When monsoons failed, Suchita Vasudev Khapale, 31, and her husband worked as farm labourers, earning Rs 120 and Rs 170 a day, respectively. Otherwise, the marginal farmers grew sugarcane, wheat and sorghum on their five-acre farm in Waluj village of Mohol block in Solapur district, Maharashtra.

Solapur is prone to drought. Farmers here are mostly marginal landholders, owning less than five acres. When it rained, they cultivated sugarcane, wheat and sorghum once a year. In summer and when it did not rain, they worked as labourers elsewhere. Even when it rained there was always uncertainty owing to pest attacks and unstable prices. Most of them are Dalit and rank low in the caste hierarchy. Thus, farmers such as Khapale led insecure lives on many fronts.

Crop diversification

Then, Khapale learnt new new agricultural practices through Uma Mote, coordinator of the Swayam Shikshan Prayog, a non-profit based in Pune that partners with the Maharashtra State Rural Livelihoods Mission to eradicate poverty. Under the project, the NGO developed a farming model to increase farm incomes.

The model is based primarily on crop diversification. Adapting the model, farmers grow a number of traditional vegetables, pulses, millets, cereals and fruits three times a year. This has ensured production throughout the year.

Khapale convinced her husband to try crop diversification. They decided to grow diverse crops on 2.5 acres and sugarcane and wheat as usual on the rest. They grew 20 varieties, including okra, coriander, spinach, onion, fenugreek, tomato and many native vegetables.

Padmini Kade, 60, has also switched from sugarcane, wheat and sorghum on her two acres of land. “Last year we started growing vegetables, peas, beans, groundnut and soybean and also pomegranate,” Kade said.

Adaptive practices

Farmers have turned to drip irrigation, after learning about government schemes and loans for the same, so they can use available water throughout the year.

Khapale grows sorghum and wheat for her family’s consumption. She follows inter-cropping, growing vegetables between the wheat and sorghum plants.

The women farmers cultivate fruits as well. Khapale cultivates guava and papaya. Kade grows pomegranate. Though her neighbours teased her for choosing to cultivate pomegranate, hitherto not grown in this region, she grows them, with her son guiding her with relevant information from the internet.

Women farmers in Solapur grow a wide variety of crops. Photo courtesy Swayam Shikshan Prayog

Economic impact

Three months after she planted vegetables, Khapale started harvesting between 100 kg and 150 kg of okra on alternate days. She earns Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,500 every other day even if the rates are as low as Rs 30 per kilo.

Khapale harvests four or five types of vegetables every day, throughout the year. “Even if I have to sell two vegetables at a low price, I get higher rates for the remaining two,” she said. Now she does not work as a labourer on other’s farms, but engages workers to help her. Her husband has decided to go for the 20-crop method on all their five acres as their financial status has improved.

The villagers send their produce to the market in Pune. “Despite having only two acres of land, my family of two sons along with their wives and kids can survive with the income from it,” Kade said.

More than 50 women farmers of Waluj village have adopted this model, selling vegetables for about Rs 1,000 every day, and have turned their lives around. Besides, families are able to consume nutritious food, including vegetables.

Extending the model

Samir Sheikh, coordinator at the Swayam Shikshan Prayog, said they have implemented this farming model in more than 500 villages across the five drought-affected districts of Osmanabad, Beed, Washim, Hingoli and Solapur. “At least 25 farmers from each of these villages have shifted to this farming model from their traditional cultivation of cash crops,” Sheikh said.

According to Shaikh, farmers from many villages have become aware of the benefits of crop diversification and multi-cropping and are keen to benefit from it. They plan to reach farmers in 400 more villages over the next two years.

Speaking about the economic benefits she enjoys from this model, another farmer Kamal Waghmare, 42, said, “Due to diversification, land has become more fertile again. This model has also been effective against pest attacks and hence crop losses.”

Varsha Torgalkar is a Pune-based journalist.

This article first appeared on Village Square.