Mongabay-India

Traditional cropping system of Ram-mol secures harvest, ensures income security

  • In arid and rainfed Kachchh district of Gujarat, a community farming knowledge system known as Ram-mol offers protection against drought.
  • The mixed-cropping technique uses a seed mix of four to five crops, optimises water usage, improves soil health, preserves seed varieties and provides food and income security to farmers.
  • Studies on Ram-mol’s impact on soil health and nutrition of its produce can encourage integration of traditional climate-resilient practices into dryland agriculture. 

It is almost May and the sun is beating down on the Dharampur village in Kachchh. Mavabhai Dangar surveys his crop of castor that has given him three good harvests while providing soil cover from the blazing sun. Castor is the last of the multiple kharif crops he cultivates, the other crops being millets, pulses and oilseeds, harvested in stages from November to May.

In this arid, rainfed district of Gujarat, traditional farmers optimise the low rainfall during kharif season using an ancient, drought-resilient agroecological practice, locally known as Ram-mol or God’s crop.

“We leave it to God, hoping for sufficient and timely rainfall and favourable climatic conditions for a good harvest,” says Dhanjibhai Dangar, a 72-year-old farmer with deep furrows on his forehead from years of toiling in the sun. “The crop-mix for Ram-mol is prepared based on the prevalent climatic conditions and productivity of each land parcel. In case of erratic rainfall, one of the crops might fail but others provide a harvest. Our ancestors put a lot of thought into this system and for several generations, Ram-mol has been providing us with food and fodder,” explains Dhanjibhai.

Traditional wisdom prevails

Behind the notion of “leaving it to God or nature” is a deep reading of nature’s clues perfected by farmers over centuries of trial and error. Ram-mol combines observed knowledge of soil science, root systems, resilience of native seeds and timing of agricultural activities to minimise the impact of erratic rainfall patterns and drought-like conditions. It optimises water usage, improves soil health and helps conserve and propagate indigenous seed varieties. Even though the yields are lower as land productivity in Kachchh is poor, this traditional farming practice provides a drought-resistant means for food and income security.

Typically, Ram-mol harvest has four or five of seven rainfed crops. These include millets (pearl millet, sorghum); legumes (cluster beans, dew beans, green gram) and oilseeds (sesame, castor). The crops are a combination of deep and shallow rooted plants that grow in conditions of varying rainfall and offer protection from drought. Sorghum is grown exclusively or combined with dew beans, for fodder.

The seed-mix is prepared based on an understanding of crop duration, harvesting methodology, root systems and the food needs of the household. Legumes have nitrogen fixing properties and contribute to soil health; they also provide protein security to these predominantly vegetarian communities of Kachchh. Cluster beans (also known as guar beans), a drought-hardy leguminous crop with deep tap roots, was once grown in Kachchh for food and cattle fodder. Now it is sold to industries—a gum extracted from its endosperm finds use in food processing, pharma, cosmetics and even the oil drilling and explosives industry.

A woman in Kachchh shows the seeds she has. Traditionally, women prepare the seed mix for Ram-mol to be sown. Image courtesy of Satvik-Promoting Ecological Agriculture.

Millets are climate-resilient and agro ecologically suited for the region. Traditionally, pearl millet was the primary cereal in the Kachchhi diet, and sorghum is used as cattle fodder. Sesame is milled for oil, and castor is a major commercial crop of the district.

Traditionally, women farmers prepare the crop mix. Kakuben of Jawahar Nagar village in Bhuj taluk is part of a women’s collective that is building a seed bank of indigenous seeds in her village with support from Satvik—Promoting Ecological Agriculture, a Bhuj-based organisation helping farmers preserve the traditional agricultural practice of Ram-mol. “We want to ensure that our village is self-sufficient in seeds,” says Kakuben.

The collective has around 40 women who procure, preserve and sell native seeds. They are also reviving pearl millet cultivation in Jawahar Nagar; the land under its cultivation in Kachchh has fallen from 96,900 hectare in 2001-02 to 17,182  hectare in 2019-20, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, primarily due to the popularity of wheat. Still in its early stages, the collective also makes value-added products such as split green gram dal — 300 kilogram green gram dal was prepared and sold to the villagers last year.

