Footsteps 110 - Farming for the future

Footsteps 110 focuses on strategies farmers can use to maintain healthy ecosystems and productive farms.

Every drop matters

In 2013, the fields around Meghawakhurd village in northern India were dry and unproductive. Several years of drought had resulted in a severe lack of water and many families were abandoning their farms and moving to the city to look for work.

Those who remained in the village were struggling to survive. They spent most of their time cutting and selling firewood 25 kilometres away. 

A farmer-owned, long-term approach was needed to properly manage the water catchment area and allow the farmers to make their land productive again.  

Local solutions 

Steep slopes and deforestation meant that rainwater was quickly running off the fields and out of the area. This was causing the soil to erode and dry out. The farmers needed to slow the water down, create some water stores and encourage more water to soak into the soil. After discussions facilitated by Tearfund’s partner EFICOR, they decided to do the following: 

  • use rocks to create banks along the contours of the land to stop the water running down the slope 
  • dig drainage channels and ponds to catch some of the water 
  • plant local varieties of grass and trees, including legumes, to hold the soil in place, improve soil fertility and trap rainwater. 

With the help of a government farm adviser, the farmers developed a trial plot. This allowed them to test several different water-saving technologies including a rice intensification system and intercropping. 

Once dry and barren, Meghawakhurd village is now green and the fields are productive. Photo: EFICOR
Once dry and barren, Meghawakhurd village is now green and the fields are productive. Photo: EFICOR
System of Rice Intensification. Illustration: Wingfinger
System of Rice Intensification. Illustration: Wingfinger

System of rice intensification 

This is a low-input way of growing rice which results in better yields and more profit for families. The technique uses 25–50 per cent less water than standard rice cultivation methods.

Below are the main steps. 

  • Plant seeds in un-flooded seed beds fertilised by manure and compost. 
  • Transplant seedlings when they have two or three leaves (between 8 and 12 days old) instead of after one month. 
  • Plant single seedlings about 25cm apart, rather than in bunches. This uses fewer seeds and reduces competition for nutrients, space and light. Seedlings develop stronger roots and more shoots. 
  • Instead of continuously flooding fields, provide just enough water to maintain moisture around the roots. This encourages more extensive root systems, reduces root degeneration and lowers methane emissions (methane gas contributes to climate change). 
  • To avoid compacting the soil, control weeds using a mechanical hand tool. This keeps the soil full of air and improves plant growth. 
  • Use organic manure and compost to maintain soil fertility. 

Ten million small-scale farmers in more than 55 countries are now experiencing improved yields by using this system.

Intercropping 

For centuries, farmers have grown crops in combination with each other. Compared to the more modern approach of growing one crop in large fields (monocropping), this technique has many advantages and is often used in conservation farming. 

  • Planting crops that vary in height and root structure makes the most of available water, light and nutrients in the soil, increasing overall yield. 
  • Crops that flower at different times support populations of insects important for pollination and/or pest control. 
  • Plants vary in their susceptibility to pests, diseases and drought so if one crop is affected, the other crops are likely to remain healthy. 
  • Diseases and pests can spread rapidly in a monoculture. Intercropping interrupts this spread. 
  • While one crop is being cut, useful insects and animals can hide in the plants of the remaining crop or crops. In a monoculture, many pest-eating insects are lost because the whole field is harvested at the same time. 
  • Most of the soil is covered by crops so there are fewer weeds, rainwater soaks into the soil and the risk of soil erosion is reduced. 
  • Carefully chosen companion plants can increase the yield of the main crop. They may do this by adding nutrients to the soil, providing shade or structural support, or by attracting pests away from the crop. 
  • Intercropping increases resilience and improves livelihoods because families are not relying on one harvest and one crop. They can adapt to climate change by trialling and growing different combinations of crops. Growing several edible plants together can improve family nutrition. 

There are several intercropping methods: 

Row: more than one crop grown at the same time, with at least one of the crops planted in a row. 

Strip: different crops in alternate strips, with rows big enough to allow harvesting with machinery. 

Relay: a second crop planted on the same piece of land after the first crop has reached a certain stage of growth. 

Intercropping using a combination of millet and leguminous cow peas
Intercropping using a combination of millet and leguminous cow peas. Illustration: Wingfinger

Hub for learning

Over the last few years Meghawakhurd has been transformed. Better water management combined with new farming techniques has encouraged many people to return to their farms. Groundwater level has increased by more than one metre and most of the farmers are able to grow two crops each year. 

The trial plot in the village has become a hub for learning, attracting many visitors from neighbouring villages. 


definitions

Water catchment area
An area of land with a common set of streams and rivers that flow into a larger body of water, such as a lake or ocean. 

Legume
Leguminous plants and trees improve soil fertility by capturing nitrogen from the air and adding it to the soil in a form that can be used by other plants. Examples include Acacia, Leucaena and Moringa species.

Ramesh Babu
Ramesh Babu is Director of Programmes and designated Executive Director of EFICOR (Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief). Email: rameshbabu@eficor.org www.eficor.org