Using science – and cartoons – to help farmers in India

By Justin Cremer

January 30, 2018

A “passion for plants” honed as a young boy is what first attracted Rajaram Madhaven to farming but a passion for science is what got him good at it.

Madhaven, who grows a variety of pulses and vegetables on a paddy some 150 kilometres south of Chennai, didn’t take a direct route to farming. Nearly 35 years ago, he was working on oil rigs in rural India when he saw rural subsistence farmers toiling hard in their fields without any modern tools.

Having always had a passion for fabrication, Madhaven used his downtime to develop some tools that he thought could make the farmers’ lives easier. Unable to find a proper test site for the tools he developed, Madhaven decided to start his own farm so that he could put his new inventions to use and develop them further.

He admits that at that time his knowledge of the science of farming was “practically nil”. Unsurprisingly, his farming venture was not an initial success.

“I went bankrupt because I had absolutely no clue. I could weed it and seed it but I didn’t know how to nurture it. Until I could figure that part out, my tools would be basically useless gadgets,” he told the Alliance for Science.

His first attempt to grow maize (corn) resulted in a yield of just 700 kilograms – “a disaster”. But then Madhaven began researching how he could “farm scientifically,” combining traditional methods with what he learned from a good friend who was a soil chemist.

“I had no clue about how to test the soil and neither did my fellow farmers. I had no clue about irrigation,” he said. “This was some 30 years ago and at that time we were all doing subsistence farming. I had no access to any of the technology tools available in developed countries and communication with the outside world was impossible.”

After learning the basics of how to nurture his soil from his friend the chemist, Madhaven’s corn yield improved to nearly two tons. Continuing to learn and adopt new techniques along the way, he currently produces around 6.5 tons of corn in addition to a variety of other vegetables and pules.

He says that understanding and embracing the science involved in farming was vital to turning his operation around.

“I realized that a farmer almost needs to know more science than a medical doctor. You need physics, you need chemistry, you need astronomy,” he said.

When Madhaven tried to get other farmers on board with viewing farming as a science, he met resistance and confusion. To get his message across he turned to an unconventional medium: cartoons. He used his drawings to explain the basic concepts of fertilization and irrigation.

“I would draw a cartoon of a mother sitting next to a child who is crying for water. Now of course, a real mother would bring the child a cup of water. But I drew her picking up the child and putting him upside down in a bucket of water saying ‘Now drink’,” he explained. “This was a way to show them that without proper irrigation, you’re actually drowning your crops instead of quenching their thirst.”

Madhaven said he often has to find creative means to get through to farmers, many of whom are illiterate. As part of the farmer demos he holds across India, he demonstrates how investing in equipment, like a steer-driven weeding tool that he developed, can be a money saver.

“Many of the villagers assumed that since I was using this tool, I must be rich. But I’d ask them to tell me how much they spend on manually weeding their fields and they’d tell me that it would take 18 women and that the farmer paid each of them 100 rupees,” he said. “Okay, so that’s 1,800 rupees each time and they weed around three times in a 100-day span, so that adds up to over 5,000 rupees. Meanwhile, I spend about 1,000 rupees. So I say to them, ‘You’re the one who is wasting all of this money, so you must be a lot richer than I am’.”

Although he admits that his efforts to help others modernize their operations require a lot of “hand holding”, Madhaven says that it is ultimately up to the farmers to decide how they will work their own fields.

“I don’t force farmers to do what I ask them to do,” he said.

The same can’t always be said for opponents of applying scientific methods to India’s farms, Madhaven claimed.

“The educated are promoting organic farming in a big way and that is the main hinderance for scientific farming,” he said.