Some distance away, Mavabhai and his wife Dhuniben are planning crops for the 22 acres of land they own. “We observe climatic conditions and rainfall patterns. If it arrives early or late, the seed mix is changed,” says Dhuniben. “One favoured Ram-mol combination is bajra, green gram, dew beans, sesame and castor. Cluster beans are the most labour-intensive crop and usually grown with dew beans, sesame and castor,” says the farmer.

Castor secures income for farmers

India is the world’s largest producer of castor seeds, with Gujarat leading the production in the country. According to Government of India’s Crop Production Statistics Information System, castor was cultivated on 133,589 hectares in Kachchh in 2019-2020, the highest area under castor cultivation in Gujarat.

Farmers select sorghum seeds in Kumbhariya village. Image courtesy of Satvik-Promoting Ecological Agriculture.

In the Ram-mol mixed cropping technique, once its companion crops are harvested, castor shoots up in height and foliage, thus providing crop cover for most part of the year until it is dug out to prepare the soil for the kharif crop. Castor capsules are picked three to four times during the crop cycle. The per acre yield of castor is similar in both mixed and mono cropping methods, as castor is a tall plant sown about 36 inches apart. This illustrates how the Ram-mol system optimises land utilisation by providing more harvests and better benefits for the same inputs.

Castor, along with dew beans, provides ecological services by providing crop cover, while the latter acts as a mulching crop. Both crops help preserve soil moisture, and mitigate erosion, thus improving soil nutrition. Techniques such as composting, mulching are not traditionally practised in Kachchh, and crop combinations provide these services.

Crops are harvested in stages. Sesame is harvested in approximately 90 days and millets and legumes in 120 days. Castor’s harvests begin in 240 days. “Cluster beans suffer from climatic variations. However if the cluster bean crop fails, dew beans usually perform well,” says Dhuniben, sharing her observed wisdom of Ram-mol’s inherent checks and balances.

Food security despite climate variables

Traditionally, farmers stock up seeds to last approximately seven years, as an insurance against drought and crop failure. Open pollinated seeds are collected from the healthiest plants. Except for castor, where cultivators buy hybrid seeds, Ram-mol is grown with native seeds.

“Weeding is controlled by Vikheda (tilling), and we use cow dung and silt from ponds as wet manure. Our native seeds are pest-resilient,” explains Mavabhai of the low-cost rainfed farming practice. Farmers carry out ploughing and weeding after the first showers in June or early July.

“Despite Sukhi Kheti (rainfed agriculture) and being at the mercy of nature, our traditional farming practices are profitable,” says Mavabhai, explaining why he sticks to Ram-mol in the extreme climate of Kachchh where temperatures can reach highs of 50℃ in summer, and drop to freezing point in winter. Rainfall is scanty with long dry spells between showers.

Women of Jawahar Nagar are building a seed bank to ensure seed sovereignty for the village. A collective of 40 women are involved in procuring, preserving and selling native seeds. Image by Priyamvada Kowshik.

“According to our study, in the last 26 years, Ram-mol farmers retained their food security and seed sovereignty, even in drought-years,” says Praveen Muchhadiya, project director of Satvik—Promoting Ecological Agriculture.

Satvik’s seed conservation programme has identified 17 varieties of pearl millets; 11 varieties of sorghum; 17 varieties of green gram; seven varieties of cluster bean; five varieties each of dew bean and sesame and four varieties of castor that form the foundation of the Ram-mol mix.

For Ram-mol farmers, the “profitability” from mixed cropping also lies in meeting the family’s food security needs, and offsetting the cost of fodder. Dhuniben says that expenditure for fodder is around Rs 1000 a day for the eight cattle she keeps.

While the input cost of Ram-mol farming is low, it is labour intensive compared to monocropping due to multiple harvests in stages. “In Kachchh, all crops continue to be harvested manually. Monocropping requires about 30% fewer labour days,” Muchhadiya points out.

A family inspects their mixed crop of Ram-mol in Umedpar village of Kachchh. Family members often work on their own farms to offset high labour costs. Image courtesy of Satvik-Promoting Ecological Agriculture.

