Profit in a straw

In­stead of burning paddy straw, farm­ers in Haryana's Pa­ni­pat dis­trict are us­ing it to farm mush­rooms. This has eased pol­lu­tion, too

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Farm­ers in Haryana use paddy straw in mush­room farm­ing to not only make profit but also stop pol­lu­tion

A wouldd THICK HAZE eclipse the sun through­out the day from late Oc­to­ber to early Novem­ber,” says Naresh Ku­mar of Puthar vil­lage in Haryana’s Pa­ni­pat at dis­trict. Sit­ting be­side neatly piled up paddy straw in his small 0.2 2h hectare field, the 40-year-old farmer is rem­i­nisc­ing about the com­mon prac­tice of burning straw to clear fields. “Since the past two or three years, the haze does not en­velop the sky be­cause we do not burn straw any­more. We use it to grow mush­room and make money,” he says.

Ku­mar is among the many farm­ers of Is­rane block of Haryana’s Pa­ni­pat dis­trict who have started farm­ing mush­rooms us­ing paddy straw for pre­par­ing the com­post needed to grow them. This has nearly ended the prac­tice of burning crop stub­ble in the block.

The prob­lem of pol­lu­tion caused by burning of straws in the agri­cul­tural states of Pun­jab and Haryana was so se­vere that in 2012 the US’ Na­tional Aero­nau­tics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­leased a satel­lite im­age show­ing fires across mil­lions of hectares of agri­cul­tural fields in the re­gion. Th The smog and haze it caused even af­fected Delhi sit­u­ated 100 km south.

There were lo­cal con­cerns as well. “The bu burning of straw heated land and killed soil micro­organ­isms, i harm­ing its pro­duc­tiv­ity,” says Kavita, a farmer from Puthar, adding that now farm­ers not only use paddy straw in mush­room farm­ing, they also sell it to farm­ers in the ad­join­ing state of Ut­tar Pradesh.

In­dra­vati, a 60-year-old farmer of Is­rane, says the smog would cause her breath­ing prob­lems. “But I have been feel­ing bet­ter since the past two years,” she adds.

“Is­rane has 17,600 hectares (ha) of paddy fields and es­ti­mates show one hectare of paddy pro­duces 2.6 tonnes of straw,” says Ra­jen­dra Singh, agri­cul­ture of­fi­cer of Is­rane. “Mush­room farm­ing has en­sured that Is­rane has stopped burning about 46,000 tonnes of paddy straw a year,” Singh cal­cu­lates.

To­day more than 20 mar­ginal farm­ers run over 100 mush­room farms in Is­rane.“The to­tal an­nual turnover from mush­room farm­ing in Puthar is over 2 crore,” says

` Ra­jen­dra Singh.

What trig­gered the change?

It is dif­fi­cult to say if check­ing pol­lu­tion was the rea­son farm­ers started us­ing paddy straw in mush­room farm­ing. Liveli­hood and eco­nomic prob­lems may have been the key fac­tors. Farm­ers ear­lier used wheat straw for mak­ing com­post, but that was turn­ing out to be very ex­pen­sive. “Paddy straw from a 0.4 ha paddy farm costs only about 1,000. It is nine times cheaper

` than wheat straw,” ex­plains Ku­mar. “A small farm of 0.12 ha needs five tonnes of paddy to grow mush­rooms,” adds Ku­mar.

“I learnt about the use of rice straw from rel­a­tives in Khubru in Soni­pat dis­trict. The gov­ern­ment sup­ported us by pro­vid­ing loans on easy terms,” says Ashok Singh, a farmer from Puthar. Sat­pal Singh, Ashok’s brother, was the first to ex­per­i­ment with paddy straw in the vil­lage. “There was no

dif­fer­ence in pro­duc­tiv­ity.So about two years ago, we re­placed wheat straw with rice straw,” he says. “Wheat straw is ex­pen­sive be­cause of its de­mand from brick kilns where it is used as a fuel. Peo­ple also used it as fod­der be­cause it is more nu­tri­tious than paddy,” Ashok adds.

Ques­tion of dis­posal

The main rea­son farm­ers were burning their field stub­ble was the lack of op­tions to dis­pose of the straw. The eas­i­est way was to burn it. The gov­ern­ment had rec­om­mended that farm­ers should take it to the near­est biomass plant. But trans­port­ing it was costly, par­tic­u­larly in cases where biomass plants were not close to the vil­lage.

The prob­lem wors­ened with mech­a­ni­sa­tion of agri­cul­ture. When paddy is har­vested by ma­chines, only the rice grains get plucked and long stumps of the crop are left rooted. “In our hurry to pre­pare the field for the rabi crop, we would just burn the straw,” says Ji­ten­dra Singh, a big land­holder from Puthar. But when har­vest­ing is done man­u­ally, the crop is hacked al­most from its base, re­mov­ing the need to burn the stumps.

Ma­chine har­vest­ing also dam­ages the rice grain, re­duc­ing its mar­ket value. “Rice har­vested by ma­chines gets 400 to 800 less

` ` in the mar­ket com­pared to rice har­vested man­u­ally. Although us­ing labour to cut paddy straw de­lays the process of wheat plan­ta­tion, we are try­ing to deal with the prob­lem by en­cour­ag­ing farm­ers to cul­ti­vate late sea­son va­ri­eties of wheat,” says Ji­ten­dra.

Th­ese prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with mech­a­ni­sa­tion made farm­ers revert to man­ual har­vest­ing. This caused a con­sid­er­able decline in the prac­tice of burning paddy stub­ble.

Gov­ern­ment clue­less

The gov­ern­ment, how­ever, is un­aware of this trans­for­ma­tion. When con­tacted, Bri­jen­dra Singh, sec­re­tary and direc­tor gen­eral of agri­cul­ture, Haryana, said he would ask his col­leagues to study the ini­tia­tive. Suresh Gahlawat, ad­di­tional direc­tor gen­eral, depart­ment of agri­cul­ture, was also sur­prised. “We are not aware of such prac­tices but we al­ways en­cour­age farm­ers not to burn paddy straw,” he said.

Both Haryana and Pun­jab have en­acted laws to stop burning paddy straw. But they have been in­ef­fec­tive. “We avoid book­ing farm­ers. It would not help solve the prob­lem,” says Gahlawat. Use of paddy straw in mush­room farm­ing and the re­duc­tion of mech­a­nised har­vest­ing are bound to bring re­lief to of­fi­cials like him.

About 46,000

tonnes of paddy straw

pro­duced an­nu­ally in Is­rane block

of Pa­ni­pat dis­trict is not be­ing burned

any­more

VIKAS CHOUD­HARY / CSE

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