Like other farmers in Karate, a village in the Baramati taluka of Pune, Vijay Salunkhe was mildly surprised when the agricultural assistant of his area talked about a “Farmer Field School” and asked him to attend it. Salunkhe, who grows mainly maize, and partly onion and bajra, in his 2.5 acres, is thankful that he agreed because these lessons in the “school” helped him to take preventive measures against the dreaded Fall Army Worm (FAW) for his maize crop. “During the school which is held every Sunday, the agricultural assistant talked about the new pest and how to identify it. He also provided the package of practices to save one’s crop,” Salunkhe says. It was this knowledge that alerted Salunkhe to press the alarm bottom during the early growth stages of his crop after he realised that like other fields his too had fallen prey to the FAW. He quickly applied his learnings from the school to fight the pest and save his crop. Salunkhe admits that without this hands-on knowledge he would not have been able to either identify or save his crop.
At the start of the Kharif season, FAW had presented a serious challenge. First identified in India in 2018, this pest, which feeds on over 80 different kinds of crops, is responsible for the dip in the maize production last year. Worldwide FAW has caused havoc in countries with the pest being seen as a threat to food security in some African countries.
Salunkhe is not alone. Vinayak Jadhav, who grows maize over 2.5 acres of his total 5 acres of land in the same village, too benefited. Maize is an important crop for Jadhav as it provides the fodder necessary for maintaining his herd of 15 animals and maintain his daily milk production of around 200 litres. Jadhav has managed to control the infestation on around 70 per cent of his crop with the help of measures like mass trapping of male FAW moths, erecting bird perches and application of other biological control measures.
What are Farmer Field Schools?
These schools were developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization as an alternative to the top-down way of providing extension under the Green revolution. This has been in practice for a few decades in Southeast Asia. It involves giving focused guidance to small groups of farmers in their fields by way of learning-by-doing exercises.
While FAW infestation has been reported on 2.67 lakh hectares of the total 8.60 lakh hectares of maize area, most farmers have reported success in controlling the infestation to a great degree. Agriculture Commissioner Suhas Diwase says the government decided to launch a multi-pronged approach to combat FAW. This included a massive farmers education programme. “Along with posters, information kiosks etc., we also decided to start this unique concept of Farmer Field School (called Shetishala in Marathi) as means of reaching out to the farmers,” he says. Held right at the farms, this school has officers and staff of the agriculture department get farmers together on a fixed day to discuss issues related to their crops and fields. Unlike bigger seminars or workshops, these schools are held much more regularly and with much smaller groups of farmers. For example, in Karate, every Sunday morning around 10 farmers religiously come to school.
The topics discussed vary depending on the local conditions. Thus, the schools in Baramati had mainly focused on ways to control pests for maize and sugarcane – the crops most commonly cultivated here. In districts of Marathwada, on the other hand, such schools are providing guidance for crops such as cotton, tur, and moong etc. And the success against FAW in Maize is replicated in other crops as well such as cotton which attracts the dreaded pink bollworm. Information dissemination to farmers through various channels including that of the Farmer Field School is to be credited for better pest control.
While pest control might be a major thrust area of the schools at present, they also focus on better agricultural practices to help farmers improve their yields. For example, in Baramati, the schools guide farmers towards scientifically preserving the fodder to help them tide over periods of scarcity. Similarly in Kolhapur, farmers are guided on reducing the usage of chemical fertilizers for their cane crop and better management of the crop to increase yield.