Ivisit Kuldeep Singh Brar, a Sikh farmer, brimming with enthusiasm and ideas; a reflection of a bygone Punjab. The state was once the epicentre for entrepreneurship and energy that is sapped today, thanks to the government’s shortsightedness; if not sheer lethargy. The farmers refuse to believe they can survive without government subsidies; constant dependence on minimum support price and free electricity does that. It saps the animal spirit. Meanwhile, developments in agriculture are happening elsewhere in India.
Kuldeep Singh Brar and his wife live with his parents on the farm in village Sandhwan, Tehsil Kotkapura, District Faridkot. Their daughter studies architecture while the son is in his first year of a B-tech course. The 13.5-acre farm between the three generations does not make them “large farmers”; they are enterprising nevertheless.
After graduating in 1990, Kuldeep Singh joined his father to till the land. It has been a roller coaster ride since then, first as a Nestle contract dairy farmer. At that time their milk procurement fat rate was `4.50 a kg including SNF (solid not fat) and the feed rate was `1.75 kg. After two years all this got reversed; the fat rate was `3.75 a kg while the feed rate became `2.75 a kg.
At that time Nestle’s procurement and transportation was entrusted to one of its local shareholders, who paid his staff a minuscule salary for working 18 hours a day. They responded by stealing the farmer’s milk and adulterating the rest. These circumstances expedited the failure of many dairy farmers of that era, including Kuldeep’s.
In 1995, Kuldeep Singh visited the Agri Expo in New Delhi, an international agro technology exhibition and decided to grow vegetables. In 1997, he became the first farmer in north India to install a Netafim pressure-compensated drip irrigation system for open field vegetables. The company charged him 40 per cent more because Netafim did not have a distribution network in Punjab and would have to service him from its Bombay office.
In 1997, an Indo-Israel Research and Development Farm was started at Pusa, where Kuldeep tried to learn new Israeli techniques. He attended on-the-spot training courses for fruits, vegetables and integrated pest management at the Pusa Agricultural University (PAU) conducted by Israeli experts.
In year 2000, Kuldeep got a 60-tonnes-an-acre tomato yield; compared to 25 tonnes per acre at the PAU at that time. The variety he planted was Syngenta’s Avinash 2. He never achieved the same yields again, possibly due to quality of inputs. The initial batch of inputs had been imported, he believes.
Eltan Neubaur, the agriculture counsellor in the Embassy of Israel in India, was an extentionist and a farmer in his heart. He visited Kuldeep Singh Brar’s operations and was impressed by his passion for new technology. He recommended Kuldeep’s name for a two-month international course on pressurized irrigation conducted by Cinadco in Kibbutz Shaffyem in Israel.
That was when Kuldeep understood that Indian farmers were far more oriented towards agricultural inputs but were technically poorly informed in comparison to their Israeli counterparts. The extension officer is revered like God by the Israeli farmer and that held the key to Israel’s success in agriculture, Kuldeep realized.
He met trainer, Gadi Tasfror, a vegetable extension expert, who introduced him to the “Red Book” written by the plant protection department of the Agriculture Extension Services in Israel. It was the Bible on plant protection for Israeli farmers, written in Hebrew and would prevail in any eventuality. A third of the resources of Israel’s extension department focusses on plant protection.
He quickly learnt that it was the quality of the produce that fetched value and that per acre pesticide doses in Israel were more than what was recommended in India. Even so, the produce cleared Japan’s quarantine, one of the toughest in the world market as well as the European markets for their fruits and vegetables exports.
Kuldeep found even small farmers exporting, thanks to the Israel Agri Export Corporation (Agrexco), which educated farmers on international bylaws, marketing strategies besides helping them with logistics. Punjab’s Pagrexco was a poor copy of Agrexco; a failure that is now relegated to buying wheat for the government.
Back in India, he started growing vegetables with mulching in micro tunnels. The problem with growing vegetables in a mono-culture mode in the same field is that the field gets affected by nematode very soon. When vegetables are grown in open field in a cycle with paddy, however, the anaerobic landita in paddy cultivation sterilizes the nematode.
The agronomy practices of protected cultivation are completely different from those on uncovered soil open to air. Plant protection experts for protected cultivation are very rare and not very well versed with the modern-day technologies. Even good products are only now becoming available. Consistency and quality remain an issue.
Denmark has lessons to teach as well. The Danish government focusses on organic farming and, in 2002, took six Punjab farmers for a two-month programme on “Organic Farming, Co-operation and Democracy” to Denmark. Kuldeep was one of the participants and learnt well.
First, organic farming in Denmark is regulated by the Crown. Second, all inputs for organic cultivation are readily available, unlike in India. Denmark has altogether different agroclimatic conditions. Most importantly, the weather of Punjab changes every 70 days and no crop can complete its cycle in this short span of time.
Therefore, the learnings in Denmark could not be “Xeroxed” and applied in Indian conditions. The extension system in Denmark is 100 per cent contributed and managed by the farmers and successful marketing of their products in a conventional market is of great interest.
Kuldeep has a deep grouse with the Indian establishment for not facilitating change over the decades. In Denmark, a farmer wanting to hold more than 75 acres of land for cultivation must have a Green Certificate. That involves a two-year field training and one and a half years of theoretical training of agriculture in an institution that teaches economics of agriculture, machinery, pest management and such subjects.
This makes a Green Certificate holding farmer a specialist, better than Indian extensionists, because in Denmark a vegetable grower learns only about vegetables and fruit grower about fruit only. One can become a master of one’s trade but not a jack of all trades who are worth nothing. Significantly, banks give loans only to Green Certificate holders.
In 2005, Kuldeep was invited by Tropicana Juices in Florida, USA as a part of the farmer delegation to explore possibilities for contract farming of orange orchards in Punjab. He examined the infrastructure for horticulture, particularly for fruits and vegetables and post-harvest handling, and some very successful nursery operations. The visit motivated him to go for greenhouse vegetables and raise nursery seedlings.
Kuldeep took a huge loan from the Punjab National Bank to set up a greenhouse project for vegetables and to raise vegetable nursery seedlings and experienced nematode infestation. There is no solution in sight neither with the domestic research community; nor is the government keen to source the expertise from outside the country.
Kuldeep tried to pre-empt it and started soil-less growth of vegetables. This requires fertigation — not just irrigation — and that too with computer-controlled irrigation systems that can deliver the required quantity of water after every half hour in peak summer season. He installed a state-of-the-art automatic irrigation system to ensure the delivery of right amount of water mixed with the optimum dose of fertilizer at an appropriate time. Besides, the rooftop rain water of the entire project is collected in a huge tank and reused for irrigation.
Automation demands reliable power sources and, when the project was nearing completion in 2005, Kuldeep realized that the Punjab government had no electricity connection policy for greenhouses and he would be charged industry rates. That would sink his greenhouse in a pool of red. He worked tirelessly to get the greenhouse power supply policy for Punjab streamlined. It took more than three years and a great deal of personal resources to ultimately get it sanctioned by the Punjab State Electricity Regulatory Commission. The greenhouse project did not, however, start on time and Kuldeep defaulted on his loan. He has pressed on, notwithstanding, hoping that one day India will formulate strategies that serve its people well.
As the March day draws to a close, there is a cool evening breeze. Pleasant though it is, one cannot but wonder if it is an ill wind that is blowing across the world: climate change. All that one has learnt will have to be un-learnt as new laws of nature will bear upon the earth with their fury. Till then the world of farming continues to face a different nightmare: an indifferent establishment.