AGRICULTURE TRIBUNE Monday, August 18, 2003, Chandigarh, India
Contract farming holds its own
Amarjit Thind
UCCESS or failure? That’s the question being asked about the ambitious contract-farming programme of Punjab. Certain farmer organisations have condemned it as not in the interest of farmers, while technocrats are divided on the issue.

Herbs a fragrant option
P. P. S. Gill
ARM scientists of the region are busy hunting for various options for diversification. Herbs are one of the alternatives, says Dr M.S. Bajwa. This is an unexplored field, so far. As a former Director of Research at the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, he had looked into the option.

Project to restore trout habitat
Vishal Gulati
O boost the trout fish population, the Himachal Pradesh Government hassanctioned a project, "Habitat restoration of selected trout streams," for the Department of Zoology, Panjab University, Chandigarh.



Contract farming holds its own
Amarjit Thind

SUCCESS or failure? That’s the question being asked about the ambitious contract-farming programme of Punjab. Certain farmer organisations have condemned it as not in the interest of farmers, while technocrats are divided on the issue.

The scheme has been taken up by the media, and there are conflicting reports from various regions of the state.

After the initial noise over the new system, doubts were cast about its effectiveness and suitability. The Punjab Agro Foodgrains Corporation (PAFC) is the nodal agency overseeing the contract-farming programme in the state. Its brief is to encourage the cultivation of those crops that are not only suited for the climactic conditions but would also augment the income of the farmers.

Broadly, the charges levelled against the programme are that the crops suggested would damage the ecosystem, the programme is unscientific, the agricultural university is not involved, varieties being grown are not recommended, etc. It is also alleged that the corporation is promoting MNCs to "loot the farmers" and the promised yields are not to be seen.

The Tribune sought to examine the charges being made. After meeting experts in the field and those involved in the process, it could safely be said that while there are specific problem areas, there is nothing that can be called a drastic failure.

Scientists, including Dr Tarlok Singh Sahota, technical consultant with the PAFC, point out that crops and acreage recommended by the Johl Committee have been accepted and the targets for 2005 will reveal that Punjab Agro has kept itself within the limits prescribed by the committee. Among other members of the committee are Dr K. S. Aulakh, PAU Vice-Chancellor, Dr G. S. Nanda, PAU Research Director, Dr Joginder Singh, Head of the Department of Economics and Sociology, PAU, and Mr Bhupinder Singh Mann, BKU president. The committee's profile itself is presented as a defence of its credentials against charges that the plan is unscientific.

Another issue raised in the field is that PAU experts are not being involved in the crop diversification programme. As already indicated, the top brass of the university was actively involved in the recommendations being made. There has also been talk of a lack of involvement of the Department of Agriculture (DoA) and the PAU. However, officials claim the first district-level camps on contract farming held on October 5 and 6, 2002, were jointly attended by officials of the Department of Agriculture and experts from the PAU. Till date, all farmer camps by the corporation are held jointly with DoA and PAU experts.

Crop varieties

On the question of promoting crop varieties not approved by the PAU or other recognised authorities, scientists point out that Punjab Agro initiated its programme with hyola (PAC 40), which is among the varieties approved by the DoA recently, winter maize (Pro Agro variety) and barley (VJM 315 of UBL) during rabi 2002-2003.

Hyola (PAC 401), now reportedly approved by the varsity, was already being cultivated by growers in Punjab for the past three or four years. Gursewak Singh of Araianwala Kalan, Faridkot, was among those who had been cultivating hyola in 15 or 17 acres. Other growers had also taken to it after checking with fellow hyola growers regarding its yield. Several growers had recorded a yield of 10 quintals per acre or more.

Barley, VJM 315, a disease and lodging-resistant high-yielding malting variety, was developed by UBL at its research and development farm at Rauni, Patiala, from over 200 lines collected from world over. The variety is tested and well adapted to Punjab conditions and was being grown in the state even before the agency undertook contract farming.

Ironically, agriculture universities in this part of the region do not have any malting variety of barley that can be used by breweries. In this age of competition, breweries have been bringing in barley from Rajasthan and Bihar.

