Pulivendula (Andhra Pradesh) and Bengaluru: In front of her modest one-room house under the shadow of a neem tree, P. Mary cuddles her six-month-old twin grandchildren. As the heat abates and the breeze picks up, Mary, who is in her 40s, along with husband Manohar and youngest daughter Sreelekha, walk over to the adjacent acre of land, past rows of banana saplings they had planted a few weeks earlier.

Alongside serried lines of black drip-irrigation pipes, they begin sowing tomato and chilli seeds in long rows after coating them with beejamrutham, literally nectar for the seeds--a concoction of soil, cow dung, cow urine and lime.

Since 2019 Mary and her family, who live in YSR district's (earlier Kadapa) Vemula mandal (an administrative unit), have transitioned to natural farming. Earlier, they mostly grew cotton and groundnuts with chemical inputs. "The ground has [now] become soft, the produce stays fresh, and it is a healthier option," says Mary, who has been farming for over 25 years.

Mary is one among the 6 million farmers that Andhra Pradesh plans to move to natural farming by 2031. The Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Natural Farming (APCNF) is implemented by the Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), a not-for-profit farmers' empowerment group.

The intent is to manage farm distress by reducing the high cost of cultivation that leads to indebtedness, while also supporting remunerative prices and improving crop yields, and producing safer, healthier food for consumption. As of August 2022, APCNF had covered more than 3,700 gram panchayats, and plans to reach all 13,371 panchayats in AP in the next three years.

Women do most of the farm work

Across India, it is a truism that men own the land, while the women do the work. Of the 20.4 million operational holdings owned by women in India, AP accounts for the highest proportion at 12.6%, as reported by the 2015-16 Agriculture Census. Twelve states reported 92% of the farm holdings owned by women in India.

More than three in four women in rural India are engaged in agriculture, as compared to 55% of men.

"There is a high level of women's participation in farming," said Seema Kulkarni, member of the national facilitation team at Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM), an informal forum working to secure rights of women farmers in India. "But it is seen as unpaid or unaccounted labour. Paid opportunities in farming seem to be declining, but participation is high."

"Men are mostly supervising, [while] women farmers are completely involved in farming," said T. Pranitha, an Institution Building (IB) coordinator at RySS, who works closely with the farming community and helps identify issues and solutions as they move to natural farming.

In 2015-16, the state's agriculture department suggested that a transition to natural farming can be supported by working with male farmers, probably because the land was owned by them.

"For nearly a year we went ahead with this approach, but much of the work in the fields is done by women," a senior RySS official who did not wish to be named told IndiaSpend. "This meant that we had to work with farmer families in general and women farmers in particular to progress."

AP women go natural

More than three quarters of the agricultural households in AP are small and marginal, averaging two hectares or less. Small holdings, coupled with chemical-dependent agricultural practices, appear to be unviable; AP has the most number of indebted households in all of India, with an average indebtedness of nearly Rs 2.5 lakh per household.

In an effort to find a solution, in 2004, Andhra Pradesh began experimenting with alternative systems of farming through Community-Managed Sustainable Agriculture, with a focus on non-synthetic chemical pest management, soil health improvement and water conservation.

In 2016-17, the government launched the APCNF (then called AP Zero Budget Natural Farming). The programme has a Rs 1,800 crore (nearly $235 million) outlay until 2024. The funds are sourced through Union government programmes, Bharatiya Prakritik Krishi Paddhati (BPKP) and Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY), plus a loan from KfW, a German state-owned bank, and a Rs 100 crore grant from Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives.

Given that the programme works with groups and not individuals, women self-help groups (SHGs) and their federations, where members discuss credit, thrift and livelihood-related issues regularly, were a readymade platform to work with, the senior RySS official pointed out. APCNF data show there are 140,000 SHGs and more than 5,300 federations in the state.

The women's groups and federations align to the Sapthasutra (seven do's) campaign: Meet and discuss natural farming (NF); eat NF; NF kitchen gardens; NF farms; NF inputs (access); funds for NF and NF records.

An SHG meeting, documented in August 2022 in Tallapalle, where women discuss various matters, including information on natural farming practices.

Pranitha, the IB coordinator with RySS, explained that, in 2018-19, when she approached a few male farmers in Vemula, they outright refused to participate in natural farming. It was only after a woman farmer from the village decided to farm using natural methods, and that began showing results, that the men were persuaded. "It was my first experience. Initially the [male] farmer [who had refused] farmed in one acre, now he is doing seven acres [of natural farming] on leased land."

