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Precision farming - sustaining agricultural productivity in India

Rice, millet, pulses, sugarcane and cotton are the main crops grown in Madurai District (© Dr C Ravindran)
Rice, millet, pulses, sugarcane and cotton are the main crops grown in Madurai District
© Dr C Ravindran

Rice, millet, pulses, sugarcane and cotton are the main crops grown in the Madurai District of Tamil Nadu, India, where, to overcome poor management practices, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, in partnership with the World Bank and Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), provided training on 'precision farming' for 3,000 farmers between 2007 and 2010. The poor practices addressed included groundwater depletion through use of surface flood irrigation and ridge and furrow irrigation, escalating costs of inputs and a lack of labour which is a major constraint in Indian agriculture.

Precision farming is an approach where inputs, including water and fertilisers, are applied in precise amounts to maximise yields. The aim is to encourage farmers to adopt market-led horticultural production and to promote hi-tech agricultural practices. After clusters of 25-30 farmers had been selected, KVK evaluated farmers' soil, water supply and pumping equipment before beginning to provide hands-on training.

A high-tech community nursery was installed for each cluster, to produce quality planting material, and farmers were taught how to produce high quality planting materials using the pro-tray method, in which hybrid seeds are sown in compost-filled plastic trays. Made of soft plastic, seedlings can be removed from trays without damaging the roots. The nurseries were covered with 50 per cent shade net, which protects seedlings from wind damage, heavy rain, and excess sunlight.

KVK distributed seeds of tomato, brinjal, onion and lablab (bean) to each group in order to establish each nursery, and to conserve water and enable drip fertigation with water soluble fertilisers and urea, a system of drip irrigation was installed in four villages. Drip irrigation equipment supplied to farmers was subsidised, while seed and fertilisers were provided free in the first year. In subsequent years, most of the farmers continued to adopt this technology using their own money.

Overcoming hurdles

KVK provided training on precision farming for 3,000 farmers between 2007 and 2010 (© Dr C Ravindran)
KVK provided training on precision farming for 3,000 farmers between 2007 and 2010
© Dr C Ravindran

Initially, many farmers did not believe that they could double their yields of vegetables while reducing the amount of water they applied to their crops by 40 per cent. But after the first harvest, most changed their minds and 2,200 hectares in Madurai District are now being cultivated using precision farming techniques. Three registered precision farming associations have also been established; involving 60 farmers, the associations meet regularly to discuss market strategies and interact with buyers and input suppliers. KVK and the other developers hope that the area under precision farming will continue to expand as awareness is raised through exhibitions and distribution of pamphlets.

Precision farming reduced water use, residues in soil and water, and chemical sprays, and substantially increased average yields compared to traditional cultivation techniques: tomato (from 35 to100 tonnes/ha), onion (11-21 tonnes/ha) and banana (40-120 tonnes/ha). Quality also improved, leading to premium prices at market. Thiru Mitcharaha, from Nadumuthalikkulam, increased his yield of brinjal from 60 tonnes/ha to 200 tonnes/ha, earning US$5,700 in one year.

Despite the high cost of water soluble fertilisers the total incomes of farmers increased two- to three-fold and their socio-economic status improved. The developers are now calling on the government to reduce the cost of water soluble fertilisers, improve their availability, and look to the improvement of post-installation maintenance of drip irrigation systems.

Due to increasing yields, some markets have become saturated and farmers have faced difficulties in marketing their produce. But this has been overcome by helping farmers to sell their produce at markets further afield. Farmers are also being taken to markets to be shown the importance of grading and sorting at farm level, while buyers are to be invited to demonstration sites to be made aware of the quality of vegetables that are being produced.

Gaining recognition

Precision farming reduced water use and substantially increased average yields (© Dr C Ravindran)
Precision farming reduced water use and substantially increased average yields
© Dr C Ravindran

Due to the high water use efficiency of precision farming, and high production of both staple and horticultural crops, various government departments have expressed their willingness to spread the technology throughout Tamil Nadu. The Department of Agriculture has set targets to spread the technology, send farmers for training and provide subsidies. Meanwhile, the Government of Tamil Nadu has begun to offer subsidies, including 15,000 INR (US$260) per ha for water soluble fertilisers, 5,000 INR (US$90) for seed, and 44,000 INR (US$780) for drip fertigation.

According to the developers, one of the biggest challenges is that few farmers recognise the importance of this technology, and instead adopt their own combination of flood irrigation, ridge and furrow irrigation, and transplanting seedlings raised in beds, which leads to 30 per cent mortality and poor yields. Some farmers are also not adopting precision farming because of the seemingly plentiful availability of water in their region, unaware that groundwater is being depleted. Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and the Indian government, therefore, are aiming to get every farmer to adopt this technology, through raising awareness, training, and subsidies.

Written by: Dr C Ravindran, Assistant Professor (Horticulture), Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, and Dr S Kumar, Professor (Horticulture), Tamil Nadu Agricultural University

Date published: July 2012


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Your article perfectly shows what I needed to know, thnaks! (posted by: Kamonluck)


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