India is a world away from Indiana, and none would mistake Sister Sajita Isaac for Johnny Appleseed. But the peripatetic Catholic nun calls to mind the fabled nurseryman of the American frontier. Like John Chapman — to use the real name of the evangelist who roamed Indiana and Ohio for half a century raising apple seedlings to sustain homesteaders during their first difficult years — Sister Sajita brings missionary zeal to the earthly task of helping farmers improve their diets and livelihoods. And, like Chapman, she covers a lot of ground, riding her motorbike five days a week to villages up to 50 km away, and shifting her agricultural ministrations from village to village as improved crop varieties and farming practices take root.
Unlike Johnny Appleseed, Sister Sajita is not a self-taught, solitary wanderer, but a participant in an international network of partnerships forged to disseminate the benefits of modern agricultural science among poor subsistence farmers. Nationally, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research funds a network of hundreds of krishi vigyan kendra (KVK), or “farm science centers,” to test and transfer agricultural technologies and to boost self-employment opportunities in farm communities. Sister Sajita serves through Holy Cross KVK of Hazaribagh, Jharkhand, 970 km southeast of New Delhi, which over the past 15 years has extended agricultural outreach to more than 500 villages.
Through Holy Cross KVK, located at the foot of the scenic Kanary Hills 5 km northeast of Hazaribagh, farmers receive seeds of improved rice varieties, training in seed production and seed health, guidance in how to diversify into other crops and improve animal husbandry, and counseling in nutrition, hygiene and organizing self-help groups focused on savings mobilization and gender issues.
As early as 1973, our Holy Cross congregation was doing well in medical services, education and women’s development, but not in agriculture,” recalls Sister Sajita, who was born in the southern Indian state of Kerala and joined Holy Cross at the age of 17. “Our lack of expertise in agriculture was glaring, as 70% of the people in this area are farmers.” At about 600 meters above sea level, the farmlands of the hardscrabble Hazaribagh Plateau depend on the vagaries of rainfall, though in some areas farmers draw limited irrigation from wells and water-harvesting
ponds. Poverty remains pervasive.
Selected to head the congregation’s new agricultural outreach program on the strength of her outgoing, approachable personality, Sister Sajita prepared for the job by earning a master of science degree in horticulture. She also traveled to the Philippines for further studies at IRRI and the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction.
In 1980, she returned to Hazaribagh to put her new expertise to work. Although she typically arrives unheralded in targeted villages, from the moment she enters farmers’ homes, they begin telling her about their problems and aspirations. “The farmers trust Holy Cross KVK,” she observes.
Virendra Pal Singh, an IRRI agronomist who has worked in eastern India for a dozen years, appreciates the value of that trust and the access to farmers that it provides. IRRI began collaborating with Holy Cross KVK in 1989.
“We recognize that problems can be resolved more easily and quickly through local collaboration,” says Dr. Singh, explaining that well-chosen partners can speed the learning process and stretch scarce resources for research and extension. “Partnership makes it possible to disseminate innovations to farmers more rapidly.”
Following a round of farmer training jointly conducted by IRRI and Holy Cross KVK, the partners launched trials of rice varieties developed by IRRI and India’s Central Rainfed Upland Rice Research Station, first on Holy Cross KVK’s 10-hectare demonstration farm, then in farmers’ fields. One such variety, RR167-982, has since been released under the name Vandana. Another measure of success, Sister Sajita notes, is farmers’ eagerness to receive and try out the seeds of improved varieties bred for pest resistance, drought tolerance and early maturity.
As few farmers can produce good-quality seed without special training, Holy Cross KVK allocates a portion of its demonstration farm to multiplying the seeds of modern varieties for subsidized sale to farmers. Farmers also receive training in seed selection and managing seedling beds, typically mastering the techniques in four cropping seasons. IRRI and Holy Cross KVK also help farmers develop rice-based farming systems with broader crop diversity to maximize sustainable productivity and profitability.
“Years ago, all they grew was rice,” recalls Dr. Singh. “Now many of the farm families here grow vegetables for sale, which improves their income.”
Mushrooms grown on rice
A recently introduced cash crop is mushrooms grown from October to March on straw saved from the previous rice harvest. “We’re piloting this project in three villages, ” Sister Sajita says, adding that initial earnings from mushrooms can be 15,000–20,000 rupees (US$300–400) per harvest.
“We usually work with farmers for at least two years,” Sister Sajita explains. “And when we see them taking on the new technology, we move on to other places.”
Ongoing social work, in particular improving the lives and capabilities of women farmers and farm laborers (who perform 60% of the work of paddy cultivation), includes gender analysis and group exploration of options for solving problems. As chronic indebtedness is pervasive, Sister Sajita helps rural women organize credit cooperatives to tide members over hard times without resorting to high-interest loans.
Within four or five years, she reports, many rural women manage to accumulate bank accounts worth 30,000–40,000 rupees (US$600–800) — nurseries of prosperity on this Indian frontier.
Ms. Inciong is the manager of IRRI’s Public Awareness Unit