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Plowing through poverty

CIMMYT E-News, vol 6 no. 4, June 2009

As part of the global work to test and disseminate conservation agriculture, CIMMYT and partners have introduced and promoted new agricultural machinery in Bangladesh, helping farmers to improve their crop yields, food security, and livelihoods.

Unfazed by the potholes and near misses with oncoming traffic, Enamul Haque answers emails in the back seat of the car as a driver steers them through rural Bangladesh. The lush, green countryside streams past, and men on rickshaws slowly pedal past trees that hang heavy with jackfruits and lychees.

Haque, a CIMMYT cropping systems agronomist, stops mid-email to answer his cell phone. “That was a farmer wanting to buy a power-tiller operated seeder,” he explains after the call. “I put him in touch with Hasan Uddin Sikder at the Green Machinery store.”

Sikder is an agricultural machinery service provider who first imported power-tiller operated seeders (PTOS) from China in 2002, on a recommendation from Haque. Last year he sold 60 PTOSs-a two-wheel tractor with a seed drill-and this year he expects to sell 100.

“CIMMYT gathered the interested farmers, gave them training on the machines, and facilitated loans for them,” Sikder says, explaining why his PTOS sales have been so successful. “If CIMMYT goes to farmers, farmers believe them. CIMMYT has been with farmers since the beginning.”

Sonaton Kumar Biswas (right), a farmer in central Bangladesh, says he is more respected in his village since he became an agricultural entrepreneur.
Opportunity for entrepreneurship

Five years ago, Sonaton Kumar Biswas attended a farmer field day organized by CIMMYT in Sonaikuri, Rajbari district, central Bangladesh. The center and the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) demonstrated how PTOS can till the soil, plant seed in a line, and cover the seed in a single pass, instead of the six-to-eight passes required for conventional tillage.

Biswas bought a PTOS for his own land and says his wheat yields went from 2.25 to 2.7 tons per hectare, a 20% increase. He began renting out his PTOS to other farmers in Sonaikuri, charging them USD 49 per hectare. With his profits, he purchased new agricultural machinery and built a new house. “People in the village now respect me,” says Biswas. “Before I had no honor; now I am part of the school managing committee and a member of the Sonaikuri Audunik Krishok Somoboy Somity farmer’s association.”

“Farmers who use PTOS generally have higher crop yields and incomes,” says Haque, who was second author in the recent CIMMYT-BARI study on the impacts of two-wheel tractor-operated seeder adoption in Bangladesh. “Other benefits of PTOS include a faster turnaround time between crops, as well as time, water, labor, and seed savings.”

In another village, agricultural entrepreneur Md. Babul Akter watches as a group of children giggle and play around a PTOS. For the younger ones, the machine is perhaps as much a part of the village landscape as the jet-black Bengal goats that roam freely or the piles of chili lying out to dry. Akter started selling PTOS machines and spare parts at his agricultural store “Krishi Seeba Beetan” after CIMMYT training on the repair, operation, and maintenance of PTOS in 2004. “Business is good,” he says, adding that the demand for PTOS went up after a PTOS demonstration day. Farmers now come to Akter for advice on using the machine. “If he doesn’t know the answer, he just calls me,” says Haque, highlighting their close teamwork.

Overcoming adversaries

Despite these success stories, life is hard for many in Bangladesh. It is one of the most densely-populated places in the world, and around 80% of the population lives on less than USD 2 a day. A recent UN report estimates 65.3 million people are food-insecure and were hit hard by the recent rise in food and fuel prices. Agriculture is the single most important sector of the economy, according to an FAO report and crop yields must increase sustainably to support the population, which is over 156 million and growing.

As a relatively small country, roughly the size of Greece or Nepal, Bangladesh is home to intensive cropping rotations that farmers use to stave off hunger. Resources are stretched beyond what is normally considered “sustainable” and every square centimeter of arable land is used 1.8 times a year.

Two wheel tractors are ideal for Bangladesh where farmers typically have small land holdings and there is a shortage of agricultural labour.
Advantages of the PTOS

“Appropriate mechanization of planting, such as with the PTOS, enables farmers to prepare land and plant larger areas more quickly with less manpower,” says Stephen Waddington, who worked as regional agronomist in CIMMYT’s Bangladesh office during 2005-07. The PTOS saves farmers weeks of back-breaking plowing and means they put 43% less CO2 into the atmosphere per year, according to the tractor adoption study.

Because of Bangladesh’s hot climate, many crops can be planted only at the start of the cool dry season from late October to mid-December. Farmers in the southwestern tip of the country (Dinajpur district) are using the PTOS to sow wheat, maize, rice, and mungbean, immediately after the previous crops and when soil moisture is optimal. “With crops like wheat and pulses such as lentils, this timing is very critical for reasonable yields,” explains Waddington.

Crops must go into the soil at the right time and also at the right depth. Traditionally, farmers have sown seed by “broadcasting;” that is, tossing the seed onto the soil by hand. But in that approach the seeds end up at varying depths, so not all of them germinate properly. With the PTOS, seeds are placed evenly apart at 2-3 cm below the soil, says Haque. Farmers can use less seed and weeding is easier, as the plants come up in a nice straight line.

In central Bangladesh, farmers are modifying the PTOS’ seed drill to make a high-speed-rotary tiller (HSRT), which makes the machine ideal to prepare land for onion, garlic, and jute. Many farmers in Bangladesh follow a rice-wheat cropping pattern. But the HSRT facilitates crop diversification so farmers use the land more rationally, have a more varied diet, and increase their income through cash crops. “Using the HSRT, farmers can increase their onion yields by 2 to 2.5 tons per hectare,” says Shirajul Islam, a senior scientific officer with BARI’s On-farm Research Division.

Impact study on PTOS adoption:

Researchers from BARI and CIMMYT have been promoting PTOS to farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs since 2003, with funding from USAID. There are now 430 PTOS in operation in Bangladesh and more than 25,000 farmers are using PTOSs on some 20,000 hectares of land. Service providers earned an average income of BDT 81,003 (around USD 1,177) per year, and most spent the extra income on food, clothing, health care, education, and housing, according to the CIMMYT-BARI study.

Simply put, the PTOS and other resource-conserving technologies enable farmers to till the soil and sow crops more efficiently. This conserves and protects the productivity and quality of soil, water, and other natural resources upon which long-term agricultural productivity depends.

For more information contact: Enamul Haque (e.haque@cgiar.org), cropping systems agronomist, CIMMYT-Bangladesh.