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Small farmers to Smart farmers

Farmers Field School approach has emerged as an effective tool to empower small farmers and ensuring food security

Published on December 20, 2020 at 4:03 am

Updated on March 20, 2021 at 06:48 am

Shikha Srivastava and Sukanya Chatterjee

Reaping benefits of Farmers Field School (FFS).

Small and marginal farmers with less than two hectares of land account for 86.2% of all farmers in India, but they own just 47.3% of the crop area (as per the agriculture census, 2015-16). Their assets and livelihood are completely dependent on climate-sensitive production. Climate change and unsustainable practices have affected the farming ecosystem. Unable to cope with the weather vagaries, small farmers are facing crop failures and reduced production.

Increased losses in agriculture production are causing distressed migration, making them more vulnerable. On the other hand, demand for food is increasing and poor and vulnerable people are facing food shortage. The availability of land cannot be increased; therefore the significant mass of these small farmers hold the key to increased food production. Against this context, there is an urgent need to work with small farmers to intensify food production.

In the wake climate change, small farmers need new agri-techniques and knowledge to adopt climate-resilient practices. They need an empowering ecosystem for sustainably managing and improving production.
Government and voluntary organisations have initiated many programmes to support these farmers with climate-smart agricultural techniques. However, the huge population of 126 million farmers (as per the agriculture census 2015-2016), pose a gigantic challenge in reaching out to each and every small farmer and build their resilience towards climate change.

Despite well thought out of intervention plans, a series of training on improved practices are not enough to enable the vulnerable community to comprehend and adopt it. It is common to see that learnings are often picked up by a handful, mainly those with the initiative and motivation from among the vulnerable community. Often, activities are also implemented in isolation of complementary activities. The Farmers Field School (FFS) approach has emerged as an effective tool to empower small farmers and ensuring food security.

Capacity building of marginalised farmers under FFS initiative.

Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS), working for over five decades on building capacities of the most marginalised, has adopted the FFS approach in many of its projects across India. In one of the projects namely “Promoting Agri Enterprise among Vulnerable Families (PAVE)”, IGSSS is promoting FFS to exclusively empower small plot holders in drought-affected areas. The project is being implemented in the 15 villages of Gola block, Ramgarh district, Jharkhand.

Understanding Farmers Field School Approach
FFS is a proven and effective participatory approach to build capacities of marginal farmers through practical demonstrations for promotion of climate-smart agricultural practices. The FFS approach stress on active problem solving and learning by doing. It values building local knowledge and leaderships for its replication and sustainability. The pedagogy of FFS emphasis on the following:

Forming Potential: Farmers are identified and FFS groups are formed, with their participation, a plan of action is developed.
Nurturing: This is the intensive training phase when farmers undergo weekly/fortnightly/monthly sessions in a nearby community field, which is a controlled demonstration plot, where practical knowledge & skills are transferred.
Practising and Promoting: After acquiring the skills & becoming confident they replicate it in their fields for dissemination to the wider community, through informal communication and on-field farming.

Farmers Field School: Experiences from the Field
Pre-project assessment in the 15 villages revealed a shift from traditional drought-resistant crops like millets, kodo, kotki, etc, to growing staple foods (rice, wheat), vegetables and small animal rearing based livelihood. The assessment highlighted the agricultural practices like broadcast seeding, use of high yielding and hybrid seed, excessive consumption of chemical fertilizers. Erratic rainfall, dry spells, drought-like conditions and water-intensive cultivation led to enormous water stress in the villages. When IGSSS started its work, it was important to reach out to maximum farmers to alter the prevalent agricultural practices. It was a challenging task to convince farmers for modifying the present practices and adopt new ecologically sustainable techniques.

Red gram cultivation under FFS initiative.

FFS proved to be an effective tool in demonstrating improved and climate-smart practices and encourage its replication with a multiplier effect. IGSSS planned out a demonstration of key agri-practices through FFS with a carefully selected cadre of participants in consultation with the Village Development Committees (VDC), the apex village bodies. Without disturbing the cropping pattern, climate-smart techniques such as Systematic Rice Intensification (SRI), Systematic Wheat Intensification (SWI) and Systematic Mustard Intensification (SMI) were introduced. Drought resistant varieties of paddy, cultivation of pulses and oilseeds like red gram, green gram and groundnut, vegetables which require less water, are also being promoted through FFS.

