If you have watched ‘Into the Wild’ and liked it, I apologize at the onset. Frankly, there is very little evidence to suggest that human beings function well in nature alone, i.e. in the absence of basic social structures. Honestly, I don’t have any issue with Chris McCandless embracing nature and then dying, almost poetically, through the process. I am just a tad bit iffy about the way humans have this first-world view on nature, like it’s some sort of primal reset button which heals your soul and spirit from the attrition of humanity.
For a second, let’s stop kidding ourselves – we hardly understand how to deal with nature even though we have enough examples throughout the history of mankind to fill entire bookshelves. The best way we collectively deal with nature is by exploiting it when we think we have the upper hand and hiding from it when the tables are turned. Leaving the society to find liberation in nature is stupidity and I’m not surprised that Darwinism came into play here.
You want to know whom to turn to for understanding what it’s like to tackle the forces of nature?
To really grasp what nature is, at its best and worst?
Whether you agree or not, it is the farmers – the ones who have dealt with nature for generations over centuries.
For a change, today, let’s shift the focus on them.
Agriculture is a tricky business, you know!
Being heavily dependent on regional geography and climate, farmers inculcate vast experience that has been passed on to them in every step of their way – from sowing till harvesting of crops and maintaining the soil productivity through the process. Also, there is a cost-benefit analysis carried out all through.
Now over the past decade, changing climate scenarios have started questioning the effectiveness of these traditional practices. Irregular rainfall, strong winds, hailstorms, heatwaves and cold waves have started baffling farmers as they try to restore the delicate balance between man and nature.
To this effect, Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) has initiated an intervention where farmers receive SMS (Short Message Service) about impending weather conditions from locally collected meteorological data. It is based on the idea that early-warnings can mitigate the adverse impacts of unpredictable weather changes. Sounds simple?
Well, the socio-economic dynamics involved in this are far more complex if we delve a little deeper.
Everyone intends to earn the maximum profit out of their land. If the crops are not ready to be harvested, 2-3 days of warning is meaningless because harvesting at such a stage will inevitably lead to low market prices defeating the objective. It makes more sense to keep them in the field with hope that at least a portion of the crop survives adverse weather conditions before maturing.
For those whose crops are ready to be harvested, a few factors need to be considered. Different crops require different approaches to harvest and hence, varied manpower and proportional time. Even if you get a 2-day advance heads-up, you’d need people. If one has a big family to help out, fantastic!
Otherwise, good luck finding labor when everybody around is looking for the same. Eventually one winds up shelling out extra money because of high demand which eats into the income from crops. As a result, farmers end up making complex cost-benefit analyses to obtain the best outcome.
In Jalna district of Maharashtra, wheat is one of the major crops of Rabbi season. While harvesting wheat, plants are first cut into bundles of 20 or 30. These bundles are placed evenly across the field, to be fed later to the threshing machine. According to the farmers, if you have standing crops and you receive a bad weather alert, it’s better to keep them standing rather than cutting them into bundles because that reduces chances of crop damage.
Those who can afford combined harvesting machines would be much better off because they would probably secure their grains in a day or so. Such people are already financially better off. Other crops like Gram and Sorghum are usually collected in a single place during harvesting which makes them easier to be saved by using polythene covers as a preventive measure. Also, farmers in Jalna tend to keep their cotton in fields till the month of March to squeeze out the last bit of profit from the soil. Naturally, it becomes of utmost importance to quickly harvest the last of the cotton balls when a bad weather warning is issued.
The weather advisories also influence whether the crops would be watered in upcoming days. Wheat is usually watered by flooding the fields through channels adjacent to crop rows. A bad weather event would usually be accompanied by strong winds which could potentially cause the water from channels to go directly into the roots. This is pretty bad for wheat because roots have a tendency to decay and loosen up if exposed to standing water. Hence, farmers would refrain from watering fields in the face of bad weather advisories.
Similarly, insecticide and pesticide spraying is also dependent on weather advisories. Farmers would withhold such activities prior to rainfall predictions or else, these expensive chemicals are washed away, incurring further expenses to farmers. Forecasts about hailstorms usually prompt farmers to take care of their livestock without much ado. They are herded inside the sheds to prevent them from getting hurt because otherwise, apart from added expense of an injured/unwell animal, they will be a loss of earnings from reduced milk productivity of livestock.
Hence, the general consensus about weather advisories is positive, with most farmers agreeing that they are accurate to almost 90% in terms of locale specific information. They definitely see a value in this considering that the changing climate patterns have started baffling the common sense of farmers which they acquired through generations. However, illiterate farmers, who amount to a sizable portion of the population, are still alienated from the direct benefits of such SMS. Here, it becomes interesting to see how farmers engage in discussions whenever potentially important advisories pop up. Such dissemination of information through inclusive discussions makes up for the limitations of the system, although its dependence on cohesiveness of the village society cannot be ignored.
The SMS advisory ticks two essential boxes in terms of effectiveness:
- The notification of a message causes recipient to immediately look at his/her phone and get the weather alert advisory, making it truly, as real-time as it could possibly get. Using Google as an alternative is a bit tedious because you would have to go into the App and search for weather alerts which is avoidable when they’re out, working in field.
- As accurate as the weather applications like AccuWeather are, they still don’t provide cluster or village level advisories.
It’s rare where integration of technology with agriculture makes sense and is accepted by the community in a positive manner. Maybe, the weather advisories will help tip the balance in favor of farmers as we enter uncertain times of climate change.
Post script: It’s not everyday that I feel like I’m being condescending. But today I do. I’ve never farmed a day in my life and farmers would probably laugh if they read this. Well, at least I’d be funny then. Peace!