At a time when farmer distress is on an all-time high, I find myself looking for farming models that are able to tweak traditional agricultural practices to increase profit. Years ago, I saw one such model in Bharatpur (Rajasthan) where farmers fed their cattle the same grain they’d traditionally given them — but after they’d sprouted it. The simple act of sprouting improved their milk yields substantially. Last year, I met the good people of Nagla Tula who craft garments from desi rain-fed cotton that they commission farmers in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Telangana to grow, reviving traditional and long-forgotten multi-cropping techniques. Unexpectedly, farmers made tidy profits on the chilli they had planted with cotton. Similarly, last week, while on field visits to Barabanki (UP) and Panipat (Haryana), I saw farmers successfully plant zaid crops to boost their income.
Zaid crops are essentially irrigated crops that can be planted between rabi and kharif seasons from March to June to give farmers income from a third crop every year. In Barabanki, the zaid crop of choice is mentha has provided a much-needed extra income. “Earlier, we left the fields fallow between the rabi and kharif seasons,” he said. “Planting a third crop instead has given us added income and insulated us from risks”.
Farmers in Panipat are sowing muskmelon as a zaid crop, but have tweaked the process further for better results. Like mentha, this too is sown between the wheat and rice crops. “Earlier, we used to sow melon after harvesting wheat in April,” said Ram Singh, a farmer there. But they found that often, when the melon crop was in its delicate early stages, temperatures in May were too high for it. “Now, we plant melon before harvesting wheat,” he said, showing me his nursery of melon seeds in a protected nook by the well. Neat ridges were already being prepared along the periphery of his field for melon plantation. This ensures that the melon crop is well-rooted before the summer sets in and has made a substantial improvement to their yield. Singh estimates that his input costs for melon plantation are about Rs 1 lakh per acre. He earns between Rs 2-2.5 lakh from the harvest.
Given the uncertainty of agrarian life, zaid crops can substantially pad farmer profits, boost yields and improve their quality of life. As Narain said, “mentha cultivation has changed the lives of small farmers like me — I don’t think many of us would have survived without it”.