Breaking with tradition to make farming profitable

'Kumizh' Shanmugasundaram at his farm in Pudukkottai district/DH Photo

‘What is life if you don’t think differently?’ This thought prompted M Aasaithambi and ‘Kumuzh’ Shanmughasundaram, both born into farmers’ families in the Cauvery Delta, to explore new avenues in agriculture and make farming profitable.  

Aasaithambi, hailing from Kuruvadipatti village in Thanjavur district, and Shanmughasundaram, a native of Pudukkottai district, are among the new crop of middle-aged farmers who are trying to explore innovative ways of farming in the Delta region. They have bid goodbye to the traditional method of cultivating only paddy and other common crops.

Shanmughasundaram has, in fact, ushered in a kind of a revolution in the Alangudi taluk, in Pudukkottai district, parts of which are dependent on Cauvery water for irrigation. More than 100 farmers in several villages now cultivate pepper in about 150 acres of land. They used to primarily grow paddy in the same land earlier. 

Shanmughasundaram explains that cultivating pepper is cheaper than paddy as a farmer needs to spend Rs 30,000 per acre for cultivating paddy. 

“In pepper cultivation, based on the quality, we are getting a return of two to four lakh rupees per acre a year. The saplings grow with the support of the coconut and jackfruit trees that allow growing of pepper in just about two years after cultivation,” he said.

He has also cultivated jackfruit, papaya and guava in many villages in Pudukkottai and some in the Sivaganga district, inspiring other farmers to follow suit. Some of these crops are grown in coconut farms, augmenting farmers’ incomes and even contributing towards the better growth of coconut trees. He advocates the use of organic fertilisers and solar power.

“Nothing is impossible. I have been shouting from the roof for the past two decades that farmers need to come out of their comfort zone and crops other than paddy. All the crops that I have cultivated in the past few years consume minimum water, which is suitable for the New Delta [Pudukkottai district] that lacks adequate water for farming,” Shanmughasundaram said.

The education advantage

Aasaithambi cultivated paddy for a long time before moving on to selling organic fertilisers and traditional varieties of paddy and other crops. He began thinking of out-of-the-box solutions to increase his revenue from agriculture after he enrolled for a three-year weekend course on farming at the prestigious Tamil Nadu Agriculture University (TNAU). 

“The course helped me understand that paddy is not the only crop. Now I earn a lot more than what I earned a few years ago and have learnt to use technology and from other successful models to make farming more sustainable,” he said.

Now that he earns a handsome amount from agriculture, Aasaithambi has enrolled his son in a B. Tech (Food Technology) course that will help him process the produce from his farms. The farmer said with people being more aware and turning health-conscious, the demand for millets and other organic foods is increasing every day.

The three-year course also helped Aasaithambi to meet like-minded people who have launched integrated farming practices, such as cultivating multiple crops in the same field, in the Cauvery Delta region.

“Now I go around villages and tell farmers to try different crops. For example, maize consumes less water but gives a good yield and several spinach varieties consume just 100 to 200 litres of water. We ask farmers to adapt themselves to cultivating such crops to reduce dependence on water and also earn a decent amount,” he said.

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