Mayyil rice miracle: Output is doubled, farmers start firm
The 18-km drive from Kannur town to Mayyil in Kerala ends in a diorama of paddy glistening in its fields. It is a wonderful sight and the verdant fields speak of local prosperity.
Not long ago, these same fields were fallow. Growing paddy was not remunerative so farmers looked elsewhere for an income. But even as the situation seemed hopeless, change arrived serendipitously in the past 18 months.
The Mayyil gram panchayat, worried about the steep decline in paddy farming, searched for answers. They found inspiration in P.K. Radhakrishnan, agriculture officer at the Mayyil Krishi Bhavan. He advised them to increase productivity, be open to mechanisation, ensure a good price and launch a farmer-producer company.
In August 2016 the Mayyil gram panchayat took the first step. It launched a Total Rice Campaign or Sampoorna Nellu Krishi to revive paddy farming.
A small local effort soon snowballed into a movement. Farmers, agricultural scientists, government agencies, politicians, youth, and women pitched in to make the Total Rice Farming programme a great success.
As the farmers began to think differently, a mini rice mill, which turns small quantities of paddy into rice, liberated them from the clutches of big mills. It allowed farmers to locally sell and consume the rice they grew.
Mayyil today has its own farmer-producer organisation (FPO) called the Mayyil Rice Producers’ Company (MRPC), which brands, mills, and markets its own rice. The area under paddy has doubled from 300 hectares to 600 hectares — the highest in Kerala.
Nearly every farmer has a happy story to tell. Perhaps the funniest is of Krishnan Master, now in his early seventies. Master had gone abroad to live with his son for many years, leaving his field fallow. He returned to his village recently and could not believe his eyes! His field was miraculously dense with lush paddy, planted by the panchayat.
In fact, paddy productivity has increased a whopping 4.5 times. In 2016-17, Mayyil harvested 645 tonnes. In 2017-18, this increased to 3,000 tonnes.
A mini rice mill called Maruthi emerged as a real champion. Powered with a 3 HP motor, it can convert 120 kg of paddy into rice in an hour. Thirteen mini rice mills, including a mobile one, are now churning out various types of rice and another 50 mini mills are in the pipeline.
Maruthi’s success has resulted in the closing down of two big rice mills. “We can offer them our mini rice mill, if they want,” says T.K. Balakrishnan, managing director of the MRPC, in sympathy.
Mayyil is now a model in its own right. It is built around local farming, local milling, local consumption, and local sales. It ensures food security and an income for farmers.
Less than two years ago, the situation was vastly different. The Mayyil panchayat is in the lateritic zone of north Kerala. Spread over 33.08 sq. km, the panchayat consists of two villages, Mayyil and Kayaralam, with a population of 34,998. Around 6,000 families live here and one-third of them cultivate paddy on tiny fields from as little as 4,000 sq. ft to three acres. Land is also taken on lease.
Kerala Agriculture Minister V.S. Sunil Kumar (centre) & James Mathew, MLA (right), transplanting paddy in Mayyil
Paddy cultivation was declining because of high production costs and low returns on rice. Transplanting paddy, which requires long hours of standing in slush, was mostly done by women over 60 years old. They would harvest 20 to 21 kg per day and be given 15 kg for their labour.
Rice farmers got a raw deal at every stage. After the paddy was harvested, Supplyco, a state government agency, would procure paddy at a fixed price of, say, Rs 23.30 per kg. But the farmer had to go through complicated formalities to sell to the government and both procurement and payment were always inordinately delayed.
Since most farmers do not have storage facilities they were compelled to offload their paddy, before it got spoiled, to rice mills at a lower price. In Mayyil, they used to sell their paddy to beaten rice or poha mills, which would pay them a measly Rs 17 per kg.
The paddy procured by the government was sent to big mills. The rice that was milled was sold to buyers in other states, it is alleged. These mills would then buy inferior rice, adulterate it with colour to make it look like red rice, and release it to state agencies. This inferior rice would be sold through ration shops and the Maveli and Neethi stores run by rural credit societies.
