Sometime in 2016, Rasika Phatak’s father mortgaged 32 guntha (0.8 acre) land in Maharashtra’s Koladhare village, Sudhagad-Pali taluk, for Rs6 lakh. Living in poverty, Anil Phatak did not have much choice as he needed the money for his eldest daughter’s marriage. The broker who helped him pawn the land did not clearly disclose the terms of the agreement.
The family struggled and got back the land this year only after 23-year-old Rasika paid Rs 14.76 lakh for it, more than double the amount borrowed.
A graduate in agriculture from Nashik’s Yashwantrao Chavan Open University, Rasika, now a millionaire farmer, learned farming first hand by toiling for hours in the fields of a large farmer in her village. “I would reach the fields by 6am and start my day with vegetable plucking. I learned everything on the ground -- sowing, harvesting, driving tractor, identifying pests and disease, cutting grass etc.,” she says.
Being enrolled in the Open university meant she needed to attend the classes only on the weekend. On weekdays, she spent 10-12 hours in the fields. When Rasika started work as an apprentice at the farm in 2012, she wasn’t paid a rupee in the first year and received Rs3000 per month from the second year onwards. When she quit early last year, her monthly salary was Rs30,000.
Today, her annual income is over Rs 20lakh. Apart from farming, she is a licensed seller of agricultural inputs like seeds, manure and equipment.
Rasika is also an agriculture consultant to thousands of farmers who come to seek her advice on farming. While agriculture consultants in Mumbai abound, there aren't many in the hinterland despite agriculture in Maharashtra being an important economic activity.
“I don’t charge any fee from farmers in my native place as I feel it is my duty to help them as best as I can. But for those who come from other places, I charge a consultation fee,” says the youngster who also delivers lectures on agriculture in many of Mumbai’s colleges.
Rasika made a record in 2019 by harvesting 35,200 kg paddy from her small landholding by using the no-till, raised bed and direct sowing technique of paddy cultivation called Saguna Rice Technique or SRT.
“The technique allows us to harvest three crops in a year,” she says.
More crop, lower costs
This is in contrast to the practice followed by most farmers in the Konkan region, where only one paddy crop is cultivated in a year through the traditional ploughing, puddling and transplanting method. “The work is time-consuming and labour-intensive. In SRT, paddy is cultivated on permanent raised beds, which facilitates ample oxygen supply to the root zone area while maintaining the required moisture levels,” she points out.
Moreover, SRT cuts labour costs by up to 50 percent as puddling, transplanting and hand hoeing are not required. This makes farming profitable.
Another advantage is that loss of silt due to puddling is prevented. "This ensures continued fertility of the soil,” Rasika adds.
SRT allows farmers to cultivate three crops in a year through crop rotation. “The first crop is paddy. The important point is that the crop is not harvested from roots but only cut from the top because the root network prevents soil from cracking. We spray some medicines and these very roots become the source of organic carbon for the next crop. They naturally improve the soil fertility,” she explains.
Since the stubble is not removed, it also does not cause any environmental pollution like in the case of Punjab and Haryana where it is burnt as agricultural waste.
The second crop is a mix of moong dal, matki (both legumes), ragi (finger millet) and sunflower. Again the plants are not uprooted and the roots decompose, making the soil fertile for the third crop. “Then we sow moong dal again without any other crop. It does not require much manual labour after sowing ,” Rasika adds.
The average paddy output in the region following the traditional method is 4,500 kg per hectare. It can go up to 12,000 kg per hectare through SRT, which is the average production Rasika achieved this year.
Last year, the output was 7,000 kg per hectare through SRT. She cultivates Indrayani and Shubhangi varieties of rice on her farm. Instead of selling the produce after harvest, Rasika processes her paddy. “Brown rice is sold for Rs 150 per kg and unpolished rice at Rs 100 per kg. I don’t have to go anywhere with my produce. Buyers come here and procure directly from me,” she adds.
SRT method, however, is not organic farming. “We practice residue-free farming,” she says.
Residue-free farming implies the use of pesticides below the level that can cause harm to humans. This is ensured by maintaining a gap between spraying and harvesting.
How COVID-19 lockdown helped
Rasika continues the practice she began in 2012 – of being out in the fields at 6am. After working in her farm for a couple of hours, she heads to her consultancy office – Krishimayi Agro Services, where farmers from Maharashtra, Gujarat and sometimes even other states come to learn about farming. The maximum are Maharashtra farmers who come from nearby places. “The rest of the afternoon I spend with other farmers in my area, not only solving their farming-related problems but also counselling them on the need to involve the next generation in agriculture,” she says.
Since Sudhagadh-Pali is less than a three-hour drive from Mumbai, the area is witnessing rapid industrialisation. As real estate gets expensive in Mumbai’s suburbs, companies are now moving further away from peripheries, leading to a rise in land prices in small towns and villages.
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“In 2016, the land’s valuation here was Rs25,000 per guntha (40 gunthas = one acre). Now the rate is Rs1 lakh per guntha, which made many villagers think of selling land,” she says.
However, Rasika I explained to them how this short-term gain will take away employment from their future generations and many of them dropped the idea of selling land.
Luckily, she says, the Coronavirus lockdown helped. Those villagers who were working in cities were rendered jobless and came back home and began working in their farms. With education and awareness, these youngsters eliminated middlemen and are now selling their vegetables and fruits directly to buyers in nearby towns.
“The lockdown has renewed interest in agriculture. Young people believe that they can earn enough from farming and it is heartening to see them working in fields,” she says.
Rasika herself drove to nearby towns with tempos full of mangoes during summer. “Farmers are annadata (giver of food) and farming is a noble profession. I am proud of my work,” she says.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in financial, business and socio-economic reporting)