Hill farming in Himachal Pradesh
The dominant features of hill farming in South Asia are small land holdings, sloping marginal land, and rainfall-dependent farming. The summer crop season receives about 75% of the total annual rainfall, of which much goes to waste through runoff. Despite this, a variety of cereals, fruits, vegetables, flowers, and medicinal, aromatic and dye plants (MADP) are grown.
The major rainfed cropping systems are maize-wheat, rice-wheat, and intercropped pulses and oilseeds in maize and wheat, while rice-wheat and vegetable based crop sequences are dominant under irrigated conditions. Only one cropping season is feasible in the high-hill temperate zone where crops are grown during the summer (April to September), as snow cover during winter does not permit sowing. However, two short duration crops such as pea-buckwheat and pea-pea are possible in a single summer season in the high-hill dry-temperate zones. The major fruit crops are apple, subtropical and temperate fruits including nuts and dry fruits. Hill farming is subject to a number of serious constraints:
- Undulating topography, small fragmented and scattered land holdings, with very limited use of inputs. In HP, 63.8% of the around 80,000 farm families have less than 1 ha, and only about 5% have more than 4 ha land.
- Due to the slopes, soils are prone to erosion, which is aggravated by heavy migratory grazing which has also led to soil degradation.
- Soils are shallow and stony, and subject to periodic water stress
- The land is inaccessible, and infrastructure, communications and mobility are obstructed by different physical, climate, biological and socioeconomic factors
- Despite sufficient water resources, irrigation facilities are meagre, and most agriculture depends on rainfall
- Improved technology has largely remained confined to irrigated areas and commercial crops
- Shortage of energy and labour, especially women and children, which constituted 75-80% of family labour, due to their engagement in other activities
- Natural hazards like intense rainstorms, hailstorms, floods, epidemic diseases, insects and an erratic monsoon
- In some regions monkey, wild pigs, stray animals and birds menace crop
- Reducing areas of cultivable land due to house construction, and land use for non-agricultural purposes
Since ancient times, marginal farmers in the NW Himalaya have developed many techniques to increase production. Most grow cereals, and nearly 80% of the area is under wheat, maize and rice. The other crops grown are pulses, oilseeds, millets, vegetables and fruit crops. In the higher hills, farmers also grow crops such as buckwheat, saffron, black cumin and grain amaranth. The major cropping systems are maize / wheat, rice / wheat, and the intercropping of pulses and oilseeds in maize and wheat. Monocultures are prevalent in the higher hills where farming is possible only in summer, but at lower attitudes rotational farming is traditionally practiced, often a sequence of barley, peas and wheat.
Monocultures (often potatoes or peas) are prevalent in the higher hills where farming is only possible in summer, but at lower attitudes rotational farming is traditional, often a sequence of barley, peas and wheat. Under irrigated conditions where rice cultivation is possible it alternates with wheat. On unirrigated land yielding one crop a year, wheat or barley rotates with maize and /or mash. However, in colder areas where rice cannot be grown and two regular crops are not practicable, wheat or barley are followed by a winter fallow, with millet, maize or buckwheat planted the following year. Where maize is not cultivated, wheat and barley crops are generally raised (on unirrigated fields) in the following spring season. This is replaced by buckwheat under irrigated conditons.
There are a large number of suitable alternative crops for marginal lands, for example rajmash, black gram, ricebean, kulthi, amaranthus, chenopods, buckwheat, malting barley, or proso, foxtail and finger millets. In the mid-hill sub-humid zones rice, wheat, off-season vegetables, potato, ginger, turmeric, garlic and onion under irrigated conditions, and maize, rice, rapeseed, mustard, soybean, linseed, black gram and horsegram under rainfed conditions are the major crops.
Since the region has a wide range of physiographic, climatic, soil and biological diversity, there is ample scope to intensify existing cropping systems through diversification, either by crop rotation or by intercropping. This will lead to yield stability, reduced potential pests and fungal invasions and higher profitability.
A large number of fruits, vegetable, spices, medicinal and aromatic plants are grown with relative advantage in the region due to the climate. Crops like potato and pea are sown in April and harvested during September and October. In HP, potatoes, cabbages, turnips, Chinese cabbages, lettuces or pea are grown alone, or intercropped with potato.
The major fruits are apple, apricot, walnut and citrus. Although HP is known as the apple bowl of India, low pollination, fruit drop, poor fruit set and the use of old degenerated varieties has resulted in low productivity. The lack of elite planting material and proper management technology are also major constraints. Potential horticultural crops for this region are plum, peas, peach, citrus and some non-perishable crops like pecan nuts, kiwi, pomegranate and olive. Tea and hops are important commercial crops in the high lands of the western Himalaya.
Agri-silvicultural practices are common. A traditional homestead or home garden has a number of tree species raised along with livestock, poultry or fish, mainly to satisfy the farmer's basic needs. In a home garden, multiple crops are present in a multi-tier canopy. The homestead has fodder trees such as Celtis australis (khirak), Bahaunia variegata (kachnar), and Grewia optiva (beul) in the upper story. The middle storey has bushes like Adatoda vasica, Vitex negundo, lemon and galgal (Citrus aurantifolia) as fruit trees. During the rainy season cucurbit vines are grown along with colocacia, turmeric in the field and vegetables during the winter season. Similarly in the agri-horticultural system predominantly followed in the mid hills-sub humid and high hills temperate wet zones, fruit trees are grown on terraced beds along with agricultural crops.
A common practice is to cultivate wheat, potato, peas, cauliflower during winter and maize, tomato, and chillies during the summer, either in monoculture or mixed on permanent terraces across the hill slopes. Fodder, fuel and timber trees are grown on bunds. This is a common practice in the sub-mountain and mid-hill sub-humid zone of HP.
Livestock provide economic and livelihood security to both landed and landless hill families. During early April people return to their villages from lower areas to manure fields during the early growing season. After this, shepherds gather the village livestock for summer grazing in high mountain pastures, and as summer approaches the stock migrates to still higher altitudes. In September or October sheep and goats are brought back to the lower ranges, following traditional routes. The age old practice of manuring fields during October in the lower ranges is still practised. The landlords provide the shepherds with food and other items in addition to a cash payment for manuring their fields. This greatly enhances nutrient recycling in these areas, and the manuring of the fields enhances crop productivity at low economic cost. Additionally, the sale of wool yields substantial economic returns.
Sheep, goats, cows, mules, donkeys and crosses of cattle and yaks (churu) are kept by farmers in the higher hills as a source of manure, and for meat and milk. Churu are preferred as they are well adapted to the area, and their milk yield is higher
Haymaking is practiced in some regions. The grass is cut after the dew has evaporated and the swaths left in bundles to dry in the field, under shade, along walls, fences, on trees or on roofs. After drying, the hay is stored over a stone base. The first layer is of poor quality grass or thorny bushes, with bundles of hay arranged one on another while maintaining a circular or elongated shape to the whole. This protects the grass from snow and rain, while stones and wooden logs on the upper layers provide protection against strong winds. However, the grass is usually harvested when it is completely dry and devoid of leaves and is of very poor quality and quantity.
For more information on hill farming in NW India, please contact Dr Naveen Kumar