In 1917, the Royal Commission for Agriculture had analyzed crop trends for the British Raj and said that Indian agriculture is a gamble on the monsoon. It’s true that the monsoons have turned truant in some parts of the country while other parts have suffered deluge. During such situations, the farmers who feed everyone suffer losses and are even forced to take extreme steps.
When the Deluge Hit Rani
Most recently, the farmers from Rani Chapori char near Guwahati suffered losses due to incessant rain. This farming hub supplies a huge share of vegetables to Guwahati and has earned a statewide name for commercial farming of both root and leafy vegetables. ‘The leafy vegetables have been damaged due to excessive rain or river water rising more than 50 percent,’ said Akshay Kalita, 49, a farmer who has been cultivating for the past 30 years. Kalita, also a member of Kamrup District Committee of Organic Farming, said that there is always a loss in farming but this time the loss is more than the previous years. He said, ‘June and July are crucial months for farmers. These two months fetch them optimal return following which there is a high demand for mint in the market.’
The Rani Chapori char spread over 700 hectares of sandy area is in the midst of the Brahmaputra river where farmers from many villages namely, Dharapur, Garal, Bhattapara, Kendukuchi, Agchia, Majirgaon, and Kuhabori in Kamrup metro district cultivate a slew of crops. The economy of many farmers revolves around this fertile river soil. They regularly cross the Brahmaputra and transport their produce via boats. ‘We were fighting to save our crops from deluge but to no avail. Now, we fear the loss will mount to 80 percent by September if the rains continue,’ Kalita said. ‘We are always at the receiving end. The unpredictable behavior of the weather and subsequent collapse of the market has dampened our spirits,’ he adds.
Small Beginnings, Substantial Profits
It should be mentioned that mint farming emerged in this highly fertile char a few years ago. The success of this herb has motivated others too. Kalita who started mint farming on three bighas of land has become a well-known mint grower in the State. From a two kotha mint growing plot, a farmer can earn Rs 30, 000 excluding the input cost of Rs 20, 000. ‘No drudgery, no unaffordable input cost is required but post plantation, good management skills matter most to realize the optimal benefit in farming this leafy vegetable. Per bigha land for mint cultivation needs at least five workers to keep the plot clean and for timely harvesting. It is all about watering the crop twice a week, applying cow dung and weeding to reap a rich yield. Each harvest is done after 25 days. Throughout the year, farmers harvest maximum 12 times,’ Kalita said. According to farmers, during the rainy season, fungal attack is common so they provide treatment on time.
Mint farmers have increased up to 30 now in Char Naheli. Robin Talukdar, agriculture development officer, Dharapur Circle, said farmers are highly motivated to the cause of commercial farming. They practice the organic mode of tilling to keep the soil’s health undisturbed. Close to 30 farmers supply 90 percent of the mint to the State where Guwahati takes the maximum share. Supply is also sent to Shillong, Silchar and Bongaigaon.
Referring to the success of mint farming, Talukdar said that farmers have been making rapid progress–they are trying to use sophisticated farming without compromising on the health of the soil.
An ‘Organic’ Success Story
The farmers are catering to the large demand of hotels as well. During the wedding season, they run out of their output as the demand for mint shoots up. The market peaks from November to April. Equally amazing is the achievement of Subhash Kalita, 45, who tills this medicinal mint on three bighas of land. Subhash who cultivates various crops in his other 12 bighas of land owns two vehicles including a commercial one. ‘From mint, I earn about Rs 4 lakh every year excluding the input cost,’ Subhash said. The agriculture department had allotted him a goods carrier at 50 percent subsidized rate in 2012-2013.
Farmers carry water from the Brahmaputra for farming before implementing other irrigational facilities. They are so innovative and economical that they use kahi grass to tie small bunches of mint. They hardly use chemical fertilizers. Instead they prefer organic farming by using vermicompost, cow dung and cow urine. Some farmers said that soil health would deteriorate if chemical fertilizer is applied to a large extent. When it comes to farming, they consider the health of the soil as very important.
Another noticeable fact is that they make use of land resources without wasting water. The plots under mint cultivation are demarcated by bunds. Usually, the bunds are left unused. But they cash in on the bunds by planting mint. This practice of growing mint in the bunds serves two purposes: firstly, unwanted vegetation can’t grow in the bunds; secondly, excess water which percolates from the main plot to the bunds does not go waste. Farmers, who till horticulture food crops and vegetables are turning their attention to lucrative mint growing. Profit will surely be doubled once value addition is produced.
Three siblings: Ajit, Sridhar and Govinda who cultivate on 30 bighas of land feel the urgent need of minimum five tractors for transportation of the produce as that will minimize the drudgery of carrying produce on their shoulders. Farmers now undertake a 2 to 4 kms walk from their land to the banks of the Brahmaputra while carrying harvested crops on their shoulders. ‘If we can transport our produce by tractors, we can save our time and it will also reduce our pain,’ they say.
Kishore Talukdar is a journalist based in Assam