Managing soil fertility constraints in market-led shift to high value agriculture for benefiting smallholders in the semi-arid tropics
Low productivity and cultivation of low value crops in the Indian semi-arid tropics (SAT) is the main cause for poor farm-based livelihoods. Poverty leading to low risktaking ability of farmers and production related constraints like widespread multi-nutrient deficiencies are major stumbling blocks for shifting to high value agriculture. Realizing the need to support povertyentrapped smallholders to connect to markets, the government of Karnataka state in India supported market-led shift to high value agriculture through a consortium of technical institutions and convergence of agricultural schemes. New widespread deficiencies of secondary and micronutrients like sulfur (52% farms), zinc (55%) and boron (62%) along with earlier known deficiencies of nitrogen (52%) and phosphorus (41%) were identified as main constraints for realizing productivity potential and a threat for sustainability. Policy supported initiative during 2011/12 showed more economic returns with diversified high value crops and strengthened 0.23 million smallholders. On-farm evaluations of soil test-based nutrient balancing to tomato, okra, brinjal, chilies, onion, cabbage and beans increased productivity by 5 to 58% over the farmers’ practice of adding macronutrients only. Small additional cost (` 770 to 1520 per ha) of balanced nutrition significantly increased additional benefits (` 5300 to 74,000 per ha) with fairly high cost-benefit ratio (1:4 to 1:82). Substantial returns enhanced risk-taking ability of smallholders to manage productivity constraints in future by themselves. Results showed that initial little investments in science and market-led social assistance programs should be a way forward for mainstreaming poverty-entrapped smallholders in other parts of SAT.