Building Climate Resilience Among Sugarcane Farmers in India

India is the world’s largest consumer of sugar and the second largest producer after Brazil. However, sugarcane is highly water intensive and recent years have witnessed significant droughts. Solidaridad, along with its partners, is supporting farmers with modern cultivation practices to enhance smallholder production. Below, we reflect on how we’re working to save 20 billion liters of water and increase sugarcane yields by 10 to 20%.

Pictured: Lead farmer Ranjit Yadav (right) discussing the drip irrigation system on his sugarcane field with Solidaridad’s field project coordinator

Ranjit Yadav is from the drought ravaged Kolhapur district of Maharashtra, India. He comes from a family of sugarcane farmers. When he started farming in 2007, he was unaware of modern agricultural practices that could enhance his production. However, since 2013, by engaging with Solidaridad’s “Madhu Shree” project, he has been able to increase the productivity of his crop, while improving soil health, reducing water consumption and gaining significant profits. Today, he is a lead farmer who educates several other farmers about these climate-smart agricultural practices.

The World’s Largest Consumer of Sugar

India is the world’s largest consumer of sugar and the second largest producer after Brazil. With an annual turnover of $17 billion, India’s sugar industry supports more than 50 million farmers and their families and nearly half a million workers who are involved in cane cultivation and harvesting. Soil and weather conditions have historically favored sugarcane production in Maharashtra, making it one of the leading sugarcane producing states in the country.

However, the crop is highly water intensive and recent years have witnessed significant droughts. Groundwater levels are plummeting and there is immense pressure on available water resources. Water scarcity has led to reduced sugarcane yields.

Immense Pressure on Available Water Resources

The drop in sugarcane production has resulted in intense competition among sugar mills for available cane. Given that prices are fixed by the Government and mills may be unlikely to offer higher prices to farmers, without compromising on their bottom lines, farmers are likely to supply sugarcane to those mills that have established good relationships with the farming community.

Lack of Modern Agricultural Practices

The global agribusiness Olam owns sugar mills in Rajgoli in Maharashtra and Barwani in Madhya Pradesh. Mr. Bharat Kundal, the Head of Sugar Operations in these mills says:

“Our goal is to make sure that our mills run at maximum capacity. In fact, our mill in Maharashtra has the highest sugar recovery rates in the country. However, we are witnessing a decrease in productivity in recent years, especially given the small land sizes of farmers and the lack of modern agricultural practices.

Recent water shortages and increased periods of drought are also a growing concern. Hence, increasing the resilience of farmers through improved training on agronomic practices and related support, such as access to better agricultural inputs and finance, is an important priority for Olam.”

Promoting Climate-smart Agriculture, Water Conservation & Low-cost Technologies

Solidaridad and Olam, together with support from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), first implemented the four-year long project ‘Madhu Shree’ from 2012 to 2016 to promote sustainable sugarcane cultivation in both the mills. Building on the results of the first phase, the second phase was rolled out in June 2017, with additional support from leading American multinational food and beverage companies. The goal is to promote climate smart agriculture, water conservation and low-cost technologies among smallholder farmers, while ensuring stable sugarcane supplies.

Pictured: A project farmer examining his eggplant crop which has been intercropped with sugarcane. Paper mulching and wide row planting are the other water saving practices that have been implemented.

Water Efficiency, Improved Productivity & Reduced Production Costs
Solidaridad has developed a package of agronomic practices which emphasizes water efficiency, improved productivity and reduced production costs. These include methods such as trash mulching, composting, wide planting, intercropping, bio fertilizer application, and nutrient and pest management. Surface and subsurface drip irrigation is an important element of the project, also given the Maharashtra government’s support for this water-conserving technology.  

Farmers are trained by experts, both in the classroom and in the field. Exposure visits and technology demonstrations are also part of their training. Strong extension support, along with the provision of high quality inputs, is an important component. Olam has 15 divisions in Maharashtra with nearly 60 field staff who have been trained by the project. Each division has an office through which field staff regularly provide information and support to farmers.

Supporting Farmer Learning: The Mobile Van Theater

A recent innovation is the Mobile Van Theater (a van equipped with a screen) that travels to a different village in the mills’ sugarcane catchment area every evening. Two to three films related to sustainable sugarcane cultivation, based on the needs of the season, are shown over a two-hour period. The screening times coincide with the post-dinner hours when the farmers are usually resting and hence, has been attracting significant attention and interest from them.


Pictured: Screening of films in villages on sugarcane production, using mobile van theater

Providing Peer Support & Mentorship
Farmer learning groups have been established to provide peer support and mentorship. As a lead farmer, Ranjit, in 2013, had just a couple of farmers in his group. Today, he leads 25 farmers. These farmers learn from each other, by visiting each other’s fields, exchanging good practices and monitoring each other’s progress.
Farmers are trained to track their farming and water-management practices through a drip diary and crop calendar. Recently, around 600 lead farmers from the project were specially trained at the Vasantdada Sugar Institute in Pune, Maharashtra in specialized farming methods. For Ranjit, the benefits of adopting these practices are very noteworthy.

“Previously, we used nearly three tons of seed and planted them too close together. Today, we use just 1,200 kilograms of seed due to proper spacing, which has led to significant cost savings. We initially only used fertilizers containing Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus. Today, we are aware of 16 other micronutrients and the importance of using biofertilizers.

Importantly, we have learned about their proper application, in order to increase nutrient use efficiency. We initially experimented with drip irrigation on 2 acres; today all 12 acres of our sugarcane growing land has been converted to drip irrigation.”

Before, Ranjit used to produce around 25 tons of sugarcane per acre. Today, his average yields have increased to 60 tons and even reaching 80 tons per acre on some plots. The modern cultivation practices have dramatically reduced his production costs, enabling him to gain greater profits. Since 2014, he, along with three other family members, sells most of the sugarcane they produce to Olam. This is
because the company follows fair weighing practices and pays farmers on time.

A Sustainable, Low Cost, High Yielding Sugarcane Crop

Pictured: Women preparing planting material that will be raised in nurseries and provided to sugarcane farmers at subsidized prices. This activity provides additional livelihoods to women entrepreneurs.

“We are truly excited by the second phase of this project with Solidaridad”, says Mr. Kundal.

“There is interest and commitment from the other project partners and most importantly, we are witnessing a demand from the farmers themselves to learn about water and energy saving.

We can see the cane quality and sugar recovery from the cane going up. We have also been able to build a strong cadre of lead farmers who are aligned with our vision to further sustainable sugarcane production.”

By 2020, the project is designed to include 16,000 farmers in Rajgoli and Barwani. It aims to save around 20 billion liters of water through the project period and increase sugarcane yields by 10 to 20 percent, while achieving a 10 to 20 percent increase in farmer incomes.

“At Olam, we are committed to taking care of our complete ecosystem and ensuring that all stakeholders benefit,” says Mr. Manoj Marar, the Business Head for Sugar.

“With strong partners like Solidaridad, we hope to ensure that the upsides of a sustainable, climate-smart, low cost, high yielding sugarcane crop get passed on to our farmer brethren.”

Pictured: Farmer group interaction in Nool village, Gadhinglaj region