How a drought-prone village in Maharashtra attained agricultural success with millets

Bajra harvested at Madgyal, Jath taluka. Photo from Samata Farmers Group.
  • A group of 30 farmers from the village of Madgyal, in the drought-prone Jath taluka of Maharashtra, recorded an unprecedented harvest of bajra (pearl millet), last season.
  • The group pooled 25 acres to grow bajra together, which helped the farmers to cut costs and tackle the twin challenge of water scarcity and farmers’ migration to the sugar belts of the state.
  • The harvest was three times more than the national average per hectare and the farmers have bigger goals for the sowing that begins in June 2023.
  • Modern agricultural practices that encompass intensive tillage, and judicious use of water and inputs can improve millet productivity, agriculture experts opine.

Delighted to have recorded an unprecedented harvest of 41 quintals (one quintal = 100 kilograms) of pearl millet towards the end of 2022, from an acre (0.4 hectares) of land, Vithal Chopde of Madgyal, a village in the drought-prone Jath taluka, is in high spirits and has bigger goals for this season. “We are used to getting, at the most, four to five pothi (sacks) from an acre, a maximum two quintals of bajra. The unmatched harvest in the last season has been a miracle. I plan to increase its cultivation to two acres this year,” says Chopde. Madgyal is a village located in the Sangli district of Maharashtra.

Chopde, 38, who delivers newspapers early in the mornings, resumes the role of a farmer in the latter part of the day. He is among a group of 30 farmers who averaged a yield that is three times more than the national average of 12.43 quintals per hectare.

Spotlight on the coarse grain

The area under millet farming and the total millet production, have both seen a vast decline in India. Since 1965-70, the area under millet farming has decreased by 56% and the contribution of millets to the total food grain basket shrunk by 14% and now stands at 6%.

While the United Nations declared the year 2023 as ‘The International Year of Millets’, the government of India is also giving an additional push to millet farming by fixing a minimum support price (MSP) and enabling different schemes that benefit millet farmers. The union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke about millets in her budget speech and announced that the Indian Institute of Millet Research will act as the Centre of Excellence to make India a global hub for ‘Shree Anna.’ Maharashtra is among the nine states that have launched their own state-level millet missions.

The United Nations declared the year 2023 as 'The International Year of Millets', Government of India is also giving an additional push to millet farming by fixing a minimum support price (MSP) that benefit millet farmers. Photo by J'ram DJ/Wikimedia Commons
The United Nations declared the year 2023 as ‘The International Year of Millets’. Photo by J’ram DJ/Wikimedia Commons.

Madgyal, one of the driest regions of Maharashtra, made use of all this support for the millet crops and gained a bumper harvest last year. The farmers are also upbeat about the sowing that begins in June 2023. Meanwhile, agricultural scientists have hailed Madgyal’s model of millet farming as an example for other regions to follow.

“It is very impressive even though it was expected,” remarks Murli M Sharma, a retired scientist who worked with International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). “Generally farmers do not apply fertilisers or use very less fertiliser for pearl millet. It (this success) shows that the agricultural officers provided the farmers with high-yielding hybrid seeds, basal fertiliser, and urea, like nitrogen fertiliser for top dressing, which is crucial,” Sharma adds.

Milind Deshmukh, an associate professor at Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth, shares similar sentiments. “Like soya bean, pearl millet, too, is a dryland crop. The Madgyal farmers have exploited the true genetic potential of the seeds and have adopted integrated technology to gain such a good harvest.”

Read more: [Explainer] Why is 2023 the International Year of Millets? What do we achieve by celebrating such years?

Faith in bajra, the drought-tolerant crop

Madgyal is located at about 22 kilometres from Jath City, which is famous for its goats and sheep. Every Friday, traders from Mumbai and other states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Goa and Telangana, arrive at Jath City to purchase livestock which has prospered in the drought-stricken rocky and barren plains. Here, the farmers produce vegetables, cereals and pulses.

Over the last few years, the area under millet cultivation, including pearl millet cultivation, decreased in Maharashtra owing to different reasons, the main one being farmers shifting to cash crops. However, the farmers in Madgyal village are confident about bajra. “Whatever be the harvest, we never give up on bajra,” said farmer Pandurang Sawant, 60.

The average landholding in Madgyal ranges between two acres and 50 acres. It’s challenging to make a livelihood dependent on agriculture for two reasons: the first, the area comes under the rain-shadow region with an annual rainfall of 522 mm, and second, the need for water management facilities. This village with 10,000 inhabitants is also not served by the Mhaisal Lift Irrigation Scheme, run by the state government, that ensures equitable distribution of water. The water canal is at least a kilometre from the village. “When water is released in the canal, wells and borewells of the village receive some water,” remarks Chopde.

Growers of rare Uswad variety of pearl millet. Representative image. Photo by लोकपर्याय, लोणी-खु ता.वैजापूर,जि.औरंगाबाद/Wikimedia Commons.
Growers of rare Uswad variety of pearl millet. Representative image. Photo by लोकपर्याय, लोणी-खु ता.वैजापूर,जि.औरंगाबाद/Wikimedia Commons.

