsidies apply only up to 55 HP models. This too is capped at a maximum of INR 1 lakh. Anyone buying above it is on his own. Financing is higher (as a percentage of total on road price) for sub-55 HP models. Here to, the buyer is on his own if he goes beyond it.

  4. joyrides aside, how do you go about thinking about a possible break-even when investing in mechanization/tech (including this 65 HP tractor)? considering this is so capital heavy, what might the associated gains in farming income look like over the next few years? (total novice here)
    pretty sorry state of affairs to hear that about agri tech too.

    1. I am not entirely sure of the gains. Here are some estimations that we expect to work out –

      The mechanization investment is to cut short on number of days of direct (on the ground) involvement that is required at each stage of a typical cropping cycle. For instance, if sowing is done by pair of bullocks, a 2 acre farm might require one whole day to do it well (assume rocky soil). Whereas, tractor attached seed drill does 8 rows at a time and we finished 13 acres in a day. 65 HP was bought to use it as a platform to do all kinds of earthworks – leveling, trenching, deep plouging (bullocks can’t) etc as well as use it for agri processes like harvesting, threshing, hauling.
      About gains in farming income, this is a speculation – the output is still subjected to market prices, but there are possible gains to be made by reducing input costs (man days) and a higher quality of land preparation, sowing that will increase yield.

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