Crop diversification: When farmers’ incentives clash with policymakers goals

The Punjab government has sought to bring 5 lh area in the state under maize, as part of the original plan of reducing paddy area by 12 lh between 2012-13 and 2017-18.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Jalandhar | Published:August 10, 2017 2:17 am
A labourer at a maize field in Hoshiarpur, Punjab. Express photo

For policymakers wanting to wean away Punjab farmers from water-guzzling paddy, 1.35 lakh hectares (lh) area sown under maize this kharif season may not seem bad, even if it is way below the 29.11 lh for the former.

But this small consolation is offset by the bulk of maize acreage — some 1.15 lh out of the total 1.35 lh — being accounted for by just five out Punjab’s 22 districts. These five districts (Pathankot, Hoshiarpur, Nawanshahr, Ropar and Mohali) have large sub-mountainous tracts along the Shivalik foothills, also known as Punjab’s ‘Kandi belt’. “The land here is mostly uneven and semi-hilly, with light and sandy soil that is significantly rain-fed. You cannot, therefore, grow paddy that requires continuously standing water for days. That makes maize practically a default crop for farmers in this belt,” notes Amrik Singh, agricultural development officer of Pathankot.

Pathankot and Nawanshahr districts have around 10,000 hectares each planted under kharif/monsoon maize, while even more for Hoshiarpur (65,000 hectares) and Ropar (22,000 hectares).

Mandeep Singh, a farmer from Saido Patti village in Hoshiarpur, says that given a choice, he would grow paddy considering its superior economics of cultivation vis-à-vis maize. “The production costs for both crops are the same at around Rs 10,000 per acre. But paddy yields are 29-30 quintals per acre and I am assured of the government’s minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 1,590 per quintal announced for this year. Monsoon maize yields, by contrast, are only 20-22 quintals per acre, with realisations at Rs 700-1,000 per quintal. Although its MSP for 2017-18 has been set at Rs 1,425 per quintal, the government will not undertake any procurement at that rate,” he points out.

So, why does Singh grow maize on 20 acres, of which only two acres are his own land and the rest taken on lease at an annual rent of Rs 25,000-30,000 per acre? “I cannot take any other crop during kharif. Also, I don’t grow maize for grain, whose duration is 110-115 days. Instead, I sell the fresh green cobs for roasting and boiling, which is ready after 70 days of sowing and gives a return of Rs. 12,000-15,000/acre.

Once the green maize is harvested, I go for sowing of matar (peas) in early-September. This crop is harvested by end-November, after which I immediately plant potato and then spring maize towards mid-February. Only with such crop rotation and intensive farming can I earn two square meals,” he explains. Hoshiarpur has areas such as Chabbewal, Garhshanker, Mahilpur and Tanda, where farmers have taken to matar cultivation in a big way. Green maize fits in well into their cropping cycle. The same goes for the potato belt of Jalandhar district, where kharif maize is grown over some 8,000 hectares.

“I plant potatoes in October and harvest them in mid-February. Following that, I plant spring maize that is harvested by June, in time for planting of monsoon maize. Although not profitable, one advantage with kharif maize is that you can easily grow potatoes after harvesting, unlike in paddy where clearing the stubble from the fields requires lot of work,” points out Jugraj Singh, a 30-acre farmer from Madara village of Jalandhar.

Jaswinder Singh Sangha, general secretary of the Jalandhar Potato Growers Association, agrees that maize is not very profitable, especially when grown during kharif. But it suits potato growers, who, in fact, make more money from spring maize that gives 36-39 quintal per acre yields after drying.

Sansar Singh from Dhaki Shada village of Pathankot, too, takes two crops of maize — one in kharif and one in spring. In between, he grows potatoes and assorted winter season vegetables. Besides, the 13-acre farmer grows desi mash or urad (black gram) as an inter-crop with maize. “When my land is not suitable for paddy, this is the best combination that can work for me,” he adds.

All this would, however, not be music to the ears of policymakers and economists. They would firstly want Punjab farmers to grow only kharif maize, which can replace paddy that requires up to 25 irrigations. Secondly, paddy is currently grown mostly in the Malwa region, where the problem of depleting water tables is really serious. It is the farmers here who should be switching over to maize.

They are bound to be disappointed on both counts. The farmers who have taken to maize primarily belong to the Kandi belt, where paddy cultivation is not feasible in any case. Equally worrying is the rising area — currently 30,000 hectares — under spring maize. Given that temperatures start rising after March and hit 35-45 degrees Celsius by May-June alongside sunshine duration of 9-9.5 hours, it makes this not a particularly water-saving crop.

The Punjab government has sought to bring 5 lh area in the state under maize, as part of the original plan of reducing paddy area by 12 lh between 2012-13 and 2017-18. If only farmers’ incentives were as well-aligned with the objectives of policymakers!

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