The three-spoke approach to climate-resilient agriculture in Maharashtra

DFID has assisted the Government of Maharashtra in mainstreaming climate change considerations in the agriculture sector.

The changing story of India’s ‘pulse bowl’

‘I have been farming for 40 years but I do not farm the way I used to. The land that my father cultivated does not yield as much. It requires more water, better irrigation. Rainfall has only become more erratic with the years, which is why we have realised we have to adopt newer and improved ways of farming. We have to learn to live with our temperamental rain gods!’ remarks Mohan Kachro, as he vermicomposts his organic farm.

Mohan Kachro lives in Bhivdhanora village, which is in Marathwada region in Maharashtra. He is the oldest of 50 farmers who switched to organic farming four years back. He is also among the many farmers in this region who have learned to live with the ‘temperamental rain gods’ and equally temperamental crop yields.

Given its high dependence on agriculture, Maharashtra is badly hit by changing rainfall patterns. Agricultural production is highly sensitive to long-term changes to rainfall and temperature, which can lead to reductions in yields and shifts in cropping patterns.

Marathwada region of Maharashtra, also referred to as the ‘pulse bowl’, is in the assured rain zone area and receives an average rainfall of about 600 mm. Climate change impacts can be clearly felt in the region, with the change over the years having been not so much in the amount of rainfall as in its pattern. Total rainfall is spaced out over a few days, and generally lasts for only about 15–20 days on average. This has led to more dry days and to flooding and land erosion, which has caused deteriorating soil health and reduced water retention capacity.

The challenges facing Bhivdhanora village are representative of what happens in the rest of Marathwada region. The village is right behind Jayakwadi dam, one of the largest irrigation projects in the state of Maharashtra, hence water availability has never been an issue. Crops such as cotton, sugarcane and soybeans are grown in the monsoon season (kharif), with wheat and chickpeas grown in rabi (the non-rainy season). However, the farmers in this village are not financially secure, hindered by factors such as conventional farming practices, lack of optional crops (for rotation or intercropping), limited technology use and marketing constraints, even though water is abundant and the soil is fertile.

Reduced bargaining power is another major issue facing small and marginal farmers like Mohan. This, coupled with poor storage mechanisms, limited marketing links and weak financial safety nets, aggravates the situation. Farmers thus confront the dual challenges of increased climate risks and weak economic viability as a result of poor bargaining power, among other factors.

A panoramic lens on resilient farming

Mohan speaks of farmers in this village who have been battling climate change impacts for years and have shifted to more climate-resilient crops. ‘We just know,’ says Vikram, another farmer from the same village. ‘We know because we have lived the reality of changing rainfall patterns, the reality of crop losses, the reality of reduced yields. We do not want preachy prescriptions on what we should do and not do. We are eager for tangible solutions – solutions that are practical, that help us in getting the maximum value for all the labour we put in.’

It is easy to detect among these farmers this wariness of exogenous solutions not tailored to the particular context. Farmers speak of how piecemeal solutions have been tried and tested, and are sometimes even working in part, but are strongly in favour of considering more comprehensively the resilience of the entire value chain for the crops they cultivate.

‘The focus has to be on the farmer – to ensure income security by cost, choice of crop, value addition (through grading, cleaning, etc.), marketing, etc. All of it must be seen in unison. Resilience-enhancing interventions cannot be singularly implemented, practised or applied at any one stage alone, it has to be seen as a whole system,’ says Dr Abasaheb Haral, former Director of the Maharashtra State Horticultural Board.

From farms to market: Identifying climate-resilient crops

With this focus, and with the intention of providing a methodical understanding of the production and post-production value chain, ACT developed a Multi Criteria Analysis tool to identify five climate-resilient crops in the state: sorghum, pearl millet, pigeon peas, chickpeas and soybeans. These identified crops are cultivated in more than 20 districts in Maharashtra.

Naman Gupta, ACT Team Leader, Maharashtra, says, ‘Entry points for ACT’s interventions in Maharashtra spread across the entire value chain from pre-production to market and non-farming options. This includes analysis of relevant institutional and policy issues, as well as more practical interventions at various stages of the agriculture value chain.’

The analysis evolved through interactions with over 300 key actors including producers and producer organisations, traders, processors, distributors and retailers, universities and research institutes, extension service providers and financial institutions along the value chains of more than 10 crops, among which five were selected.

‘We have to look at both profitability and environment sustainability for us to better adapt to a fluctuating market and climatic variables,’ says Mohan Kachro. Thus, productivity, socioeconomic sustainability and climate resilience are the most significant parameters used to prioritise and assess the viability of adoption of some crops over others. This objective assessment was then complemented with expert consultation, to validate the shortlisted climate-resilient crops.

Citing examples from the analysis, Dr Haral remarks, ‘Soy can sustain the dry spell of rain, and with integrated pest management practices it can produce optimal yield. Besides, the growing market also provides scope for profitability to small and marginal farmers.’ Opportunities, threats and recommendations for the five identified crops have also been developed as part of ACT’s analysis.

The yields of farming together

The role of various stakeholders across the value chains, especially those closest to the communities, was considered crucial to augment the analysis and uptake of these crops. ACT recognised Farmer Producer Organisations/Companies (FPOs/FPCs) as a crucial stakeholder in scaling up climate resilience in agriculture. These are important actors in Maharashtra’s agricultural economy that help aggregate efforts and resources across small and medium farmers. The state itself boasts over 1,300 FPOs out of a total of 2,000 in the country. Besides, most of the state FPOs are active in the production and marketing of all the five studied crops and are thus an excellent channel to promote and implement them.

‘If it’s the same problem for me and my fellow farmer, it will be the same solution for us as well. We have realised that collaborating and not competing will help in our betterment,’ says Rajendra Chauhan, Chair of Kalpatru group, Bhivdhanora village, on his experience of setting up and working with an FPC.

Building the capacity of these FPOs/FPCs was central to ensure their effective participation. ACT has been training producers to promote and use climate-resilient technologies and access finance by supporting them to create business planning templates. ‘The last leg of the value chain analysis of climate-resilient crops undertaken by ACT is focused on assessing and strengthening FPOs in climate-resilient agriculture value chains to become creditworthy, and converging with ongoing government schemes to ensure quicker and wider acceptance of the benefits of increasing the cropped area of these five crops,’ says Naman Gupta.

The ripple effect

ACT’s analysis of climate-resilient value chains has also influenced the design of the Project on Climate Resilient Agriculture, a Government of Maharashtra and World Bank project that aims to enhance climate resilience and profitability of smallholder farming systems in 5,000 villages in 15 districts of Maharashtra. Four out of five climate-resilient crops recommended by ACT remain the focus of this ambitious project.

The three-spoke approach to climate-resilient agriculture

Local communities are cognisant of the changing climate. They are taking measures to adapt, but there is a need to support them in looking at adaptation more systemically and scientifically. ACT’s methodology in identifying climate-resilient crops, analysing the entire value chain and bolstering FPOs/FPCs represents a three-spoke approach to build greater resilience within the farmer community in the state.

This article was previously published by ACT in On the Frontiers of Climate ChangeFind out more about ACT's work.