Indian Farmers Turn to New Crops as Climate Gets Drier

Indian Farmers Turn to New Crops as Climate Gets Drier

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune


ELVALAPAKKAM, INDIA — The monsoon has been vigorous this year, with heavy rains for days and even weeks at a time. The roads are in bad shape, potholed and filled with puddles. Low-lying areas of the countryside are waterlogged. Village reservoirs are dangerously full.

The monsoon brings its share of hardships: flooding, leaking roofs and round after round of the flu. But it is also a beautiful time. Trees and forests come to life. Birds, butterflies and the occasional rabbit surface between downpours.

One of my fondest childhood memories is of the rice fields that emerge after the monsoons. I remember hectare after hectare of emerald green stretching to the horizon.

This year, I have been struck by an unmistakable sense that there are fewer rice fields. Along highways, agriculture has given way to real estate development. Even deeper in the countryside, the fields look different. There are fewer rice and other traditional crops like peanuts and sugar cane, and more casuarina, palm oil and other so-called cash crops.

Recently, I have had several conversations with farmers in this area. They confirm a shift in farming patterns. Partly, this development is underpinned by a familiar tale of agricultural decline. Many traditional crops are labor or water intensive, drawing on two commodities in increasingly short supply. Farmers around Elvalapakkam can no longer afford to grow what their ancestors did.

But the shift is also an indication of hope — however incipient — for agriculture in this part of South India. It is a sign that farmers are trying to adjust, coming up with new crops and strategies to accommodate what has in many respects been a painful decade.

On recent rainy afternoon, I paid a visit to an 80-year-old farmer named V. Venkatavaradha Reddy. He lives in a high-ceilinged mansion with elegant arches and cool cement floors at the edge of more than 40 hectares, or 100 acres, of land. He has been farming that land since 1950.

Sitting in a cane chair on his veranda, Mr. Reddy provided a brief history of agriculture in the area. He said that, when he started, farming was a tough business. By the late 1960s, with the advent of the Green Revolution, things started getting better. The best years were the 1970s and ’80s, when water was plentiful, labor was cheap and chemical fertilizers increased yields.

Recent years have been harder. Chemicals have depleted the soil. Cheap pumps and bore wells have lowered the water table. New opportunities in local industries and the cities have increased incomes. This last development is good for people in the villages, but it has made it almost impossible to find affordable labor for the fields.

“The whole agriculture sector is falling,” Mr. Reddy said. His three sons live in the cities, he said, and aren’t interested in working on the farm.

None of this was new to me. I had heard similar stories from scores of farmers over the years. They are repeated across the nation. M.S. Swaminathan, often called the father of the Green Revolution in India, has written about “the crisis of Indian agriculture.”

The Peterson Institute for International Economics, a research group based in Washington, estimates that climate change could lead to a decline of 30 percent in Indian agricultural output by the 2080s.

But when Mr. Reddy started talking about changes on his farm, walked me around and showed me how different things had become, I heard something new: the possibility of a turnaround, a pathway that could possibly — just possibly — stem the rot in agriculture.

Mr. Reddy is in remarkably good shape. He walks with the aid of a stick, but he is steady on his feet and unhesitant in the slippery mud.

He showed me the new irrigation techniques he had implemented to conserve water. He pointed to the aluminum pipes that ran through his fields, the backbone of a sprinkler system. Elsewhere, he had installed a drip irrigation network.

He told me, also, that he was increasingly turning to organic methods. He showed me a bed of organic fertilizer (mostly cow manure) 4 meters, or 13 feet, deep that he used in his coconut plantations. The resulting fruit, he said, was bigger and tasted better.

He said that going organic was the only option remaining for farmers. He couldn’t imagine agriculture surviving if it continued to rely on the chemicals that had for so long poisoned the soil.

Mr. Reddy talked a lot about the new crops he was growing. Like so many farmers, he had moved away from traditional crops. Instead, he found fruits and vegetables more economical. He said that over the past few years, his bananas and coconuts and mangoes had really sustained the farm.

Mr. Reddy was particularly hopeful for a crop that had recently been imported into the area from Malaysia. He pointed to 10 hectares of short, stubby trunks that in a few years he said would yield pot after pot of palm oil.

Some groups have expressed concern about the environmental effect of palm oil cultivation, particularly in Southeast Asia. But Mr. Reddy said that palm oil was healthy and friendly to the environment. He said that it was used for biofuels and that many farmers were turning to it. He was convinced that it was the future of farming in this area.

A farmer walking with us, a relative of Mr. Reddy, agreed. He said that when he switched to palm oil, he was told by an agronomist that he would soon be able to afford a Mercedes-Benz. Like Mr. Reddy, he is waiting. In a few years, they both expect the oil to start flowing.

On the way back to the house, with the sky grown a little darker, I asked Mr. Reddy whether he really thought his farm could be saved. “It’s still an experiment,” he said, of the palm oil in particular. “We’re still waiting to see.”

Talking more generally, he said: “I have hope. I have to have hope. Without all these new techniques, agriculture would have died. I’m watching it, day by day.”

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