Crops in Chittoor District: Traditional and modern
Around 70% of the lands in Chittoor district are dry lands and rainfed crops are grown in them. Only 30% is irrigated as against the Andhra Pradesh average (35%). Earlier a variety of dry crops – millets, ragi, bajra, jowar, ground nut, red gram, cowpea, bean pea, horse gram, etc. used to be grown. But due to unremunerative prices for millets , people have more or less ceased raising these crops and have instead concentrated on ground nut which is by far the most remunerative of the lot (of late in the last 2 years due to imports of cheap palm oil from Malaysia the prices of ground nut oil and coconut oil have also crashed.)
As a part of the Eastern ghats , most of the district is studded with hills. Traditionally, several chains of small tanks had been built, especially during the reign of the Vijayanagara kings and these form the backbone of irrigated agriculture in the district in the absence of any major river or canal projects.
The farmers in our area ( which is the middle part of the district) grow paddy for one season and follow it up with two years of sugarcane. This is the cycle. In the eastern taluks of our district the situation is somewhat different. There the soil is more sandy and there is more rainfall. Farmers opt for a cycle of paddy and groundnut (in rabi). In the western taluks, the climate is moderate, but there is water shortage although the soils are red and rich. They prefer to grow vegetables, especially tomato. While some do grow mulberry (for silk), the location of two metropolis close by, Bangalore and Chennai (175 kms and 150 kms respectively from Chittoor) has spurred the cultivation of vegetables like tomato, brinjal, beans and potato apart from flowers and grapes in a few pockets. It has also meant rapid growth in allied activities such as poultry and dairying.
The district enjoys cover of both monsoons. It gets about 900 mms of annual average rainfall. The salubrious climate and easy drainage of water in most areas enables the farmers to raise a variety of crops from pan and banana to sugarcane, paddy, groundnut and flowers and vegetables as mentioned above.
Jaggery: The district is known for its jaggery. The jaggery comes in two categories, the white or golden yellow colored, mostly from Aragonda or western region is for consumption.. and fetches a better price. Farmers have increasingly taken to adding bleaching agents such as sodium thiosulphate, (Hydros) which is prohibited for human consumption. The colour lasts for a couple of months, by which time the jaggery changes several hands and is also probably consumed. The second variety is of darker even black colour due to the nature of the soil. Generally, soils which are alkaline will give rise to paler jaggery, which though attractive by look is not as sweet as the darker one. The latter fetches a slightly lower price than the yellow variety (by about Rs.100/- to Rs.200/- per quintal). It is mostly meant for brewing illicit liquor.
A number of private sugar factories have sprung up in the district, apart from the two major cooperative sugar factories sponsored by the government. As there is enough cane to supply to factories, there is no restriction on production of jaggery, which often fetches a better price than the factory price for cane. Besides, the farmers do not have to run after the factory sugar cane inspector for the cutting order and then wait for the lorry to arrive at any odd hour and search for people to load it with cane. Farmers appear least bothered about their jaggery being used for brewing arrack.
Prices of jaggery and sugarcane (factories) have been more or less stagnant for the last five years, while the cost of production- labour, fertilizer, and electricity etc. have been steadily going up.
Mango: Climatically the area is suited for mango. Once a mango garden is raised (in about 7 years) it requires little maintenance and fetches fairly good income – about Rs.10,000/- per acre. While the income from mango for the last three decades has been steadily rising, the costs have also started rising, especially for spraying pesticides and irrigation and of late, the returns are not as much as they used to be earlier (a decade ago). Although the price of mango is highly volatile from year to year depending on the production in the district and elsewhere, it tends to give a steady income in a lump sum annually to the farmer with least maintenance problems. Most farmers sell their mango crops to merchants for one or two years at a time and use the money for some urgent needs such as marriages, house construction or sinking bore wells or for medical bills etc. A number of juice making factories have sprung up in the district (around 25) which are seasonal in operation. Their fortunes also fluctuate with the mango market. (See Annexture IV)
Vegetables: The highly volatile vegetable market is very labour and capital intensive and farmers prefer to grow them in small plots of one or two acres generally. Vegetables and sugarcane crops are the mainstay of small and marginal farmers. As there aren’t enough cold storage plants, farmers are often put to heavy losses in vegetables, especially tomato, when the prices crash due to glut in the market. The stakes are high for tomato with investments ranging from 25 to 40,000/- per acre with profits likely to go up to even one or two lakhs per acre (if tomato sells at Rs.10 or Rs.12/-) per kg in the wholesale market).
Groundnut: It is the mainstay of the dry land farmers, and most marginal farmers double up as agricultural workers. Unfortunately, the crop is very much dependent upon the mercy of timely and frequent rains in the kharif. For every one season of good crops there will be two bad years of heavy loss and two years of bare sustenance. Of late, the cost of raising groundnut crop is also rising, pushing the farmers into greater debt. The brunt of the price crash due to import of cheap palm oil from Malaysia was born by these farmers. The yields are also very low — depending on timely rains, from 5 to 15 bags an acre. But the economics in the flat sandy soils of the Eastern taluks of the district are very different where it is raised as an irrigated dry crop in the rabi season with heavy doses of chemical fertilizers, the yield going up to 30 to 40 bags per acre, if not more.
