Minor millets improve soil health, bring major gains for farmers in Khandwa

Khandwa (MP), Jan 19 (IANS) With the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopting an India-sponsored resolution making 2023 the International Year of Millets, the world is all set to welcome the next year with a dash of this superfood. For the Korku tribal farmers in five villages of Madhya Pradeshs Khandwa district, millet has indeed been a super grain that has increased their earnings and has turned their fallow lands into cultivable fields.
All that involved slogging away for 45 days each in 2020 and 2021 (March-April) on a total of 85 acres of fallow land spread across Gadriyakheda, Indirakheda, Devlikala, Devlikhurd and Ghutighat villages. It was conceived as a part of the SABAL project run by NGO Caritas India in collaboration with Khandwa Diocesan Social Services.
Once big stones in the lands were dug out and bunds made out of them to harvest rainwater during the southwest monsoon (mid-June to September), minor millets were sown once every year to make the soil fertile. As such, Khandwa has low-fertile medium black soil, which is ideal for crops such as millets, wheat and soybean.
Mukund Deshmukh of Caritas India, who has done extensive research on minor millets, told 101Reporters that tribal farmers in the district had given up on paddy, ragi (finger millet) and small grains kutki (little millet), sawa (barnyard millet), rala (foxtail millet), kodo (Kodo millet) and oil seed jigani nearly two decades ago, in favour of wheat, soybean and corn. As cash crops were water-intensive, they tried to cultivate only those plots where rainwater could be harvested efficiently.
Eventually, the plots that failed to give yield were neglected as villagers here are not financially capable of digging wells or tubewells. Noticing that land disuse in villages was on the rise, Caritas India came up with a unique idea of giving grains as wages to farmers for working in their own fields and helping them set up bunds for irrigation. The results were amazing.
“This experiment panned out quite well. Under the project, two kg of rice, half a kg of pulses, half a litre of oil and tea leaves were given daily to individual farmers working in their plots. We also gave them small grains to cultivate. A part of the yield that came out of those seeds was used for the next crop cycle. We also taught them how to use seeds efficiently,” SABAL project coordinator Rakesh Karole told 101Reporters.
A picture of contrast
Being kharif (May-June) crops, minor millets can grow well even if the area gets only around 350 mm rainfall. Major millets ragi, jowar (sorghum) and bajra (pearl millet) need up to 500 mm. However, wheat being a rabi crop (mid-October to mid-November) requires watering at least six times during various stages of growth. If we were to calculate in terms of rainfall, a maximum of 750 mm is enough for a decent harvest.
Millets have a short growing season of 70 to 100 days against wheat’s 120 to 157 days (depending on seed variety). Moreover, millets are more resilient to heat stress and drought conditions than wheat.
Right now, only major millets have MSP support like wheat. According to farmers, bajra is still not bought at the price that the government fixed. However, as market demand has been increasing, they manage to sell millets in the open market for good prices.
Farmers also set aside a good portion to meet the nutritional needs of their families. The grain is less prone to spoilage and can be stowed away for years together. After sowing small grains, they also cultivate corn, gram and soybean in the rainy season.
What makes millet more appealing to farmers is its ability to enhance soil nutrients. The plant has a fibrous root system that prevents soil erosion and maintains soil integrity. As an organic matter, millet composts slowly and helps retain water.
Dr Yogendra Shukla, a scientist at the Krishi Vigyan Kendra associated with Bhagwatrao Mandloi Government Agricultural College, Khandwa, told 101Reporters that when land remained fallow for a long time, its capacity to absorb fertilisers decreased. “Cultivating small grains there for two to three years after land treatment is a good option. Minor millets require less water, which reduces the amount of salt reaching the soil. The roots and leaves of the plants are left in the soil to decompose. Both these practices improve soil health.”
Once millets are harvested, farmers can cultivate other crops on their land. With increased soil moisture, they even go for a second cash crop during the rabi season, provided they have enough water storage for irrigation.
Case studies
Neelabai Ratna of Devlikhurd was apprehensive when the SABAL project members approached her with the idea of turning her two-acre fallow land into a minor millet field. First, her stony land was prepared for sowing sawa and kodo. What followed was a surprise for her. Despite scanty rains, both millets thrived and gave bountiful yields.
Continuous cultivation has increased land productivity to such an extent that she even experimented with tur dal (pigeon pea), paddy and maize last year. All three gave rich dividends, which motivated others in the locality to follow suit.
“Initially, I got two quintals of yield, which later clocked nearly five quintals,” said Neelabai. Sevanti Pita Tumba of the same village also got good results by sowing minor millets in her 2.5 acres of fallow land for the last three years.
Weeds and waist-high plants covered the three acres belonging to Guddi Bai of Devlikala once, but ragi, rala and sawa adorn it now. “I used to cultivate only seasonally before. Minor millets have increased the yield by three times. If I sow one kg of kodo, I will get two sacks of the produce. A sack of kodo sells for around Rs 6,000. This has taken away all my troubles,” Guddi told 101Reporters.
Bena Bai Champalal’s family possessed 15 acres, of which they could cultivate only seven. The rest of the land had heavy stones in it. When other farmers of Devlikala started utilising the SABAL project, she also contacted the resource persons to learn about ways to improve soil quality. Her two-and-a-half acres of fallow land was selected for the purpose.
As a first step, big stones were removed manually from the land. Then broad bed furrows were made to channel water between the rams where millets were sown. The method reduced water use and prevented both waterlogging and wastage. Additionally, it helped the crop’s roots to develop fast, thus increasing productivity.
Anita Buda of Indira Kheda explained to 101Reporters the tough grind behind treating her 1.2 acres of fallow field. The removed stones were used to build a bund-like structure in the sloping area of the field to stop soil erosion. The embankment was fortified with the remaining stones. Due to this, around two feet of soil got deposited in the field. “This soil can give yield without watering till winter as its water retention capacity has increased,” she claimed.
Buda’s family has two-and-a-half acres, of which they could cultivate only half the land. In a year, her family earned just around Rs 15,000. But after she started growing kodo, sawa and savariya (Indian backyard millet) in the treated land without a break, the land became so fertile that now maize, pigeon pea, gram and lentils easily grow here. In winter, Buda grows green peas, too. As soon as the land texture changed, the family’s fortunes also saw a reversal. They presently earn around Rs 1.5 lakh annually.
“Small grains do not require much fertiliser or water. This trick is very useful to get our lands fit for cultivation,” said Shyama Pita Sikdar of Gadriyakheda. An elderly with 15 acres of land, he had worked on two acres of his total five acres of fallow land for four months to make it crop-ready.
He had started work on the rest of the land when his health deteriorated. After a six-month-long bed rest, Sikdar is able to walk again. “I will soon get the remaining land functional,” he said, with the vigour of a youngster.
Kalibai Shyama, who has started cultivating minor millets in her two acres in the same village, said efforts were being made to get another three acres ready for cash crops. “Embankments have proved to be a game changer as there is no soil erosion during rains. We are totally dependent on the moisture content present in the land to take up rabi crops.”
Right now, 30 villages are part of the SABAL project. Rakesh Karole said 50% of the fallow land in Khandwa district would be ready for cultivation soon if the land remediation continued at the present pace. Around 200 more acres are to be reclaimed in the five villages that have registered speedy progress.
He also expressed concern that farmers were turning to cash crops after the land retrieval, when the project idea was to encourage farmers to cultivate more millets. Either way, farmers are more than happy to exert themselves, experiment and earn.
(Asif Siddiqui is a Khandwa-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters, where this article was originally published)

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