In Search of a “Progressive Farmer”

Santosh excitedly scrolls through many images of his soya fields on his touch screen phone as I watch. The images were taken at various stages of cultivation – I can see images of field preparation with neat rows ready for planting, and photos of young plants after a few weeks of growth.  He scrolls through the images as he talks about the things he has learnt using the internet.

Soya fields in Madhya Pradesh

Most soya farmers in Madhya Pradesh I had met before Santosh, knew that Brazil is the leading producing of Soya in the world.  But Santosh’s knowledge goes deeper. He knows the kinds of micro-nutrient fertilizers used in South America.  Santosh explains that the typical spacing of soya plants in Vidisha is 9 inches but in Argentina it is 18”.  On one portion of his own farm he has tried 12” this year to see if it improves his yields.

A farm inputs shop in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh

Santosh decided to spread his knowledge through the government’s ATMA program for agri-extension services.

And, he opened an agri-inputs business that sells the same farm inputs that he uses and a few other high quality brands, which he says he selects carefully.

As he talks, Santosh opens a drawer in the shop counter and pulls out a tiny bottle barely three inches high.  This is the Argentinian micro-nutrient he’d discovered through his internet research.  Apparently the micro-nutrient fertilizer helps with root branching of soya plants.  Santosh has tried it on his farm with positive results. And he has sold a lot of it from his shop.

Seeking knowledge

Santosh is an example of the rare entrepreneurial farmers who seek information, experiment on their own fields and take a professional interest in farming.  He is the exact opposite of most farmers I’ve come across (even those with large landholdings) who display the opposite traits. They are unwilling to experiment even with small portions of their land, don’t bother seeking information about modern cultivation techniques, and certainly don’t go about spreading any knowledge to others. Santosh exudes enthusiasm and professional pride in his fields.

In his 30s, Santosh is certainly much younger than his typical neighbors.  He holds an M.Sc. in agriculture, but so did several other large landholding farmers I met in MP, but they had none of the drive that Santosh displayed.

During my trip to Bihar and Orissa, I met several other enthusiastic farmers, who took pride in themselves as farmers.

In the Vaishali district of Bihar, when my colleague and I were visiting Farms-n-Farmers’  agri-advisory (extension services) centre, a farmer came almost running into the centre.  He asked us: “Exactly how many days before or after fertilizer application, should I apply the zinc?”

Unfortunately we had to burst his bubble of enthusiasm by sheepishly admitting that we have no clue; we were not the agri-scientists he had assumed us to be.  The agronomists were scheduled to arrive a few days later.  Determined to discuss the topic, the farmer sat down next to us and started a conversation with others in the shop.  He insisted on telling them that they should not make the mistake of applying zinc together with the fertilizers because it loses its potency; you have to do it before or after.  He just wanted to know exactly how much before, or after…

An Odisha farmer photographing an info-booklet using his mobile phone

In Daspalla district of Orissa, I met a farmer who came to the agri-advisory cum inputs retail centre of eKutir.  He picked up a booklet and started taking photos of it. Curious, I borrowed the magazine when he was done and discovered that the magazine had information on different varieties of vegetables (e.g. the various varieties of tomatoes).

Observing these farmers’ search for more information is heartening in a sector where such behaviour is usually quite rare.

The elusive progressive farmer

It is no wonder that all agri-sector social entrepreneurs I’ve met, start their work in a new area by first identifying one or two progressive farmers.

So who is this elusive species, the “progressive farmer”, that all agri-related social entrepreneurs seek?

The progressive farmer is typically young (often in his 30s), educated to some degree, actively seeks knowledge, is enthusiastic about farming as a profession, and, most important, willing to experiment with new ideas on his own field.

And, it is on the shoulders of such progressive farmers that the agriculture sector programs of most social entrepreneurs depend upon.

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2 Responses to In Search of a “Progressive Farmer”

  1. Babu says:

    Dear Richa,
    I know that you’re much closer to the ground than I am now, but let’s not be too quick to judge the farmers. In a land where people are all too used to disappointment and poverty, I fully understand the risk-averse behaviour. Why would one want to upset what must be a very precarious balance with some new-fangled knowledge discovered on your mobile phone… Entrepreneurs are a rare breed. It’s a word that’s used far too easily and lightly. Even in Silicon Valley where I am and you used to live, real entrepreneurs are rare. Most are poseurs….

  2. Richa says:

    Dear Babu,

    For the farmers who have experimented earlier and burnt their fingers I see your point. However, keep in mind that not all of this is new fangled knowledge; e.g. the right amount of fertilizer to use given their own farm’s soil nutrient status is old science that can help them save costs (and in some cases prevent deterioration of soil). And it’s not just about poverty — I found the same behaviour in rich and poor farmers alike.

    In our own professions, you or I would also come across many dubious sources of information and only a few reliable ones. How many unreliable sources of information and well intentioned dubious “help” do we go through before we give up on seeking information that would be useful in our own work? Is it zero or two or ten? In other words, the point I raise in the blog post is about whether farmers display information seeking behaviour at all.

    Lastly regarding your comment about entrepreneurs: I agree. It is fashionable in some circles to believe that all farmers are entrepreneurs, which is obviously not the case. There are two points to consider in this regard. One is what we have discussed above about real entrepreneurial behaviour being rare. The second is that for people living in regions without any job opportunities, entrepreneurship is thrust upon them as an economic necessity regardless of whether they want to be entrepreneurs or are good at it (something I wrote about more than a year ago also).

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