Choice of crop:
Price or profit is the basic motivating factor for the farmer to grow any crop. But he will make the choice of crop depending upon a variety of factors apart from the price, like cost and easy availability of labour in season, ability of the crop to withstand shortages of water supply and easy marketability, disease- proneness of the crop. It is the risk of rejection by the factory (apart from the intensity of labour) that dissuaded many farmers from taking to gerkin cultivation under contract farming for a company in Kolar, Karnataka, although it promised high returns of Rs.50,000/- per acre apart from supply of seed, pesticide, fertilizer and credit and buy-back of the produce at a fixed, predetermined price. It is for the same reasons that crops like sugarcane are preferred to the rest: sugarcane can withstand shortage of water for over a month i.e. even if one or two wettings are missed or even more it will still give some crop unlike say paddy or vegetables which will be wiped out. One gets nothing, besides it is least disease prone and jaggery making can be managed with family labour with one or two labourers, so that even at current low prices,( not counting family labour) one can earn up to Rs.20 to 30,000 per acre (gross income). If dairying can take care of the running costs of labour, etc. then one can end the season with a lump sum. This is the main attraction of sugarcane.
Two cheers for tenancy: We were surprised to hear that my grand father and my uncles would never give their land on lease /tenancy/share cropping. They always cultivated with the help of farm servants, family labour, and hired labour. But today the scene is completely different. Almost all the farmers under our tank (10 out of 12) with lesser extent under each are giving their lands for share cropping. The non-remunerativeness of most crops especially paddy, the problems of ensuring labour supply when needed in season, power supply, etc. have prompted many farmers to go in for tenancy farming even if they have small holdings of one or two acres. Often they give a part of their land, usually 1/3rd acre to 2/3rd acre to a tenant (by oral agreement) and cultivate the rest by hired labour using the tenant to water their lands and to organize other operations, such as, calling labour, making jaggery for the owner (his labour is costed) but assures the farmers of labour for making jaggery. By this method the farmer’s income is halved and would imply a net income of Rs.10,000 to 16,000/- per acre for sugarcane/jaggery and 10 to 15 bags of paddy per crop per acre. This way the farmer really benefits in paddy cultivation. If he had to do it through hired labour he would end up with heavy losses. But farmers cultivate paddy so that they don’t have to buy rice which can become quite an expensive proposition, and secondly, through raising paddy the soil is enriched with organic nutrients making it ready for growing chemically fed sugarcane and vegetables for the next one or two years.
For almost similar reasons the agricultural worker opts for tenancy, since he has no land of his own (with water) and there are many like him. By raising paddy (and supplemented by the subsidized ration rice) he is able to meet his rice requirement without having to go to the open market. He does not hire labour, usually making do with a little exchange of labour with his neighbouring tenants. If he were to cost all this labour he would be worse off. He would be actually making a loss. But he too prefers tenancy as it assures him of rice and hay for his cow and bullocks and an assured sugarcane crop for two years. Usually, he would have borrowed money from the farmer (often without interest), the farmer in turn borrowing from the jaggery merchant (at an interest of 18 to 24%).
The missing cheer: Giving a part or the whole of one’s land on tenancy does not solve the land owner- farmers’ problems altogether. The tenant after the initial heavy schedule of preparing the land and planting paddy or sugarcane, has to only do watering most of the time. He prefers to do this at night and go for daily wage during the day which can fetch him any where between Rs.40 to Rs.60/- so, the farmer owner has to always keep a watch on whether his fields are being irrigated properly, whether deweeding and fertilizer application have been done on time and properly, and to ensure that timely and proper spraying is done especially for paddy and vegetables and crushing of cane for jaggery making started in time before the onset of power shortages in summer.
Labours’ love lost: The other problem with labour is that they are forever demanding money in advance, promising to come for work. Having used up the money they then try to avoid the person from whom they have borrowed. It is often in such a situation that farmers/ money lenders physically assault the agricultural workers. The workers on the other hand, unable to make both ends meet (some of them are into drink as well) tend to borrow from several land owners promising to come for work, so a lot of hide and seek goes on with the workers preferring to go to work for those who are likely to pay immediately. So the lesson is to try and pay immediately after the work is done and not to give advances/loans. But often this is a difficult choice because the workers prefer advances, and the farmer ends up giving a loan as well as paying afresh . Further, if the farmer himself puts in labour, the workers work better. If the farmer/owner stand around, they work a little less. If the farmer does not turn up at all, then they work even less – (20 to 30% less). Farmers lament that workers are no longer as hard working as they used to be. (That applies to the farmers also). They recall that in the good old days they would rise in the early hours around 2 to 3 a.m. and draw the water from the wells using bullocks and “Kapila” – a huge leather sack. In the “good old days” of course, the agricultural worker had little option but to work for the landlord or farmer, the children tending the cattle (now they go to school) and those who were truant (not turning up for work in time etc) were often beaten up. The farmers were also hard working (for they too had little choice of other avenues of earning money or survival). But now things have changed. With the advent of diesel motors and now electric motors, farmers and workers have got used to switching on the motors and since power comes with adequate voltage only at odd hours during the nights there is a tendency to flood irrigate using excess power and excess water (provided of course there is water in the wells). There are also apparently other avenues of work especially in urban areas although it is not easy to get.
The truancy of labour and their short supply when needed (in season), the alienation of both the worker and the owner from agriculture work, the worker / tenant because it is not his land and he would like to double as tenant (with least effort) and agriculture worker during the day, the farmer reluctant to put in the physical labour required and vexed with hired labour, unwilling to let go of the land,,farmers are forever trying to do with less labour and looking for devices such as switching over from labour intensive crops like paddy and vegetables to annuals like sugarcane and banana and from annuals to perennials like coconut and mango.