Traditional farming wisdom, the best teacher


The wisdom of India`s traditional farming methods was recognized even by experts during the British rule, who spoke glowingly of the cultivation practices pursued by Indian farmers, all of which have been well documented.

In our efforts to strengthen our agriculture and food production, we can learn much from the wisdom of traditional farming practices and systems. Even during the days of British rule, several British and European experts who had been called to study traditional Indian agriculture spoke glowingly of very rich traditions and scientific basis of the cultivation practices pursued by Indian farmers.

In 1889, Dr. John Augustus Voelcker, of the Royal Agricultural Society of England was deputed by the British government to study Indian agriculture. Voelcker toured the country extensively for over one year. His report was published in 1893, and since then has often been cited as an authoritative work on Indian agriculture of this period. The essence of what Dr. Voelcker said can be summarised in the following extract from his report :

“I explain that I do not share the opinions which have been expressed as to Indian agriculture being, as a whole, primitive and backward, but I believe that in many parts there is little or nothing that can be improved. Whilst where agriculture is manifestly inferior, it is more generally the result of the absence of facilities which exist in the better districts than from inherent bad systems of cultivation…. I may be bold to say that it is a much easier task to propose improvements in English agriculture than to make really valuable suggestions for that of India… the conviction has forced itself upon me that, taking everything together and more specially considering the conditions under which Indian crops are grown, they are wonderfully good.”

More specifically he stated, “To take the ordinary acts of husbandry, no where would one find better instances of keeping land scrupulously clean from weeds, of ingenuity in device of water-raising appliances, of knowledge of soils and their capabilities as well as of the exact time to sow and to reap, as one would in Indian agriculture, and this not at its best only but at its ordinary level. It is wonderful, too, how much is known of rotation, the system of mixed crops and fallowing. Certain it is that I, at least, have never seen a more perfect picture of careful cultivation, combined with hard labour, perseverance and fertility of resource, than I have seen at many of the halting places in my tour. Such are the gardens of Mahi, the fields of Nadiad and many others.” A.O. Hume, writing in “Agricultural Reform in India,” (1878) wrote about weed-control by Indian farmers at that time, “As for weeds, their wheat fields would, in this respect, shame ninety-nine out of hundred of those in Europe.”

Hume’s tribute to the grain-storage practices of Indian farmers is no less glowing, “They are great adepts in storing grain, and will turn grain out of rough earthen pits, after 20 years absolutely uninjured. They know the exact state of ripeness to which grain should be allowed to stand in different seasons.”

Dr. R.H. Richharia, former Director of Central Rice Research Institute said that the importance of traditional wisdom of farmers is tied up with the fact that different varieties are needed for different conditions. He wrote, “If we were to think of a single characteristic feature of the rice crop which yields food for millions, it cannot be anything else unless it be its variability in the form of thousands of its cultivars, spread in India and in other rice growing belts of the world.

Dr. Richharia emphasised that wisdom of local farmers regarding diverse rice varieties should be utilised as the major resource for improving rice cultivation. He emphasised that rice farmers who possess intimate knowledge of their rice varieties should be involved in the research effort, “even to guide us with their inherent gift.”

Dr. Richharia wrote, “It may be of interest to record that during our survey in the Chhattisgarh area we came across rice growers in the remote area, maintaining a large collection of rice varieties, year after year, associated with local customs. This also explains how thousands of varieties are being descended down for centuries. Naturally such collections served as ‘Local treasuries’, but in the absence of an organisation to encourage such private endeavours, the valuable rices are fast disappearing, due to deliberate attempts.”

Bharat Dogra

Bharat Dogra

The writer is a Delhi-based freelance journalist who writes on social concerns.