Over the past decade, Maharashtra’s Purandar taluka has experienced erratic rainfall. There was a severe drought between 2011 and 2013. But then, in the two years from 2019, it received double the average rainfall.

During the worst of the dry years, villages have had to rely on expensive tankers to source even drinking water. These are dire circumstances particularly for farmers whose livelihoods depend on rainfall.

Despite the volatility, Namdeo Jhurange in the taluka’s Khandwadi village, a two-hour drive from Pune, says he managed to stay afloat. While many other farms in the area are filled with monoculture cash crops stretching as far as the eye can see, Jhurange’s 2.5-acre farm paints an entirely different picture.

It is a patchwork of fruit trees, rabi crops such as wheat and bengal gram, rose and marigold bushes, and pens for livestock and poultry.

Jhurange credits his ability to survive the vagaries of the weather to the fact that his farm is highly diversified: this means that he grows more than one type of crop, or employs different cropping systems to improve the agricultural productivity of the land sustainably.

On a diversified farm, a variety of crops can be grown during the same season, thereby creating multiple income streams for the farmer and making the farm more resilient to pests and environmental shocks.

Monoculture, cash crops

Farmers in water-stressed Maharashtra, particularly small and marginal farmers who own less than five acres of land, often rely on a single, water-intensive cash crop, such as sugar cane to generate all their income. If the crop fails, the farmer has no choice but to apply for more loans and add to their mounting debts.

The 2022 Economic Survey, noted: “The existing cropping pattern is skewed towards cultivation of sugarcane, paddy and wheat, which has led to depletion of fresh groundwater resources and soil quality at an alarming rate in many parts of the country.”

The survey also says that a solution is to diversify cropping towards oilseeds, pulses and horticulture. This would mean tackling concerns such as irrigation, affordable inputs such as new seeds, pesticides and fertilisers, credit and access to markets.

Climate variability

Jhurange has diversified his farm in exactly this manner. In the kharif season (crops grown during the monsoon, from June to November), he grows bajra, or pearl millet, ghevda, or french beans, and bhuimug, or peanuts. In the rabi season (winter crops, from November to April), he grows wheat, harbara, or bengal gram, as well as some bhuimug.

In addition, he has custard apple trees on the farm that yield fruit throughout the year. He also rears chickens, goats and a cow.

This multi-cropping system also gave him the option to plant half an acre of water-intensive sugar cane recently.

Fodder crops on the left and custard apple trees on the right: Namdeo Jhurange’s diversified farm in Khanwadi village. Credit: Srushti Paranjpe/Mukta Deodhar

The Purandar region is usually water scarce, but it witnessed double the average rainfall in the last two years prompting Jhurange to adapt by cultivating a thirsty crop that would otherwise have depleted water resources.

This way, he has a buffer against freak weather and could guarantee income even as unseasonal and excessive rain for successive years damaged his other crops.

A balanced income portfolio

Jhurange’s biggest source of income is the custard apple – a crop that is well suited to the soil and climate of the region. His 350 older trees, over 30-years-old, cover one acre. He recently added another half-acre. These are usually intercropped with fodder crops such as lasun ghaas, or garlic grass, and millets such as bajra.

‘Unlike grains, pulses and vegetables which are harvested once a year, the income from custard apples is more consistent and is spread out over three to four months [for each individual patch of trees] as the mature trees bear fruit repeatedly,’ Jhurange said.

On harvest days, Jhurange and his wife begin plucking the fruits before dawn and then take them to the closest market at Saswad, reaching just as it opens so that they can get the best possible price, which could range from Rs 15 to Rs 90 per kilo depending on fruit size.

“For the price these fruits fetch, growing and harvesting them is relatively easy work,” says Jhurange. It also requires less water compared to most cash crops. “I don’t need to irrigate at all during the monsoon when the rain is sufficient.”

Tamarind and bamboo are other convenient sources of income on Jhurange’s farm as they require no inputs and he does not have to spend time and effort to harvest and transport the produce to the market himself.

