Its 8 am on a hot morning in May and Bala Shivaji Patil’s four-acre farm in Uplai Khurd village of Maharashtra’s Solapur district is already teeming with visitors. The 30-year-old dropped out of high school to take up farming and is now known as lakhpati shetkari, the rich farmer. He is showing his guests, many from distant places, around the farm, explaining how shewga (also known as moringa or drumstick) has brought prosperity to his six-member family. It has cost him little effort, investment and little irrigation.

Krishiratan, Patil’s plush two-storied house with a statue of a farmer standing atop a humble structure, is evidence of his success. “I began with two acres in 2011 and now have four acres under moringa, each acre fetching me around Rs 4 lakhs,” said Patil. He has written a book titled Crorepati Banvel Shewga, or Moringa can make you a millionaire, which has sold over 4,000 copies since it was published in 2016.

Such stories of farmers who have become prosperous by cultivating moringa are commonplace in drought-prone Solapur. They are now being emulated by farmers in other dry-zones such as Buldhana, Sangli, Osmanabad, Latur, Beed, Satara, Amravati.

Since Solapur receives scanty rainfall, 91.5% of its total cultivated area is under dry land farming. The rainfall, which is just 625 mm compared to 3,255 mm in the Konkan region, determines the pattern of crops, their rotation and the land’s productivity.

Solapur has been identified as one of India’s 99 drought-prone districts. Some of its extreme weather patterns can be attributed to climate change. As global temperatures have increased, extended periods of drought, heat waves, and unpredictable rainfall have intensified. The annual average rainfall varies greatly from year to year, directly affecting agriculture and horticulture activities.

The Ujani dam on the Bhima river, built at a cost of Rs 33 billion and serving around 500 sq km of the district, has helped many farmers grow water-intensive crops such as sugarcane, wheat, millet and cotton. In drier areas, however, farmers grow crops that require little water such as pomegranate, chilli, papaya, custard apple and, of course, moringa.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Solapur’s farmers started cultivating bhor, or the Indian plum. In the 1990s, they shifted to new hybrid varieties of pomegranate developed by the local agriculture university. But because the hybrid crops were prone to pest attacks, the pomegranate-growing area declined from a peak of 45,413 hectares in 2011 to around 10,000 hactares by 2013.

A harvest of moringa is ready for the market. Photo credit: Hiren Kumar Bose

Growing drumstick

Considering this, Solapur’s Krishi Vigyan Kendra introduced the farmers to a drought-tolerant and high-yielding variety of drumstick called PKM-2, developed by theTamil Nadu Agricultural University in 2001. “As drumstick grows round the year, the crop was embraced by farmers of Solapur,” Vikas Bhise, a horticulturist with the Krishi Vigyan Kendra. “Now an estimated 1,500 hectares is under drumstick cultivation and it’s spreading as drought has become a regular feature here.”

Moringa starts fruiting within six months of planting and continues to yield fruit, a long pod rich in calcium which is an essential ingredient in sambhar and is also cooked as a vegetable, for eight to nine years.

According to Adinath Chavan, editor of Agrowon, a popular Marathi farm daily, farmers of Solapur have been “enterprising in crop selection”, considering they inhabit the state’s driest zone. “They are likely to continue growing moringa as long as it offers good returns,” Chavan said. “Earlier, they had tried horticulture crops such as bhor and pomegranate but abandoned them either due to pest attack or when they became non-profitable.”

Farmer Appa Karmakar’s is another success story of growing moringa. His three-acre farm at Angar village, which has a sparse vegetative landscape, has become a go-to destination for arid zone farmers from Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. It is shining example of dry land farming.

Smart agriculture

Among the early adaptors of moringa, Karmakar, who holds a postgraduate degree, started cultivating moringa in 2012. He grows it with an intercrop of chilies, papaya, pomegranate and guava, besides marigold, which has been traditionally used to control pests. His farm produces 50 tonnes of drumsticks every year, selling for Rs 30 to Rs 80 per kg in the wholesale market and fetching approximately Rs 6 lakh a year. His climate-smart horticulture improvisations with minimum inputs getting good returns attract farmers, journalists, agricultural graduates and agriculture experts to his farm.

“Having heard that I made Rs 7 lakh in the first six months of planting moringa and now make around Rs 15 lakh a year, we get more than 50 visitors a day and an equal number of calls from farmers wanting to know whether they too can replicate this experiment,” Appa, 42, said while fielding a query from a Telangana farmer interested in cultivating drumsticks. “Once they visit the farm, they are convinced that they too can do it too.”

Bala Shivaji Patil of Uplai Khurd village in his farm. Photo credit: Hiren Kumar Bose

Newer varieties

After a couple of years, moringa’s yield reduces and the pod color changes, requiring the introduction of newer varieties. In view of this, Krishi Vigyan Kendra introduced the Bhagya variety, developed by the University of Horticultural Sciences, Bagalkot in Karnataka in 2008. The other varieties widely grown in Solapur include Siddhivinayak, ODC Vasanthi and Rohit 1.

Rohit 1 has been developed by Nashik’s Balasaheb Marale and it is under validation by the National Innovation Foundation.

Bhise informs that 2,000-odd farmers with an average landholding of one acre earn anything between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 2 lakh per acre growing moringa. Atul Bagal of Vadegaon village in Sangola taluka who started growing moringa on three acres in February 2016 is one of them. He has so far produced 115 tonnes of this fruit.

Mahadev Shankar Nanavare of Wadwal Nagnath village in Mohol taluka grows moringa on 20,000 sq feet of land and sugarcane, guava, pomegranate, wheat and fodder on 4.5 acres. “The 250 moringa plants give me Rs 70,000 to Rs 75,000 annually,” Nanavare said.

Karmakar of Angar village said, “I am a toying with the idea of creating a farmer produce cooperative to produce moringa leaf powder and moringa oil. I hope the banks fund this project.”

Hiren Kumar Bose is a journalist based in Thane, Maharashtra. He doubles up as a weekend farmer.

This article first appeared on Village Square.