Pubali Saikia, 13, plucks fresh ripe tomatoes, as her classmate Sunti Saikia, 14, arranges beanstalks. The two teenagers are excited; it is, after all, the first produce of their life. Of late, the Titabor sub-division in upper Assam’s Jorhat district has been witnessing a silent awakening of sorts. And this awakening is happening in the many primary schools of the area.
Alongside their formal education, students are learning valuable lessons on farming and entrepreneurship, all thanks to a small but innovative initiative called Farmprenuer, which aims to train students from agricultural families in rural belts to become farmer-entrepreneurs. Pubali and Sunti are part of a 20-member young farmers’ club, who are growing vegetables in the 2,500 sq feet kitchen garden of Raidangjuri Nagabat Elementary School in Titabor.
These youngsters have grown carrots, radishes, tomatoes, beans, chillies and spinach using organic manure. The vegetables are used in preparing the school’s midday meals. “Our farmer club is the most exciting thing to have happened in our school,” says Pubali. “I have been helping my father grow vegetables since my childhood, but the way he grows them is out of his knowledge of traditional methods and he uses chemical manure. It is only after I joined the farmer club of our school that I came to know about organic farming. We now know how to make vermicompost, we have been taught how farming can be treated as a business and how we can link banking to agriculture. We all have minor savings accounts in banks now.”
Her father Lilakanta Saikia, 47, a farmer all his life, waits eagerly for his daughter to return from school everyday. “I am a fourth generation farmer and our entire village thrives on farming,” he says. “Our knowledge of farming was passed on to us by our fathers, but we were not aware of the harmful effects of chemical fertilisers. My daughter taught me about organic farming, she taught me how to make vermicompost. The entire village has been inspired to try organic farming by these kids of the young farmers’ club.”
This season alone, the young club grew 32 kg vegetables. While a lion’s share of the produce was used in the school’s midday meals, they also earned Rs 320 by selling some vegetables in the local market. The vermicompost organic manure has already generated a market among local farmers, they sold the manure and collected Rs 650. The money was equally divided and put in a bank account opened for them.
“I saw my father toil in the fields and get very little for his produce,” says 14-year-old Sunti. “I did not want to become a farmer like him, but Farmpreneur has changed that. We now want to become farmer-entrepreneurs.”
Two NGOs, Farm2Food Foundation and Dhriiti, came together in March 2013 to start this initiative of promoting entrepreneurship among the youth. “The idea of Frampreneurs is to restore dignity to farming and also show youngsters and students from semirural and rural areas that the profession of their forefathers can do wonders even today,” says Gaurav Gogoi, founder of Farm2Food Foundation. “The basic focus is to overcome the stereotype in young minds that farmers are poor and uneducated, and goes on to teach that farming requires the knowledge of science, commerce and technology. If India has to go anywhere with food security, we felt this is the way.”
The Farmpreneur project was launched in 10 elementary schools of the Titabor sub-division with 20 students of each school forming a club. The selected students were then taught organic farming methods. “We took help of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan to select the schools,” says Dipjyoti Sonu Brahma, director of the project. “We taught the students about organic farming, gave each one a box to keep their vermicompost produce and we brought them in contact with experts and model farmers who have done well for themselves by practicing organic farming.” Workbooks were designed with this end in mind and exhibitions were organised of the students’ produce to educate them in how to fix prices. “This has been able to serve three purposes,” explains Brahma. “First, they can see a future in farming. They have become the flag-bearers of organic farming in an area where chemical fertilisers were heavily used. Besides, they also know how to save their money in banks, about farming loans and marketing of their products.”
The pilot project has been funded by the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, who has helped the foundation get the books and other educational tools. “It should be an eye-opener for the government on how even a very cost-effective concept implemented with sincerity can look at imparting a proper agricultural knowledge base among the next generation and help in capacity-building through exposure to marketing and banking, where they can undo the concepts of middlemen and hoarders,” says Tankeshwar Borah, 70, a citizen of Titabor.
Back in the schools, the project has been a success in many ways. Besides their workbooks, the students take part in regular workshops and orientations; the project is carefully designed to link with the school curriculum.
“Like in Class VIII, the first chapter in science is on agriculture production and management,” says Samir Bordoloi, a programme officer of the project. “Likewise, in mathematics, students calculate how much produce can be grown on a given area of land. They learn how to chart the growth of plants in graphs. Thus financial literacy will be extended to pricing, selling and taking loans and saving in bank accounts. These are the very basics of entrepreneurship.”
The programme could go a long way in promoting agriculture among the youth and could augur well for future generations. It could also be a small step to India’s food security targets. The Tarun Gogoi government has been very keen to implement the Food Security Ordinance, 2013, in Assam that will cover a population of 2.52 crore or 52 lakh families. “We are looking at covering 84 percent population of rural areas and 60 percent of urban areas under this scheme,” says Civil Supply Minister Nazrul Islam.
“While only 20 students can be selected for the young farmers club, the entire school is glued to it. It has solved our problem of providing fresh and quality food under the midday meal scheme,” says school principal Rabindranath Gogoi. “The best part is that the students are growing their own vegetables and then selling it off in their own school.” In 2013, the project included 340 students, covering 17 schools; for 2014, the target is to reach out to 63 schools and 1,260 farmpreneurs.
“I always wanted to become a doctor, now I want to become a farmer,” says Pubali. “Not a small farmer like my father, but take financial assistance, hold more land and try specific organic farming that would lead to a better yield.” That is surely a step in the right direction.