When you think "high-stakes gamble," you might picture the glittering lights of Las Vegas, not a village in rural India that doesn't even have electricity. You may imagine expensive thoroughbreds, not bleating goats.
But a gamble is exactly what Sudama Devi took in her village when she decided to plant a different type of lentil. Turning her land into a demonstration plot, she showed her community how the new seeds would stack up against the varieties farmers sow year after year.
"Initially, people were skeptical of the project. No one was ready to take a risk," she says. "I thought I should take the risk [to try new seeds] since I have good land."
"Now," she adds, "everyone wishes they had participated."
That's because the gamble paid off. The lentil plants look healthy and strong, even though it is the dry season.
Two Kinds of Weather: Drought and Flood
Farmers in Sudama's village of Ranha Bandh, like many other places in Bihar province near the Bangladesh border, routinely face two natural hurdles. They endure long periods without rain and then cope with violent storms that flood farms and inundate plants for days or even weeks.
Catholic Relief Services, working with partners from universities, local nonprofits, government ministries and other farming experts, is using a combination of traditional seed crossbreeding, cutting-edge laboratory advances and new agricultural techniques to tackle the complex drought and flood cycles in Bihar. The project aims to improve the variety of crops for different seasons, including rice in the rainy season and lentils, wheat and chickpeas during dry months.
"First, we test the best crop varieties on local plots owned by the government," says Matt Keller, who manages the CRS project. "That gives us a good idea of what type will bring the biggest improvement so we can then find a community member who is willing to plant a demonstration plot. This process allows the whole village to see the result."
This is one of many CRS projects in India geared toward ensuring that poor people are not left behind as the country's economy grows.
Farmers Are Used to Taking Risks
CRS modifies broken or inefficient systems, and by ensuring that the new systems are replicable, demonstrates how it is possible for development to benefit everyone. With funding and technical support of agriculture experts from private donors, cutting-edge research is reaching the poorest farmers more efficiently and faster than ever.
Sudama sees her gamble as part of a farmer's life. "We've always had to depend on luck," she says. "With our old varieties of rice, for example, some years we might harvest [77 pounds] of rice, and other years, with bad floods, we might only get [11 pounds]."
Don't be surprised that this farmer is female. Although men usually plow and prepare the fields—tough work, for sure—women provide about two-thirds of the labor on farms, including winnowing, planting, transplanting, weeding and preparing harvests for storage.
Chand Jyoti, a farmer from a nearby community, grins as she says, "When the sun is hot, women are the ones who stay working in the field."
Gamble Pays Off During Harvest
Rewards are cropping up for such labor in these village demonstration plots. New seed varieties and training on good farming practices are leading to much better harvests, even under drought or flood conditions that typically would destroy crops.
The project runs through 2015, which will allow farmers to witness several seasons of harvests and gauge which seed varieties and planting techniques work best.
As she looks over her new lentil plants, Sudama says she has already seen a gamble pay off with rice harvested a few months earlier.
"Look at this land," she says, sweeping her arm in the direction of her plot. "Almost every year, this land floods. And when that happens, it stays submerged 15 to 20 days. I have always lost the rice during bad floods. This year, with the new rice seeds, 10 days after the water receded, the plants came back very strong. I had a good harvest."
"Next year, I hope everyone in the village can try the new seeds," says Sudama, certain they are a sure bet.
Jennifer Hardy is the CRS regional information officer for Asia and the Pacific Rim. She is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.