Is Wheat in Trouble Again?

Is Wheat in Trouble Again?

Hailstorms and rain could have reversed an otherwise healthy wheat crop this season.

After a promising Rabi sowing, the wheat crop was looking good. By January 14, farmers across the north from Punjab to Madhya Pradesh were reading signs of a good wheat crop. There was good moisture and the winter had not been harsh either. But the current spell of rain and hail across north India have reversed all gains.

Reports are already in from Madhya Pradesh signalling major crop damages, resulting in poor harvests. After hail and rain for over two weeks affected crops significantly, chief minister Shivraj Chouchan came on the record, offering compensation and coverage under the crop insurance scheme. The agriculture minister also launched a “Digiclaim” app for farmers in six states, so that they can claim crop insurance through mobile phones recently.

While MP is suffering, dark clouds circle Punjab and Haryana too. Over the past week, the weather hasn’t been kind to farmers in the region. Various regions around Punjab, from Ferozepur and Tarn Taran to Barnala and Ludhiana, have been hit by hailstorms, high speed winds and rains.

“There was no notification on the weather and many farmers, not expecting rainfall, had irrigated their fields. Now with excessive rain and hail, farmers are running to drain their fields. In Ferozepur and Moga areas about 15-20% of the wheat crop has been damaged. Many vegetable farmers have also been hit, as a result summer vegetables from Punjab may be priced higher this year. In case no more rain happens, there is still some chance of recovery, otherwise all will be lost,” said Rajdeep Sandhu, sarpanch of the village Ratta Khera in Ferozepur.

A farmer shows his partially damaged wheat crop. Photo: Indra Shekhar Singh

Rajdeep also pointed out that a new problem, also caused by excessive rain, is emerging in the area. “As the farmers’ fields were already flooded, many farmers are draining the water directly into the boring pipes. This water is laden with agri-chemicals and can contaminate the groundwater further. The government needs to ensure all farms, like cities, have pipe drainage to take out excessive water to canals or percolation ponds.”

From Ferozpur, we moved westward towards the Pakistan border to meet retired Captain Kashmir Singh who was born in 1948 in Chandu Wadala village of Gurdaspur. Like many other villages, Chandu Wadala has also been hit with untimely hail storms and winds. “We had seen this kind of weather in 1987, but that time the crop was near harvest,” Kashmir Singh explained.

All around him you could see that the wheat fields had lodged. Lodging is when crop stems buckle, signalling a degree of damage in the crop.

Singh said, “Hails along with high speeds winds have lodged the crop. The wheat kernels are still green, and due to higher moisture in our area, they will go damp soon. The air will not be able to pass through them, this will lead to disease and abnormal growth. All this will result in weight loss of wheat produce.”

Next we caught up with Manbhavan Singh in his village on the Hoshiyarpur-Gurdaspur border. The village Meghian has the Beas river flowing beside it. “The hailstorm has affected the wheat farmers the most. One can say there are 10-20% losses. Luckily, our area has diversification, and we grow sugarcane, mustard, etc. These crops were not damaged, as we had already harvested the mustard.”

After taking a stock of things, we travelled to Sangrur district and stopped at Duggan village to talk to Sukhwinder Singh Pappi. He showed us his lodged wheat fields and then said, “Wheat lodging is a big problem in the entire region. This will lead to lessened yields. Harvesting the lodged wheat is also a problem. 70-80% of the wheat crops have lodged in the area.”

What effect will this have? “See, the kernels are still green and forming. The lodging as per our earlier knowledge will lead to discolouration. Right now, the wheat needed the sun and not hailstorm and high winds. We will harvest around April 10, let’s see what happens till then,” Pappi said.

We spoke with Ajmer Singh Dhatt, Director of Research (Additional Charge) at Punjab Agriculture University (PAU). “There have been hailstorms in pockets, but the rain and wind have led to lodging in wheat. The areas with irrigation or that were irrigated have reported more cases of wheat lodging, and non irrigated areas report less lodging. 2-4% would be the total losses, but there is more rain to come, so let’s see what happens,” he said.

I probed further about mustard, he did express concerns and said, “The next one or two days are critical for mustard. We can make estimates only after that.”

Punjab has been under the weather, and if we look at the weather predictions the rainy spell is not ending anytime soon. The IMD has issued alerts over Majha, Doaba, West Malwa and East Malwa regions. The alert covers pretty much the entire state, causing further alarm for wheat farmers.

Hopefully, farmers will be ready to face the clouds this time, otherwise India will have to brace herself for another bad wheat harvest this year, pushing us further toward wheat price inflation and food insecurity.

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