Farmer’s Notebook: Adapting in Drought for a Good Yield

R. Baskaran has been studying climatic variations and planning his crops accordingly to achieve a good yield, even under drought conditions.

R. Baskaran. Credit: M.J. Prabhu

Drought management is the main concern in government agriculture departments, NGOs and farmers groups in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. The three states are under severe drought and farmers under distress with declining productivity. The delta region, often called the “rice bowl of Tamil Nadu,” is trying to grapple with the situation. In the last ten years, drought has become more common than floods, but has been managed with little success.

No scientific data, government steps or research has been able to help farmers overcome drought. Only the example of Israel’s booming agriculture thanks to drip irrigation is cited. To an extent, this has been working in Maharashtra, Karnataka and some other states. But for drip irrigation there has to be water in wells or lakes. It will not work in places that have no water or are prone to acute water scarcity like the Ramnad district in Tamil Nadu.

Farmer's Notebook.

Farmers need to understand the cycle and the relation between seasons and crops. If the season is good with bountiful rain, farmers should select paddy; if the season is moderately hot and moist, they should go with millet grains. If their crop is selected as per the expected climate, they will have crops in their field for the whole year. They can cultivate using less water. This is the best way farmers should do farming and face climate variations, says R. Baskaran, a leading organic farmer  from Thenampadugai village, near Kumbakonam Tamil Nadu.

Baskaran is doing a lot of research in analysing the weather pattern regularly and its effects on crops. His on-field research on climate change and its effect on agriculture also brought significant practical solutions for farmers to adopt climate resilient approaches to farming, both in the delta region and also in other parts of Tamil Nadu.

According to him, the amount of rainfall that the region received was very good about 20 years ago, which helped to fill ponds and lakes for nearly ten months in a year.

“This has contributed to cultivation of two crops in a year. The rainy days were for three months in a year. Now, the water is running only for a month in the Cauvery river and that too not for all 30 days. All the water resources have become dry and only those who have bore well and electricity are involved in farming. The majority of the agriculture lands have become fallow,” he says.

On his analysis of the rain fall pattern from 1991-95, Baskaran says there were regular seasonal rains and that helped the farmers cultivate crops for two seasons in a year.

Baskaran with farmers. Credit: M.J. Prabhu

“In the year 2000, the rain fall has started to reduce gradually in to one cropping season in a year. Then the period 2000-2004, the rainfall has reduced drastically and lead to the severe drought situation. But in 2005, there was abundant rains which lead to flood situation. After that, the change in rain fall pattern started  fluctuating. Sometimes excess and sometime insufficient rain became a normal pattern until 2010. Then, the years 2012 and 2013 were very severe drought years,” explains Baskaran.

According to his analysis, there was a drought period every five years in Tamil Nadu and then one year with excess rain. Then it goes down again to severe drought and less than ten days rain in a year.

Because of this unpredictable rainfall pattern and climatic variations, farmers cannot adopt a particular strategy in farming. Even meteorological predictions are often not able to give correct information. Hence, farmers have to cope with the rainfall pattern, using their own farming experience and plan their strategies accordingly. While doing so, if that particular year is one with a dry spell, the crops get affected by water shortage. If it rains in a particular year, the crops get spoiled with flood water.

Baskaran says he evolved his own climate resilient approaches based on his experience in paddy farming and his observation of changing weather patterns. He emphasises the need for farmers to have a holistic outlook in paddy farming with a clear understanding on the characteristic features of paddy plant.

While analysing the characteristic features of paddy, a philosophy of drying and wetting was observed. Between 2011 and 2014, the availability of water gradually reduced and it gave a bad yield in the drought years. In 2012, after October, this region received seven days of rain and after that there was no rain at all throughout the year.

During that year, kharif was the major cropping period. After the introduction of hybrid seeds but the intensification of the Cauvery water sharing issue, approaches have changed, with transplantations taking place with the help of electricity based equipments. Farmers slowly moved away from natural processes and changed their methods. Earlier, traditional farming system was adopted with rotation and cyclic approach.

