Hi-Tech Farming: Harnessing protected cultivation option for doubling farmers’ incomes

PC technology for vegetable cultivation and floriculture has taken off in the one decade, but deserves further policy support.

Written by Sher Singh Sangwan | Updated: December 7, 2017 6:19:07 am
A farm labourer at a polyhouse in Rohtak, Haryana. Express Photo

Agriculture in India is in crisis. Even in irrigated northwestern states, the dominant paddy-wheat cropping pattern is under strain due to plateauing yields and rising production costs. Some farmers have diversified into vegetable cultivation and floriculture. But their efforts have been stymied by uncertainty in both yields and prices.

This is where the option of protected cultivation (PC) deserves serious consideration, especially in the context of the goal of doubling farmers’ income by 2022, as envisaged by the Prime Minister. Under PC, the environment conditions, temperature, humidity and light during plant growth are controlled partially or fully. Such control helps protect the crop from the vagaries of nature and pest attacks, augment supply of carbon dioxide for growth, extend the production period and, thereby, raise yields. Besides, it optimises use of water, fertilisers and chemicals by their application through drip irrigation and fertigation.

In PC, the major investment is in the frame, made up of galvanised iron pipes, and a cover of microfilm. In the more hi-tech greenhouses, exhaust fans for ventilation and cooling pads, too, are used humidify the air within. The other PC structures, which partially control the microclimate, are naturally-ventilated polyhouses (NVPH), walk-in tunnels and net-houses. The choice of structure depends upon the crops grown, the local climate and the farmer’s investment capacity.

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PC received a boost through the Indo-Israel project on greenhouse cultivation (1998-2003), exposing both scientists and farmers to the technology. In 2004, a Centre for Protected Cultivation Technology was established under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. The Government of India has also promoted PC through the National Horticulture Board (NHB), which, since 2005-06, has been extending a 50 per cent subsidy (subject to a cap of Rs 56 lakh) on investments by farmers. While Maharashtra and Karnataka pioneered the adoption of PC, the subsidy scheme has led to its spreading to other states as well. The Haryana, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh (HP) governments are today giving additional subsidy, extending it to even production expenses for the first crop. Currently, about 30,000 hectares area is estimated to be under PC.

To ascertain the actual monetary gains from PC, the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID) conducted a detailed survey of 200 farmers in 13 districts of Punjab, Haryana and HP during this September-October. What follows are impressions based upon the survey and interactions with officials at the horticulture departments and state agriculture universities at Palampur and Solan.

Theoretically, vegetable or flower yields under PC are supposed to be 5-10 times that from open cultivation. In our survey, 12 per cent farmers reported net income per acre of above Rs 5 lakh, another 9 per cent Rs 4-5 lakh, and 11 per cent Rs 3-4 lakh. The net income was only about Rs one lakh per acre in open-cultivated conditions for similar crops. The returns from PC cultivation, however, varied based on the crops cultivated, the quality of seed used, adherence to recommended package of practices, and involvement of the owners. The main crops grown were cucumber, tomato, capsicum (green/red/yellow) and flowers such as rose, gerbera and lilium.

In Punjab and Haryana, it was the bigger farmers, including absentee landlords, who had installed the PC structures. In HP, the farmers were mostly small, while even growing vegetables like coriander and cauliflower. HP farmers often started with PC structures of just 125 sq. meters, whereas it was from 1,000 sq. meters in Punjab and Haryana. Yet, even with 125 sq. meters size, many farmers in HP reported net income of Rs 25,000, as against Rs 2,500 from open field cultivation. Some of them had gone on to increase their PC area to 4000 sq meters, the maximum limit for availing the NHB subsidy. One farmer in Una had installed the PC structure in 40 acres, while another in Panipat district of Haryana had done it on 20 acres. Some young and educated farmers had even taken structures on lease from their unsuccessful counterparts, paying more than twice the normal rent on open land.

However, there were a large number of failures as well. The most devastating ones were due to the microfilm covers being blown off by wind-storms, more so in summers. Some farmers even reported damage by monkeys and other wild animals. Many farmers did not undertake the required replacement of film after 3-4 years, further rendering their investments infructuous. Farmers also complained about poor installation of the PC structures and low quality of film. The horticulture departments absolved themselves in this case by inserting sentences such as “farmers shall be fully responsible for the quality and quantity of the material used” in the guidelines for availing NHB subsidy. The three years’ warranty offered by the installation firms, too, had little meaning, as most of them did not have any nearby service centres. The firms did all the follow-up with the departments for the release of subsidy, but which was also conducive for underhand dealing between them and the officials. But there were smart farmers, too, whose actual cost of investment was lower than the approved amount. These farmers managed to bargain discounts from the firms on the horticulture department’s approved price. Other issues raised by farmers included the poor quality of extension service by state departments and distant markets. This was especially true for floriculture, where the main market was in Delhi.

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the higher returns realised under PC definitely justifies it as a viable option for doubling farmers’ incomes. The following measures could help farmers reap better rewards from their investments:

First, the horticulture departments should have agricultural engineers, specially trained in PC, at the ground to monitor the quality of the structures being installed. Second, after-sale service in nearby areas must be a precondition for approval of agencies engaged in installation. Third, farmers should be given two rounds of trainings – the first about the structure prior to erection and the second for production post-installation. Fourth, film replacement after 3-4 years could be ensured by providing additional subsidy for this, as the HP government is already doing. Fifth, the PC structures should be region-specific; in areas prone to strong wind storms, net-houses or walk-in tunnels are probably better options than NVPH.

Finally, some area planning under crops is necessary to avoid gluts in markets – arising, in turn, from higher yields under PC. Also, it’s worth creating an additional floriculture market in North India near Chandigarh. This could cater to local supplies as well as aggregation for the Delhi and export markets.

The writer is SBI Chair Professor at CRRID, Chandigarh
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