The most preferred crop one season and out of favour the next, maize will alternate between extremes in Punjab’s selective policymaking. The diversifying state gives maize the largest area shifting away from paddy, around 35 per cent of 12 lakh hectares, which would take the total area under the crop from 1.29 lakh hectares until 2012 to 5.5 lakh hectares once the diversification is complete.
All the maize cultivation, however, is to be done in one season every year. For January-February to May, the state is discouraging maize although yields are known to be high in spring. This is because of the very reason the state is shifting away from paddy; spring maize too consumes a lot of water.
“After March the temperature starts rising and reaches 35 to 45°C by May-June, and the average sunshine duration is nine to nine-and-a-half hours. The water evaporates fast and maize needs frequent watering, which affects the water table,” says Dr Swatantra Kumar Aery, chief agriculture officer, Jalandhar.
For paddy, the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act, 2009, bans sowing before June 15, keeping it close to the rainy season. For maize, the government wants cultivation restricted to the kharif season from June to September.
Because of its high yield (around 36 quintals per acre), spring maize does thrive on 24,000 to 25,000 hectares in around half a dozen districts including Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur and parts of Malwa. Harvested in May-June, it can earn a farmer Rs 35,000 to 40,000 per acre.
As an alternative this season, the agriculture department is encouraging spring/summer moong and mah, vegetables, spring sugarcane, sunflower and green fodder. “All these crops are capable of giving nearly the same returns as spring maize. Pulses are two-month crops and need just two or three waterings,” says Aery.
The department is targeting one lakh hectares under moong and mah. These can be grown at the end of February, or in March and April, a trend introduced by the Agricultural Technology Management Agency (ATMA) a couple of years ago, says Dr M S Sandhu, the state agriculture director. “Earlier farmers used to sow pulses only during May to July,” said Sandhu.
ATMA’s deputy project director, Dr Naresh Gulati, says four to five quintals pulses can be grown on one acre with a spending of Rs 6,000 to 7,000. Some progressive farmers in Muktsar district have got even six quintals per acre, he says, adding even an average farmer can earn Rs 40,000 to 50,000 from every acre in two months.
“Pulses help improve soil fertility. The need for fertilisers decreases 25 per cent in the next crop cycle,” says Dr Gulati. After harvesting, nodules of pulses are left in the fields to improve soil fertility.
The government provides free moong seeds if a cluster of farmers increases the area under the crop, says agriculture director Sandhu.
Sunflower is grown in February. A farmer can harvest around 7-8 quintals per acre and earn around Rs 25,000 from the crop, whose duration is less than four months, says joint director, Food Security Mission, Dr Gurdial Singh. “There is a huge demand for sunflower oil, which has a huge potential in the state,” says Dr Aery.
Agriculture department records show that sunflower was initiated in the state in the early 1990s and went on to cover an area of 1.03 lakh hectares by 1995-96. Even until 1999, the crop was cultivated on around 70,000 hectares. The decline has been due to a poor marketing policy and not bringing hybrid seeds. By 2012, it went down to 14,000 hectares. The government has fixed a target of around 20,000 hectares by the end of this season; last year it was 16,000 to 17,000 hectares, Dr Sandhu says.
Mentha too holds out a spring promise to farmers, who can earn around Rs 30,000 to 50,000 per acre depending on the variety they sow, says Bhavjit Sarabha, who cultivates it over 100 acres and has also established a processing unit to extract mentha oil.