The sad irony of the situation was that the paddy farmer sold his superior rice to the government or rice mills for a low price and then bought adulterated rice at a higher rate!
Raising paddy status
How did the Mayyil panchayat enthuse farmers and double the land under paddy cultivation? After all, it is well known in Kerala that paddy farming is not remunerative.
The MRPC’s mobile rice milling unit goes from door-to-door
“We attach a lot of importance to agriculture,” says P. Balan, 74, president of Mayyil panchayat. “All the other panchayats give preference to road construction. They allocate only 40 percent or less for agriculture. We set aside 56 percent of our own funds for agriculture, probably the highest in the state.”
After the Total Rice Farming programme was launched, six months were spent in creating awareness. “We have lost count of how many meetings we held. All I can say is that about 150 people from different walks of life did not get much rest in between,” says K.K. Ramachandran, MRPC’s chairman.
The MRPC was formed in June 2017. The company has 10 directors. Its major activity is procurement of paddy at a fair price, its conversion into rice, and marketing of the branded rice. In October 2017, MRPC began procuring paddy at Rs 23 per kg and paying farmers on the spot.
“The panchayat had 300 hectares on which two crops of paddy used to be cultivated. The average production was 2,150 kg per hectare,” explains Radhakrishnan. “When we began our Total Rice Farming programme, 300 hectares, which had remained fallow for more than a decade, were also brought under cultivation. New farming techniques doubled crop yield to 4,320 kg. During the second crop, the yield trebled to 6,346 kg.”
“So, from an estimated 645 tonnes, paddy yield rose four-fold to 3,000 tonnes. Mayyil panchayat’s 6,000 families would require 1,000 tonnes of rice or 1,500 tonnes of paddy for their own consumption. Now they have almost double. This means not only are the farmers food-sufficient, they also have an equal amount they can sell,” explains Radhakrishnan.
Ramachandran owns half an acre and takes another acre on rent. “We used to cultivate enough paddy for our own family in the past. But last year, we had a surplus of one tonne. I sold it to our company and earned Rs 23,000,” he says.
Lakshmanan, 54, has a little less than an acre and takes another half an acre on rent. His family of five did not have any surplus to sell all these years. This time he sold 4,000 kg at Rs 30 per kg to MRPC for producing seeds.
Balakrishnan explained that they ensured all the advice given by agricultural scientists was dutifully followed by each farmer. It was dedication, he said, that really helped them hike productivity to an amazing level.
At the grassroots, paddy farmers are organised into 25 paddy farming committees or padasekaras. Each padasekara oversees 25 to 175 acres and strives to improve productivity with the help of the panchayat, the Krishi Vigyan Kendra, and the MRPC.
The Mullakkodi padasekara has 100 members and supervises 175 acres. “Till two or three years ago, we had only 100 acres, mostly on rent, for cultivation. We grow a local variety of rice called Vellariyan. Our fields used to yield only 600 to 700 kg of paddy per acre. After we began applying a traditional growth promoter prescribed in the Vrukshayurveda, our crop yield increased to about 1,200 kg per acre. Now more people are coming forward to cultivate fallow fields,” says Chandrasekharan, secretary of this padasekara.
Keezalam is a big padasekara samithi with 150 acres and an energetic secretary, U. Ravindran. Two years ago, just 50 acres in the first crop and 28 acres in the second crop were being cultivated. About 100 acres were lying fallow.
The padasekara samithi had about Rs 1.5 lakh of subsidy money that arrived late and was slated to be disbursed to farmer-members. Ravindran convened a meeting and suggested using the money as capital to bring more fallow land under the plough. Everyone agreed. The committee went door-to-door, meeting landowners. It undertook the work of soil preparation and then the landowners took over.
Subsequently, committee members decided to use the profits from the first crop to bankroll the second crop. “In 2015-16 we cultivated only 78 acres. Last year, paddy cultivation increased to 290 acres,” says Ravindran.
