Soy seed crunch hits farmers in Maharashtra

Monday 16 June 2014

Farmers sceptical of agricultural department’s strategy of using previous year’s crop as seed to meet this year’s kharif demand

soybean seeds Heavy and untimely rains during the 2013 monsoon season which caused extensive damage to the soybean crop in Maharashtra threatens to impact this years’ crop. The state is facing a crunch of soybean seed for the coming kharif season to the tune of 200,000 tonnes. This could significantly hit farmers’ economy in the state. They are already in deep crisis because of the March 2014 hailstorms.
Soybean is a crucial cash crop in a large part of the state, but with soybean seed prices skyrocketing, farmers are forced to go for cotton, which is far more input-intensive, long-duration and risky.

While the state agriculture department has advised farmers to use seeds from last year’s crop, the solution is not working because farmers do not have knowhow of storing soybean seed which is not a traditional crop, and is a rather a delicate seed. Moreover, most farmers have already sold last year’s crop and have none left to use as seed.

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Debt burden might rise

In the past few years, the soy crop has become very important for farmers due to its comparatively better market value and its short duration, which ensures farmers quick cash returns. Says Wardha-based farmer leader, Vijay Jawandhia of the Shetkari Sanghatana, “The soy crop goes to market in October, when the cotton picking season starts. So farmers use the returns from the soy crop to pay cotton picking wages. Cotton goes to the market in late November and December. With no soybean crop to fall back upon, the debt burden on farmers might go up. They may be forced to take additional private loans to pay for cotton picking.”

Farmer Prashant Bhoyar from Bhidi village in the same district says that his cultivation cost will shoot up this year because he has no soybean seed. “I used to sow five acres (one acre equals 0.4 ha) each of cotton and soybean, and sow food crops on my remaining two acres,” he says. “This year, I will have to sow 10 acres of cotton. The cost of both seed and cultivation in cotton is three times that of soybean, and the returns will also be delayed.”

Unreliable, expensive seed

Bhoyar says that a lot of farmers are hesitating to buy soybean seed this year because there is news that the seed available in the market has low germination potential.

A recent report by the government Seed Testing Laboratory at Nagpur says that out of 98 samples tested by the lab this year, a whopping 90 have failed to measure up to the required standard of 70 per cent germination rate, with some samples showing a germination rate as low as 40 per cent. The samples include seeds produced by both government seed major Mahabeej and private seed companies, informs seed testing officer G M Moon.

Even as there are reports of low germination, prices of soy seed have hit the roof. The cost has risen from Rs 1,600 to Rs 1800 last year for a 30 kg bag to Rs 2,500 to Rs 2,700 this year. “The price is very steep, and we are not really able to guarantee germination,” says Bhupesh Rathi, a Wardha-based seed dealer. “We are experiencing about 25 per cent drop in soy seed sale,” he adds.
 
Rathi says that many dealers are coping with the seed crunch by procuring seed from Madhya Pradesh, but due to the reports of low germination, farmers are unwilling to buy this seed.

Shailendra Daftari, who heads the Wardha-based private seed producing company Daftari Seeds, says that this year his company’s seed production has fallen from 1,500 tonnes to a mere 500 tonnes. “The seed that we have has been procured from Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh, because seeds produced in Maharashtra are of very low quality,” he said.
Home seed: will it work?

One of agriculture department’s strategies to meet the seed shortfall is advising farmers to use their last year’s produce as seed. “All the soy seeds available in the market are straightline [seeds of these varieties can be saved by farmers], so we are advising farmers to select seeds from their last year’s produce, test germination at home by germinating 100 seeds, and use this seed,” says Maharashtra agriculture commissioner, Umakant Dangat.

Agriculture officials are also scouting around for seed stocks available with farmers, following an order to this effect issued by agriculture secretary, Sudhir Goyal, in May 2014. In Nagpur district, officials say 1,400 tonnes of seed have been found in farmer’s homes.

However, farmers are sceptical about the effectiveness of this measure. “Soybean seed is extremely fragile, and the slightest damage to the seed coat can destroy a seed’s germination potential,” says farmer Chandrakant Dorlikar from village Dorli in Wardha district, “If you so much as lift a bag of seed and put it down elsewhere, which happens frequently in farmers’ houses, germination potential is lost.

 Dorlikar is part of a 35-village farmers’ initiative to produce organic seed supported by Hydrabad-based non-profit, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. This year, says he, all the seed produced by the collective has failed to come up to germination standards due to the seed getting soaked in untimely rains.

Dorlikar says that most farmers do not have the knowhow of saving soybean seed since it is not a traditional crop. “Most sell their soy quickly out of sheer need for money, and those who do save some don’t save it for seed – they save it to sell later when the price is high.” He says the department’s suggestions have come too late in the day. “The crop has been around for more than a decade now, and till date the department has not taken any real initiative to educate farmers about producing or saving soy seed.”

Jawandhia agrees. “Most farmers know in a general way that they can save soy seed, but advertisements by private companies carry a very strong and false message that seed saved by farmers give less production than shop-bought seed,” says he. “The agriculture department never ran an effective awareness campaign, which is why farmers have fallen into the trap of private seed-producers,” says he,. “Asking them to use their own seed now when the crisis is here is very impractical.”

Wardha deputy director of agriculture, A N Kandarkar, claims that farmers are informed about seed saving through various outreach programmes of the department, but admits that less than 10 per cent farmers in the district save seeds, most of these being rich farmers. “Poor farmers mostly sell all their produce at the earliest due to dire financial need,” he says.
 

Farmers don’t even save seeds they can save
 
Seeds of most of the major crops grown in Maharashtra are straightline, and it is possible for farmers to save seeds of these crops. Hybrids are available for only cotton and sorghum crops. The list of major crops the seeds of which can be saved include wheat, chick-pea, pigeon pea, other legumes like moong and urad, oil seeds like ground nuts, sesame and kardi, all of which are grown on a large scale in Maharashtra.

However, farmers have been misled by private companies into believing that ‘fresh’ seed bought from companies every year give better produce than seeds saved by farmers themselves, with the result that the majority of farmers in the state are buying these seeds every year at exorbitant costs. Jawandhia says these claims are utterly false. “No private seed producing company is supplying certified seed,” says he. “Mahabeej, the government seed major, is the only certified seed supplier, while all private companies supply what is known as ‘truthful’ (self certified) seed.” He rues that the agriculture department has not just neglected to create awareness regarding these facts but also actively collaborated with private companies to spread false information. “Many farmers actually mistake the seeds sold by companies for hybrids,” he says.

Dorlikar says saving seeds of traditional crops is no rocket science because in most of these crops isolation distances required are very low. “It is perfectly possible for farmer groups in villages to produce quality seeds of their own for most crops, but sadly, that tradition is lost under the propaganda from private companies,” he says. Dorlikar’s group is currently producing seeds for crops like wheat and chick-pea.

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