Official policies in India try to influence our agricultural innovators to adopt solutions developed elsewhere, in different physical and socio-economic settings; solutions which may or may not be relevant to people and domains where they are imposed. As a result the zeal to innovate has been under threat, creating a sense of dependency. But Necessity is the mother of invention is a well-known saying, but invention can easily be replaced by the word innovation. There are hundreds of thousands of innovators all over the country, who are trying to find solutions to the unique problems experienced by them. They work in real-life research labs, the practical situations in which problems occur.
Potatoes stored in earthen pots fare betterVisits to rural parts and interaction with people there, reveals evidence that people have continued to try various new ideas over the years. One also finds people who are not much influenced by the mainstream market and keep trying indigenous means of innovation. This article picks up some examples from the growers and users of potatoes in various parts of India. The author observed various types of agricultural innovations in potato production, storage, and processing while working with potato farmers in various parts of the country.
Potato farmers in different parts of the country follow a variety of practices for production. Farmers in Gujarat innovated practices of cultivating potatoes in river-beds, which proved ideal for potato production, if used properly. They have achieved production of more than 60 tons per hectare, which is more than three times the average of the country. This practice was later studied by scientists and is well-documented in literature. Some farmers in Deesa area of Gujarat, famous for riverbed cultivation, have developed a flatbed method of potato cultivation on irrigated fields. They tried to combine practices of riverbed potato cultivation with upland potato cultivation. This method suits their soils and climatic conditions, makes more efficient use of resources and is comparatively more profitable. This has also been reported briefly in Honey Bee, the pioneer publication on indigenous knowledge in India, and was republished in Agricultural Extension Review.
Farmers in different parts of the country undertake intercropping. The common notion is that the use of land is more efficient this way. But some farmers have far deeper reasons to use intercrops. Like some farmers in Hassan district of Karnataka who intercrop either castor or millets in rainfed potato crops. Some of them say that they do it as the castor and millet are taller crops, and provide shade to the potato crop (which is a crop of cool climates) during sunny days. They also do so as it may not be possible to plant another crop after a harvest of potatoes due to lack of moisture at that time.
In North Bihar, after the introduction of winter maize in the area, some of the potato farmers started intercropping maize in potato. The practice has become so popular than many of the potato farmers in Samastipur, Muzzafarpur, and Vaishali district of Bihar intercrop maize in potatoes and some even intercrop a third crop of beans. Potato is planted in ridges, and it is about 15-20 days after sowing potatoes that they sow maize in the rows. Potato being an input-intensive crop, a lot of manure, fertilisers and water is used, which helps in the good growth of maize as well. Potato is a short duration crop of about 90 days and is harvested about 70-75 days after sowing maize. Harvesting potatoes acts as a weeding and inter-culture operation for the maize. While harvesting potatoes, the ridges are dismantled and the potato haulms are buried in the furrows. These may act as green manure for the field.
Some farmers also sow bean seeds near each maize plant so that it may be used as a support by the creeper plant. In this system, there is not much competition among the different crops grown, and the productivity as well as profitability per unit area in a unit time is higher than a solo crop of maize or potatoes. The details of this practice have been published in Economic News & Views.
Farmers know that country stores used in a hot semi-arid agro-ecology needs evaporative cooling and, therefore, are generally built near millet fields. Water is sprinkled around the stores or evaporative water coolers are installed. Bamboo platforms or racks, for better air circulation, are used in hot sub-humid and warm sub-humid agro-ecologies. Farmers in the northeastern parts of India store small quantities for dual purpose of family consumption as well as for the market. The losses in potatoes stored are nil to very low as housewives periodically inspect the tubers and get rid of tubers which look like they may rot soon. Such potatoes are consumed in the house and there is practically no loss due to rotting. Potatoes are consumed almost daily in this area.
Consumer preference for indigenously stored potatoes can be ascribed to their better taste due to non-conversion of starch into sugar; this makes them costlier and thus profitable for those who resort to such practices. It was found that farmers not only use their traditional wisdom for storing a substantial portion of potatoes but also monitor their methods closely to understand its intricacies. They take advantage of this experience to refine existing methods. However, these methods and refinements are influenced by socio-economic conditions of farmers as well as of the area, apart from environmental factors. Some of these details are reported in Asian-Agri History, 1998.
