Achieving even one annual harvest is a monumental task in the desert regions of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. This is why most farmers of the region stick to well-understood crops that give some semblance of a sure return on the investment. However, Raghuveer Singh, a farmer from Chandan village, about 150 km from the India-Pakistan border, dared to take a huge risk and has been successfully growing 9,000 pomegranate shrubs in the desert, earning several lakh as income.
“Everyone who knew about the experiment called it a foolish idea. The area is arid, dry and alongside a harsh desert. There are hardly any rains in August and September annually. The only source of water is groundwater wells or bore wells,” says Raghuveer.
Jaisalmer, falling in Western Rajasthan, receives an average annual rainfall of just 161mm. Moreover, the desert storms, along with the scorching summer heat, push temperatures to around 50 degrees Celsius, making the conditions unfavourable for agriculture activity.
The common crops grown by farmers are cumin, mustard and groundnut – all of which demand less water. However, the yield and the profits earned from it hardly help farmers feed their families. But Raghuveer had a different idea.
Outsourcing the expertise
33-year-old Raghuveer says the idea came to him in early 2016, when he visited a neighbouring village, called Balotra, in Barmer district. “The conditions are arid there, and I witnessed about 250 pomegranate orchards in the area. I was excited to see the crop and decided to grow back in the farm,” he adds.
However, the challenge was that no one, in a 100 km radius around his hometown, had grown pomegranate.
“I started doing a lot of research about procuring plants. I learned that pomegranate saplings were available in Maharashtra. The persons selling them also helped maintain them for a service fee,” Raghuveer says.
Feeling confident from what he learned about irrigation and mulching techniques, the farmer also decided to plant cotton. “I have 85 acres of land and decided to dedicate 35 acres for pomegranate and 50 acres to cotton,” Raghuveer says.
To prevent damage to crops, the farmer planted neem and thorny shrubs like babul along the storm-facing sides of his land.
“The natural fencing protects the plantation as dust storms first reach the plantation. The only first-line of pomegranate plantation suffered damage in harshest conditions,” Raghuveer says.
Four years later Raghuveer took his first harvest in March. “There were 4,000 pomegranate plants that reaped a business of Rs 11 Lakh, out of which Rs 7.5 Lakh were a profit. The second harvest is getting ready and will be on all 9,300 plants,” Raghuveer told The Better India.
From the cotton plantation, Raghuveer sold 300 quintals to earn Rs 7 Lakh in profits.
“It is the first time that I earned huge profits from the two crops. People were surprised at the bumper produce,” Raghuveer says.
Pomegranate Doomed to Fail
Saang Singh Bhati, a farmer from the area, originally felt that Raghuveer’s efforts were doomed to fail. “It is good to experiment, but taking up thousands of saplings to grow sounded insane. I was sure the crops would not survive.”
Saang says seeing the pomegranate survive for a year in the local harsh weather, he also purchased 6,000 saplings from the same source as Raghuveer to plant in his 24 acres of land. “I witnessed a good size quantity of produce for the crop on my farm,” he adds, proving that Raghuveer’s method was no ‘one-shot’ wonder.
Raghuveer says there is an urgent need for farmers to go beyond traditional farming in the area.
“Farmers grow crops like groundnut, tubes and millets only for survival and fodder for cattle. Growing crops without rainwater is a huge risk. The harsh desert storms make survival a challenge,” Raghuveer says.
Through his experience, the Rajasthan farmer feels that with the right efforts and discipline, success can get achieved.
“There are more efforts needed, like the timely watering of the pomegranate plants and following a strict discipline of maintenance. One should not entirely depend on outside labour, and personal intervention is needed. But with dedicated effort, non-conventional crops can be grown in harsh weather,” Raghuveer says.
The message he wants to send it to the farming community is that new experiments and techniques need to get adopted. “Every single drop of water counts, and if used judiciously, an abundant harvest can get produced,” Raghuveer says.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)