Inspired by this success, the committee used the next round of incentive money to buy a small building with four rooms for Rs 6.2 lakh to be used as “the committee’s machinery storeroom, mini rice mill, and meeting place,” says Ravindran.
Many locals voluntarily joined this mission. At Bamnacheri, all 20 acres were lying fallow and the padasekara was inactive. Padmanabhan, 54, who does not even have farmland, motivated people to restart cultivation. The result was that 20 acres got cultivated in the first crop. A. Anoopkumar, 42, used his own money to persuade people to start farming. Around 20 acres were brought under paddy cultivation thanks to his efforts.
At first, farmers relied on labour for cultivation. Mechanisation was not introduced. Yet, yields increased evenly. Radhakrishnan says that with perfect farming practices, 4,356 sq. ft can produce 300 kg of paddy, or a hectare 7.5 tonnes.“In my opinion there were five customised improvisations that brought about change,” he said.
First was the application of dolomite instead of lime to neutralise soil acidity. Dolomite has a more lasting effect than lime so it helps uptake of nutrients for a longer period. Second was tilling with a tractor instead of tillers. It resulted in deeper ploughing and more aeration. Third was quality seeds. For the first crop, seven paddy seed varieties were used. For the second crop, just two were permitted. “One variety for one padasekara facilitated simultaneous agricultural operations and kept pest and diseases at bay,” says Radhakrishnan.
The fourth improvisation was more spacing between plants and shallow planting through transplanters. This increased the number of tillers or grain-bearing branches. Tillering, in fact, was phenomenal in about eight to 10 paddy belts. During a post-harvest public meeting, Kerala’s agriculture minister, V.S. Sunil Kumar, as a token of the high yield, displayed a paddy plant with 86 tillers that had grown in Manthavayal U. Kumaran’s field. Though it had 86 tillers, the effective ones were 52.
The fifth innovation was in techniques for building healthy soil with nutrients and growth promoters, such as haritha kashayam from the Vrukshayurveda. No chemical insecticides were sprayed. Mayyil rice is poison free.
“The principle we advocated was: healthy soil, healthy plant and wealthy crop,” says Radhakrishnan.
The first crop yielded encouraging results. But a second crop seemed difficult. There was not much time to prepare the fields. Farmers and volunteers were tired and burdening them with another energetic mission mode task could prove counterproductive.
The only solution was mechanisation. But farmers were chary. They made excuses: the transplanter and combined harvester would not be able to get down to their fields, production would be seriously affected, the area was too vast, there were not enough machines available, anyway.
Radhakrishnan approached his old classmate, Dr A. Latha, head of the Agriculture Research Station of Kerala Agriculture University (KAU), Thrissur. She was an experienced scientist who knew how to use their Food Security Army to take up such assignments.
Recalls Dr Latha, “It was a big challenge for us. We organised 15 transplanters from Tamil Nadu. We were all set to complete the task in 10 days. But, last minute, the Tamil Nadu transplanter owners reneged on our agreement. After an intensive search, we finally found the machines we wanted. It took us 25 days, but things went off smoothly and the community even honoured us at the end!”
Mini rice mills
However, higher productivity and an active farmer-producer company do not ensure farmers a higher income. The critical need is local milling. Otherwise, middlemen will lurk around. Mayyil’s search for a reliable rice mill ended when they discovered Maruthi, a mini rice mill manufactured by a Karnataka company that could be easily transported.
“The mini rice mill is the most crucial technological intervention in the whole story,” says Radhakrishnan. Maruthi has become the icon of the Mayyil rice movement. A total of 429 machines are now humming away across the state. So impressed was MRPC that it became Maruthi’s distributor for Kerala.
An awareness programme on better farming practices
V.S. Sunil Kumar, the agriculture minister, has ensured that farmer groups get 100 percent subsidy for this mini rice mill. They only have to pay the tax of Rs 2,000. In the past nine months, MRPC has sold 645 mini mills across Kerala.
