Enabling Marginalized Farmers to Have a Say in Crop Cultivar Selection

In Indervelly village, North Telangana, India, a few weeks after the last rains in mid-November, cotton seeds are ripening, ready for harvest and farmers are getting their fields ready for post-rainy (rabi) crops such as chickpea and sorghum. Sorghum is often cultivated in the less fertile plots, but is still an important food crop for the marginalized families of this region. Here, delicious rotis (soft flatbreads) are made with flour of the local landrace of this dryland cereal. Yet, sorghum yields are very low in this region (less than 900 kg per hectare) as only 20% of rabi sorghum fields are planted with improved varieties. Farmers still prefer local landraces  mainly because of their grain qualities determining the unique taste.

“Farmers’ adoption of improved crops varieties will be higher if they can choose a variety suiting their particular needs, and if they feel a sense of participation and ownership in the varietal selection process”, says ICRISAT crop physiologist Jana Kholova. “It is of utmost importance that the variety fits the local farming conditions: e.g. inputs (rainfed/irrigated, fertilized/non-fertilized), soil (shallow/deep) and so on.”

On-farm farmers’ participatory varietal selection/improvement is a successful method used to boost the adoption of cultivars in many countries; however, this approach is not effectively used to develop crop for under-privileged social sections in India. Studies have shown that lack of resources (fertilizers, irrigation, seeds, even manpower) plays a significant role in inhibiting adoption of improved varieties by farmers. Especially, smallholder farmers from socially underprivileged sections cannot afford to take the risk of trying out new cultivars which may ultimately not fit their needs; as a result, they are slower to adopt new varieties.

To achieve satisfactorily high rates of adoption, crop scientists need to understand the preferences and cultural background of the farmers and provide them the range of variety choice relevant to their farm situations and their crop management practices. In short, smallholder farmers need to be included in the process of testing and adopting new varieties.

Dr Kholova from GEMS has initiated efforts to involve farmers in remote areas of Telangana State (Pataguda village in Adilabad district) in farm testing of lines pre-screened for better production in low-input crop management practice. Feedback from the farmers will stimulate development of a larger testing network and inform crop improvement programs to develop cultivars more adapted to farmers’ needs. This would ultimately increase adoption of improved varieties of rabi sorghum with greater impact on sorghum yield, nutrition and farmers’ income.

The initial part of the experiment involved:

  1. Screening 50 sorghum lines for agronomic performance and adaptability to local farming conditions
  2. Planting the six (best-bet) selected cultivars back in the farmers’ field along with the local landrace (called Persa Jonna locally) and standard rabi sorghum cultivar (Maldandi) as checks.
  3. Analyzing the farmers’ feedback based on his/her preferences (look/feel/taste/yield).

The farmers participatory approach experiment is, as of now, in the initial stages, with the scientists trying to lay the baseline for a more rigorous study which will involve analysis of multiple socio-agro-ecosystem aspects. The scientists foresee that, with time and a greater trust between them and the traditionally marginalized farmers, these shall have more impact on the crop improvement decision-making process. This approach requires crop scientists to confront the reality of crops grown in the marginal land in the farmers’ fields.

Breeding programs of agricultural research institutes such as ICRISAT, when developing elite lines with drought/pest-resistance, high yields, and other beneficial traits, have to start with the end-user demand. By analyzing the main drivers of adoption of rabi sorghum, and by devising participatory crop breeding protocols that truly take into account farmers’ preferences, Dr Jana Kholova and her colleagues at ICRISAT are hoping that these adapted lines reach the most vulnerable sections of farmers.

About the authors:
Rajani Kumar,
Communication Officer, Strategic Marketing & Communication,


Dr Jana Kholova,
Senior Scientist – Crop Physiology,

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