Another challenge that Madgyal faced was migration. Similar to other villages in the taluka, scores of families from Jath Taluka too migrated for oos todni (cane cutting) to the sugar belts in Sangli, Satara, Kolhapur and Palus-Kodegaon. According to residents, nearly 25,000 people from 25 villages in the taluka migrated for their livelihoods.

Given the twin challenge of water scarcity and migration, pearl millet is a favourite crop in the area. The coarse grain crop, considered the poor man’s staple nourishment, is sown in June and harvested in August. As a drought-tolerant crop, bajra requires a low average rainfall range of 400–500 mm and is a warm weather crop.

Sangli district’s agriculture superintendent, Manoj Kumar Vetal says, “To increase farmers’ income and raise crop productivity, we selected the Madgyal farmer group for the state’s Agriculture Department supported scheme, “Ek gaon Ek vaan (One village, One Variety)” and National Food Security Mission (NFSM). The union government has made millets part of NFSM.

The farmers came together due to their involvement and even organised a Paani Foundation event. The foundation is a non-profit that works for drought prevention. Tukaram Patil, a coordinator in the Foundation, elaborates, “We have been active in the village of Madgyal since the ‘Farmers Cup’ competition held in 2017. Since then, the village residents have participated in work related to constructing water harvesting structures. This has helped raise the water table in the area.”

In May 2022, the Paani Foundation organised a four-day workshop to educate farmers about crop management, seed selection and treatment, and integrated pest management. It led to a group of 30 farmers of Madgyal forming a collective, the Samata Farmers Group. The group pooled 25 acres to grow bajra together.

Scaling up production

“Having realised that it was possible to scale up production, the group followed all the standard operating practices. Most importantly, they used the same high-yielding hybrid seeds. Generally, farmers use different varieties to fall back on if one did not do well,” shares Lahu Kamble, Agriculture Assistant, Jath taluka, who guided the farmers through every stage of cultivation.

Kamble, who is also associated with the Department of Agriculture, Maharashtra, informs that every activity was done collectively; right from hiring tractors and preparing the fields, to installing drip lines, sourcing seeds, fertilisers, and organic pesticides to harvesting. It helped the farmers to cut costs.

“I had to plead with my father to lend me an acre to grow the 90-day long crop using modern methods I had picked up from the workshop,” says Vitthal Sawant (34), an arts graduate from Kolhapur University who notched a harvest of 43.12 quintals.

Demonstration of seed treatment. Photo by Samata Farmers Group
Demonstration of seed treatment. Photo from Samata Farmers Group.

Sawant’s family owns 16 acres, including a pomegranate orchard spread over two acres. He adds, “We did things we had never done before. We used seven tonnes of cow dung manure in my field, laid drip lines, built bird perches, installed pheromone traps (to control moths) and sticky pads to trap pests, and used neem-based pesticides.”

For farmers in Madgyal who had only harvested 10 to 12 quintals of pearl millet per hectare, it was no less than a miracle—harvesting about 30 to 43 quintals from less than half a hectare.

A former Director of the Indian Institute of Millets Research, Vilas Tonapi, also validates Madgyal millet growers’ collective efforts. Tonapi says, “The national average of 12 quintals per hectare is not the reflection of the actual production potential of millets under best agricultural practices. Our trials in rice fallows have yielded 80 quintals of sorghum and pearl millet per hectare, and in prison drips, it would be still higher. Madgyal has shown us the way.”

Tonapi believes that Madgyal’s methods can be replicated and is highly sustainable. Stressing the need to enhance productivity by bringing millets to better-endowed areas, he adds, “Modern agricultural practices that encompass intensive tillage, judicious use of water and inputs can improve productivity to their potential. One now needs to use reasonable inputs to realise the incremental growth.”

As the new crop season begins, farmers are buoyant. Manoj Kumar Vetal, Agriculture Superintendent, Sangli district, says that the department has announced cash awards for the top three Madgyal bajra growers. There are also plans to replicate the Madgyal experiment with another group of five farmers this year. The department is engaging with farmers and their families to train them in making value-added products like bajra-based roti, biscuits, khakra and other food products.

This year, Samata Farmers Group is looking forward to doubling its acreage as the produce was sold at a premium price of Rs 3,000 per quintal to a Hyderabad-based company. Farmers claim that they got the increased price because their product was residue-free. The harvest went through lab testing, too, to establish that the final product is residue-free. Earlier, they had received a maximum of Rs. 1,700 per quintal.

“We believe that our success will inspire more farmers to undertake scientific bajra cultivation, get a good harvest and end their migration to sugarcane fields,” says a hopeful Chopde.

Read more: [Commentary] The millet revival can overcome pitfalls of the Green Revolution


Banner image: Bajra harvested at Madgyal, Jath taluka. Photo from Samata Farmers Group.


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