Solution to stagnant prices, rising costs: Intercropping

Like all farmers, Prakash Vir Sharma has been hit by high diesel prices — which have risen from less than Rs 63 to nearly Rs 87 per litre since March 2020. This rabi cropping season he has also paid Rs 1,490 for a 50-kg bag of ‘12:32:16’ complex fertiliser, which earlier retailed at Rs 1,185. But the Uttar Pradesh government’s price fixed for sugarcane supplied to mills has risen just over 11% — from Rs 315 to Rs 350 per quintal — in the last five years.

As produce realisations fail to keep pace with rising input costs — leading to the clamour for minimum support prices as a guaranteed “right” — one solution is to raise farm incomes per acre through intercropping, that is, growing more than one crop simultaneously on the same piece of land. That’s what Sharma is seeking to do.

The 45-year-old from Parmawala village in western UP’s Bijnor district has planted sugarcane on 8 bigha of his 17-bigha (3.4 acres; one acre = 5 bigha) holding. On 7.5 of this 8 bigha, he transplanted cane saplings on October 14, followed by sowing of mustard three days later. On the remaining 0.5 bigha, he has undertaken an experiment: growing sugarcane (transplanted on September 26) along with chana (chickpea), palak (spinach), baingan (brinjal), mooli (radish), dhaniya (coriander), and shalgam (turnip), all sown on September 27.

“My sugarcane will be ready only next November-December. The other crops I can harvest by March,” he said. More income per acre is also what Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd (M&M) is aiming to deliver through Krish-e, its new ‘Farming as a Service (FaaS)’ business vertical. Farmers normally plant sugarcane on flat beds in rows 2.5 feet to 3 feet apart. This is now being replaced by making raised beds and planting the cane on the furrows with a wider 4.5-5-foot spacing. The short-cycle crops are planted on the raised beds.

“At 2.5-foot row-spacing, my average cane yields were 70 quintals/bigha. With 5-foot planting, it is 100 quintals. The crop has space to grow and the canes come out thicker and longer,” said Sundar Singh Malik (62).

For companies like M&M, increasing the plant-row distance to enable intercropping is also a means to promote farm mechanisation. “Our idea is to move beyond tractorisation to engaging with farmers, while leveraging our 1,600-strong dealer network. This has to be hyper-local and crop-specific. So, in Bijnor, it is the cane grower whose income per acre is to be increased,” Ramesh Ramachandran, Senior Vice President-FaaS at M&M, said.

Until last year, Sharma was directly sowing the seeds. This time, he has switched to raising them in nursery and transplanting the seedlings with 3-4 leaves in the main field. Malik has gone a step further. Not only has he switched from traditional sowing to transplanting, he has transplanted the saplings mechanically. If the trial demonstrates advantages, it would spur demand for Mahindra’s semi-automatic seedling transplanter. That will be a win-win for both.

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