Vertical farming, drip irrigation, soil solarisation and the like were terms that mystified Deepak Khatker, a 40-year-old farmer, when he first visited the Indo-Israel Centre of Excellence for Vegetables here a couple of years ago. Intrigued, he adopted the Israeli farming skills and, within months, saw production increase a staggering five-fold.
"We have traditionally grown wheat and barley in our fields but the techniques taught at the centre forced me to give vegetables a try," Khatker, a resident of Sheikhpura Khalsa village in Karnal district, about 100 km from the national capital, told IANS.
Of the over seven hectares of land that Khatker owns, around three hectares are currently being used to cultivate vegetables using Israeli know-how.
"I am growing cherry tomatoes, seedless cucumbers, brinjals and coloured capsicums. The production on my land is four to five times when compared with other farmers not using these technologies," he added.
Situated 145 km from Haryana capital Chandigarh, the centre opened in January 2011 and is spread across six hectares. Built for Rs.6 crore (Rs 60 million) by the Indian government, it was set up following the signing of the Agriculture Cooperation Agreement between India and Israel in 2008.
Experts from Israel regularly visit the centre and organize free training sessions for farmers, teaching them "protective agriculture" to increase their crop yields while using fertiliser and water optimally. The experts also visit the farms if needed.
In addition, corporates and professionals are also taught ways to produce quality vegetable seedlings at a nominal fee.
"The idea is to transfer applied research and technologies to the farmers in various states across India. While Israel has already entered into agreement with seven state governments to set up these centres, the most successful model has been Haryana," Israeli Embassy spokesman Ohad Horsandi told IANS.
At present there are 10 such Centres of Excellence with a special focus on mangoes, pomegranates and citrus fruits. By 2015, their number will increase to 28 as they also branch out to flowers, bee keeping and dairying.
According to S.K. Yadav, project manager of the Gharaunda centre, over 60 farmers, not only from Haryana but also from states like Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and even Tamil Nadu, visit the centre daily. Last year, over 16,000 farmers were trained at the centre.
"Diverse technologies are demonstrated to the farmers so that they can choose the technology that suits them best and maximize their yield and profits," Yadav said.
Fifty-year-old Bijender Phor, another farmer from Khatker's village, who has been gradually shifting from growing grains to vegetables agreed, saying the centre is playing an important role in transforming the lives of farmers.
"Methods like vertical farming help save space on the ground by growing the crops vertically while drip irrigation saves almost 90 percent of water. These methods are revolutionary," said Phor.
Though the concept of "protective agriculture" is expensive as it requires greenhouses and poly-houses, government subsidies have ensured that interested farmers take the plunge.
"We get 90 percent subsidy for installing a drip irrigation as well as automatic irrigation system, while for the poly-houses, we get 65 percent rebate from the government," said Phor.
Phor and many others like him are now selling their produce directly to chains like Mother Dairy, courtesy the Centre of Excellence.
"We provide the retail chains with the names of farmers, their contact details and the crop they are growing so that they can contact them directly without leaving any room for intermediaries," said Yadav.
He also highlighted the government's role in improving the quality of seedlings by providing valuable feedback to seed companies.
"We test the samples of seedlings in our poly-house tunnels at the Centre. Once grown, the crop is displayed to the farmers and the feedback, along with steps for improvement, is sent back to the companies," said Yadav.
(Rahul Vaishnavi can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)