Karnataka’s organic farming journey: Robust policies slowed down by poor implementation

Organic ginger is one of the products that have received an unexpected fillip due to Covid-19. Over the past few months, popular perception of the spice as an immunity booster has led to a surge in its demand. Vishweshwar Bhat, the president of Organic Farmers’ Association in Uttara Kannada, said his federation has seen an additional turnover of Rs 1.5 crore when it comes to organic ginger, compared to the previous year.

However, Bhat said farmers are not tapping into the huge demand for the organic product because of a hesitation to take up organic cultivation. “Many farmers do not want to make the transition to organic farming fearing low yield,” he added.

Organic farmers’ federations from different regions of the state have a similar story. Karnataka was one of the first states in the country to institute an official policy for organic farming, way back in 2004. The most recent revision of the policy, in 2017, envisaged converting 10% of the 121.7 lakh hectares under cultivation in the state to organic agriculture by 2022. Roughly one percent of this land has been converted so far.

There are several schemes as well: under the Savayava Bhagya Yojane in 2013, the government began issuing organic certification to farmers through the Karnataka State Organic Certification Agency and 15 federations of organic farmers were set up across the state.

Since 2015, the centrally sponsored Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana is also being implemented, for which 25,000 farmers were roped in. Following Sikkim’s lead, the agriculture department has proposed converting select regions in the state into 100% organic farming regions.

No trust in certification

Despite these efforts, agriculturists across the state seem to have little enthusiasm for organic farming.

Satish (name changed) from Belagavi said several farmers like him, who are engaged in organic cultivation, had taken the government certification but wished to remain independent from the farmer federations.

“We do not trust the certification process. The official inspection is poor,” Satish says, pointing out that many farmers combine both organic and chemical farming but clear up traces of synthetic chemical inputs ahead of an inspection, and manage to get their farm certified.

The other issue is that the prices offered by the federation are often lower than what a farmer can earn by selling his produce directly to the consumer.

“We have a group of farmers who directly sell it to consumers through weekly markets,” Satish said.

Though the government funds the initial certification, the high cost of renewal is to be borne by the farmer. “Several farmers have dropped out after the initial period,” he added.

Ravikumar, a sugarcane and paddy farmer from Mysuru who practices zero budget natural farming (ZBNF), also said he did not want to engage with the government’s organic certification process.

“The government certification process is ridden with irregularities. We do not want the ‘organic’ tag at all,” he said.

While organic farming makes use of organic manure, ZBNF only makes use of only ‘Jeevamrutha’, a microbial culture.

Lack of consistency

At the level of farmers’ federations, while some farmers like Vishweshwar Bhat believe that the onus is on the federations themselves to take the movement forward, others feel there is a need for more hand-holding on part of the government.

K V Reddeppa, who represents Kolar and Chikkaballapur organic farmers’ federation, said they needed funding for at least two more years of certification. Many certified farmers in the region have been growing millets, which has not seen expected financial results.

“Our federation has been unable to churn adequate returns to keep the movement going on our own. We are now shifting our focus to vegetable cultivation, which promises a better market for us, especially in Bengaluru. Some more support from the government is required,” Reddeppa said.

While the government gave them funding for organic certification and even conducted B2B fairs to help them with marketing, these fairs have not been conducted in the last two years. The government also provided funding to set up a millet processing unit, but half of these funds amounting to Rs 25 lakh were yet to come through, he added.

Inadequate training

Without proper training provided to farmers, the organic movement will fail to achieve the envisaged targets, pointed out Chukki Nanjundaswamy, a member of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha.

“The farmers are still unable to get over the fear over low yield and high input costs for organic agriculture and hence they require proper training,” Chukki said.

She gave the example of Andhra Pradesh government’s ZBNF programme which hand-holds the farmer for at least two years.

“In contrast, our government’s ZBNF programme, introduced during H D Kumaraswamy’s tenure as the Chief Minister, lacked trained experts in the field. The government cannot make use of regular agriculture department staff for this purpose. It needs to engage with practising farmers and rope them into the implementation of these schemes,” she said.

Agricultural expert Devinder Sharma also said that Karnataka could learn from AP’s community managed approach to natural farming. Under this approach, new farmers are trained by peers who have successfully converted their land into organic farming.

Sharma said six lakh farmers have been converted to non-chemical farming this way in AP. “The agro-ecological conditions in AP and Karnataka are similar and taking notes from AP will only prove to be useful to the state,” he added.

Implementation strategies

“Karnataka needs to look at effective implementation strategies,” said farmer leader Kuruburu Shantakumar.

“The Sikkim government ensured effective implementation of its organic farming policy by penalising those engaging in chemical farming. Even sellers of chemical fertilisers are penalised,” he said.

He also points to the Sikkim government’s efforts to push organic products by setting up a market in the capital city.

“A commensurate price is fixed for the organic produce, which ensures that farmers stick to this method of cultivation,” Shantakumar added.

Most experts agree that what the state urgently needs is a robust marketing system. Dr Siddaiah, professor in the department of agricultural marketing, co-operation and business management at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru, says the government could harness existing structures, like the Horticultural Producer’s Cooperative Marketing and Processing Co-Operative Society Limited for this purpose.

“The government is committed to encouraging organic farming. We have already given subsidies to farmers and we supply organic manure to them,” said the Agriculture Minister B C Patil. “With the onset of the pandemic, there has been a surge in demand for organic products. I have been regularly conducting meetings with farmers, encouraging them to switch to organic cultivation,” he added.

For now, the state government is reworking its target under the 2017 organic policy to a more modest number. “Over the next three years, our target is to increase the cultivation by 50,000 hectares,” said a government official in the Karnataka agriculture department. The official also added that better marketing was key to achieving these numbers.

This year, the financial setback in the wake of the pandemic has come as an additional challenge. Owing to the Covid crisis, the state government has restricted the organic farming budget to Rs 10 crore this year, a huge reduction from the previous year’s allocation of Rs 40 crore for the purpose.