Thirteen mini mills are operating in the Mayyil panchayat area. Two are run by women under a women’s empowerment programme. Thanks to Maruthi, many Mayyil families can now consume the rice that they grow in their fields.
Last September, Vijesh, a small farmer from Mullakkodi padasekhara, was the first to begin operating the mini rice mill in his backyard. Neighbouring farmers with parboiled rice and farmers from a 10-km radius bring paddy to his house for milling. His sister-in-law, Nisha, handles the milling operation smoothly.
Vijesh processes paddy for the MRPC for which he is paid Rs 9 per kg. He parboils the paddy, dries it and mills it. The MRPC has designed a low-cost parboiling unit made with a 200-litre barrel which costs Rs 10,000. In the past seven months, Vijesh has processed five tonnes of paddy for the MRPC and milled six tonnes for the villagers.
K.P. Vinod, a progressive farmer, runs another milling unit at Kandakai. In the past four months, he has milled one tonne of paddy for his neighbours. About 30 families, in a radius of two km, bring paddy to him for milling. His wife, Padma, mills the rice.
Vinod has processed nine tonnes of paddy for MRPC. “I have earned Rs 16,000 processing paddy part time. We spent less than Rs 2,000 on electricity. In thick paddy areas, a small family can easily earn a living by running this mini mill full time,” says Vinod. The mini mill, with a few adjustments, can churn out semi-polished rice and polished white rice. Unpolished rice, which retains the bran, can also be made but this version is not very popular.
The MRPC has also been running a mobile rice milling unit mounted on a Tata Ace owned by Jignesh Chappadi, a graduate. Chappadi does his rounds five days a week. If the quantity of paddy to be milled is small, customers have to bring it to his vehicle, parked at a central location. “I mill anything from 300 to 450 kg a day,” he says.
Twice a week, Jignesh’s assignment is to deliver rice to MRPC’s customers. His mini truck then sports a signboard, Ari Vandi or Rice Vehicle. “Qualitatively, our rice is superior. It is free of insecticide and adulteration. After calculating production costs and a decent margin for farmers, our company’s policy is to pay Rs 30 for a kg of paddy to farmers. But currently we are paying Rs 23,” says Ramachandran.
Since December 2017, MRPC has been selling rice from their Mayyil office and two retail outlets in nearby cities.
The MRPC has procured 48 tonnes of paddy till now. It has sold 24 tonnes of rice milled by nine mini rice mills. The MRPC sells this milled rice locally through three outlets. Average monthly sales are about six tonnes per month. The MRPC also takes part in exhibitions and delivers rice in bulk to far-off customers.
The company is branding their rice as Mayyil Rice. They will soon be selling one, five, 10, and 20 kg of rice packaged neatly in cotton bags. Last year, MRPC’s turnover was almost Rs 3 crore. A few farmers from various padasekaras sell unpackaged rice for Rs 50 per kg directly to buyers from their home.
K.P. Vinod with his paddy crop
Mayyil Rice is priced between Rs 60 and Rs 70 per kg, depending on the variety. There is no dearth of customers. Most buyers are from the middle class and from areas outside the Mayyil panchayat. Poor families who go to the Maveli and Neeti stores buy a cheaper variety for Rs 30 a kg. In the open market, ordinary polished chemical-laden rice costs Rs 45-50 per kg.
Balakrishnan, managing director of MRPC, is planning to set up a three-tiered network of 50 mini rice mills before the onset of the monsoon. Each padasekara will have 25 mini rice mills for their own use. They can sell their surplus rice on their own or they can hand it over to the MRPC.
Another 15 mills will be provided to farmer-entrepreneurs. They can mill their own rice and for other farmers as well. Here, too, farmers can sell rice on their own or to the MRPC. Ten mills will be retained by the MRPC to process the paddy they procure and market it.
The company plans to open 10 kiosks in different towns of Kannur district in the next few months. The kiosk has been designed but construction is yet to begin.
“Once all these mills start operating, every home will have a mill within a kilometre,” says Balakrishnan.
