Hingoli: Ever since Kalavati Savandkar, a widow aged 45, adopted organic farming methods on her three acres of farmland, life has changed for the better. For the first time in many years, she earned a profit from her produce. As a bonus, she says, consuming organically grown food has improved her family’s health, leading to less frequent hospital visits.

Kalavati also found forest produce growing by itself on her farm. She shows off a recent harvest of about three quintals of turmeric that she has put out to dry on her farm in Tembhurni village, of Vasamat block in Hingoli district, 90 km west of Solapur. She is hopeful that the turmeric will fetch Rs 4,000-6,000 per quintal.

Tulasiram, Kalavati’s husband, died by suicide in 2016 as he could not repay a bank loan. He became part of a statistic--Maharashtra registered the highest number of farmer suicides in India in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

Kalavati, along with 182 other female farmers in the area, adopted organic farming in 2020-21, and has been cultivating local varieties of pulses, soybean, cotton and millets, as also vegetables such as spinach, tomato and coriander.

The Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (Makaam) had started this initiative for female farmers, mostly widows of farmers who had died by suicide, sugarcane cutters and marginal farmers from the drought-affected Marathwada and Vidarbha regions of Maharashtra.

“Farmers in both the regions would cultivate cash crops like soybean and cotton,” says Seema Kulkarni, national facilitation team member at Makaam. “Female farmers would not have food to consume at home. The pandemic made women realise this problem, as they had to depend on rations provided by social organisations. Hence, most female farmers agreed to experiment. We did not want them to completely stop cultivating cash crops. They now cultivate 15-25 crops--pulses, millets, vegetables, oilseeds and one main crop (soybean or cotton) for food security.”

Many of the women faced initial resistance from their families when they decided to take up organic farming. To surmount this problem, Makaam asked the women to start experimenting on half an acre.

The organisation trained women in methods of producing manure from farm and animal waste, and vermicompost. They also provided training to produce Dashparni Ark (pesticides made using leaves of various trees, cow urine and cow dung).

Once the half-acre experiment began to show signs of success, several women were able to surmount their family’s initial objections, and go organic on a larger scale.

Farmers’ Suicides in Maharashtra

A study of National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data by Makaam found that about 382,000 farmers died by suicide in India between 1995 and 2021. With 87% of these male, more than 320,000 women would have been left to fend for themselves. In Maharashtra, between 1995 and 2021, NCRB data show that 91,998 farmers and agricultural labourers died by suicide.

As many as 5,318 farmers/cultivators and 5,563 agriculture labourers died by suicide in 2021 alone, according to NCRB data. The Marathwada and Vidarbha regions of Maharashtra record the most number of farmer suicides, as per a study on deaths by suicide between 2013 and 2018. Bankruptcy or indebtedness, farming-related issues, family problems, illness and drug abuse were the major reasons for farmer suicides, as per NCRB data from 2013 to 2015.

“Following the death of farmers, their widows often face challenges like lack of land rights, debt, stigma, poor social security, violence and sexual harassment,” said Kulkarni. Maharashtra has 2.36 million women-owned land holdings out of a total 15.29 million operational land holdings, as per the latest available Agriculture Census from 2015-16.

Asha Shinde’s husband died by suicide seven years ago. Here, she is checking whether her turmeric crop has dried.

Asha Shinde, whose husband died by suicide seven years ago, got half an acre of land in her name. Her two sons were not ready to leave cash crops such as soybean and switch to organic farming. Shinde had a tough time convincing them. “I cultivated pigeon peas as the main crop and green gram and black gram as intercrops. Cowpea, millets, maize and sesame seeds were mixed among other crops to function as pest control. Roselle plant and boru are planted at the borders as a buffer zone,” she said.

“Intercropping is the scientific sowing of interdependent crops to increase the quality and productivity of the soil,” explains Swati Satpute, member of the state facilitation team at Makaam. “By mixing crops, a population of insects, macro- and micro-organisms is built to strengthen crops, and they also control pests and diseases.”

Organic farming in Maharashtra

“To promote organic farming, the Maharashtra government has adopted the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKKY), a central government-sponsored scheme, in 2016-17,” said Sripad Kulkarni, an official of the Agriculture Department of Maharashtra. “60,985 farmers adopted organic farming on 41,012 hectares of land under the scheme. 1,628 groups of farmers are given Rs 10 lakh per group for three years to facilitate the conversion.”

The state has also implemented the Dr Panjabrao Deshmukh Organic Farming Mission (PDOFM) to promote the practice since 2018 in six suicide-prone districts of Vidarbha. This programme is separate from PKKY. About 8,337 beneficiaries, under the PDOFM practice organic farming on 13,548 hectares of land across six districts--Akola, Washim, Amravati, Buldhana, Yavatmal and Wardha, said Kulkarni, the agriculture department official.

While the state has started the process of switching to natural farming, Makaam is in early-stage collaborations with agricultural universities to get scientific information about organic farming, research on organic farming and access to seeds, though this is not part of the state scheme as of now.

