Science From The Fields: How Three Women Farmers Learnt to Innovate

Laxmi Lokur is 38 and single. “I have no time for marriage,”she says, before she starts talking about her favourite subject – agriculture and all the various projects she has undertaken to attract youngsters to the field, quite literally.

Lokur hails from Karnataka’s Belgaum district and lives on her farm spread over 22 acres. With her team of eight, which includes three women, she grows organic vegetables and fruits. Her focus is more on sowing, planning marketing networks and working on the utilisation of the byproducts of vegetables. In addition, Lokur runs a dairy.

Like Lokur, Teilang Rani, 30, is also passionate about the land. She may be a teacher by profession but spends about four hours a day getting her hands dirty in the fields. Her family owns 11 acres of land in Meghalaya’s Ri Bhoi district. Here she, along with her grandparents, grows vegetables and paddy. The family cultivates bamboo on an additional acre. About a decade ago, Teilang began fermenting tender bamboo shoots to make curries, soup, pickles and chutneys, and, today, she has developed this as a business model.

Bhagwati Devi from Sikar in Rajasthan has been honoured for inventing a way to protect crops from termites by planting a variety of wood, locally known as "safedi ki lakdi".

It’s this love for agriculture and their acumen for innovation that recently brought Lokur and Teilang and Bhagwati Devi of Rajasthan national recognition. They were the only women felicitated along with 28 other “farmer scientists” from across 18 states in India by the Centre for International Trade in Agriculture and Agro-based Industries (CITA) and the Department of Agriculture, Rajasthan. The Union Agriculture Minister and Rajasthan’s Chief Minister were also present at the function held in Jaipur, where the trio was honoured for their innovative practices and scientific research to enhance crop yields, improve seed varieties and scale up soil productivity. Local woman Bhagwati Devi from Sikar has invented a way of protecting crops from termites by planting a variety of wood, locally known as “safedi ki lakdi”.

For Teilang, this was only the second time that she has ventured out of Meghalaya. She lives with her grandparents, husband, sister and an uncle, in the village of Umden Arka. “Ours is a matrilineal society. I got married in January this year and my husband came to live with me. He works in a church 80 kilometres from my village, and visits me only twice a month,” she says. Teilang teaches English to students from Class Five to Class Ten between 9 am and 3 pm, but before she goes to school, she works for an hour in the fields.

Elaborating on her award-winning business model, Teilang explains, “We select 45-60 cm long tender bamboo shoots for fermentation. These are stunted shoots, which are not likely to produce good quality bamboo for use in constructing houses and so on. The shoots are cut into slices and then put into water in large jugs after their sheaths have been removed. They are kept like this for about a month to ferment. We consume this bamboo in more than one form – as pickle, in fish or pork curry and even in various soups.” Teilang has taken her bamboo shoot pickle to village exhibitions and other marketplaces, and makes about Rs 10,000 a year by selling her produce.

Lokur, on the other hand, gave up a flourishing bag manufacturing business in Mumbai to return to farming in her native village of Udikeri, nine years ago. “I have two older sisters and a younger brother. In 2002, my father, a health inspector, fell ill. My sisters were married and my brother was busy studying. So I returned home to take care of my ailing father for a spell. But even after my father recovered, I decided to stay on. I have been on our farm with my father since I was three, so I was naturally drawn to agriculture although I had no formal training. Since I wasn’t a particularly good student, I did not complete my graduation, but I now explored the possibility of a short-termcourse in Agriculture,” she recalls.

Lokur’s family owned seven acres and 32 gunta (one gunta is an area 36 ft by 36 ft) when she first put her hands to the plough. “For one year, my father made it a point to come to the fields with me to guide me. I started with a nursery but we were unable to meet our day-to-day expenses. Then I bought a buffalo to sell milk. The next year, I bought four more. In 2005, I took a loan of Rs 6.4 lakh from the State Bank of India to procure 18 Murrah buffaloes from Haryana for dairy production. Simultaneously we worked on developing vermicompost. By 2006, we were into the commercial sale of vermicompost. Today we grow vegetables which we supply to Bangalore and neighbouring districts. Now I have developed my own marketing network.”

When Lokur realised that seeds were getting too expensive, she started collecting local seeds. Three years on, she has been able to collect 22 varieties of local vegetable seeds. She has also added more land to her farm and is now the proud owner of 19 acres, apart from three acres taken on lease.

As if all this is not enough, she also conducts spoken English classes for local students on the weekends. “These are regular school-going children who come to me for vocational training. I have six boys and five girls as students. Once a month, I even train farmers in innovative farming, in making vermicompost the most natural way and on how to use organic hybrids to increase harvests,” Lokur says.

Lokur is now planning to register a non-government organisation. She has already decided on the name: Prerna (inspiration). Apt indeed, seeing how she has inspired at least 20 young people over the last nine years to give up business activities and take up agriculture.

Lokur, Teiland and Bhagwati are women with their hands on the plough and an instinct for the land. In a predominantly agrarian country like India, they can help transform the landscape.

Written by Renu Rakesh for Women’s Feature Service (WFS) and republished here in arrangement with WFS.