"I was initially reluctant to try out these new methods," said Mary. "But Pranitha and others from the RySS and CSA [Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a knowledge and implementing organisation for the programme] repeatedly visited and encouraged me to try it out." She convinced her husband, and initially tried a kitchen garden, which did well.

Less than 10 km away in Tallapalle village, T. Gangojamma, a Dalit farmer with a small land holding of 2.5 acres, prepares a fermented microbial culture called jeevamrutham, [literally, the nectar of life] which she sprays on the farm where she grows cotton, pulses and vegetables. The state's vision of transitioning millions of farmers to natural farming depends on women like Gangojamma and her daughter Prabhavathi. Prabhavathi is also the president of the Village Organisation--a federation of 10-15 SHGs--an Internal Community Resource Person (ICRP) and the 'first leader' of her SHG in Tallapalle.

She educates other women about kitchen gardens and natural farming in SHG meetings, and says, "...When we create awareness among the women, and the women communicate to the men, they [men] will listen."

T.Gangojamma, a Dalit farmer, working in her small farm in Tallapalle where she grows cotton and other crops.

"If people have 10 acres, it will be difficult to do natural farming on all of it in the beginning, because they have to get inputs like cow urine, dung, dry leaves etc," said Prabhavathi. "So we tell them to do it in one acre first and see. If you feel it is good, only then you continue to do it and can check the difference between chemical and organic farming."

As the campaign picked up, spouses of SHG members started attending the meetings on natural farming, and women and men now take cropping decisions together, said the RySS official. "As a result, we have started seeing more than 20 crops being grown."

Women making bio-inputs out of cow dung, cow urine and soil in Tallapalle village, to be used in their farms. Photo from August 2022

Economic benefits kick in

For the likes of Mary and Gangojamma, who are small and marginal farmers, the transition to natural farming has improved their incomes, as earlier, input costs including seeds, fertiliser and pesticides were high.

The high cost of farming meant that half (50.2%) of agricultural households were in debt, and the average outstanding loan had gone up by 58%, to around Rs 74,000, over six years to 2018-19, according to the 2019 Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households and Land and Livestock Holdings of Households in Rural India report. "The cost of cultivation was high when we were doing conventional chemical farming and the difference once we switched to natural farming is more than 60%," said Mary, after consulting her husband Manohar. "Our cost used to be Rs 10,000 per acre each season. Now it has fallen to Rs 3,000 per acre [after multicropping]."

The family spends about Rs 5,000, including hiring labourers to grow bananas on 2 acres of their land. They are able to harvest around 60 tonnes of bananas, and earn between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 a tonnes. In all, the family earns around Rs 3 lakh a year, including through Manohar's job as a driver.

Gangojamma also confirmed that she has saved money by cutting out the input cost on chemicals and pesticides. "Natural farming does not cost more than Rs 2,000 until cultivation, compared to earlier where I spent Rs 8,000 per acre," she said. Gangojamma earns Rs 50,000 per season; intercropping and growing multiple crops also reduces her risks of crop failure.

One of the other benefits of natural farming is good health, both women said, pointing out that even during the pandemic they remained healthy. Besides, the surplus of their vegetable crop is often shared with family and neighbours.

While individual farmers are finding out that there is an economic benefit to switching to natural farming, the state's balance sheet will also reflect the same. It is estimated that savings from fertiliser and electricity subsidies, as farmers move to natural farming on 6 million hectares of land, can be more than Rs 54,000 crore. Electricity subsidy in 2021-22 alone was reported to be Rs 9,000 crore.

"Based on our experience so far, we estimate Rs 15,000 per farming family will be needed for the transition over a seven- to 10-year period, and with inflation it may come to around Rs 13,000 crore," said the RySS official. "Although all farmers may not, we are expecting 80% of farmers to transition to natural farming."

Natural farming should not burden women, but empower them

Considering that women already do much of the work in agriculture, does a programme like APCNF burden them even more, while allowing men to avoid responsibility?

