Mar 04, 2024

Sustainable practices in small-scale farming

Rhea Verma, PGDM-BM 2023-25  

Engaging nearly 148 million people1, India’s agriculture sector thrives on over 50% of the country’s land suitable for farming, with small-scale farming defining 85% of all farms in India2,3. In the heart of these fields, the conversation takes a turn towards sustainable practices which are not only important for the harvest but also ensure farmers’ well-being and the health of the agricultural land. Sustainable agriculture aims to meet the current demand for food while utilising non-renewable resources with consideration for future generations. It involves environmentally friendly, economically viable, and socially responsible practices. Socially responsible, in this context, refers to making ethical choices that benefit not just the farm but also the people who depend on it and the environment around it. Sustainable farming techniques emerge as a multifaceted approach to enhance productivity, profitability, and environmental protection for farmers.

What are these sustainable practices?

Numerous sustainable practices are being practised in India and worldwide. An important question while discussing these techniques is to consider the problems that these techniques may be able to solve for farmers to adopt them readily. Let’s talk about some of these practices and their benefits.

One key aspect is soil health, and practices like crop rotation play a vital role. Crop rotation emerges as a remedy, enhancing soil quality by minimising weed growth and optimising the nitrogen cycle through diversified crop planting. Additionally, crop cover techniques, employing both living and non-living covers, prove instrumental in preventing erosion and maintaining soil health. Living covers, such as legumes and grasses, serve as protective layers between primary crops, while non-living covers, like nets, shield crops from birds, insects, and rain. Collectively, these techniques contribute to reduced soil erosion, improved nutrient retention, and sustainable land management within agricultural ecosystems4.

Agroforestry emerges as a holistic approach, addressing issues of water scarcity and sustainable land management. By integrating trees with crops, agroforestry prevents soil erosion, recycles nutrients, and alleviates strain on natural forests5. Techniques like drip irrigation, rotational grazing, and rainwater collection are employed alongside agroforestry to mitigate water constraints, maximising both land production and water usage. Given the persistent global issue of water scarcity, these sustainable techniques are imperative for enhancing productivity and resilience in agriculture, ensuring a sustainable future for ecosystems.

In countries like the USA, Canada, and Australia, no-till farming, which involves growing crops without ploughing or tilling to prevent soil erosion, has gained widespread adoption. This approach is proven to increase water retention and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In hilly terrains prone to erosion, Contour Farming aligns crops along contour lines, minimising runoff, enhancing infiltration, and improving water availability while reducing irrigation needs. Mulching, another multi-benefit technique, involves covering the soil with organic or inorganic materials, conserving soil moisture, controlling soil temperature, reducing weeds, and increasing soil nutrients, ultimately leading to enhanced crop yield6.

Pest infestation is an ongoing problem that affects the yield of crops and hits farmers’ profits. The chemical solutions to pest infestation lead to several resultant problems like pollution and bio-accumulation. Therefore, instead of chemical solutions, IPM-Integrated Pest Management techniques can be deployed. These are some natural methods such as attracting beneficial insects, habitat manipulation, crop diversity, and using targeted control to address this issue.7

New-age sustainability techniques

Some new-age and unconventional practices that aim to propagate the idea of sustainability in agriculture are Permaculture, Biodynamic farming, and Hydroponic farming. Permaculture is based on the ethics of earth care, people care, and fair share and incorporates diverse elements for food security, biodiversity preservation, water resource management, and climate adaptation.8

Biodynamic farming aims to create a synergy between humans and nature, integrating ecological principles with spiritual values and using natural inputs for farming, meditation, and other rituals.9

Hydroponic farming, addressing nutrient-rich soil scarcity, grows plants in controlled water solutions, offering control over nutrients and PH, and hence can be applied in diverse settings, like indoor or vertical farms and greenhouses or vertical farms.10

Impact of these practices on different crops

Wheat – Due to techniques like permanent bed planting, surface mulching, and direct sowing without tillage, wheat growers may enhance yields by up to 10% while cutting production costs by 20%. 11

Rice – Rice farmers can reduce water use by up to 50% by using dry seeding and alternating wet and dry conditions in their rice fields, as opposed to constant flooding. 11

Sugarcane – By encouraging water-saving techniques, AgSri’s Sustainable Sugarcane Initiative (SSI) in India is revolutionising sugarcane agriculture. Farmers save up to 90% of the water by planting seedlings that are only a month old directly into fields through SSI. Planting patterns with wide spacing promote plant health, yield, and the effective implementation of drip irrigation technology.

A few impacts of this initiative are –

  • Increases sugarcane yields by at least 20% with a 25% reduction in chemical inputs.
  • Saves large quantities of water and upsurges productivity – 940,000 m3 of water saved annually
  • Increases the revenue of smallholders. For instance, the wide cane spacing permits the intercropping of vegetables, which boosts income and adds another source of nourishment12.

