Agriculture

Weathering The Change ­- A Farmer’s Diary of 2015

An extract from the journal of an organic farmer in the Western Ghats, tracing the erratic shift in weather patterns in 2015, its impact on the ground, and the unnerving implications for the future

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Paddy being harvested. Credit: George Varghese

June 1, 2015

The monsoon is just around the corner. It should’ve arrived at the Kerala coast today. A week from now, the monsoon should arrive at Sirsi, situated in the Western Ghats of Uttara Kannada District of Karnataka State, where we live on our farm.

We have collected many saplings of fruit and timber trees, to plant at the start of the monsoon. We had planted several nitrogen fixing legumes like horse gram, black gram, green gram and cowpea during the summer to enrich the fields and also give us our year’s supply of these dals. We have started preparing our paddy fields by trimming our live fence around the field and mulching the field with the trimmings. We got good pre-monsoon showers in May, which makes this year’s monsoon look promising.

Monsoon predictions for this year vary drastically – while the India Meteorological Department (IMD) has forecasted 93% of long-period average (LPA) which would make it a below-normal monsoon, Skymet, India’s first private weather forecasting agency, predicts 102% of LPA, which would make it a normal monsoon.

June 7, 2015

We hear Kerala has just had the first monsoon rains. The forecasters tell us that it will arrive in a few days. However, IMD has downgraded the monsoon forecast to 88% of LPA, which would make it a deficient monsoon. The Western Ghats get plenty of rain even in a bad year, so we’re not too worried. With an average annual rainfall of about 2500 mm, a few percentage points less may not matter too much for us. IMD had last declared a ‘drought year’ in 2009 when nearly 60% districts in India had deficient rainfall. We didn’t fare too badly that year.

June 20, 2015

The heavens have opened up for the past five days. The monsoon seems to have arrived in these parts a week later than usual, but it really means business. The rains have been very heavy right from the beginning this year, unlike most years when the build-up is more gradual. There has been some crop damage and flooding in our region, apart from regular power outages. However, things look promising.

June 30, 2015

It has been raining very heavily for the past two weeks. Field preparation for paddy is in progress. The fields have been manured and mulched. There is sufficient standing water in the fields to commence ploughing. The nursery beds for the seedlings will be prepared in a week. Things still look good.

July 23, 2015

It has been a glorious July thus far. The weather is wonderful. We have warm sunny days, but it hasn’t been too hot. A few short, light showers on most days give the place a washed look and keep it cool. The landscape looks beautiful – fresh foliage on the forest trees, green tufts of paddy making their appearance in the fields, birdsong in the air and fireflies lighting up the dark nights with their ethereal lights. Daylight hours are long, since we’ve just passed the summer solstice (karka sankranti).

varghese farmIn short, it feels like paradise. So what’s the catch? Why is there a deep sense of disquiet within? Because July is usually a month when it pours incessantly. The sun is usually never visible and it just rains non-stop all month. On an average, rainfall happens on 26 days of the month. This is when the ground water sources get recharged and the earth gets a soaking. Even in a bad-monsoon year, July is usually a month of non-stop rain in this part of the country. There is usually about 950 mm rain this month. All we’ve had this year is the two weeks of rain in June and then this splendid weather in July.

The paddy nursery was planted a week ago. There is enough water in the fields for now. But it had better rain soon, so that the rest of the field can be ploughed and prepared for the transplanting. There’s still half the monsoon ahead of us. August is also usually a month of heavy rainfall – about 550 mm on an average. There may yet be enough rain to compensate for the weak first-half. So while we wait for the downpour, we’ll just continue enjoying this delightful July weather.

August 15, 2015

It is Independence Day today. The Karnataka government declared 98 talukas as ‘drought affected’ just a few days ago. Many local farmers have decided not to plant paddy this year because there isn’t enough water in the fields. They might as well cut their losses than take the risk and lose it all. I also heard in the news that rural families are beginning to migrate to Bangalore in search of work on construction sites, because of the drought. Most rural families working in cities return to the land during the four months of the monsoon to cultivate one rain-fed crop. This year, the migration seems to have started much earlier, with a failed monsoon crop.

With 60% of cultivable land in India being rain-fed, a good monsoon is critical to the survival of farmers. Old timers in our area recall that no monsoon in recent memory has been as poor as this. Our 35-foot-deep well usually has over 25 feet of water at this time of the year. But now, I have to peer into the depths to spot the 3-4 feet of water at the bottom.

