Smallholder Farming in India

Small Farms,
Big Improvements

Smallholder Farming in India
Smallholder Farming in India
While smallholders grow 80 percent of the food consumed in developing countries, they often face challenges in reaching sufficient productivity. But a little help can have a big impact for this vital group of farmers.

India is known around the world for its red and green chilli – both in its own cuisine and as a global export. Most of these chillies are grown on smallholder farms and then sold to local markets, where they are next sold nationally and even globally. But despite the wide, and even world, distribution of this crop, the smallholders who produce it face strong challenges to make a sufficient income.

One of them is 53-year-old Rajesh Kumar Singh. ‘Pappu,’ as he’s known to friends, lives and works in Uttar Pradesh, the populous northern India state perhaps most famously known as the home of the Taj Mahal. While tourists linger at the state’s great monuments, Singh works in his fields sunrise to sundown, taking care of his green chilli plants. Since these plants can’t withstand too much moisture, he has to be especially careful with irrigation. His farm itself is almost two hectares, or a little less than the size of three soccer fields: Within this space, Singh has to produce enough crops to support his family.

India and Chillies
India and Chillies

Singh is one of the many smallholders in India. They keep the Indian and global food supply steady – not only with chilli, but a variety of crops. Despite demand for their products, Singh and other farmers face difficulties, he explains. “Last year, we had little money for our domestic expenses, let alone new, modern crop protection products that work most efficiently. And we often lack knowledge about the most effective farming methods.” Compared to farmers with more financial and material resources, smallholders like Singh are at higher risk of insufficient yields, or a total loss, are much higher for smallholders like Singh than. And added to their risk is the possibility of being affected by droughts or comparable disasters.

But even a good harvest can’t guarantee sufficient profit: Since they have no direct access to the global market, very often smallholder farmers like Singh have to sell their crops, at lower prices, to middlemen at local markets. “This situation makes me angry because we can’t understand how prices are calculated,” he says. The combination of these factors leads to stress for India’s smallholders, and it also prevents them from reaching sufficient productivity – which is a problem for the entire country, and ultimately global food supplies.

Last year, we had little money for our domestic expenses, let alone new, modern crop protection products that work most efficiently. And we often lack knowledge about the most effective farming methods.

Pappu Rajesh Kumar Singh, smallholder farmer

Eighty percent of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is managed by smallholders.

Source: FAO

Diversity on the field

India’s soil is typically fertile, and the climate is ideal for vegetable cultivation, thanks to its warm temperatures and moist monsoon months. Rice is one of the most important crops, but farmers also produce sugarcane, oilseeds, cereals, cotton, pulses, medicinal plants, tea, fruit and spices. “Large farmers usually concentrate on a few commercial crops, while smallholders grow a variety of farm produce in relatively small quantities,” explains Dr. Mahesh Chander from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research at its institute in Uttar Pradesh. As the head of the extension education division, Chander supports the organization’s goal to spread and manage research and education in agriculture, specifically by teaching farmers.

Home of Spices: India

India, the ‘home of spices,’ produces about five million metric tons of spices every year. Out of the listed 86 spices in the world, India grows 52 of them. As a nation, India consumes 90 percent of its spice production, and the balance is exported. Overall, India is the largest producer of chilli, with heat values typically ranging from 5,000 to over 200,000 SHU.

Home of Spices: India
Home of Spices: India

Chander and his colleagues have a massive audience to address: There are 250 million Indian farmers operating on approximately 140 million farms, with a total area of 160 million hectares. But the average Indian farmer is a smallholder with about 1.15 hectares of land. Still, their importance is indisputable, as Chander points out: They produce about 80 percent of India’s food. “Small farmers are under huge pressure from their market situation and economic developments. This often leads to considerable distress,” he says. And with India’s national population of 1.3 billion, and growing, the number of smallholders is also increasing. Many of them, says Chander, share Pappu Singh’s problems.


Out of the 2.5 billion people in developing countries working in the food and agriculture sector, 1.5 billion live in smallholder households.

Source: FAO

This is where the Smallholder Farming Initiative of Bayer steps in. Established in 2015 to support small-scale farmers in emerging and developing countries, the initiative aims to unlock smallholders’ farming potential by developing customized business models that holistically address their needs. These needs may range from access and correct usage of agro inputs and irrigation to access to credit, insurance or services, or to the critical final step of accessing the market. Dr. Lino Miguel Dias, Global Head of Smallholder Farming at the headquarters of the Crop Science Division at Bayer in Monheim, close to the river Rhine in Germany, explains: “One exciting milestone of the initiative was the global launch of Better Life Farming, a long-term partnership of Bayer, IFC (International Finance Corporation), Netafim and Swiss Re Corporate Solutions, aims at enabling the creation of business partnerships in multiple geographies including local partners. With our joint forces we want to assist smallholder farmers to grow their farms into commercially viable and sustainable farming businesses. This will encourage financial security, increase know-how and create a meaningful impact in their lives.” In the program’s pilot phase, which started in India and Kenya, the idea was to demonstrate how an integrated use of modern technology and know-how can improve yields. After the program’s first successful season, it has spread to more regions, and farmers are now buying the inputs themselves.