"By design, we need to create space for decision making. Women are not only labourers, they have to be seen as managers and resource people, which creates respect for them," said G.V. Ramanjaneyulu, executive director at the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

It is also important to see women as landowners, and make it easier for them to get title over land, experts say. For instance, as many as 29% of the wives of indebted farmers who committed suicide were not able to get their husband's land transferred to their names, said a 2018 study by MAKAAM, that IndiaSpend had reported on in September 2019.

Despite the role of women as workers on farms and otherwise, a 2022 report by the international nonprofit Oxfam shows that gender-based discrimination against women in the labour market causes 100% of the employment inequality faced by salaried and self-employed women in rural areas and 98% in urban areas.

It is because of these reasons activists and scholars working with women farmers and workers feel that women must be empowered in the process of achieving non-chemical farming or traditional farming goals.

When thinking about empowering women farmers in natural farming, five aspects should be considered, said Ramanjaneyulu, which include decision making about farms, nutrition from food, reduction of drudgery as they work on farms, their livelihoods, and the role of women-led institutions.

Agroecology [which includes natural farming] provides more space for women farmers, unlike the Green Revolution that did not care about defeminisation of agriculture, caused by reduced mobility and safety of women, lack of power in deciding the choice of seeds, chemical use, finances etc., said, said Kavitha Kuruganti, a social activist with the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture, a volunteer network.

Kuruganti however also cautioned that perspectives around the role of women in natural farming may need to be modified, especially as men must also be responsible for "safe food and nurturing".

"Women must not be a means to meet agroecology as a goal," said Kulkarni of MAKAAM. While women are excited about APCNF, the men seem to have left it up to women to do the work, she said. "While SHGs provide small credit, most women may not be covered by institutional credit. There must be a supporting service (such as bio-resource centres for farm inputs) that provides landless women jobs, maybe through convergence with the MGNREGS [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Indian public jobs programme], to develop inputs for the farm…APCNF cannot only depend on the SHG model to expand. There must be more financial support."

The last mile

The Gayatri Mahila Rythu Sangha (Gayatri Women Farmers Group), a Farmer Producer Organisation, located in Vempalle mandal, and supported by CSA, has more than 200 women members, and collects grains and other produce, processes and markets them. In the eight years since its creation in 2014, it has had a turnover of nearly Rs 55 lakh, with 50 members practising organic and natural farming.

Malleshwaramma (second from left), photographed in August 2022, with other members of the exclusively women Farmer Producer Organisation in Vempalle.

Malleshwaramma, 55, the FPO's president and a farmer, had prior experience as part of another FPO where men dominated and there was a lack of women farmers' perspectives, which prompted her to explore a women's FPO.

The aim of the FPO is to produce without pesticides. "...women are more concerned about health," said Malleshwaramma.

"We identify farmers who are following good practices and we pay them an additional 10% on the market price," she said. "We grade the grains, prepare snacks, coriander powder, [packaged] millets, which are organic. We have a label for it for promoting organic."

Natural farming began first for self-consumption, as a result of the health impacts of produce that was grown using harmful chemicals. Gradually, with access to markets and fair prices, natural farming is expanding, said the RySS official. To further aid this expansion, the official added, governments have to take a clear stand in favour of natural farming and remain neutral about chemical farming so that farmers are not confused about its policy.

In addition, it should be linked with Rythu Bharosa Kendras (agriculture service support centres) for input and output marketing, which requires budgetary allocation by the government, said Kulkarni of MAKAAM.

Larger farmers who cannot sell all their produce locally are demanding that markets be created for their organic produce, without which they will have to sell in regular markets, alongside chemical farm produce, said Kuruganti.

One example of successfully creating a market for produce farmed through natural methods is the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam, that in 2021, started procuring natural farming produce for its daily requirements, with more than 300 other temples following suit. Around 2,000 hectares of naturally farmed land was linked to the temple, on which 1,500 tonnes was produced and procured. Farmers earned 15% over the cost of chemically-farmed products, said Ramanjanyelu.

In 2022-23, APCNF estimates it will link 25,000 hectares with nearly 15,000 tonnes of 12 crops for procurement, said Ramanjanyelu. The expectation is that the model will slowly grow to include anganwadis and other government-run institutions, as consumers of the produce.

Right now, as Mary waits for her farm's harvest of bananas, she hopes to continue natural farming, and grow multiple crops on her farm. She says she will also encourage other women to take it up, at least in a small way, just as she did.

(A.L. Ramana, a programme officer at the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, helped with translations during reporting.)

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