August 25, 2015

We spent yesterday and today transplanting the paddy seedlings in sunny weather. Most years, this would be done in pouring rain. Rains are still very sporadic. About 30% of the field was transplanted following the S.R.I (system of rice intensification or Madagascar) method, as an experiment. It requires less water than usual, but should’ve been transplanted when the seedlings are two weeks old. Ours are five weeks old.

September 15, 2015

The Karnataka government has now declared drought in 127 talukas in 27 of the 30 districts in the state. We have just enough flowing water to keep our fields moist. The rains have been scanty. However, there’s a good chance of rains this week, since the Ganesh Chaturthi festival is usually accompanied by a few days of rain.

September 25, 2015

Showers during the Ganesh Chaturthi week came as a big relief. The fields have standing water now and are being weeded. The festival is officially the end of the monsoon. By then, the big rains would’ve ended and from then on until Deepavali, the rains taper off. There are usually no rains after Deepavali.

Around Deepavali is also the harvest season. Rains during the harvest are usually the last straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back, in this case the farmer’s. The entire season’s hard work can still be lost with a couple of heavy, badly timed showers. The farmer rests easy only once the paddy crop has been harvested and stored away. The market price of his produce may still cause many sleepless nights but at least, he’ll have food for the rest of the year.

The field is dry when it should be flooded at this stage. Credit: George Varghese

The field is dry when it should be flooded at this stage. Credit: George Varghese

October 15, 2015

We’ve had a long spell of sunny weather. The water flowing through the field has reduced to a trickle. The lower fields are dry and cracked. The paddy plants there are stunted and looking very stressed. The plants should be flowering soon and it is critical that there is standing water in the fields. We installed our irrigation pump today. It had been disconnected and packed away at the start of the monsoon. Occasional irrigation is usually started in early summer to provide moisture for any of the young or more sensitive plants and trees. This is the first time that we’ve started irrigation before the end of the monsoon, that too for a rice crop.

October 29, 2015

There has been no power most of the day, on most days. We’ve been running the electric pump at night, to irrigate the field. Some nights, I’ve had to run around in the dark to turn the electric pump on and off. I remember reading somewhere that most snakebites happen when farmers walk around in the dark to irrigate their fields during the odd hours of the night when power is available. On my nocturnal trips, I stomp harder to warn snakes off.

Half the field has been completely dry for the past three weeks. There’s not enough flowing water to reach the lower portions of the field. Even when running the pump for two hours, there’s just enough water in the well to wet half the field. And the next day, the water in the field has drained or evaporated and it takes two more hours to flood the same half. Water never makes it to the lower areas. This calls for desperate measures. We decide to install the pump in the stream adjoining our field. I spent half the day today, rigging it up. Then there was no power all day to run it. The pump was started only when power supply was restored in the evening. Within an hour, though, it also starts raining; the first rains we’ve had all month. Very welcome.

November 3, 2015

Brief showers during the past three evenings have given us enough water in the fields for now. The paddy plants are all in the flowering and ‘milky’ stage. Availability of sufficient water is critical at this stage and the rains have been a boon.

The monsoon has been a disaster for us this year. Is it a carryover of the El Niño effect from last year? Or is it because of climate change? Whatever the reason, the next seven months are going to be hard to get through, given the amount of water that we’ve got in our wells.

Last night, I was part of a small group in Sirsi that watched a documentary on farmer suicides in Vidarbha. It related the story of cotton farmers who got caught in debt due to a combination of the government’s ‘Green Revolution’ policies, corporate control of agriculture, herd mentality among farmers and a lack of critical and scientific thinking among them. The cotton belt there has one of the highest rates of farmer suicides. Thankfully, where we live in the Western Ghats, monoculture cash crop farming still hasn’t taken over from traditional multi-crop farming that includes a significant component of food crops.

November 15, 2015

I had searched high and low without any luck, to access rainfall data for Sirsi for this year. Today, I found out that the taluk office in Sirsi maintains records and paid them a visit. The data they had was quite revealing. This July, we only received 315 mm rainfall as against an average of 950 mm. That’s only 33% of normal rainfall. In August, we received 333 mm against an average of 550  mm which is 60%. These are the two months with the heaviest rainfall in our region and we receive 60% of our entire year’s rain in these two months. This year, we had a 57% shortfall of rainfall in these two months. This tallies with what we have observed on the ground and seems more real than the 12% deficit that the IMD and other weather forecasting organisations have declared for India. We’re now looking to buy a rain gauge so that we can measure the rainfall on the farm ourselves.

