Stark reality of unfavourable economics of small holder farming exposed to vagaries of nature

Bhil agricultural workers

By Rahul Banerjee*

Subhadra’s purchase of a one acre plot of farm land and subsequent practice of sustainable agriculture on it has brought us face to face with the stark reality of smallholder farming. The other day the farmer who stays next to Subhadra’s land and looks after it phoned to say that the spate of late rains had caused the groundnuts to start germinating in the soil and it was necessary to take them out immediately. Subhadra was away and so I had to rush to the farm from Indore. With difficulty I was able to get two farm hands as this being the busy season everyone was occupied.

However, since we pay Rs 200 per day which is slightly more than the statutory minimum wage for agricultural labourers and this is much more than the Rs 120 that other farmers pay we generally manage to find farm hands. For two days along with the two farm hands I first uprooted the groundnut plants and then separated the groundnuts from the plants.

But this was not enough as the groundnuts were wet and needed to be dried as otherwise they would germinate or get infected with fungus. Since it was raining continuously, the groundnuts could not be dried on the farm. So I carted the groundnuts in my car to Indore, cleared up the guest room in our house and spread the groundnuts on the floor on a jute sheet and put on the fan!! For two days our whole house smelt of groundnuts as they dried under the fan till the rains continued.

After that I put them to dry in the sun on our roof. However, this required a constant vigil next to the drying groundnuts because of the threat of squirrels and birds which would come to eat the groundnuts if there was no one around. I had been in the middle of writing a research report for an assignment that I was doing when the groundnut emergency had arisen. So while keeping my vigil on the groundnut I worked on my laptop to finish the report!!

Eventually after three days of drying in the sun, the groundnut was finally dry enough to be stored. In the process the groundnut shells that were either empty from inside or had small nuts, shrivelled up completely and I could separate them. So in the end we had only about thirty kilograms of good groundnut after all this effort. If my initial two days of labour only are counted along with that of the farm hands we hired then the total cost of taking out the groundnuts from the farm at Rs 200 per day per worker was Rs 1200.

Whereas the wholesale price of groundnuts in the market that farmers are getting is only Rs 30 per kilogram and so the return in the market for the 30 kilograms would be Rs 900. If we add the cost of preparing the soil and sowing the groundnut, weeding it and the post harvest operations that I did to ensure that the groundnuts didn’t rot, then the loss is even more. This is why farmers cannot afford to pay the minimum wage to farm labourers and pay only about Rs 100 to Rs 120 in our area and themselves get even less.

In the case of our groundnuts, the productivity was low due to a variety of reasons. In between the rains had stopped in the month of August just when the groundnuts were filling up with seed. So there were many groundnuts that shrivelled up in the ground itself and many others did not fill up with seed and shrivelled up later when they were sun dried. Before this in July it had rained heavily and led to excessive growth of the plant and less of the groundnuts on the roots.

This brings us face to face with the stark reality of the unfavourable economics of small holder farming which is exposed to the vagaries of nature. The statutory minimum wage for agriculture in Madhya Pradesh is itself low at about Rs 192 per day but even that is too much for the farmer to pay to hired farm hands and so the actual wage rate is only Rs 120 and the small holder farmer also gets that much for his own labour. In most cases the farmer does not have adequate resources to prevent post-harvest decay of the crop and so there is sometimes a substantial loss on that count also. All in all the farmer remains trapped in a vicious circle of low production, low income, malnutrition and low investment in agriculture.

*With Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra and Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, Madhya Pradesh. Source:


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