Lino Miguel Dias

I'm proud to give them more optimism about their future.

Lino Miguel Dias,
Global Head Smallholder Farming, Bayer

Comparison in Farm Sizes (in hectares)

Farm sizes vary around the globe. While the average farm in Canada is 332 hectares in size, it is only 0.5 hectares in Vietnam. In India, the average farm is slightly bigger, at 1.2 hectares.

“Developing the smallholder segment is a long and challenging journey, but it's worth it,” says Dias. “We want to help smallholder farmers to improve their farming results, become more professional and get a real chance to increase their income in a sustainable way.”


Women comprise an average of 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries, and up to almost 50 percent in Eastern and Southeastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Source: FAO

Doubling the yield

Seeds and crop protection products are parts of a bigger and holistic solution. Education is also the key, as Pappu Singh’s chilli farm has demonstrated. “Our plants often used to suffer from fungal and viral diseases and only produced a small harvest, or none at all,” Singh says. The Better Life Farming Alliance taught him about the latest technology in crop protection and seeds, as well as nutrient management and drip irrigation, “Now I know how to protect and treat my plants properly. I document each step during the growing process and observe the plants’ health. I can really see a difference.” Adds Harmanpreet Singh, Smallholder Farming Lead at Bayer in India, “Through our program, Pappu Singh has been able to double his yield and triple his profitability in 2017, compared to the previous year. And this year it looks even better.” The Bayer experts have introduced him to new food retailers, so he obtained better prices for his products. These production and sales successes have led Singh to become optimistic about the future. “I can pay for the education of my two daughters and expand my farmland. I want to buy two hectares of land and provide people from my village with new jobs.”

More information

Ajay Singh is another Indian green chilli farmer who has benefitted from this initiative. From his farm, also in Uttar Pradesh, he explains, “Before I joined the program, even with my best efforts, I couldn’t increase my yields beyond a certain limit and make a sufficient income with my products.” Singh participated in the pilot phase of the Smallholder Farming Initiative from Bayer in May 2016. Bayer provided Singh with products and advice. Today, he’s famous in his village for doubling his yields, and tripling his income, within one season. This success has attracted other local farmers to learn more and participate in smallholder farming initiative of Bayer – to increase yields and income sustainably.

Chilli production of Top 5 producers

India is the world's leading producer of dried chillies and peppers. Green chillies are mainly grown in China.

While national and world markets continue to enjoy India’s famous chilli, as well as vegetables and other crops, the nation’s smallholder farmers are getting more of the professional support they need. “I have seen how smallholder farmers struggle, but so many of them are eager to learn if given the opportunity,” says Dr. Lino Miguel Dias. “I’m proud to give them more optimism about their future.”


“Our experience will help the farmers”

Harmanpreet Singh (left) understands the challenges and needs of Indian farmers. He is Smallholder Farming Manager for India at Bayer and a driving part of the Global Agricultural Initiative in India.

Why support smallholders?
These farmers have very limited amounts of land. Very often, no major company is interested in working with them and rarely invested in training or setting up a distribution network. To work with a lot of individual farmers instead of one big agricultural business requires much more effort and resources. So there are lot of valuable practices that they never found out about, such as modern technology, mulching or simply good fertilizers and proper irrigation.

What are the results so far?
The outcome of our green chilli project was amazing. The farmers participating in our initiative were able to double their yield and triple their income. Even though the base was low, and we started to work with a pilot group of 20 farmers, we were able to prove that access to high-quality seed, better crop protection products and the right fertilizers can trigger such a boost. In addition, we introduced drip irrigation, where previously the flood irrigation the farmers used caused biotic stress on the plants. A Bayer field officer visited the farmers every week to help with the implementation of these new practices. In 2017, the team upscaled to 250 farmers and brought in another partner: an offtaker to buy the produce from the farmers. In this way, the team broke the oligopoly of the middlemen that had been dictating (low) prices to the farmers in the past. There was suddenly competition, and within days, the traders were offering good prices to the farmers, also. In 2018, the project team plans to enlarge to 1,500 chilli farmers and do a commercial upscale in tomatoes as well.

What’s coming next?
We have a new project with tomato farmers in the state of Jharkhand, which is in eastern India. The results of the new project are even more impressive than with green chilli. There, overall yields have increased three-and-a-half times overall. It's exciting because the next season will be very different for them than the ones before. I’m sure our experience will help the farmers there as much as in Uttar Pradesh.

Smallholder Farmers
Smallholder Farmers

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