On maize, it is claimed that the varieties are either notified by the ICAR (e.g. Pro Agro, Monsanto, Pioneer, Bioseed and Advanta) or approved by the PAU (e.g. Monsanto and Bioseed). However, there are quite a few varieties of maize (e.g. Kanchan — except K25 — Sawarna, Kohinoor) that are neither approved by the PAU nor notified by the ICAR, but are being cultivated in Punjab for the past seven or eight years. Do we see here a case of applying different yardsticks for the companies that are providing seeds under Punjab Agro's programme and companies that are out of it but are operational in Punjab?

Seeds of these companies are grown in thousands of acres in Punjab. The maize varieties promoted have also been tested by Pepsi in Punjab and by the HPKVV in Himachal Pradesh. In Basmati, which is a major kharif crop (other than maize), the corporation has been promoting only PAU or HAU-approved varieties.

Experts say that there is no variety in the contract-farming programme that was not already being cultivated in the state.

Promoting MNCs?

An oft-repeated charge of farmers' unions is that the programme is aimed at promoting MNCs, who are "out to loot or exploit Punjab farmers." Against that, it is pointed out that a majority of the companies or buyers that are associated with Punjab Agro are Indian, like Tata Rallies, Mahindra, Escorts, Graintech, DCM, Bio-seed (Sri Ram Group), KRBL, UBL, Sukhjit Starch, or Godrej Agrovet. The MNCs involved, like Pepsi, Monsanto, or Advanta, were already operating in Punjab since long.

Information collected reveals that some of the companies providing extension services/ technology to the contract growers are charging a nominal fee, but the benefit to the growers is more than that. For example, Mahindra is charging a fee of Rs 50 per acre from contract maize and basmati growers.

From the "krishi vihar kendras" of these companies, farmers can get various reliable inputs under one roof at competitive prices. Moreover, some may argue, can we do without MNCs in today's world of globalisation?

Cropping systems

Certain farmers' organisations would like to continue with the existing agro-economic structure built around paddy and wheat. Scientists believe that paddy and wheat, belonging to the same family, have similar nutrient requirements, thus exhaust the soil of its nutrients and underground water.

On the other hand, the cropping system promoted by Punjab Agro has crops that either tap different soil layers for water and nutrients or are restorative crops. The cultivation cost of these crops is often the same or lower, but the returns are much higher than paddy and wheat.

For example, the cycle of Hyola-Moong-Maize needs only one third of the water needed by wheat-paddy, and saves a couple of hundred rupees in cultivation. Hyola, due to its taproot, draws nutrients from lower layers; maize, with its shallow roots, feeds on the upper layer, while moong, being a legume, adds to soil fertility by fixing nitrogen.

In the cotton belt, there has been much noise about castor farming, which, it is alleged, will add to the pest problem, especially of American bollworm. Scientists claim that this is a fallacy because castor is not the only alternative host for bollworm. The pest survives on 200 crop species. There is one or the other crop growing round the year on which the bollworm can survive, rather, thrive. Moreover, Punjab has wild castor growing on roadsides and vacant fields.


In the last rabi crop it was seen that certain contract crops had low yields. Experts point out that the yield of any crop is determined by three factors: genetic potential, crop management, and agro-climate. Even a variety with high potential will yield less if any of the factors is abnormal. This year, due to inclement weather, the yield of all crops was hit. PAU wheat variety PBW343, which has a potential of 22qtl/acre or more, produced only 15-16qtl/acre this year.

Likewise, hyola yields this year (average 6.44qtl/acre) were lower than those of last year. But two-thirds of hyola this year was sown late—the traditional mustard varieties this year on an average yielded only 3qtl/acre. Barley VJM 315, which has a yield potential of 20-22qtl/acre, gave an average of 17 qtl/acre (higher than wheat).

As Mr Kripa Shanker Saroj, MD, PAFC, candidly points out: "A beginning has been made and it is for the farmer to look after his interests. It must be recognised that the state programme is optional and not binding on any farmer. And it is the practising farmers, not the critics, who can pass the right judgement on this issue."

It must also be realised that only organisations that are already into procurement can handle contract-farming programmes, because produce buyback is an integral part of the scheme. For this reason, universities or other departments like the DoA, are not eligible to undertake contract farming.



Herbs a fragrant option
P. P. S. Gill

FARM scientists of the region are busy hunting for various options for diversification. Herbs are one of the alternatives, says Dr M.S. Bajwa. This is an unexplored field, so far. As a former Director of Research at the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, he had looked into the option.

