Israeli farm (David Silverman/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Indo-Israeli centres teach enterprising farmers in several states to earn more from small plots of land

At the centre of excellence for vegetables at Gharaunda in Haryana’s Karnal district I am as fascinated by Deputy Director Satyender K. Yadav’s unselfconscious delivery and disregard for syntax as he explains the manner in which tomatoes, capsicum, cucumber and melons are grown in pest- and disease-free, climate-controlled poly houses. He has the practicality of a farmer. He wants to convey the sense. He is not bothered about the embroidery.

“If you do not adopt a technology with full-fledged package of practices, this will become a dangerous for you. If you bring the nice greenhouse and you make a wrong seed, or a different genetics you kill all the concept. This don’t give you the profitable yield and my objective is to make the cost-benefit ratio,” Yadav tells a group of visiting trainers.

He shows us rows of oblong, grape-sized cherry tomatoes on vines. There are yellow-coloured, regular and large (100-450 gram) “beef” tomatoes too. In other sections, there are vegetables that grow past their traditional harvest season.

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For small holder farmers in India, the cultivation of open field crops like cereals is not paying. They are shifting out or straining to. They can opt for profitable crops like off-season vegetables grown in protected conditions.

This is where Israel’s expertise comes in. Israel and India are not comparable. One is a nation of 8.5 million people, the other of 1.25 billion. Arable land per person is three times more in India than in Israel (0.04 hectares). One has about a quarter million hectares of cultivated land (283,000 ha), while the other has 140 million ha or five hundred times as much. In 2014, Israel exported agri-produce worth about $1.4 billion or 18 per cent of the country’s farm production. India’s agri-exports in 2014-15 were $39.20 billion or nearly 13 per cent of its total exports.

Israel, its ministry of agriculture estimates, has about 10,000 active farmers. India has 236 million people engaged in agriculture, though it is not the main source of income for most of them.

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Israel’s agriculture has been hit by its high cost of living. Of late, the fall in profitability has been arrested as prices have risen faster than costs. But productivity is declining. The government is importing more foodstuff to lower the cost of living. It is also transiting to direct support to farmers instead of indirect subsidies, to ease the pain.

Israel excels in agriculture as a matter of survival. For small holder farmers in India also, farming is a matter of life and death. Not every Indian farmer can do high-tech agriculture. But the enterprising can attempt it if other conditions permit.

The Gharaunda centre provides support to about 2,200 farmers, says Yadav, who is also national cluster head (vegetables) for the Indo-Israel centres of excellence. It used to supply about 6 million seedlings for Rs 2 each in 2015. Now that subsidy has been withdrawn, it sells 4.5 million a year. Farmers bring their own seed, which the centre incubates and sells for Rs 1 each, including the cost of packaging. The seedlings are bred for resilience and uniformity in plastic trays with kulfi-like moulds. This allows the young plants to be transferred to soil without suffering transplanting shock.

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During incubation and thereafter, the plants grow in a poly house. Double doors prevent the entry of pests. Water and nutrients are supplied regularly through drips implanted in the soil so that roots do not waste energy chasing them. The quantity of both is regulated with meters that measure electrical conductivity and pressure. Temperature is maintained by exhaust fans that draw in air through wet screens like desert coolers. The temperature should ideally be 28-30 degrees centigrade.

Foggers regulate relative humidity. They also spray nutrients and chemicals. Sun screens keep off harsh light.

Tomato vines drawn with trellis wires grow up to 25 feet and yield fruit for nine months. Secondary shoots have to be clipped for plants to grow tall. Every fourth node has a cluster of tomatoes. Four workers are needed per acre. They have to be diligent and disciplined.

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A poly house costs Rs 900 a square meter or nearly Rs 37 lakh an acre. Farmers get a subsidy of 65 per cent from the Haryana government. Yadav says farmers sell produce worth about Rs 15 lakh a year and save about Rs 5 lakh. They sell in the wholesale mandis and also to large retailers like Mother Dairy and Reliance Fresh. Some is also exported.

Under the Indo-Israel partnership, 26 centres of excellence are to be set up 16 states. Currently, 16 are operational in nine states. They are focussed on bee-keeping, floriculture, horticulture and so on. A centre is to be set up on dairying as well. In 2009, the average Israeli cow gave 10,208 kg of milk a year. In comparison, the Indian animal gave 1,172 kg. But the conditions are vastly different.

The Indian government does all the funding. Israelis provide technical expertise. They usually train the trainers.

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The emphasis is on applied research, unlike in Indian state and central institutes where the focus is on research. There is also greater reliance on demonstrations.

“The farmer usually has a traditional approach. He will not do extreme changes in his farm and he is right. He shouldn’t. What he is doing I am sure he has a good reason to do so. And we are not forcing,” says an Israeli trainer.

The farmer can choose what he likes and come back to the centre for more. “We are setting expectations and not bringing a solution in a month. We are doing it at a very conservative pace and we are all the time communicating and talking.”

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Some of the centres are reaching out to neighbouring countries. Gharaunda is providing expertise to Bhutan in growing chillies in poly houses in the lower regions, whose agro-climatic conditions resemble those of India.

Agriculture in India is seen as a losing proposition. The Indo-Israeli centres demonstrate that it need not be so if science is methodically applied and there is access to paying markets.

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