Integrating red gram with cotton, tapping on natural capital

In this original CSA article, L.C. Channaraj explains the benefits of intercropping red gram with cotton, as learned in a pilot project conducted by Pipal Tree helping farmers in southern Karnataka.

Traditionally, farmers in Karnataka cultivated legumes, oil seeds and vegetables along with the principal cotton crop. But in recent years, mixed and companion cropping practices are declining; since the cotton crop is considered dominant because of market forces in play, men’s decisions have become center stage, undermining women’s traditional know-how of plant ecosystems. Past experiences and nostalgic memories of farmers indicate that the principal cotton crop was sown in the pre-monsoon months of April and May, along with sequential crops such as field beans, cow pea, green gram, and red gram and oil seeds such as castor and niger, followed by finger millet in the following monsoon. These traditional, time tested methods of companion cropping had not only replenished family food basket diversity, but also enriched soil fertility; the positive results of companion cropping could be seen even in its second year.

Since farmers have opted for genetically modified, transgenic crops in recent years, the generational traditional know-how that women inherited is undermined, and they are returning home in the evening empty handed because of prevalent cotton monoculture cropping by men animated by market forces.

2016 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Pulses. It’s necessary that nitrogen-fixing red gram gets integrated with other principal crops or even cultivated as a single crop. The red gram contains much more protein, amino acids, micronutrients and vitamins than rice and wheat. It belongs to the legume family and is suitable for fixing atmospheric nitrogen for crops needing nitrogen when planted with principal crops such finger millet and cotton. This companion-cropping methodology has been traditionally practiced, agronomically validated and time tested; the leguminous crops absorb atmospheric ammonium and transition it into nitrogen through the symbiotic association of plant roots with the biological system of the soil. This mixed-cropping methodology replenishes not only household food basket diversity, but also soil humus (the colloidal property of soil which produces humic acid which is the source of food for living forms). It has also been observed that red gram is very resilient and adopts itself to the shocks of climate fluctuations.

With the objective of integrating climate change adaptation strategies into the context of agriculture, Pipal Tree has been working with farmers of small land holdings in the fringe areas of Rajiv Gandhi National Park at H.D. Kote taluk. Their activities are aimed at resource optimization to balance food basket diversity and resilient soils.

Farmers’ groups engaging on the topics of food security, soil nutrients and moisture retention balancing have had discussions and have decided to integrate red gram varieties such as BRG-1 and BRG-2 with their principal crops. Agricultural scientists have traced traditional land varieties such as pink spotted red gram and white skinned red gram, which farmers have preserved for generations in the crop fields of Ramanagara and Bangalore rural districts; the endemic plant varieties were field tested to develop Bangalore Red Gram 1 and 2 (BRG-1 and BRG-2) and these resilient seeds are being distributed by Karnataka State Seeds Corporation.

Newly field tested BRG-1 and BRG-2 varieties of red gram can adapt to climate change and are suitable for integration with cotton crops in rain-fed agricultural systems. Pipal Tree procured these seed varieties from the Karnataka State Seeds Corporation, and they were distributed to the farmers who had shown interest through the farmers’ groups. Pipal Tree worked with the farmers to observe and record each stage of the plant growth, such as germination, growth, flowering and pod formation. The red gram varieties have now been well integrated into the farmers’ fields for the past two years and are yielding bountifully. Now the farmers themselves are engaged in seed multiplication and selection from their own plants to exchange with fellow farmers.

red gramOn the other front, women who were returning home empty-handed from monoculture cotton fields are now returning home joyfully with baskets full of wet red gram pods. Women, who had never returned to monoculture cotton fields once the harvesting was done, are now frequenting the fields and their movable feasts.

A little effort from Pipal Tree to integrate red gram with the principal cotton crop has given good results in both household food basket diversity and soil profile enhancement.

 

“I sowed the red gram seeds Pipal Tree gave me along with a tapioca crop, which grows for 8-9 months, and yielded 2 harvests. I am using wet red gram pods for cooking 4-5 times per week. The surplus dry pods were pulverized and stored for summer days and I am sharing wet pods and seeds with my fellow farmers.”

Saroja, a tribal woman from Maranahadi village

 

“I have a small land holding. I used to grow cotton in the rainy season, followed by finger millet. This year I sowed red gram wherever my cotton seeds failed to germinate, so I got sufficient red gram pods for curry preparation.”

Sushelamma, a tribal woman from Karapura village

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