Potato farmers in Banaskantha district, lying in semi-arid eco-regions, where the probability of rain for two to three months after harvest is negligible, store potatoes in a low cost method. They heap the potatoes under the shade of a tree and cover them with potatoes haulms. Special care is taken during harvesting. Small heaps of 20-30 kilograms are covered while harvesting so that the tubers are not exposed to the sun. The heaps are normally made early in the morning before the sun rises. Damaged and cut potatoes, if any, are sorted out before heaping. Significant quantities of potatoes are stored in heaps for periods upto two months. The losses due to rotting are negligible. They, as well as the traders and consumers, are happy with the quality of stored potatoes as they remain quite fresh.
Farmers in Kheda district store large quantities in thatched stores for periods upto three months. It is interesting to find some such stores just close to the cold stores. Utility of the indigenous stores in the existing situations have encouraged farmers to install air-coolers, fans, and exhaust fans in these stores. There are some farmers in Aurangabad district of Maharshtra also who store potatoes in heaps. This is an area where tuber moth can play havoc with stored potatoes. Farmers periodically monitor the stored potatoes for tuber moth in a unique way. They put a pan full of water and a lamp near the heap at night. The moths are attracted to light and fall in the water. The count of the moths trapped in water provides an index of their severity in stored potatoes. Stored potatoes are disposed when the number of moths trapped in water is more than five or six.
Most potato processors in the country know the importance of Ujjain and Devas district of Madhya Pradesh. Storage of potatoes at lower temperatures in cold storage converts starch to sugar and such potatoes are not fit for processing. Fresh potatoes in required quantities are not in supply during all months. Potato producing farmers in Ujjain and Devas districts store potatoes in heaps (small quantities) and haudis (large quantities). Haudis are large trenches dug preferably under the shade of a big tree. Some build pucca sheds above haudis. They are dug to a depth till a particular type of soil, locally known as muram, is reached (normally muram appears at the depth of about ten feet). About a five inch layer of dry sugarcane leaves is placed all around the haudi and it is filled with potatoes. They are covered with dry sugarcane leaves from the top as well. This method has become so popular that farmers invest large sums in digging the haudis and constructing sheds above them. The potato is stored from March till about mid-July and most of it is sold to representatives of potato processing units in Mumbai, Delhi, and Punjab. The Central Potato Research Institute (CPRI) has tried to study these methods of storage scientifically after they were documented by a joint CIP-CPRI study a few years ago. (CIP is the Spanish acronym for International Potato Center, headquartered in Lima, Peru).
Farmers in remote areas of Tripura store small quantities of seed potatoes indigenously. They primarily store desi varieties for seed. Farmers have realised that greater use of urea during crop production affects storage negatively. A small quantity of chemical fertilizers (mainly urea) is used in the plot meant for seed potato production. Good plants are identified in order to store seeds of high-yielding plants. Undamaged tubers from the plants that give higher yields are spread in a room under the cot for about a month. After this, the tubers are stored on bamboo racks in the house; some have false ceilings in the house to store seed potatoes. One farmer stores it in earthen pots and says he has been doing so for more than 50 years. He stores about 100 kilograms of potatoes for seed every year. After spreading them on the ground, in the shade, for about one month, the good tubers are filled in 20 earthen pots, and the pots are placed one on top of the other in the corner of the house. Bamboos support these earthen pots. This farmer has experienced no rotting in the stored potatoes in a long time.
In Gujarat, where large quantities were stored in huge country stores, farmers had to throw a lot of potatoes that were partly rotten. Some such potatoes were sold in the local market after removing the damaged part, but most of it was lost as the life of cut potatoes is very short. Some innovative farmers thought of increasing the shelf life of semi-damaged potatoes by dehydrating them after removing the rotten part. This became a full-time activity for some farmers for about two months. Semi-damaged potatoes were available at very low prices. They started employing labour to process such potatoes in large quantities. The damaged part of the potato is removed and the tubers are blanched in boiling water, peeled, chipped by local equipment, and sun-dried.
Dehydrated chips produced in Deesa area are sold in the markets of Mumbai and Delhi and sometimes even in Calcutta. Its production on a large-scale has led to the production of chipping equipment by local artisans, who have developed different designs. This processing method could have been made more efficient and hygienic, but the entrance of big players in the potato processing industry has not allowed the development of this practice further.