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FLAT, FLATTER . . . Leveling with farmers about water conservation

IFPRI’s David Spielman and Nicholas Magnan are studying how small-scale farmers can be incited to adopt laser land leveling—a precur- sor technology for a more holistic conservation agriculture system—to make their fields really, really flat. Their work among small-scale rice and wheat farmers in the eastern reaches of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh is part of a larger CGIAR program called CSISA—the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia.

To get the most out of conservation agriculture, it helps to have level fields where irrigation water can flow evenly, preventing waterlogging in some places or drying out in others. Laser land leveling is also a resource-conserving technology on its own: it can reduce farmers’ use of water, and diesel fuel for pumping the water, by 20–30 percent.

Yet adopting laser land leveling is not simple for the small-scale farmer. Operators of level-

ing services find it more profitable to serve large-scale farmers—they can spend less time on the road between clients and more time earning money in the field. Many farmers know little about the virtues of laser land leveling because few extension agents or local agricul- tural departments promote it. Moreover, the farmers in eastern Uttar Pradesh, like those in many countries, don’t actually pay for their water—water is available at no charge beyond the small cost for fuel to pump it. “Where groundwater is free, farmers don’t pay the full price of water so they don’t have the incentive to save,” says Magnan.

In cases where the benefits to society from laser land leveling—in terms of reduced water and fuel use and lowered greenhouse gas emissions—could be greater than the benefits to some individual farmers, or where some farmers are unsure how laser land leveling will benefit them, how do you persuade them to adopt the technology?

One solution is to offer a discount system that makes the service available at an affordable price, at least initially. Spielman and Mag- nan set up an experimental auction in India to find out how the government and the pri- vate sector could work together to create

a pricing mechanism that would be affordable for both the government and the farmers. They found that at the market price of 500 rupees per hour, only 5 percent of small-scale farmers’ land would be leveled, whereas cutting the price by half would bring the amount of land to be leveled up to 50 percent.

If this mechanism were targeted to specific types of farmers—for example, farmers who were members of vulnerable social groups or castes—then more farmers could enjoy the benefits of leveling. The challenge is designing a pricing mechanism that serves everyone’s interest.

“Ultimately, we wanted to find out how the public sector and the private sector might work together to promote the technology in a cost-effective manner that’s both profitable for service providers and ben- eficial for small farmers,” says Spiel- man, “without being overly costly for the government.” It’s a tough balance to strike, but it helps to have a level field. And once the farmers learn about the benefits by using the technology and watching others use it, they may be willing to pay more for it.


This farmer used laser land leveling to conserve water and reduce fuel costs on his wheat and rice fields.


© 2010 D. Spielman/IFPRI

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