Notes on farming – 2

Notes on farming and mechanization began with part 1 here.

April, 2022

It has been a busy few months with lots to understand, process and write about. Contrary to the general impression, the pace and intensity of activities are faster on the farm than work in the city. Farm work can get quite intense, physically and mentally. Perhaps, things get compounded when there is an expectation of returns from the whole operation.From the farm, here are some updates from the first quarter of this year – 

  1. A new Mahindra 57 HP farm tractor was added. The machinery time per cropping cycle has been increasing. It made sense to add this and build an asset on the farm for the money that would have flown out in machinery rentals over a couple of cropping cycles. 
  2. For haulage needs, a single axle, 12 feet trailer was procured. 
  3. A  two-bottom, reversible moldboard (RMB) plough from Lemken for crop residue management and land preparation was bought. Our experience suggests that tilling (the soil type we have on plots) lowers pest management costs and also helps in aeration and water retention during irrigation. Soil compaction is a frequent occurrence in the region.
  4. Silt from the reservoir across the farm is being hauled up and mixed to the soil on one of the plots. Over a 1.5 acre stretch itself haulage costs have worked up to a staggering amount. Soil health management doesn’t seem an easy proposition especially when there’s rocky and nutrient deficient soil. 
  5. The farm has created 10 direct jobs in the village. They are employed in tractor operations, in the milling unit and general farm work during a typical cropping cycle.
  6. The first tractor which has a front-loader and a backhoe attached has done over 1100 hours of machine time in the first ten months. 
Lemken Opal 090E two-bottom RMB plough. April, 2022

Over the last five years our experience appears in line with the farm mechanization narrative that India’s agriculture scientists have often pointed to – that Indian farms are under mechanized and that there are significant efficiency gains to me made by increasing power use per hectare. Singh et al published () the following data in their paper ‘Farm Power Availability on Indian Farms’ – 

Source: Singh et al, Farm Power Availability on Indian Farms

At 2.02 kW/ha grain output is about 2 t/ha. Harvest and post-harvest handling losses are significant. These are also the stages where mechanization can increase yields. For instance, for harvesting groundnut crop from a 3 acre plot, we had an open call for workers. Within an hour over 52 workers descended over the plot to harvest. Wages were paid as a portion of the harvested pods. In all, 30% of the produce ended up getting lost as wages for harvesting. Perhaps, it was a mistake to sow groundnut at that location given that the ecosystem for crop care and harvest was far from reasonable.

The harvest and subsequent steps are extremely loss prone and labour intensive. Therefore, there is merit in enhancing power availability on farms.

Further evidence from the paper follows – 

Food grains productivity in India has increased from 0.710 t/ha in 1960-61 to 2.21 t/ha in 2013-14, while farm power availability has increased from 0.296 kW/ha to 2.02 kW/ha during the same period 

Thus, food grains productivity is positively associated with unit power availability in Indian agriculture (Fig 6). The relationship between food grains productivity and unit farm power availability for the period 1960-61 to 2013-14 were estimated by linear function, with highly significant value of coefficient of determination (R2 ):

 Yfgs = 0.5512 + 0.8195x; R2 = 0.990 

Where, Yfgs = food grains productivity, t/ha, and x = power availability, kW/ha 

This indicates that productivity and unit power availability is associated linearly. It is also evident that farm power input has to be increased further to achieve higher food grains production, the composition of farm power from different sources to be properly balanced to meet its timely requirement for various farm operations. 

Source: Singh et al, Farm Power Availability on Indian Farms

While the talk of the town is ag-tech, it is necessary that we also recognize this fundamental reality of Indian farms – that their productivity is low. Further, that key driver of low productivity is low availability of mechanical power on the farms.  It is a strong reminder of the developmental status of this country. We may want to send advanced analytics about crop yield projections, crop health etc to farmers’ phones.. But on-farm execution, i.e. the actual growing process is where the rubber hits the road. This is a tough space to find solutions for and optimize for. It is a complex stack of problems – from poor machine quality, under-investment in sales and service of machines to affordability of equipment and access to credit. 

The 2 bottom RMB plough bought last month has had over 50 acres of ploughing done on farms of other farmers from the village. The demand runs high. But individually none of them can afford to have a plough which costs INR 230,000 and which needs a 55 HP and above tractor power to use. That’s an asset cost of INR 1,150,000/-. 

This may not be a significant capital expenditure in absolute terms. Who will invest this, is the question, given that return on capital is generally low in the agriculture sector and it takes far longer. 

On the upside, the move into value addition has been good. Instead of selling harvested pigeon pea and chickpea at the auctions, the milling unit is helping in value addition. Value realization from the crop has increased by 20-25% per quintal. For instance, if the average selling price of harvested pigeon pea was INR 4000/quital, we received INR 9000-9500/quintal after milling it and selling directly to convenience stores and individual buyers. In short, the value addition experiment has seen early success in better returns from the crop and in employment generation in the village.

3 thoughts on “Notes on farming – 2

  1. Quite an investment you’ve made! An excellent learning opportunity, even if one that is so very labour intensive. So far from your first humble ambitions when you bought your first piece of land! Hopefully the data you are amassing will be of some use to future food production potential. Seems to me that given the cost/benefits analysis, the only way to make such challenging land productive is by supporting the farmers and communities willing to put in the work required. But that requires political will, doesn’t it?

    1. Learning opportunity indeed, J. It has been a fascinating few years from the time you saw the place. Political will… indeed! It comes to that and often the source of frustrations we people live here.
      For now, one does what one can.

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