Latabai Narwade, stands amidst her crop of chillies and brinjal, that she has grown using organic farming methods.

According to a report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), organic and natural farming are profitable, sustainable and productive. The report underlines the use of organic manure to improve soil structure and enhance soil fertility, and increase microorganisms in the soil. The findings also indicate that the use of organic manure increases the water-holding capacity and porosity of the soil. Besides, nutrients in soil like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium improve plant and animal biodiversity.

Latabai Narwade, a 50-year-old widow from Kothari village of Hingoli district, says she has observed changes in soil health since she started organic farming two years ago. “Earlier,” she says, “the soil would become hard like rock in the summer, and we had to invest a good amount of money for ploughing. Now, the soil remains airy and thin, and we don’t have to spend much for ploughing. The soil also absorbs more water, unlike earlier. Even though it rained heavily, the water did not accumulate on my farm this year.”

“Organic farming increases organic matter/microorganisms like earthworms in soil and that increases nutrients in soil. For instance, earthworms keep going up and down in soil making it more porous,” said Ramanjaneyulu G.V., an agriculture scientist at the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad. On the other hand, he said, chemicals, such as those in pesticides, kill microorganisms, reducing natural organic matter in the soil.

In the third year since Latabai converted to organic farming on her half-acre land, she harvested 20 kg of yellow gram, 25 kg of black gram, two quintals of cotton and two quintals of turmeric. “Earlier, I would get 3-4 quintal of cotton and 10-12 quintal of turmeric using chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Though my income has been less in these three years, I am in profit because earlier, I had to spend Rs 30,000 per acre for pesticides, fertilisers, seeds and labour. Now I produce my own fertilisers, pesticides and seeds. I have to spend only Rs 10,000 for ploughing and weeding.”

Farmers can label their produce as ‘organically grown’ only after completing three years of organic farming, which fetches a premium price in the market. Currently, Latabai sells her extra produce at the market rate for regular produce, and says her produce will fetch a better price from next year.

Enhanced food security

To their surprise, women farmers who had switched to organic farming found wild vegetables growing on their farms. ‘Wild vegetables’ are those that grow automatically without the farmer needing to sow seeds. “Earlier, wild vegetables got killed due to chemical fertilisers and pesticides,” says Satpute of Makaam. “Now, with organic manure, they are getting revived. We have observed 19 such vegetables that had earlier become rare, growing in farms in Vidarbha and Marathwada.”

Some of these vegetables, she said, are Portulaca Oleracea, known locally as Ghol, and believed to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, Hibiscus Sabdariffa or Ambadi that is a jute alternative and Celosia Argentea, called Kurdu in the local language, which is high in Vitamin E.

The naturally growing vegetables, together with organically grown food such as pulses and millets, has increased the physical strength and fitness of families, resulting in fewer hospital visits. “As we are now able to eat a variety of vegetables, pulses, millets, my family members have become healthier. No one got affected even with Covid-19 during the pandemic. Earlier my body would ache regularly but now I can work long hours at the farm without body pain,” said Kalavati.

Subba Rao, a scientist from the National Institution of Nutrition, India, (NIN), said, “Health benefits of organic food come from lesser or zero exposure to chemicals in fertilisers and pesticides. However, no study has till now established whether the nutritional value of organic food is better than regularly grown food.”

The challenges ahead

Women farmers in Hingoli, Maharashtra, are fighting superstition as they grow turmeric which menstruating women are barred from growing. Pictured, organically-grown turmeric drying in the sun on Asha Shinde’s farm.

“Problems remain,” says Kulkarni of Makaam. “Availability of local varieties of seeds is a major issue. Local varieties of vegetables, pulses and millet had been wiped out. We manage to get seeds and distribute them to farmers. Now farmers have started to produce their own seeds.”

“There has also been increased attacks by birds and animals as they get good food in organic farms. Another major problem is that families of some female farmers sold produce without consulting the women, and also sowed another crop with chemical fertilisers. To keep families convinced is still an issue.”

Then there is superstition. Young female farmers in the Yavatmal district would not cultivate turmeric, for instance. “We were told that turmeric is auspicious, and that if we touch the plants during our menstruation cycle, the plants will die. But we have started cultivating turmeric for the last three years, and we have been getting good produce,” said Vaishali Ghodam.

Organic farming has also increased the credibility of these female farmers. “I have been managing the farm and my home since my husband died,” said Shinde, the widow who started organic farming on half an acre of land in Tembhurni village, as she showcased her produce. “Money lenders or relatives would not give loans or help. Now people are ready to invest. As many activists and reporters visit us, locals have started to see our experiment with respect and curiosity. A few farmers have started organic farming after taking our tips.”

(Ritika Chadda, an intern with IndiaSpend, contributed to this story.)

We welcome feedback. Please write to respond@indiaspend.org. We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.