Vijay Dhabwali is a farmer from Sirsa in Haryana. A traditional wheat and paddy farmer, but he has, like a few of his friends, decided to branch out to nonconventional crops. For instance, he has chosen to harvest figs. He is awaiting his first crop of figs but is lucky to have signed a 10-year contract with the Krishi marketing company, a private firm in Jaipur. He will be selling figs at Rs 300 per kg.
Vijay, however, is one of the lucky few and yet he is uncertain as to whether he is getting the right price. “Most farmers prefer to stick to traditional crops like wheat and those who have sufficient supply of water to rice. They feel safe and protected. We want to move to new crops but are worried whether we can afford to take the risk. This is where we need government support. They should encourage people to change eating habits , have more nutritious alternatives. Yet we must also be protected by the government as in my case I don’t know whether I am getting a good price from the private company. It would help me if the government steps in,” says Vijay.
Arjun Sihag is a kinnow farmer from Mandi Dabwali near Sirsa. He has been cultivating kinnow for the last 25 years and makes more money from this farming than from wheat. “My father planted his first kinnow crop 25 years ago and on 10 acre land. The first fruiting takes 5 years, so on barren land we grew chana, which adds to the fertility of the soil. But not all farmers can afford this to diversify and how do they sit for 5 years while kinnow grows," Arjun says.
The farm bill protests are about the minimum support price (MSP) for wheat and paddy. Interestingly, farmers growing these “new crops” like kinnow are against MSP as they feel it would bring down the quality. “We want to begin exporting kinnow. Now if I have MSP on this from the government then I would be competing with grade 2 kinnow growers and this would give us no incentive to improve our standards. So we are not rigid about MSP at all and the farm bills make sense for farmers like us. We want new markets, new competitive buyers, so that we are paid more for our crops which are of top quality," says Arjun.
Ruchit Garg who is the founder of the Harvesting Farmer Network, an organisation helping connect farmers with buyers, agrees with Arjun. “Farmers who are experimenting and diversifying are going to be in a better position. They are going to be able to manage their risks better. It's good for the soil and climate as well," he says. But Ruchit also differs on a point.
“The Punjab and Haryana governments have done a good job in implementing MSP in comparison to other states, which reduces the risk on the farmers. Farmers know that they would get X price if they grow Y crop. This also means that farmers would prioritise these crops with MSP over others. Tomorrow if there is an assured lucrative MSP of a new commodity, say brinjal, the same farmers would move to that crop," he says.
Sources say that while the government and agricultural experts feel that farmers can take the best advantage from the farm bills by diversifying and experimenting, given the cropping pattern it may be easier said than done. One of the main ideas behind the farm bills is to ensure that with a slow generational shift in eating habits of the younger generation, the bills could ensure protections. But for now, it's all about convincing the farmers who are protesting. And those who are ready to experiment are waiting and watching.