Merchants harvest the tamarind from the farm to take it to a summer market held exclusively for this fruit. The seeds also have a market as they are used as adulterants in maida and wheat flour. Tomato farmers harvest mature bamboo from his farm, which they use to support tomato vines.

Jhurange also grows many crops for sustenance such as vegetables: carrots, raddish, leafy veggies, pulses. Even from the wheat and millets grown, only the excess is taken to market while the bulk of the produce is processed and stored for the family’s use.

He recently also added animals to his farm. He has chickens (native variety), a market he described as “budding and uncertain”. Jhurange sells the eggs and sometimes sells the poultry for meat, while incurring no input costs since they are fed scraps from the kitchen and the vegetable waste the farm generates.

Jhurange also rears goats. The family sells the goats for meat and uses the milk at home. He has one mixed breed cow whose milk they sell fresh in the village itself after keeping some for themselves. All animal dung and droppings are used as manure throughout the farm, reducing waste and helping save money on fertilisers.

The chicken coop at the farm houses native varieties of chickens. Here, they are feeding on vegetable scraps from a recent harvest. Credit: Srushti Paranjpa/Mukta Deodhar

Sustaining an ecosystem

By diversifying, small farmers in the region also provide a key ecosystem service of maintaining seed lines for regional and native varieties of the crops they grow for sustenance. They save seeds each season to grow for the next, keeping the native variety’s seed line alive, and increasing the agrobiodiversity of their farms and region.

Preserving the diversity of species is ecologically important because of the cascade effect – where the loss of one species leads to the loss of many other species in the ecosystem that depend on it.

The intercropping system in a diversified farm also helps maintain soil health, especially if legumes are planted. Better soil quality promotes biodiversity and reduces the load on the farmer.

For instance, Jhurange needs to plough his field only once a year, even in a semi-arid region. Reducing tillage also helps preserve soil organic carbon and thus reduces carbon emissions from the farm.

Pest resilient

The quality of the soil in Jhurange’s land is also preserved because he does not have to use copious amounts of pesticide to protect his crops. On mono-cropped land, there is too much of a single type of crop that creates a breeding ground for pests, which is why Jhurange’s crops are less susceptible.

In fact, it is the mono-cropped custard apple plantations that have come up near his land over the past three to four years that led to an increase in pest attacks on his trees as well.

American biologist Rachel Carson had famously written in her seminal book, Silent Spring, 60 years ago:

“Under primitive agricultural conditions the farmer had few insect problems. These arose with the intensification of agriculture – the devotion of immense acreages to a single crop. Such a system set the stage for explosive increases in specific insect populations... Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it.”

These words are relevant even today. Income diversification is an obvious benefit, but a diversified cropping system is inherently more stable and strong. It is less vulnerable to pests and environmental shocks because there are so many different components that are not all vulnerable to the same kind of shocks.

A farm pond full of rainwater due to unseasonal rainfall. Usually, as a contingency measure, it is filled using the borewell only when the open well dries up in the late winter/early summer months. Credit: Srushti Paranjpe/Mukta Deodhar

But it is important to note that this is no silver bullet to fix the complex, structural problems that plague Indian agriculture. The success of diversification is contingent on many factors.

As the Economic Survey says, “addressing core issues that can facilitate its uptake” is key. Jhurange himself was able to fully transform his 2.5-acre farm due to the watershed development work done by a local non-governmental organisation, the Gram Gaurav Pratishthan.

For the last 45 years, the organisation has carried out activities such as continuous contour trenching (a watershed measure that prevents rainfall runoff), earthen dam and percolation tank repairs, soil excavation, bund repair and desilting which ensure drinking water for the villagers throughout the year, reduce soil erosion and recharge groundwater.

As a result, despite having a small landholding, Jhurange says this diversified model has not only provided the family with food security but it has also given them the opportunity to invest in their daughter’s postgraduate education.

Srushti Paranjpe is a senior research associate at the Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation at ATREE, Bengaluru. This fieldwork was part of a project carried out across four states to understand agricultural interventions and was funded by the Rainmatter Foundation.