Pulses – When pulse crops are grown in rotation with other crops, the soil can pulses support more diversified and larger populations of soil organisms that contribute to soil fertility maintenance and enhancement. 13

Farmer success stories

Story of Adaribariki Seethamma of Andhra Pradesh

In 2019, Adaribariki Seethamma, a natural farmer from Pedalabudu village in Andhra Pradesh, used Ghanajivamrit treatment and minimum tillage to conduct pre-monsoon dry planting. Beejamrit-treated seeds were used to sow various crops, while groundnuts were sown separately and covered with dry grass mulch. Crops were protected by thorn fences, and good growth was guaranteed by routine treatments of Neemastra and Dravajivamrit. Her painstaking observation and PMDS method produced an income of Rs 28,000 from 0.30 acres at an expense of Rs 2300. 14

Story of Hirabhai Bhagvanbhai Vagh of Gujarat

A farmer from Landhava Village in Gir Somnath District, Gujarat named Hirabhai Bhagvanbhai Vaghis won the Best ATMA Farmers Award 2018–19 for using natural farming practices. He applied cow manure and used Natural Farming methods to cultivate wheat and groundnuts. According to the data, net profit increased significantly over three years, from Rs. 2.95 lakh in 2016–17 to Rs. 6.02 lakh in 2018–19. This indicates that Natural Farming is an efficient way to boost profitability. 14

Story of Babasaheb Shankar Koot of Maharashtra

On his 6-acre plot of land in Pimpalgaon Khurd, Maharashtra, farmer Babasaheb Shankar Koot used cutting-edge agricultural techniques. Along with various fruit trees and vegetables, he cultivated sugarcane, soybean, lady’s finger, and chili using Natural Farming and multi-cropping techniques. He also created vermicompost on-site and used homegrown ingredients like Dashparni Ark and Jivamrit. His strategy also included raising Desi cows as agricultural inputs. His creative farming techniques were successful, as evidenced by the considerable profits from the diverse cropping system: Rs 2,28,000 from staple crops, Rs. 16,67,000 from fruit trees, and Rs. 41,000 from cow-rearing and poultry services. 14

Challenges and Call for Action

  • Population – India’s expanding population strains natural resources and water. Farmers resort to chemicals for higher yields, prioritising profitability over sustainable methods.
  • Investment Requirement – Transitioning to sustainable farming requires investment in new tech and training. Access to subsidies, grants, and affordable credit can support farmers in affording these changes. 15
  • Lack of Knowledge – There is an information and knowledge gap about sustainable practices, which can be covered with education, campaigns, workshops, and creating awareness about the success stories to encourage farmers to shift to sustainable practices. 15
  • Customer Awareness – Awareness of environmental and health benefits can drive consumer demand for sustainable products, motivating farmers to adopt sustainable practices.

Implementation Steps

  • Balance incentives and outcomes: Consider short and long-term goals and risks when motivating farmers towards sustainability.
  • Know your farmers: Understand farmers’ willingness, risk tolerance, education, and behaviour patterns for effective policy design.
  • Keep it simple: Implement simple voluntary approaches instead of complex regulations.
  • Provide complementary support: Combine policies like training and technology for accessible sustainable practices.
  • Have a long-term vision: Support farmers financially for sustainability with a long-term government vision.
  • Create an enabling environment: Address infrastructure, poverty, markets, and prices to facilitate farmers’ transition to sustainability 16


Agricultural technology must transition from production-oriented to profit-oriented sustainable farming 17. Sustainable techniques require initial financial outlays and a shift from widely accepted traditional, non-sustainable practices. Infrastructure changes in industries need careful consideration, but in agriculture, the move is expected to bring about increased productivity, produce quality, profitability, and environmental resilience. Adopting sustainable practices is essential for India’s agriculture industry, even with the associated costs. Incorporating these methods protects farmers’ livelihoods and guarantees continued agricultural prosperity for future generations, in addition to benefiting the environment and the natural world. Therefore, India’s agricultural environment requires sustainable agriculture—it is not just a choice.

References –

1. India: employment in agriculture sector 2021. (n.d.). Statista.

2. small-scale farming | UNEP Law and Environment Assistance Platform. (n.d.).

3. Bera, S. (2018, October 1). Small and marginal farmers own just 47.3% of crop area, shows farm census [Review of Small and marginal farmers own just 47.3% of crop area, shows farm census ].

4. Kogut, P. (2022, March 30). Sustainable Agriculture: Beneficial Practices & Their Management.

5. vikaspedia Domains. (n.d.).

6. jwebmin. (2017, February 28). What is Mulching? | J K Cooper Tree Services.; J K Cooper Tree Services.

7. UC IPM. (n.d.). What Is Integrated Pest Management (IPM)? / UC Statewide IPM Program (UC IPM).

8. Permaculture, Organic, and Natural Farming: What’s the Difference? – Green Info. (n.d.). Https:// Retrieved February 14, 2024, from

9. Biodynamic Association. (2012). Biodynamic Principles and Practices | Biodynamic Association.

10. iberdrola. (2022). Hydroponics, a crop technique allied to sustainability. Iberdrola.

11. How to grow rice, wheat, and corn sustainably. (n.d.). Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved February 14, 2024, from

12. Sustainable Sugarcane Initiative – AgSri | The Gold Standard. (n.d.).

13. Pulses & Sustainable Food – Pulses. (n.d.). Retrieved February 14, 2024, from

14. What are the current challenges for sustainable agriculture production in India? (n.d.).

15. (2022).

16. What are the current challenges for sustainable agriculture production in India? (n.d.).

17. Farmer’s Success Stories – Natural Farming: NITI Initiative | NITI Aayog. (2017).

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