November 21, 2015

It has been raining heavily over most of south India for the past month. There are reports of flooding in many parts of Tamil Nadu. Kerala seems to have received enough rainfall this month, for the year’s average to have been met. So did Bangalore and South Karnataka. However, Sirsi and most parts of north Karnataka haven’t had a drop of rain for weeks. It has been very cloudy and overcast for the past few weeks. Initially, we hoped that it would rain. Now, with the paddy crop ripening in the fields, rain would be a disaster, since the paddy plants would all fall. So we’re hoping that the rains hold off for the next few weeks, until the crop is harvested.

December 3, 2015

With the ripening paddy crop, the fields are now turning a golden yellow. Troops of monkeys have been raiding our field. Peacocks too graze on the crop. The scarecrow that I had made does not seem to have any effect; the birds have befriended it. My neighbour had spotted a wild boar in his field, which was bad news. In addition to a failed monsoon, here was another disaster to contend with. I went over this morning to have a look. The boar had rolled over and thrashed around in one portion of the field and completely destroyed the paddy plants in that area. Once the boar has discovered this amusement park with soft squishy mud, it might visit it regularly and cause major damage.

So, the farmer connected the wire fence directly to the power mains. While we were having dinner today, we heard squealing and all sorts of alarming noises. It turns out that the boar had returned for another roll in the mud, with family in tow, and came in contact with the live wire. It got a terrible electric shock and was stuck to the wire for a few seconds before the farmer disconnected the power. He told me that it would deter the boar from returning anytime soon.

December 11, 2015

We have harvested our paddy crop today. I brought a team of five women workers from a neighbouring village to help us with the harvest, which took less time than usual. The crop seemed quite poor in certain patches that had suffered from a lack of water. The paddy has to dry out in the field for a few more days before we can bring it in for threshing.

December 16, 2015

We bundled up the harvested paddy which had dried by now and moved it to the threshing ground. We are soon going to be away for a week until Christmas. So we only managed to thresh one part of the paddy. It yielded just over four sacks of grain. Extrapolating this to the whole crop, we’ll only get about 12 sacks of grain from our crop this year. We had got 16 sacks last year, after a particularly bad pest infestation in our area, which we had to battle using organic methods. A good year should give us 20 sacks from this field. By this measure, this year’s yield has been quite poor.

For a farmer who relies on it for a living, the returns from paddy are not much even in a good year. After accounting for labour for planting, weeding and harvesting, the cost of plowing using a tiller, input costs for fertiliser and pesticides, there is very little profit. Drought, a pest attack or one untimely shower can wipe out even that. Fortunately, food security is not a concern for the farmer’s family now, since rice can be bought at a low price from the ration shop or the store.

It is the combination of these factors that push people towards long-term cash crops like arecanut in our area. Many paddy fields are being converted into areca plantations which are more profitable. The result is that acreage for food crops is shrinking, while the acreage for a useless cash crop that only feeds a bad habit (chewing paan or gutkha) is increasing. This also increases the depletion of ground water since a rain fed crop that requires no irrigation is being replaced by a water sensitive crop that requires irrigation from borewells in many places.

December 30, 2015

The water in our well has dried up today. There’s no more water to pump. Most years, we pull through until the end of April or early May before it dries up. But this year, the ground water has not got recharged at all. The water in our 35 feet deep well usually rises by 25 feet by August, when the rains have recharged the groundwater. This year, the water stayed at 3-4 feet through the monsoon. So we’re faced with a drinking water crisis in an area that is usually blessed with abundant rain.

We finally got around to threshing the rest of our paddy. Total yield this year is 13 sacks. It has turned out to be very uneconomical this year. The rains have let us down terribly. We have had a failed monsoon in our region, but other parts of our state and the neighbouring state were reeling under floods. The weather is becoming less predictable and more erratic. We’re looking at a hard summer ahead of us. The hope of a better year ahead keeps us going.

(George Varghese worked as an IT consultant for 15 years, mostly spent in frustration at the lack of meaningful work, before settling down as an organic farmer in Sirsi, in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka, along with his wife Susheela, an architect, and their daughters Amrita, Deepika and Mridula.)