Back to farms! Lockdown and downturn spur fallow land farming in Kerala

Back to farms! Lockdown and downturn spur fallow land farming in Kerala
Paddy sapling planting in Chandran Kallath's farm in Kannur

Kochi: Amid an economic lull and forced holidays triggered by the prolonged COVID-19 lockdown, a state government initiative to boost fallow land cultivation is reigniting the potential of farming in Kerala.

The Kerala government’s Subiksha Keralam project for growing crops in fallow land seems to have caught the fancy of many.

The programme's success is vindicated by the new-found interest in raising plants and animals.

Growing crops, animal rearing and fish farming are no longer looked down on.

State agriculture director Dr K Vasuki says the government has targeted 25,000 hectares of fallow land cultivation this year.

Back to farms! Lockdown and downturn spur fallow land farming in Kerala
Annamanada Karshaka Sangham members preparing the fallow land for cultivation

Till October 28, 1,43,634 farmers have been involved in Subiksha Keralam project, of which 8,211 are Non-Resident Indians, as per official data.

Apart from the existing farmers who have taken up cultivation in fallow land, the scheme has received 16,000 new registrations.

“Now, it is not beneath your status to mention that you are a farmer,’’ says Saji John, director, Horticulture Mission.

Hitherto, many had kept farming as an additional option for earning income apart from their regular jobs.

Back to farms! Lockdown and downturn spur fallow land farming in Kerala
Vegetable cultivation by Annamanada Karshaka Sangham

That is changing gradually as more people are now ready to take the plunge into farming.

Some have even quit their jobs.

Inspiring attempts

Tempted by the subsidy and other assistance offered by the government, people are even willing to take land on lease and start cultivation if they don’t own a plot.

Shiju Sankar of Kuzhalmannam in Palakkad, a mechanic in Qatar, had come to his native place to attend his brother’s marriage just before lockdown. As he couldn’t go back, he hit upon the idea of turning the land possessed by his family into a farm.

Though he did not have any previous experience, the 24-year old started poultry and goat farms as well as raised fish and banana under the Jaiva Griham programme, a part of Subiksha Keralam.

“I am having second thoughts on going back to Qatar now. Though I haven’t started earning, I expect an income in the next few months from fish harvest and goat sale,’’ he says.

He plans to expand the operations with the subsidy provided by the government.

“I may even take a nearby temple pond on lease for growing fish.’’ His background as a mechanic helped him to design a cage for hen or goat without having to depend on outside help.

Back to farms! Lockdown and downturn spur fallow land farming in Kerala
Harvest festival inauguration at Valiyakalavoor Sri Krishna Temple

Shajimon,48, who was working in a workshop in Manjeri, had good bounty from 86 cents of leased paddy field in Kannanur in Palakkad.

The land belongs to an advocate in Ernakulam.

“I got 1,180 kg. The total cultivation cost was Rs 30,000. The lease rent is Rs 1,000 for a cent,’’ he says.

Paddy, vegetables, fruits and tubers account for the lion’s share of farming, followed by millets and pulses.

“We are trying to accommodate as many as we can and increase the cultivation to 1 lakh hectares in two years. We are also planning export and food processing activities at a later stage,’’ says Vasuki.

The IAS officer says the programme provides massive employment opportunities at a time when the state is reeling under job losses and dull economic activity.

“Jaiva Griham, a practice prevalent earlier in the state, provides multiple sources of income,’’ she says.

Retirees too have joined the farming bandwagon. Chandran Kallath, hailing from Karivelloor in Kannur, took VRS from BSNL this year and wholeheartedly started pursuing his passion in farming. He is cultivating bananas, vegetables and paddy in an acre he owns.

“Even if the VRS scheme was not there, I would have quit my job. I had been indulging in a little bit of farming in the last few years,’’ says he.

Along with like-minded people from various professions, he has also formed a group called Prakrithi Samrithi and has undertaken paddy farming in 20 acres in Kannur and Kasaragod.

They have harvested on an average, 800 kg of crop from an acre.

Odds at stake

Two main challenges faced by those entering farming are adverse climate and shortage of labour. In the case of the first, they are helpless. As for labourers, many depend on agents who supply workers from outside the state. “We utilized the service of two agents who supplied 10 to 20 workers for planting paddy saplings. The rate is Rs 6,000 per acre,’’ says Dileep, secretary of Annamanada Karshaka Sangham in Thrissur district.

Dileep says they decided to cultivate paddy in 12 hectares - including 4 hectares of fallow land - this year only after getting an assurance on supply of workers. “It is practically impossible to do farming with local workers. The migrant workers who helped us last year went back home during the lockdown period.’’

They also grew vegetables in an acre before Onam.

The Sangham comprising 29 persons ventured into farming last year. But they could muster only a single crop as it was their first attempt. Besides, rain spoiled their plans to sell straw at a remunerative price to make additional income. This year too, they lost 400 kg of paddy seeds due to heavy rain early this month. Fortunately, they got replacement from panchayat authorities.

Dileep says as they get subsidy under Subiksha Keralam, selling paddy at government-declared support price of Rs 27.40 per kg is profitable.

Win-win for temples and farmers

Temples too are beneficiaries of the fallow land cultivation as the experience of Chandrahasan from Mannanchery in Alappuzha shows.

This is under the Devaharitham programme initiated by the Travancore Devaswom Board during lockdown to tide over the losses due to the absence of devotees.

The fallow land farming in 2.5 acres around the temple generated sufficient paddy for rituals of Valiyakalavoor Sri Krishna temple.

“Last year we had to bring paddy spikes from Tamil Nadu for Niraputhari ritual – offering of paddy spikes. We have become so self-sufficient that we can supply paddy and rice to nearby temples too for Naivedyam or ritual offering of food,’’ says Chandrahasan, who is a member of advisory committee of the temple.

In addition, banana cultivation ensured a regular supply of banana leaves and plantains for the temple.

(P K Krishnakumar is an independent journalist based in Kochi.)

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