• That thing called Bhoochetana

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    DR. WILLIAM DAR

    (First of two parts)
    Before the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), which I headed from 2000 to 2014, partnered with the Department of Agriculture-Government of Karnataka (DA-GoK) to improve farm productivity in Karnataka, the region was registering zero growth in agriculture in the past years or up to 2008.

    More than 4.4 million small holder farmers till about 3.7 million hectares of land in the region with 60 percent of it being rain-fed. Karnataka contributes a significant share to India’s food needs and the most popular crops grown there are pulses (broad beans), sorghum, millet and groundnut. Cotton and oils seeds are also farmed as cash crops in the region.

    Before ICRISAT and DA-GoK embarked on a region-wide Bhoochetana program for Karnataka, diagnostic soil sampling was undertaken covering about 96,000 farmers’ fields in 30 districts of the region, which revealed lack of micronutrients such as boron and zinc in soil. Water was also getting scarce in the 30 districts.

    Traditional farming practices were partly to blame for the low productivity in Karnataka’s 3.7 million hectares of land, with ICRISAT studies showing crop yields were two to five times less than what could be achieved. Overuse of NPK fertilizers, which were chemical-based, without feeding the soil with micronutrients like boron, zinc, calcium and magnesium resulted to low crop yields. Soil needs a total of 16 micronutrients and NPK fertilizer can only supply three: nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.

    Also, during the rainy season, top soil was washed off along with whatever nutrients and organic matter the soil had, while during the dry months, there was little or no water to grow crops.

    Soil must have from 10 to 15 percent organic matter but acidic or sick soil, which among others can be caused by overuse of chemical fertilizers, only has 1-2 percent. In short, much of the soils in Karnataka before ICRISAT intervened were already in a “sick” state.

    The traditional thinking to increase farm yields is to use improved varieties like hybrids; however, if the soil is sick, it would be completely impossible to achieve increased yields. Also, most farmers, perhaps believing too much in field technicians and salesmen of fertilizers, increase fertilizer application when using improved varieties that in turn make the soil sicker.

    When the Bhoochetana program was launched in 2009, ICRISAT and DA-GoK set a goal that by the fifth year, there would be an increase in farm yields in the Karnataka region under the first phase of the program.

    But the results were quite astounding as crop yields for small holder farmers in the region increased by 20-66 percent using solutions under Bhoochetana. Also, there was a 5-percent annual growth in its agriculture sector, amounting to $230 million in four years. Furthermore, small holder farmers had a net gain of up to $500 per hectare per planting season.

    Among the components of ICRISAT’s successful Bhoochetana program for Karnataka were: establishment of small water impounding structures; formulation of soil health cards (SHCs) given to individual farmers; timely application of fertilizer in the right amounts; application of the remaining 13 micronutrients that traditional NPK fertilizers lacked, and making those micronutrients available to farmers; planting of improved cultivars; and making farmers aware of the Bhoochetana program through training and information campaigns.

    The establishment of small water impounding structures achieved two objectives: prevent excess rainfall from washing out top soil and its nutrients; and make water available all year-round for planting.

    After soil health mapping, SHCs were developed, which provides farmers the information on the nutrient recommendation of crops to be planted, amount of fertilizer to be applied, the type of fertilizer to be used, and the soil fertility status of their farms.

    The timely application of fertilizers in the right amount replaced the traditional practice of over applying fertilizers without a schedule, which was a major factor in making soils acidic. Making available micronutrients to farmers was also critical, as well as educating them on the importance of using such to improve and maintain soil health.
    Eventually, because of improved soil health, farmers could plant improved varieties of crops that guaranteed higher yields.

    Implementing the Bhoochetana program proved to be a challenge to ICRISAT and DA-GoK since they had to reach the more than 4.4 million small holder farmers tilling 3.7 million hectares of land. So ICRISAT and DA-GoK created awareness of the program through wall writings as an initial step, which later complemented publications and trainings on the Bhoochetana approach/system.

    And since most farmers in Karnataka before the Bhoochetana program never used micronutrients, the DA-GoK subsidized the cost of micronutrient packages for small holder farmers by 50 percent. Also, farmers were required to buy Rhizobium or Trichoderma along with seeds that eventually made the farmers themselves appreciate and apply religiously the seed treatment protocols as the program progressed.

    Scientists from research stations of the University of Agricultural Science at Bangalore were also tapped to train farm facilitators who were eventually sent to the field. Each farm facilitator was tasked to train farmers tilling 500-1,000 hectares of land.

    Sooner or later, as I have witnessed when I still led ICRISAT, more and more small holder farmers were convinced of the Bhoochetana program and joined the bandwagon.

    By 2014, the year decided to go back to the Philippines, I could not help but be deeply touched on how the Bhoochetana program in Karnataka has transformed the lives of millions of small holder farmers and their families. Also, the impact of Bhoochetana on the environment cannot be overlooked as soil health improved because, among others, small water impounding systems prevented excessive water from washing away top soil.
    The report “Success Documentation of Bhoochetana Programme 2014” published by the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances of India clearly shows how the Bhoochetana program undertaken by ICRISAT and DA-GoK resulted to substantial yield increases and income increases among small holder farmers in India.

    And Bhoochetana is not even rocket science; rather it is also a system of precision agriculture. Its implementation could also be improved, like in the Philippines, through a strategy called “Digital Agriculture” which has three major components: utilizing ICT for the effective delivery, monitoring and information dissemination to achieve the impact of a program; agromet advisory services; and GIS-based certified land titles.

    As I have said many times in my columns, India’s rainfall is only a third of the Philippines at 700 millimeters annually. So that also presented a great challenge to ICRISAT and DA-GoK from the onset of the Bhoochetana program in Karnataka; but we succeeded!

    So does that mean that a Bhoochetana-based program in the Philippines will have a better chance of succeeding?

    Read my next column as I will discuss the Yamang Lupa program that was patterned after the Bhoochetana program of Karnataka.

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