Perhaps there are areas of the rural experience that are even harder for us metropolitan subjects to fathom than agriculture. I’d have to hear some options to be sure. The very phenomenon that makes the countryside as such, the planting of things in the ground and its subsequent husbanding, stewardship, harvesting, trading, is almost by definition impossible in the metropolis: there is no land, there are too many people, there are too many other ways to make a better living that don’t involve tending to living beings growing out of the soil. The lower density of people in rural areas as compared with urban metropolises is perhaps one of the cardinal differences between urban and rural life. But the temporality of agriculture, its capricious annual rhythms, the long periods of fallow, empty time, pregnant, pausing time, the sudden race to harvest and to market, these extremes of temporality are also definitive of the experience of an agrarian community. Attempts to improve agricultural practices in the twentieth century always suffer from this lag — those that lead the innovations belong to the world of bureaucratic time, those that implement inhabit bucolic time.
The next major lesson for well-meaning urban specialists seeking to improve rural livelihoods has to do with landholding. Broadly, in most low-lying areas of rural India, one might divide the population into three categories: those without land (appx. 45% pop.), those with small and marginal holdings of under 2 hectares (44% pop.) and those with larger landholdings (11% pop.) The fact of landholding and the quality and extent of that landholding is a primary determinant of status, power, and capacity in rural India. It maps to caste status and dominance to a surprising extent. Those who have no land are often employed as labor by those who have large landholdings. They may also involve themselves in agri-processing or in wholesaling or in other secondary and tertiary activities involving the produce of the land. Those with small landholdings will mostly manage their own small fields themselves, or in many cases give them over on contract for someone else to manage. Small landholdings are never enough to support the family, therefore these kinds of landholders are always involved in other kinds of trade, manufacturing or services businesses. The people migrating to urban India from rural areas overwhelmingly come from the lower two tiers, those with small landholdings and those without any lands at all.
What if we were to focus only on that 44% of rural society with small and marginal landholdings, and explore innovative ways and means to make their farms more productive, more viable, more profitable for them? What if we were able to use agricultural innovations of different kinds to help those who currently possess unviable farms achieve a lifestyle that approaches that of a lower to middle class family in an urban center? There would be many gains here, not only for the rural economy, but also for urban India, where there might be some slight reduction in the rate of urbanization.
We would employ a user-centered approach to the redesign and reconceptualization of diverse systems which interact with the small farmer. This might begin with the seed, crop mix, crop rotation, irrigation practices, pesticide and fertilizer inputs employed and the knowledge of how and when to employ them. It would continue through to include the agricultural financial services, lending and crop insurance services necessary for the small farm entrepreneur. It would include the different kinds of governmental and private entities involved in grading and sorting farm produce and in distributing it further out into the marketplace. We might explore tiered farming, drip irrigation, micronutrients, kitchen gardens, alternative farm layouts, refrigeration and storage and any number of other small farming initiatives that might increase the yield, the productivity, cash income and therefore the competitiveness of the small farm.
This approach would also explore alternative approaches to the use of energy and the creation of different kinds of degradable and non-degradable bio-waste. It would explore how sensors, mobile media and machine-to-machine networks can improve farm management. It would seek to ensure that farm investments can be modified year to year in response to market dynamics and other contextual factors. In other words, this approach would be lighter, smarter and more agile than existing approaches, and we might therefore describe it with the phrase nimble agriculture.
Over the course of the coming months we will be deepening our understanding of the challenges and possibilities of nimble agriculture, and undertaking new conversations with agencies and organizations with a long-standing investment and interest in the agricultural sector. Our goals is to bring these dialogue partners together in one of the four tracks leading up to the fourth Design Public Conclave on the 29th of November in Mumbai.