“Most of our family members work on farms. Nowadays, natural farming is mostly practised by families with members who can work on their own farms, to offset high labour costs,” says Mavabhai who spends around Rs 8000 per acre on farm labour. The profit per acre can vary from Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 8500 depending on climatic variables.

On an acre of land, an approximation of crop yield suggests that in various combinations of Ram-mol cropping, about four kilograms of cluster beans yields 200 to 400 kilograms harvest; 20 grams of sesame yields 25 to 40 kilograms; 100 grams dew beans yields 150 to 200 kilograms; and two kilograms castor yields 250-300 kilograms.

A slow shift to commercial crops

Surrounded by salt plains, salt marshes and the sea, Kachchh is topographically unique. The region’s soil has a high pH, low organic carbon, moisture, and macro and micro nutrients, making it less fertile with lower yields. Around 70% of the land under cultivation in the district comes under rainfed area and the region receives some of the lowest rainfall (annual average 376 mm). Climate change has altered rainfall patterns, leading to increased average annual rainfall with longer dry spells between showers, a change that adversely impacts the predominantly rainfed agriculture in the district. According to a study, in the last three decades the average seasonal rainfall over Kachchh was found to have increased from 378 mm to 674 mm.

Historically, agriculture in Kachchh was largely for subsistence and household consumption, given the low productivity of the soil. On the upside, Kachchhi farmers have bigger landholdings—the average landholding in the district is 3.51 hectare  compared to 1.15 hectare at the national level, approximately 65% holdings in Kachchh are medium and large farmers.

Since the early 2000s, farmers in the district began diversifying to market-oriented cash crops and in the last decade, Kachchh has seen a significant shift towards high-value horticulture crops owing largely to access to groundwater and micro-irrigation practices. District horticulture officer, Kachchh, M.S. Parsaniya says, “Pomegranate, introduced in Kachchh a decade ago, is now grown on 20,000 hectares. Along with mango and date palm, horticulture crops now occupy approximately 58,000 hectares.” In 2022, the Gujarat government approved a 337-km long pipeline of Narmada water that would irrigate 77 villages of six taluks of Kachchh, covering 81,000 acres of agricultural land.

Sustainable agricultural solutions

What then is the relevance of traditional rainfed farming practices in a scenario that is swiftly moving towards water-and-resource intensive cash crops?

Explaining the significance of community knowledge systems such as Ram-mol in providing sustainable agricultural solutions, Dr Manish Kanwat, principal scientist and head, Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI), Bhuj, says, “Community knowledge systems are perfected over time. Ram-mol’s scientific study may help us find ways to improve yield, and if possible, scale up these agroecological practices. This is not merely a practice but an ‘agricultural technology’ developed by the community. To start with we must study its impact on soil carbon, microorganism colonies, and how this affects the nutritional density of the produce.”

Raniben of the women’s collective sorts green gram at Jawahar Nagar village. Image courtesy of Aadil Theba, Satvik-Promoting Ecological Agriculture.

Satvik partners with the state of Gujarat as technical experts on natural farming. They have noted a decline in the acreage under Ram-mol, as more farmers shift to commercial crops.  The 7.6 magnitude earthquake that rocked Kachchh in January 2001 and destroyed over three lakh buildings, also impacted the traditional practice of saving seeds in “kothas”—structures built with soil, cow dung and straw. Over the years, farmers have switched to preserving seeds in plastic drums. Mixing seeds with ash as a preservative is a common practice. Green gram is mixed with sand or ash and sealed in drums. Sesame and castor are stored with neem leaves. Layers of sand are added on top before sealing.

In a region that is hurtling towards market-led agriculture, young farmers like Ramesh Dangar of Lodai village of Bhuj taluk hold a flicker of hope. Ramesh returned to his family farm, giving up his city-job as a truck driver. He wants to experiment adding new crops, groundnuts, black lentils, to the Ram-mol mix, he says. Ramesh is convinced the farming knowledge preserved by his community is profitable for him and his farmland.

 

Banner image: Ram-mol farmers use natural farming techniques such as light tilling, locally called Vikheda to remove weeds. Image courtesy of Satvik-Promoting Ecological Agriculture.

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