An interesting experiment, underway in the cotton fields of Vidarbha, questions the basis of Indian cotton farming as we know it.
For 40 years now, Indian farmers have sown their cotton seeds in neat grids of varying sizes to allow the plant space to grow: in the 1990s, the planting was at the vertices of a 3 feet by 3 feet grid; today the 3 foot by 1 foot grid is popular.
The process is labour-intensive and hence expensive, and on evidence not very efficient. India is the world’s second largest producer of cotton, but is ranked 33rd in the world in terms of productivity per hectare – behind Tajikistan, Nicaragua and Kazakhstan.
There are many reasons for this – particularly the lack of irrigation; but scientists at the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) at Nagpur believe the grid may have a role to play.
“The grid originated with the introduction of H4, the first indigenous cotton hybrid, in the 1970s,” said K.R. Kranthi, the CICR’s director, “Each plant is spread apart to give it enough space to grow and hold up to 15 bolls of cotton. Also, hybrid seeds are more expensive and require more inputs, which the marginal farmer cannot provide."
India, Kranthi said, is the only major cotton-producing country that uses cotton hybrids rather than cotton varieties. A hybrid – to put it simply – is created by inter-breeding two varieties to gain the positive traits of both. Indian hybrids were first developed to improve the length of the cotton fibre - or staple - and gained popularity as long-staple cotton commands a market premium.
The drawback is that the traits of a hybrid don’t carry on to its next generation, so a farmer cannot use the seeds from his plants – but must instead buy the plant from a seed store.
The problem of seeds has been accentuated by the increasing popularity of hybrid BT seeds that cost Rs 930 for 450g. Each acre – under the grid system – requires at least two bags of seed at a cost of Rs 1860. In India, varieties also tend to be more drought resistant, he said.
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Now, Dr. Kranthi wants farmers in rain-fed farms – which accounts for most of Maharashtra’s cotton belt – to adopt High Density Planting, or HDP, in which the farmer plants cotton along furrows rather than grids. This form of planting, he said, was popular across Maharashtra before hybrids were introduced.
“The grid will have up to 10,000 plants per acre, we want up to 60,000 plants per acre,” he said, the catch is that the farmer shall eschew hybrids in favour of Suraj – a seed variety developed by Dr. Kranthi’s institute.
Even if the yield per plant is low, he reasons, the total yield shall increase because of the much larger number of plants per acre.
The seeds are not hybrids and so are much cheaper. The seeds cost Rs. 150 per kilo and so the cost per acre of planting is much lower. Also the farmer can simply use the seeds from the first year’s crop for subsequent plantings. The only catch is that the varieties do not carry the BT gene, and so are susceptible to the boll worm – a problem, the CICR says, can be handled by judicious use of fertilizers.
The project began three years ago on 12 acres of land, but has since been scaled up to 500 acres of land on the outskirts of Wardha town in western Maharashtra.
At present, the project is making modest claims – to maintain current yields of about 6 to 8 quintals per hectare at a fraction of the cultivation cost.
The sample size of 500 acres is too small to draw firm conclusions as yet, but the few farmers I interviewed seemed happy with the results. Sanjay Borje, 35, a farmer in Wardha, farms 30 acres of cotton, two of which have been planted with this new technique. “My father said this reminded him of how he planted cotton as a boy,” Borje said, “If it works, I’ll plant a little more this way each year.”