Ram Lala, a farmer in Jaora, Ratlam district in Madhya Pradesh, knows that topsoil is the fertile material vital to life. He knows this like you know how to breathe. However, if asked to explain the correct way of breathing, you’d be stumped. Likewise, even though Ram Lala knows soil is the foundation of agriculture, he doesn’t actually know how. To date, 96.40 million hectares of land in India has degraded. That equals 29.32% of our total geographic area and about 70% of the cultivated area. And the main culprits are water erosion and vegetation degradation.
In the past 20 years, the pace of degradation has picked up further due to the intensive use of chemical inputs, heavily skewed towards nitrogen (urea). A major reason behind this discrepancy is farmers making indiscriminate use of urea since it is heavily subsidised by the government and is easily available. This trend has turned soil acidic, making them increasingly incapable of supporting agriculture.
In reference to this, several new-age startups such as Gramophone, Krishitantra and ipage have been working towards addressing the problem of deteriorating soil health by helping farmers test it and then integrate the advice into the farming practices. Through one of their initiatives, Gramophone fulfils this missing role of a doctor with their farm management services. The process used is entirely scalable and a farmer can order a soil test through IVR, a phone call or the app. Once done, a representative collects the sample, which is then tested, and the results are delivered. Tauseef Khan, co-founder & CEO, Gramophone, remarks: “Soil testing is like diagnostics in healthcare. Gramophone is bridging the gap of doctor post diagnostics. Farmers get a personalised crop management calendar which enables them to sustainably manage the soil and health of the crop.”
Aside from the regular macronutrients (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium) recommendations, Gramophone also focuses on the micronutrients, carbon content and helps farmers increase the microbial activity in the soil by recommending DIY kits of solubilising bacteria. This holistic approach simplifies the process for the farmers and sustainably increases the yield.
Another startup Krishitantra – with an aim to build a soil map of the country and enable farmers with good agricultural practices, it has developed indigenous state-of-art soil testing solutions along with application programing interface (API) for the entire B2B ecosystems in the segment of the agricultural input, including agri loan and insurance. Krishitantra, operating through 320 other farmer producer organisations (FPO), has performed 39,283 soil tests till date.
“Prolonged abuse and indiscriminate chemical application have degraded soils in many parts of our country. Though application of chemicals based on soil tests can right the wrong balance in nutrients and restore soil health, farmers have good reason to resist the hassle of visiting the few soil test laboratories, 10-20 days of waiting for results, and loss of wages/productive days. If, for a reasonable price, the soil test could be conducted at the farm and results obtained within the hour listing all major and minor nutrients along with an advisory, many more farmers would test their soil,” says Sandeep Kondaji, co-founder & CEO of Krishtantra.
Today, there are over 140 million farmers in India, meaning it would take over 15 years for the government to tell every farmer what his soil needs. The Madhya Pradesh farmer, Ram Lala, has been hearing of the government push around soil testing, but he is not sure exactly how that helps him. “I got in touch with Gramophone after reading about their soil testing services on the internet. I digitally signed up for the test and in a few days after the sample was tested, I received the digital report of the condition as well as a clear recommendation about what specific ingredients need to be added,” he added. “All of this really helped me in cutting down the input expenditure and the improvement in soil health was an added bonus.”
Hemendra Mathur, an active agritech investor, talking about the importance of soil testing shared highlights that the process helps optimise the nutrients application thus reducing cost and improving productivity. “The health of a farmer’s land is key for crop productivity. It is essential to reduce wastage and enhance agricultural practices that ultimately benefit the farmers. Hence, soil tests should be conducted regularly, providing long-term solutions. Limited awareness, operational cost and insubstantial testing facilities make the approach nearly impossible. Thus, agritech startups play an important role in accelerating the adoption of sustainable farming practices in India and empowering farmers with quick, affordable, and soil health,” he adds.
It is inevitable that for a farmer, the impact of soil testing bears immediate fruit through a cyclic effect. Soil health improves, leading to lower disease incidences and lesser chemical use and results in healthier crops and higher yields, so a farmer gets a profitable output to input ratio. In addition to this, as farmers use regenerative agriculture to improve soil fertility, it combats the very real threat of climate change. The key message: Investment in soil health now and protecting nature, we stave off future costs like soil erosion and water consumption.