Bagal bought his first smartphone about three years ago. Initially, he did not know how to even make phone calls, but very soon he started using social networking sites and apps like Facebook and WhatsApp.
Bagal grew cotton, oranges, sweet lime and vegetables, the traditional crops of his native Vidarbha region in the eastern part of Maharashtra state. The farmers in Vidarbha had always been envious of their counterparts thriving in the western part of the state, where sugarcane was the most successful crop.
“Farming in west Maharashtra is considered to be most progressive in our state and it was my dream to gain success like them,” Bagal said.
About six years ago, he diverted three acres of his 50-acre field to sugarcane.
“I used to get a yield of about 35 to 40 tonnes per acre, which was the highest for Vidarbha,” said Bagal.
Things changed for Bagal when he heard of Hoy Amhi Shetkari (HAS – Yes, We are Farmers), a WhatsApp group run by Amol Patil and Ankush Chormule of Ashta in Sangli district in western Maharashtra. After signing up on the HAS WhatsApp group, he not only got to know of farmers who produced more than 100 tonnes of sugarcane per acre, he also learnt how they did it.
“The idea of getting more than 100 tonnes of cane per acre was like a dream! I called up Amol Patil and visited his farm in Sangli, along with four other farmers. I stayed there for three days, spending all day on the farms of progressive farmers like Suresh Kabade and Vijay Magdum,” he said.
Upon his return from Sangli, Bagal implemented every instruction he had received from his WhatsApp friends and became the first farmer in Vidarbha to produce 100 tonnes of sugarcane per acre. He supplies more than 1,000 tonnes of sugarcane, worth more than Rs 25 lakh, to the Purti Sugar Factory of transport minister Nitin Gadkari.
Patil worked with HDFC Bank in Sangli after completing his post-graduation in management. When his father developed health problems, he decided to take up farming on the family’s 15 acres of land.
“My idols were progressive farmers like Suresh Kabade and Sunil Shinde from my taluka who had already set benchmarks in production of sugarcane and bananas,” said Patil.
A chance introduction to Ankush Chormule, then a PhD student at Mahatma Phule Agricultural University in Rahuri, on Facebook and their shared interest in farming led to the creation of the HAS WhatsApp group. The group’s Facebook page started in June 2015, and both quickly gained in popularity. Today, Patil and Chormule run 70 WhatsApp groups, which are managed by a team of about 15 administrators, five of whom are PhD holders.
More than 600,000 farmers are associated with HAS and the Facebook page has 500,000 followers. In addition, there is a HAS YouTube channel and regular field workshops held for farmers.
HAS was the first to flag the invasion of the dreaded Fall Army Worm (FAW) pest in Maharashtra. Ankush, an entomologist working for an MNC, had written an article on the possibility of FAW coming to Maharashtra from neighbouring Karnataka, where it had affected the maize crop.
“Ganesh Babar, who is a HAS Facebook member, read the article and contacted me, sending some unclear pictures of the worm from his low-end phone,” Ankush recalled.
HAS not only detected the presence of FAW on maize and sugarcane in Maharashtra, which the government denied for some time, it also advised farmers about mitigation strategies.
The unique combination of technical expertise, as with Team Ankush, combined with the experience of practicing farmers helps HAS generate answers to the minutest of queries.
However, the group’s USP is probably its method of boosting output to 100 tonnes of sugarcane per acre. The credit goes to Vijay Magdum from Shidnal village in Belgami taluka of Karnataka, who developed a planting method where the distance between two rows of sugarcane is kept at 4.5 feet and 7 feet alternately.
“The idea is to grow 40,000 stands of healthy sugarcane, each weighing 2.5 kg in an acre,” said Chormule.
The presence of HAS isn’t restricted to Maharashtra. While HAS Facebook discussions are mostly in Marathi, farmers from Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh also participate.
The online community has started making field trips as well. A few months ago, HAS experts visited Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh on the invitation of sugarcane farmers there. Now, 20 to 25 farmers from these states will visit farms of HAS members to study their techniques and methods.
Mukesh Kumar, a software engineer from Chhattisgarh who studied engineering in Pune and worked at an IT company in the city, is the link between HAS and farmers from other states. Mukesh got to know of HAS after his in-laws, who grow sugarcane, wanted to see how the crop was cultivated in Maharashtra.
“Fascinated by their progressive outlook, I decided to set up a nursery in Balod in my home state to provide seedlings of good sugarcane varieties to Chhattisgarh farmers,” Kumar said.
Bagal of Nagpur invited Dilip Shinde, a farmer in Chopda in Jalgaon district, to teach him the techniques of cotton cultivation. Shinde, 61, has operated an agricultural inputs shop for 30 years after quitting his job as professor of geography and has practised farming for 45 years.
Realising that overuse of chemical fertilisers can kill the soil’s micro-organism ecosystem, he developed a method of combining natural and chemical farming to get a yield of 24 to 25 quintals of cotton per acre while other farmers in the region struggled to get 10 to 12 quintals.
“Fed up of attending a large number of phone calls from farmers wanting to know about my method, I started WhatsApp groups,” said Shinde. He started 13 groups on farming and will soon set out on a 10-day journey to guide farmers in 10 districts of Vidarbha and Marathwada.
HAS WhatsApp group administrators spend on average two to three hours a day answering questions of farmers and taking 30 to 40 phone calls. “I clear all doubts asked on WhatsApp groups from 5 am to 8 am every day and attend about 30 to 40 calls a day,” said Shinde.
The farmers’ social network has sprung up alongside the extensive machinery set up by the Indian government for the extension of agricultural technology through the Agricultural Technology Management Agency (ATMA) Scheme being implemented in 640 districts in the country.
“A few farmers are very innovative and take to technology before the others,” said AK Singh, deputy director general (Agricultural Extension) at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. “There are many instances of farm management practices being improved by farmers. This is the reason the country acknowledged the work of 12 farmers with Padma awards.”
ICAR is an autonomous organisation under the ministry of agriculture and farmers welfare set up for coordinating, guiding and managing research and education in agriculture including horticulture, fisheries and animal sciences in the country.
Singh said more than 30 million farmers have registered on the MKisan portal through Krishi Vigyan Kendras, which are centres to promote agricultural research locally. These farmers get regular weather and market updates. In addition, ICAR and the kendras have developed 145 mobile apps for farmers.
However, farmers claim the knowledge of extension officers of agricultural universities and government departments is bookish and outdated.
“Now that we have already achieved high production levels, what we seek is knowledge of how to go further ahead. If they teach us what is already known, it’s boring,” said Sunil Shinde, a banana farmer from Sangli.
“The government extension agents do not go to the farm level. They are available at gram panchayat and block levels and hardly have practical knowledge of farming,” said Shinde, the cotton farmer from Jalgaon.
Meanwhile, Bagal of Nagpur recently spent Rs 20 lakh to build a farmhouse after earning more than Rs 25 lakh a year just from increased sugarcane productivity. He is happy not only for realising his dream of becoming a successful farmer but also for the recognition and respect it brings.
“Today, I have friends in every district of Maharashtra. People recognise me as a progressive farmer, which could happen only and only because of coming into contact with Patil, Chormule and the entire HAS team through my smartphone,” said Bagal.