Dynamics of Crop Diversification

One routinely hears recommendations for crop diversification, saying that B crop is more profitable than A crop. The dynamics of crop diversification are more complex than that. In my experience, every farmer evaluates the B vs A trade-off, using a five-dimensional model, often intuitively. And, each of the dimensions have further nuances too.

1. For sure, net profit from one crop vs the other, is the most important variable. But, such profit will be seen from a twelve-month cycle perspective. At times, the chosen crop, depending on its duration from land preparation to harvest, limits the choice of next crop (or prior crop) that can be planted. Hence the twelve month cycle. I am keeping the cases of even longer term options like trees, out of the argument when I said twelve months. Profitability trade-off, often, also involves assigning value to the crop byproducts consumed off-farm for livestock or at home.

2. Another important factor is the effort involved in growing one crop vs the other. Some require more tender care or frequent monitoring vs the other. Or more physical drudgery. One crop may need more farm labour for an operation. Trade-off decisions then involve whether sufficient number of people are available within the family or one needs to hire. Then there are nuances, like labour barter – “I work on your farm and you work on mine”, if the window of that activity has flexibility of time.

3. Going beyond labour, the next factor involves access to resources, such as farm inputs, or credit to buy the inputs. Some of the resources place constraints on which crop can be grown; water for example, be it ground water, or canal water with the attendant restrictions, if any, on the release quantum and timings. Soil and climatic conditions, of course, are the more fundamental factors that limit choices of crops.

4. The fourth dimension is knowledge required to grow different crops. At a basic level, certain generic good practices on growing a crop like land preparation, planting density, irrigation and fertigation cycles, crop protection should the need arise, post-harvest activities etc. Then, every farmer requires certain contextualized knowledge on managing the crop as the growing conditions evolve, in terms of temperatures and humidity, besides any implications of the crop planted in the previous season, or limitations on the resources required etc.

5. Finally, probably most importantly, the risks involved in growing one crop vs the other. There are risks first in the production stage and then in marketing the crop produced. Some crops are more vulnerable to weather variations than the others. This is more important today, when the extreme variations have become the order of the day. Market risks include the extent of price volatility and liquidity of demand for a crop.

The market conditions will throw up a natural bias for one or the other crop in a given region for a profile of the farmer each season. If the Government or any other agency (say, a food processing company) would like to promote a particular crop or variety, first step is to make an assessment if the wind is hitting the tail or the head along all these dimensions and take advantage or neutralize respectively, so that the proposed crop is in the best all-round interest of the farmer.