He feels there is scope for herb farming in Punjab given the growing industrial demand for fresh herbs to produce herb extracts and oils for medicines, health supplements, and aromatic and beauty compounds.

Commercial cultivation of herbs and medicinal plants could enable farmers to increase profits.

Herbal products are considered safe, have higher antioxidant activity than fruits and vegetables and are easily available at affordable prices. According to World Health Organisation estimates, more than 80 per cent of the population in developing countries uses traditional medicines derived from plants, and 25 per cent of the modern medicines contain plant derivatives.

In India, out of about 3,500 plant species having medicinal value, nearly 1,100 are used by over 1.5 million practitioners of natural medicine systems like ayurveda, Unani and Siddha. Even in the developed countries, herbal products are in great demand. In the USA alone, about 37 per cent of the medicines are plant derivatives and in Germany over 80 per cent of all physicians prescribe herbal products. In the UK, about 9 million people use herbal healing techniques.

The PAU, says Vice-Chancellor K.S. Aulakh, has yet to formally recommend any herbs for commercial cultivation. The university is now raising a herbal garden. It was encouraged to do so by the President, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who recently invited scientists, including Dr Aulakh, to the Rashtrapati Bhavan Herbal Garden. Dr Kalam is scheduled to visit the PAU early in September for a "kisan mela".

A small booklet has been made that contains colour photographs of 26 herbs grown in the Presidential garden. It gives thumbnail sketches of each herb along with its common or English and botanical name, besides the application and qualities of each herb.

Punjab soils could support a variety of herbs, provided herb-specific site selection is done. The expected large production can change the income and economies of farmers, if only the government would assure market and price.

Says Dr Bajwa, a soil scientist, "Aloe, which acts as a moisturising agent and helps in rejuvenation of the skin, flourishes in sandy soil under low rainfall conditions and also in soil that is saline or alkaline. Herbs should be grown in soils that are loamy sand or loam in texture, medium to high in organic matter, low in concretion, well drained (even temporary water stagnation can be harmful), and non-saline (with good irrigation)."

The state should set up quality-control labs for herbs and educate farmers about precision herb farming.



Project to restore trout habitat
Vishal Gulati

TO boost the trout fish population, the Himachal Pradesh Government hassanctioned a project, "Habitat restoration of selected trout streams," for the Department of Zoology, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

Trout, both brown and rainbow, is a coldwater fish and is found in abundance in the Beas, Sutlej and the Ravi in the upper Himalayas. Being a game fish, it is also an angler's delight.

In the areas where golden mahseer does not thrive due to extremely low water temperature, the introduction of trout is a success. These two trout species were introduced under the Indo-Norwegian project in 1989 at Patli Kuhl, near Manali. At that time eyed fingerlings of improved trout were provided free of cost by the Denmark government.

Trout was first introduced in India in Jammu and Kashmir in 1909.

Prof M.S. Johal, who is the principal investigator of the project, says five trout stretches of the Beas have been selected to study the geomorphology, hydrological, abiotic and biotic factors. Initially, two stretches—Tirthan, a 20-km stretch from Largi to Nagni, and Sainj, a 22-km stretch from Largi to Ropa, in Kulu district—have been identified.

Prof Johal, who was also the chief investigator of an Indo-US project on the ecology of hillstreams of Himachal Pradesh and Garhwal, says some of the streams in the upper Himalayas can support good fish diversity if suitable habitat, especially for the introduced fish and endangered species, is made available. For this purpose certain alterations have to be made in the streams so that feeding and breeding grounds are created.

During recent years, there has been a sharp decline in the overall fish catches from the state. Dr Johal attributes this to habitat loss, pollution, increased sedimentation caused by deforestation, construction of roads and dams and destructive fishing methods. He has recorded 85 fish species in various aquatic bodies of Himachal.

After this project, the restoration of other endangered species like the golden mahseer and certain aquarium fish can be taken up. Even international agencies like the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the International Union for the Conservation of Natural Resources and the European Commission can be asked to assist in restoration projects.

Regarding trout dying in Barot, Patli Kuhl, Nagni and Sangla hatcheries in May this year, Prof Johal says overstocking lead to a viral disease, which caused the epidemic.