Farmers are invariably short of space for post-harvesting operations. Luckily for MRPC, there were two facilities they could use without spending money — a poly house and a government building owned by the zilla panchayat. The poly house had been built by cluster farmers for plant propagation. Fortuitously, during the paddy drying period, plant production does not take place. The new government building was lying idle and the company took it on rent. It now houses MRPC’s new milling machines and paddy.
But there are issues, too. Mini mill owners need space to dry paddy close to their household milling units. Also, the MRPC is concerned that the Total Rice Farming movement will lose momentum, if there is no consistent follow-up.
Radhakrishnan is optimistic. “ The MRPC is different from other FPOs. Mostly, its objective is to keep the middleman at bay by linking producers with consumers. Unlike other FPOs, MRPC provides good seeds, technical advice, and machinery support to padasekara samithis. It resolves problems that arise. This ‘seed-to-market’ strategy improves the quality of produce and changes the lives of its members.”
Convergence and results
“Mayyil’s historic results in paddy cultivation last year aren’t just due to 18 months of work,” explains Balakrishnan. “In fact, we have been regularly experimenting in a few padasekaras and assessing outcomes. One lesson we learnt is that soil treatment is more vital than just treating plants,” recalls Balakrishnan. The MRPC appointed 10 experts to ensure all farmers got access to such information.
The media, too, helped by spreading news of the Mayyil rice movement, encouraging more farmers to get back to the soil. “Landowners are saying they won’t give their fields on rent next year, an indication that they want to return to farming,” says Balakrishnan. Anil Kumar Odesha, a local photographer, is filming a documentary on Mayyil’s efforts.
The local MLA, James Mathew, helped organise video conferencing so that paddy farmers could interact with agriculture experts. The Mayyil panchayat has 33 public libraries, popular with locals. Four such video conferences were held at 17 libraries.
The Krishi Vijnan Kendra in Kannur got seriously involved. Dr P. Jayaraj, programme coordinator, and his colleagues created awareness among farmers. “We studied all the drawbacks in farming practices and suggested corrective measures. That, by itself, brought in miraculous results.”
The miraculous result can be also gauged by the drop in chaff. “Farmers used to get 60 to 62 percent of rice. Thirty percent was chaff. But this time chaff is only three to four percent, and farmers got 70 to 75 percent of rice,” says Vinod. The reason, explains Radhakrishnan, is that nitrogen from manure was reduced.
The Food Security Army also played a big role. “They arrived from Thrissur, got down to work with no hesitation and happily carried out farming operations. Farmers here were most impressed,” says Jayaraj.
Another offshoot of intensive paddy cultivation was an increase in water availability. “To grow paddy, we had water standing on about 1,500 acres for six months,” says V.O. Prabhakaran, a panchayat member. “This season our rivers and rivulets have ample water. The major reason is resumption of paddy farming on a large area.”
For the Total Rice Farming movement, Mayyil panchayat received Rs 2.3 crore. The three panchayati raj institutions gave Rs 1,11,00,456. The agriculture department and its agencies contributed Rs 1.19 crore. Mechanisation of farm operations worked out to Rs 80 lakh. About Rs 26.6 lakh of MGNREGA funds were used for building bunds and drainage systems connected to paddy farms.
Kerala’s agriculture minister participated in replanting and harvesting of paddy and the inauguration of the first mini mill. “We have distributed more than 400 such mills with full subsidy. Forty-seven local brands of rice are now in the pipeline in Kerala. We are encouraging small farmer groups to decentralise rice marketing and ensure quality rice for consumers.”
There are many lessons that the farming community can learn from the Mayyil experience. A farmer-producers’ company is important. So is increasing productivity. Farmers need to embrace mechanisation. And appropriate technology is critical — the mini rice mill has done wonders for paddy farmers.
Contacts: T.K. Balakrishnan, MD, Mayyil Rice Producers' Company. Phone: 94961 229244; Email: email@example.com
P.K. Radhakrishnan, Agriculture Officer, Mayyil. Phone: 94474 87712; Email:firstname.lastname@example.org