The economy of the state of Maharashtra is primarily agrarian in nature. The majority of people work in agriculture, increasingly focused on the production of cash crops for market, with reduced attention to diverse subsistence foods.
This dynamic holds true in the Umarkhed region, a subdivision of the Yavatmal district within Maharashtra. While agriculture is undoubtedly a way of life for those living in Umarkhed, the region has a reputation as one of the worst places in the entire country to be a farmer. Tragically, there is an average of eight farmer suicides committed per day in the state of Maharashtra. With so much relying on a sector that is deeply troubled, the region of Umarked is ripe for a dramatic shift in its agri-food system. But before we explore alternatives, it is essential to develop a baseline understanding of agricultural land use, crops in production, production practices and agricultural economics in the region.
Within the entire state of Maharashtra, the total irrigated area used for crop cultivation is 33,500 square kilometers. In the smaller region of Umarkhed Taluka, the total agriculture area is 70,567 hectares (roughly 706 square kilometers, or 272 square miles). The region also maintains 421.32 hectares (4.2 square kilometers) of non-agricultural land, as well as nearly 4,000 hectares of barren land, and an additional 51,475 hectares of land in the form of forests and meadows. In addition to private land holdings used for regular crop production, there remain public grazing commons throughout the Umarkhed region.
Historically, Umarkhed enjoyed three potential crop-growing seasons: the monsoon crop (e.g., cotton, soybean, jawar, yellow daal), winter crop (wheat, gram, sunflower) and the summer crop (groundnut). However, under changing climate conditions and weather patterns, farmers without access to sufficient water or irrigation infrastructure are often only able to harvest a monsoon crop, and even that may be imperiled by changing weather and rainfall patterns. Increasing heat makes it challenging to grow a summer crop.
The primary crops grown in Umarkhed include:
· Hybridized cotton- 17,230 hectares
· Soybeans - 29,546 hectares
· Yellow daal - 9,212 hectares
· Monsoon jawar (sorghum) - 5,123 hectares
· Green gram - 2,102 hectares
· Black gram - 1,604 hectares
· Sugar cane - 3,801 hectares
· Corn - 935 hectares
· Teel (sesame) - 150 hectares.
In addition to the above, other crops comprise approximately 638 hectares of the sowing area in Umarkhed. During the wintertime, sown crops differ slightly, and groundnuts, safflowers, sunflowers, mustard, wheat, vegetables, and fodder crops are planted in greater quantity. In the larger state of Maharashtra as a whole, principle crops mirror many of those above, such as pulses, wheat, cotton, sugarcane, and seed oils. But the wetter parts of western and coastal Maharashtra can also support production of rice, turmeric, and onions, as well as fruit cultivation, including mangoes, bananas, grapes, and oranges.
Inputs & Economics
In addition to the challenges presented by a lack of water and irrigation, as well as climate change and irregular water problems (detailed in additional fact sheets) , the economic situation in Umarkhed is not friendly to farmers, either. Rising input costs (seeds, pesticides, fertilizers), volatile market prices, and insufficient crop insurance policies and minimum support prices have contributed to a situation where farmers are often unable to manage their operations in ways that are economically viable or produce desired yields.
An article titled ‘Agricultural Practices and Sustainability in Vidarbha' highlights the distress among farmers in select districts of Vidarbha as a result of the contrast between the opportunities for wealthier farmers who are not only able to sell their products (e.g., cotton) at lower rates, but who are also benefiting from more advanced technologies (resulting in a higher-quality cotton), and poor farmers who are undercut by those with larger, more productive land holdings and who cannot compete on quality.
Poor farmers are also disadvantaged by unscrupulous loan practices: money is borrowed at high interest rates; the distribution of loans sanctioned by the bank is often delayed; and bank loans must often be supplemented by private loans, which may have even higher and often more steeply increasing interest rates, exacerbating indebtedness. It is important to note, however, that financing for farmers may be available from a variety of sources, including non-institutional sources (moneylenders, traders, landlords, relatives, friends, and others) and institutional sources (government, co-operatives, and commercial and rural banks). But “risky borrowers,” such as poor, rain-dependent farmers with few assets and spotty production history, are pushed to private lenders who exploit their station and desperation.
The lack of financing for farming operations - or financing that comes at a high cost - makes it difficult for a farmer to gain traction in domestic markets, let alone international ones. Rising input prices, as well as a lack of quality seeds, irrigation facilities, subsidies, and, in some cases, even basics like electricity & connectivity obstruct market access. The result: both a lack of cash income and a lack of food for the farmers and their families. These forces of deprivation and associated shame contribute to farmer depression and suicide.
The Maati-Paani-Asha initiative creates meaningful change and seeks to alleviate the lack of market access and funding crises experienced by farmers in Umarkhed by eventually developing direct relationships with purchasers who are willing to guarantee market access (in exchange for more ethical and traceable products) and offering assistance financially and socially. Farmers will also be more resilient to challenges--economic and otherwise--as a result of infrastructure projects, technical assistance, and the development of sharing economies for nutritiously dense foods.