The tradition of mixing crop farming with supplementary farm activities, such as animal husbandry, poultry, fishery, silkworm rearing and beekeeping, has been the mainstay of most Indian farmers who hold no more than one to two hectares of land. However, they do so largely to hedge the crop-failure risk rather than to maximise economic gains by harnessing their synergies. Now, farm experts are exploring ways of integrating these enterprises so as to fully capitalise on their supplementary and complementary roles. In integrated farming, the output and by-product of one enterprise is used as the input for the other, and the waste is recycled to produce nutrient-rich manure. Many research institutes of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and state agricultural universities are currently engaged in this effort. They are conceiving and testing integrated farming to suit their respective regions. At the behest of the Bihar government, Patna-based ICAR Research Complex for Eastern Region has come out with some reliable and field-tested comprehensive farming systems, suitable for small and marginal farmers in the state and other nearby areas. Over 75 per cent of the farmers in Bihar have land holdings of less than half a hectare. Worse, most of these tiny holdings are highly fragmented and not suitable for single-enterprise-based agriculture. The blend of enterprises that the Patna centre has found most apt and lucrative for farms of less than one hectare comprises growing crops (grains, vegetables, fruits and fodder) along with poultry and goat keeping. Mushroom production, which does not require much land, can also be a part of this combination. All these activities go well together, and can help farmers meet their household needs, as well as procure enough produce for sale. Going by the research centre's estimate, this combination of enterprises enables a one-hectare land holder earn a net annual income of over Rs 1.42 lakh with an expenditure of Rs 24,250 on inputs. For a two hectare field, experts suggest a blend of cereals, vegetables and fruit crops along with fish-cum-duck farming.
The net income from such an integrated farm is estimated at Rs 2 lakh. About half of the field in both cases is recommended to be devoted to crops, including cereals (rice and wheat) and vegetables (cabbage, peas and cauliflower). The bund of fields and ponds can be utilised for planting fruit trees like banana, lemon and guava. Vegetables borne on climbers, such as Cucurbits, too, can be grown on boundaries and built on fences. Separate thatched sheds can be erected for keeping livestock (goats or cows). Ponds - dug on about one-fifth of the farmland - can be used to raise ducks along with mutually compatible fish species that source their feed from different water depths, such as Catla (surface feeder), Rohu (middle-column feeder) and Mrigal (bottom feeder). Duck droppings serve as good manure for fish ponds. Vermiculture, which is recommended as part of all integrated farming ventures, help convert organic wastes into vermicompost with the help of earthworms. Besides being rich in major as well micro plant nutrients, the presence of live earthworms in this compost helps improve the physical structure of the soil and its fertility. Though these models of integrated farming have been devised especially for Bihar's agro-ecological conditions, scientists maintain that these can be used in almost all states with some situation-specific modifications. Apart from being environment-friendly and sustainable, such farming systems ensure optimal and cost-effective use of land and other resources. Up to 20 per cent reduction in production costs has been observed in impact studies. Convinced of the gains from this approach, especially for small and marginal farmers, the Bihar government has begun offering a subsidy of Rs 10,000 to every farmer who adopts this technology. Other states, too, need to consider promoting integrated farming to strengthen the livelihood security of their resource-poor farmers.