From subsistence to commercial farming, from the green revolution to the gene revolution, Indian agriculture has come of age. The country once called as a ‘begging bowl’ has now become a ‘bread basket’.
The period corresponding to 1967-78 witnessed huge upsurge in food grains production especially in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The green revolution spread to millions of third-world countries with the result that absolute number of poor people fell from 1.15 billion in 1975 to 825 million in 1995 despite a 60 per cent growth in population. Since the Green revolution of 1960s, India has never looked back. Seven decades later, we have developed many high yielding varieties of all crops, hybrid seeds of different crops with superior genotypes, modern technology and vast network of irrigation facilities which allow multiple cropping sequences.
The country now has the largest area under cultivation. It is the largest producer of pulses, spices, milk, tea, cashew, jute, banana, jackfruit and many other commodities. We are the 2nd largest grower of rice and pulses and 3rd highest potato grower in the world. In 2013, India contributed 25 per cent of the total pulses production of the world, the highest for any country. Due to increasing demand in the market, rice production is picking up in India including white rice and brown rice grown in the eastern and southern parts. India has the largest cotton cultivation area all over the world after China and the USA. Another noteworthy aspect of Indian agriculture is that horticultural production in the country has now exceeded that of food grains.
Despite all this, the agriculture sector in the country is still constrained by its lack of remunerativeness. The traditional crops and the methods used have already taken much toll by degrading all our resources, causing biodiversity losses and climate related changes. The need of the hour is to grow special crops which are nutritionally secure, remunerative and specialised in one or more way.
SPECIALTY AGRICULTURE: All efforts are now being redirected towards specialty agriculture, i.e., growing of specialty crops, meaning crops with unique production attributes that give rise to market differentiation from common commodity crops. They are marked by grading, packing, marketing and distribution to the final consumer. Differentiating attributes may include some or all of unique genetics, specialised production programmes, and unique facility and management requirements. Specialty crops include fruits and vegetables, nuts, dried fruits, greenhouse vegetable crops, horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture. Eligible plants must also be intensively cultivated and used by people for food, medicinal purposes, and/or aesthetic gratification to be considered as specialty crops.
SCOPE OF SPECIALTY AGRICULTURE: The benefits of specialty crops are multifaceted. As current intensive agriculture has many negativities, the specialty crops offer an opportunity for crop diversification, thereby improving human health by providing a diverse array of food crops. Diversification with high value specialty crops also pays in terms of climatic resilience in ensuring optimum use of local resources. Leafy greens and other specialty crops can be cultivated to have increased concentrations of biologically active substances such as vitamins and minerals. These compounds can make food more nutritious but can also influence other quality parameters such as colour and taste.
As people increasingly become health conscious, the demand for specialty crops is expected to increase in the near future and this will create new market opportunities for the producers, thereby generating more income.
INDIAN FARMS AND SPECIALTY AGRICULTURE: In India more than 80 percent of the farmers are marginal and small, so raising specialty crops can go a long way in improving their incomes and in creating livelihood opportunities. There are many specialty crops that do not require much area and can be grown indoors or even in places where crop cultivation cannot be ordinarily done.
Mushrooms are excellent, profitable and one of the best cash crops for anyone who doesn’t have much extra space for cultivation. They are most often grown indoors and produce an extremely high return per square foot. Oyster mushrooms can be grown in just 5 weeks and can be sold at Rupees 200 per kilogram. In the processed form as pickles, these can be sold at much higher rates.
Micro-greens is another specialty crop that can be started with growing just 5 or 6 trays in a spare room or basement and start making an extra couple hundred dollars per month right away. Micro-greens only take 2 or 3 weeks from seed to harvest and can often sell for more than $15 per pound.
Lavender is another extremely versatile specialty crop. Its flowers can be sold fresh or dried to florists. The dried flowers can also be made into floral arrangements or wreaths or sold directly to crafters or craft supply shops.
Saffron, certainly the most expensive culinary herb, is the most expensive, niche crop the world over.
Different types of berries considered as Super Food are very nutritious, packed full of antioxidants and may even have anti-aging and anti-cancer benefits.
Bonsai, an ornamental shrub or tree grown in pots also provides plenty of opportunity as an alternative income source. Bonsai plants can range in price from $20 for younger ones to $5,000+ or more for top specimens.
Akin to Bonsai is the Bamboo, one of the fastest growing woody plants in the world. There are actually several cold hardy varieties capable of surviving winters where the temperature drops below zero. It is a versatile landscaping plant that can be sold as stand-alone decorative plants or used to create hedges or screens. Many current bamboo growers are finding it hard to keep up with demand. Bamboo is a good example that high profit cash crops are not always necessarily edible.
Flowers are some of the most profitable plants to grow and you’ll start producing an income in your first year. We can grow a wide range of bulbs, cut flowers, dried flowers and more. Many vegetables grown in green houses in the off season also qualify as specialty crops.
There are many profitable specialty animals too and the best choice is fast-producing broiler chickens. Raising broiler chickens is more quickly profitable than raising laying hens, which is commonly what small-scale farmers choose. Laying hens take nine months to start producing, whereas broiler chickens are specially bred to reach their target weight in just 6 to 9 weeks.
There are some more exotic options, too. Farming snails could be quite profitable. Escargot is considered a delicacy and high-end French restaurants in particular will pay a good price if you’ve raised them on an organic diet.
IN JAMMU AND KASHMIR: In the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the farmland holding small and fragmented and the farmers are resource poor and largely following wheat-maize or wheat- paddy cropping cycle. This has devoid the soil of its nutrients and thus the yields are lower as compared to national average which ultimately hits the income of the farming community. The horticulture sector in this Union Territory is the main contributor to its economy besides being a livelihood opportunity for a population of about 33 lakh. Reports reveal that about seven lakh families are directly or indirectly involved in this sector.
Reports reveal that about seven lakh families are directly or indirectly involved in this sector. The contribution of selected speciality crops viz different fruits and vegetables to the agricultural Gross Domestic Product in this UT stands at 8 percent. Specialty agriculture thus shows the way forward in this union territory. Various specialty crops of horticulture like Apricot, Apples, Peach, Pear and Stone fruits, and many other niche crops like Lavender, Saffron, Rajmash, Garlic, Potato, Apiculture and Mushroom in recent years have emerged as important sectors for diversification and employment generation. These crops can be value added to have some other product in them or item attached to them. This will make them unique and able to sell at higher price.
Also, diversification will ensure that the soil is not robbed of its various vital nutrients. Specialty agriculture is thus the way forward to promote remunerativeness and resource conservation.
The writer is Director Extension and Director Sameti SKUAST-K. [email protected]