Sunday Region, P.no-587, 16-12-2007, Hindustan Times
ENGINEER and progressive farmer Sanjeev Nagpal of Fazilka, district Ferozepur, wants farmers to cultivate new habits. And new crops too. Nagpal is the man behind Fazilka-based NASA Agro Industries Ltd. Punjab Agro has stake in NASA while the Central Silk Board and NABARD are also backing the NASA project.
Nagpal's fields show-case a new strategy evolved in collaboration with Punjab Agriculture University. It's not just Nagpal's farm. Experiments are being conducted on hundred acres in ten villages in Ferozepur district Nagpal explains: "Punjab farmers have no trouble imagining a threecrop mix but when the crops are castor, cotton and hyola mustard they stand back and scratch their heads. At the same time, they are well aware that the present cropping pattern can't go on."
There's no need to explain 'cotton' to a Fazilka farmer and hyola is no mystery either. As a variety, hyola is new but it's very similar to the ordinary variety of sarson that is a standard crop. Hyola is a hybrid rapeseed-mustard that requires much less water than wheat and matures in about 145 days during winter. The best thing about Hyola is that it is resistant to frost and is highly tolerant to white rust so expenditure on crop protection chemicals falls dramatically.
But castor? They know what it is, alright. A non-edible oil is pressed from castor seed; the oil has industrial uses, is made into bio-diesel and much of it is exported. The crop flourishes in dry conditions. But where do they sell it? How greatly does the price fluctuate? Is it worth the risk? Nagpal and PAU says plant it.
It turns out that castor plants have some unexpected plus-points. It's a "trap crop". The farmer plants five rows of cotton and then one row of castor. Castor attracts pests away from main crops.
But here's the BIG plus-point: castor leaves are what the muga-silk moth (Antheraea assama) needs. It lays its eggs on castor leaf, the larvae mature and spin their silky cocoons. The silk is harvested, spun and woven into eri silk. Five distribution and collection centres for the silk will be set up in district Ferozepur. Silk-farmers also get worm excreta which when mixed with castor cake, dry leaves and cow dung forms organic fertilizer.
What comes out of a castor crop? Castor seeds yield oil. Castor leaves feed silk-worms and the worm cocoons yield silk and larve go into poultry feed. The castor plants attract insects which are eaten by chickens. All this means that a castor crop can bring in money in several ways.
After four years of field trials, Nagpal has concluded that castor pulls in good profit, even on a small holding and it works fine in combination with cotton and hyola. PAU experts say that cotton-hyola-castor mix will provide stability, reduce use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, allow the groundwater table to recharge and create much needed employment opportunities. The aim is to create at least 60000 jobs in rural areas over the next five years. PAU now refers to this triple crop as an agro ecosystem of cultivation and has take up the project for valuation, promotion and farmers training.
But the cotton-hyola-castor plan won't work unless farmers get backup and necessary inputs. That is why NASA is going in for "service complexes" that will include nurseries growing quality seeds and seedlings, hatcheries for the right kind of chicks, materials needed for rearing silk-moth larvae and necessary infrastructure for post harvest processing. Says Nagpal: "My idea is to bring together a cluster of industries around Fazilka and have a common packaging facility with a common brand in order to achieve maximum value addition.
To maintain farmer's interest to produce more it is important to link farmers to most remunerative market.
The target is 20,000 hectares spread over three districts in Punjab's cotton belt under castor. The farmers will have the services of agro parks where all necessary inputs will be provided and which will also function like mandis, handiling crops and linking farmers to buyers. Says Nagpal: "Production by masses should have all the advantages of mass production."
The idea is generating a lot of interest in high places. Last week Financial Commissioner (Development) R.S. Sandhu along with director agriculture B.S. Sidhu visited the NASA's experimental farm and appreciated the work.
COTTON-BELT CRISIS During the early nineties the boll weevil and bad weather brought cotton farners to rockbottom. Farmers switched to wheat and paddy. But both wheat and paddy are waterguzzlers. The water table has gone down from 30 feet to 300 feet. Excessive use of agrochemicals has poisoned both water and soil and led to major health hazards. As the water table fell the level of fluoride in the water rose - another serious health hazard. People in this region are suffering from many diseases. With cotton crops wiped out, industries dependant on cotton were wiped out too. Yarn and oilseed units had to either close down or scale down. Today cotton-based industries in he region are working for four months in a year and practically the entire population is unemployed for most of the time. Water gets more and more scarce. That means goodbye to paddy. Farmers are going back to cotton - BT cotton. Farmers fear that it is only a matter of time before pests develop a taste for BT. Non-BT cotton means the inevitable high applications of pesticides and insects soon become resistant to pesticide too. How long before it becomes impossible to raise any crop in this region? Obviously new techniques of cultivation are needed that will manage development of immunity and control pest growth. That's where the "trap crop", also called the "refuge crop", comes in. But most farmers are cultivating very small holdings - in many cases less than 2.5 hectare. So a "trap crop" has to generate income as well. Castor meets the need. The proposed cropping pattern meets two needs: It provides:
Pest management for sustainable crops. Utilisation in several money-earning ways