Implementation Process
At the outset, 15 villages were divided into three clusters. In discussion with the VDCs, based on interest and local conditions, climate-smart practices for demonstration at each FFS was identified. The VDCs also helped to identify approximately 50 farmers from each cluster. Priority was given to the needy and interested farmers who would replicate the learnings in their own villages after training. These identified farmers who agreed to participate in FFS became the lead farmers. For three years, 24 improved practices were identified in total.

For the first year, two climate-smart practices per cluster were identified, one for Kharif season and another for Rabi season. To explain the process, we will take the example of how FFS was implemented during Kharif season in 2018.
The first cluster of 44 farmers decided to adopt the SRI technique. Detailed inputs such as line sowing, appropriate spacing, seed treatment, nursery raising, field preparation, seed sowing, weed management etc were provided to them. Sharing by these lead farmers motivated an additional 110 farmers to adopt the SRI method for paddy in their fields. In total SRI was demonstrated in 46 acres of land.

Farmers harvested 6 quintals per acre from SRI plot while production from non-SRI plots was 3.25 quintals per acre, which was a significant increase in the yield and at a lower cost as SRI required much lesser amounts of seeds. The beneficiaries of the project areas are now convinced with these techniques. They have also committed to doing SRI next year on a much larger scale.

The FFS training motivated farmers to initiate pulse cultivation on a small scale in the second cluster. Intercropping of red gram and groundnut was introduced to 48 farmers. 123 farmers replicated intercropping in discussion with the lead farmers. Pulses being a drought-resilient crop have brought in 20 acres of fallow land under cultivation. Pulse cultivation led to the augmenting soil fertility by fixing nitrogen in the soil.

In the Gola region, there is vast scope of vegetable cultivation but a general trend is to cultivate one type of vegetable in a single plot. As a result in case of pest attacks or other natural calamities, the whole crop used to get affected. Through FFS, the third cluster of 58 farmers learnt about mixed cropping of vegetable and decided to cultivate vegetables like bottle gourd, brinjal, tomato, chilli, maize, bitter gourd, pumpkin. This was replicated by 170 additional farmers and a total of 30 acres of land was brought under mixed cropping. Farmers harvested varieties of vegetables in a single season and used it for their personal consumption and sale.

A similar process was adopted for the Rabi season. The three farmer field schools demonstrated mulching techniques for tomato and chilly, poly nursery for vegetable plantation and Semialata plantation for lac cultivation.

Replication Strategy
A brief summary of the outcomes of the Kharif season revealed that there has been an organic replication of the learnings where other farmers have initiated these practices following the examples of the lead farmers. However, for a sustained change, the following strategies are being employed to accelerate the effective replication of climate-smart practices with a wider group:
1. Lead farmers are being developed as master trainers over time. The mix of theory and practical experience equips them to support other farmers.
2. Formal platforms for sharing of experiences among the clusters are being created to learn and support from each other.
3. Lead farmers are the pillar of this whole approach. Clear roles and responsibilities of lead farmers have been defined. A memorandum has been signed by the lead farmers, which says that they will be taking responsibility of five farmers each, to replicate the technical knowledge of agriculture and for this, they will not receive any form of remuneration from IGSSS.
4. VDCs have accepted the responsibility to monitor the commitments of both the lead farmers as well as those who will learn from the lead farmers. Jointly, farmers and VDC will track the replication and adoption in each village basis sowing details, input details, production and area.

Conclusion
The FFS sessions during 2018 have yielded good results for the farmers. In a very short span of time, various agri-practices have been effectively demonstrated which has aided the adoption. 150 farmers participated in FFS and they motivated 403 more farmers to adopt climate-smart practices. The impact and outreach amplified with the use of this approach. The replication also happened because the practices were very local context-specific and the farmers were able to see the benefits by comparing demonstration sites with other sites. Community reported increased food availability; cash in hand and reduction in distressed migration

The most significant facet of the whole approach is that it engages farmers as co-creator, partner and not a mere recipient of the knowledge. It empowers farmers by actively partnering with them in analysing, experimenting and finding solutions to manage the complexities arising out of changing climate.

The approach aided in creating an understanding of the ecologically sustainable practices. The farmers promoted climate-smart practices that conserve and nurture natural resources like water and soil.

FFS has proved to be an effective empowering tool for farmers in continuously discovering, creating and adopting climate-smart agricultural practices for sustainable livelihood. It is playing a very crucial role in ensuring food diversity and food security for the rural poor. It makes perfect business case too as with fewer resources a wider and sustainable impact can be reached.

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