The Centre has been trying its best to encourage farmers to grow coarse cereals such as barja, jowar, maize and ragi, with sharp hikes in minimum support prices (MSP), but its efforts are yet to bear fruit. The trend is likely to continue this year, too, during Kharif sowing, with growers likely to opt for oilseeds such as soyabean and sunflower.

“The Centre might be encouraging farmers by raising MSP more than grains such as rice. But there is no guaranteed procurement. In the absence of such procurement, farmers are hesitant to grow coarse cereals such as jowar or bajra or ragi,” says an agriculture analyst.

Hanumanagouda Belakurki, Chairman, Karnataka Agriculture Prices Commission (KAPC), said: “There is a need to encourage the cultivation of coarse cereals such as ragi, bajra and jowar, as these crops need less water, are climate resilient and help in achieving nutrition security.”

Rise in millets area

Trade experts say that distribution of coarse cereals through the public distribution system (PDS) can help in increasing production or encourage farmers to shift to these hardy crops.

Belakurki said that KAPC has recommended distribution of three kg of ragi per person per month under the PDS, which the Karnataka government is implementing in the south.

But in the case of jowar, there is no marketable surplus, and it is difficult to implement in Karnataka, he said.

Vilas Tonapi, Director, Indian Institute of Millets Research in Hyderabad, expects the area under nutri-cereals such as ragi and minor millets such as foxtail millets to improve as farmers see good consumer demand.

Over the past two years, there has been a 24 per cent increase in area across all millets, which is likely to be sustained on rising domestic and overseas demand, he said. Small millets are grown in about 3 million hectare (mh) during the kharif season, while pearl millet is cultivated in around 9 mh and sorghum in some 6 mh.

Focus on export markets by agencies such as the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Development Authority and FSSAI should help increase the area under coarse cereals.

Continuing efforts to build post-harvest and processing infrastructure at the farmgate level through the Millets Mission, which is being implemented in 19 States, will also help, Tonapi said.

An exception

Maize is an exception among coarse cereals as it is finding markets abroad and with the Indian poultry sector expanding over 10 per cent annually, demand for the cereal is good.

During the April-February period of last fiscal, India exported 2.59 million tonnes (mt) of maize valued at Rs 4,147 crore, compared with 0.37 mt worth Rs 1,019 crore in the whole of 2019-20. Of this, over 1.5 mt were shipped to Bangladesh.

This year, there are questions if the neighbouring country will continue to import such volumes. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Bangladesh’s corn imports are projected to decline as farmers in that country preferred to grow the coarse cereal over other crops.

Bangladesh farmers prefer corn because of “consistent prices and favourable yields”, the USDA said, adding that production next year could rise to 5.2 mt from 4.7 mt this year. As a result, imports could drop to 1.2 mt from 1.7 mt.

The USDA has projected India’s maize exports to drop by at least six lakh tonnes during the next season starting (July 2021-June 2022).

Bimal Bengani, Managing Director of Kolkata-based exporting house Bengani Food Products Pvt Ltd, told BusinessLine that the Kharif acreage of maize could be low in view of higher prices for oilseeds globally.

“Prices of all oilseeds are high. Pulses rates are also high. So, growers who planted maize last year could be looking at sowing soyabean or pulses,” he said.

Soyabean the flavour

Some farmers are planning to shift to maize, but most are still keen on planting soyabean, despite a bitter experience last year, when the bean was affected by a fungal attack, said Anand Singh Anjana, a farmer from Ujjain district in Madhya Pradesh.

A trade expert from New Delhi said farmers would still be keen to grow maize as Brazil continues to face problems in exporting the cereal, particularly due to the Covid pandemic.

“Maize exports are expected to be good until next year and, therefore, farmers could feel safe with it. High freight charges from Brazil means that India would supply maize to Vietnam, Malaysia, China and Indonesia, where it is used as feed,” the expert, who did not wish to be identified, said.

Despite a volatile price trend this season, farmers may still prefer to plant maize, the major coarse cereal in the key producing state, Karnataka, where sporadic sowing has begun in the key central producing region.

The normal area for maize in Karnataka is 11.93 lakh ha for the kharif season.

The Agri Commodities Exporters’ Association (ACEA) President, M Madan Prakash, said that farmers in Karnataka are keen to plant more maize.

Lower than MSP

“The price for maize has been good this season as well as export movement,” he said.

But the Tamil Nadu Egg Poultry Farmers’ Marketing Society (PFMS) president, Vangili Subramanian, said that maize prices were higher, touching Rs 26 a kg last season. This season, prices rarely topped the minimum support price of Rs 1,850 a quintal.

“We think the area might be the same and if the monsoon is good, we could see good production,” he said.

In Karnataka, “farmers prefer to plant maize due to its easy package of practices,” said KAPC’s Belakurki.

“Maize is easy to grow, and farmers find it easy to sell, too, unlike crops such as paddy, which could be affected in case of rain,” said Subramanian.

Sateesh Nukala, CEO of BigHaat, an online platform for agri inputs, said sale of maize seeds is expected to pick up with the progress of the monsoon.

Nukala sees maize acreage at last year’s levels, as farmers are expected to take up planting despite price volatility, which was mainly on account of the poultry sector taking a beating during the Covid pandemic.

Poultry demand

Once the lockdown is lifted, demand for poultry is expected to go up, resulting in better prices for the cereal. Moreover, maize prices have improved with export demand, he said.

On the other hand, regions growing ragi are yet to receive sufficient rain for sowing to commence, while planting of hybrid jowar and bajra has begun in the northern parts of Karnataka.

Farmers prefer not to plant jowar in rain-fed yields are low, said Belakurki.

(This is part of a series of Kharif Outlook reports that have been appearing in these columns since last week. The reports will continue to appear over the next few days.)

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