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Onion Obsession: Skewed Farming in Western Maharashtra and Why You Should Care or Cry

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

Right now, I'm at my parent's house in a small village called Shelgaon in Solapur district, 6 km from Barshi tehsil. Being born and raised here, I'm familiar with agricultural trends over the past couple of decades. Let me attempt to discern a growing concern related to agriculture. Traditionally, our village is known for cultivating sorghum (jowar), wheat, pulses including split red gram (tur dal), black gram (urad dal), split Bengal gram (harbara dal), sugarcane, brinjal, peanuts, sunflowers etc. However, over 90% of the farmers have been choosing to cultivate onions since last decade. When I inquired more about this, I learned that the majority of the villages in western Maharashtra have seen similar trend. Basically, it seems like everyone has caught the "onion fever" and is trying to cash in on the high profits.

Shift in farming across western Maharashtra has triggered two issues:

  • As a result, this trend has created a shortage of essential crops that everyone relies on for nutrition

  • This shortage also explains the soaring prices of essential foods.

Let’s understand causes of this shift:

  1. The main reason for the shift is that onions generate profit by 3X or more compared to other crops, although it is highly volatile, like stock market and crypto prices

  2. The turnaround time for onions is only 4-5 months and can be grown in three seasons per year while other crops take more time and only once a year - from preparing ground to get yield in the market. Even urban businesses would take this path, wouldn’t they? - agile vs waterfall, many short-term engagement vs one long term

  3. Other crops such as pulses or sugarcane degrade the soil quality. After harvesting, it requires plowing, harrowing, and manuring which demand more efforts, resources, and costs to prepare the ground

Unsure if the government has identified this issue but we may want to pose a few questions:

Can the government enable diversifying crops with little intervening and policy enforcement?

State governments may want to take initiatives to help farmers make profit from diversified crops by dislodging unwanted stakeholders and processes involved in selling yield. Provide farming equipments to farmers on rent or discounted price because most of them can’t afford to buy at MRP

How might we get citizens engaged in farming without direct intervention?

This might sound like a crazy and vague suggestion but entrepreneures should start thinking collectively over how blockchain can be implemeneted in agriculture related businesses. Imagine a software developer putting money into growing potatoes using a blockchain based p2p platform. Both the parties having consensual smart contracts which offers trustless validation or based on 'proof of history'. One may ask but how not-so-digital-savvy farmers will use blockchain based dApp and answer to that is just how people adapted digital payments countrywide.

How might we cultivate entrepreneurial culture among farmers?

Farmers will not prosper if they just rely on produce from land. They must be engaged in linked businesses and by that I do not mean just cattle farming. When I asked one of my friends in the village, “How profitable is selling milk to dairy?”, to which he said, “Hardly anyone had made a profit out of this. It’s people who run a dairy that make the most money”. It may sound naive but what if we democratize who runs a dairy business or any other companies that depend on raw material from farms? Imagine many farmers come together with a small amount which can be invested in business, become shareholders and who can also govern the whole decision making similar to tokens used in blockchain for governance and community decision making.

I believe that little innovation and system thinking may give birth to new opportunities to uplift lives of struggling farmers.

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