“We start with a short duration crop, then a long duration crop for kharif season, then cultivate black gram and again with a short duration crop. Thus, the farmers classified the crop cycle in a proper way.”

In 2012, when farmers experienced a severe drought situation, the meteorological department gave a report. During that time, farmers were confused and didn’t know what to sow.

Baskaran decided to go with a direct sowing method and selected a local paddy variety that comes to harvest in 140 days. After an initial rainfall period, he sowed the seeds on September 30. That initial rain gave him sufficient moisture to plough the land and sow the seeds. That moisture also helped the seeds germinate.

Then there was only one spate of rain in October. Using that second rain, the paddy crop was able to grow to certain extent. Then he got water from the river for ten days in October, November and December. In January, the paddy crop was ripe for harvesting. Naturally, the philosophy of drying and wetting worked out very well.

Thus, a 140-day duration crop came up very well with ten days of wetting and 20 days of drying, and this changing over helped the crop grow well and gave him a good yield in January. Though it was cultivated with the direct sowing method, the tillers were very strong and upright with mature full grains and less chaff.  He was thus able to prove wrong the perception that paddy is a water guzzling crop that needs more water.

Last year was not favourable for paddy cultivation. In June, he tried another two traditional rice varieties (Karunkurvai and Sornamazuri) through direct sowing with the anticipation of some rain in the following months. But there was no rain. The seed germinated using the available moisture at the time of sowing.

“There was good germination of Sornamazuri but dried up later on as there was no rain. But in the case of Karunkuruvai , germination survival was better. This single crop shows this variety is suitable for rabi season with some irrigation sources.  In the second season, that is, September and October there was some water in the river beyond that the Mettur dam could not support,” he says.

Anticipating monsoon rain farmers went for either direct sowing of paddy and transplantation method. But there was no rain as well till mid December. It was declared that monsoon had withdrawn by the middle of November. So paddy could not survive as both rain and the river failed.

Only a few farmers with the help of deep bore wella could cultivate. The rest of the farmers had a heavy losses, or no income for the year. Under such situation, he decided to go for plants which require less water and can perform well in the months of December and January with the help of atmospheric moisture and not irrigation. He selected black gram, green gram and gingelly and was able to harvest a good yield.

The crops came up very well without irrigation with little application of growth promoting inputs and pest control efforts. All the crops were harvested in March 25, 2017.

Unfortunately, Baskaran’s neighbours failed to understand the weather pattern, as a consequence of which their conditions have grown from bad to worse. Some have suffered heavily with the complete crop loss.

“Farmers should have a clarity on which variety is suitable for which season. Traditional varieties are always performing well and  helpful to mitigate different climatic stress conditions. That is why they are location specific. We have traditional varieties for low lying areas, rain shadow regions like Ramanathapuram, varieties suitable for uplands, varieties for sandy soil, varieties for coastal areas and saline areas. Likewise, for every climate conditions there are numerous traditional varieties available. Each paddy variety has its own character in it. If farmers are able to identify which traditional variety is suitable for water stress conditions and planting them with direct sowing method, they could achieve more in paddy farming,” explains Baskaran.

Another thing that the farmers need to understand is that they should not go two or three seasons with the same crop. They should not go three seasons only on paddy cultivation. The kharif crop is heavily dependent on rain, so during that season they should go with paddy. After this, in the month of January the surface of the land becomes dry due to mist. However just beneath the surface, there will be moisture.  That is optimum for planting pulses. In the summer months, the surface of the soil will be very dry and at that time they can sow millet grains like Ragi, Bajra and by the end of June these grains come to the harvesting stage. Baskaran is part of the Save Our Rice Campaign, an initiative of an NGO called CREATE, Thiruthuraipoondi.

For more details, interested farmers can contact R. Baskaran, Teynampadugai via Patteswaram, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu: 612703, mobile: 94428-71049.