REAL Montana Class experiences people, culture and farms of India
India is the antithesis of Montana in terms of population. Montana has 1 million people spread over 147,000 square miles. India has 1.35 billion people spread over 1.2 million square miles. In November 2018, Class III of the REAL Montana program spent 12 days in India exploring the country's natural resources, culture, and history. (Resource Education and Agriculture Leadership (REAL) Montana is a comprehensive two-year program offering in-depth education and training in the agriculture and natural resource industries.)
Bonita Cremer, a rancher from Melville and chair of the Montana Farm Bureau Health & Safety Committee, remembers when the REAL Montana group first arrived in the country.
“Due to some flight delays, we had about an hour of sleep before we started touring Mumbai,” Cremer said. “Our first experience was a fish market located on a large covered dock where fisherman haul in their catch. It was overwhelming with the sounds and smells as our first introduction to India. There was an auction taking place with bidders from local markets and smaller hotels and restaurants. This is a very old, historic port city. People here looked very elegant all of the time. The women were dressed in the traditional saris or in punjamas, which are everyday wear.”
After Mumbai, they flew to Delhi, a more modern city that has been rebuilt about seven times. “It has wider streets, sidewalks and more green space than Mumbai. There are mosques and Hindu temples,” Cremer explained.
In Delhi the group met with the Federation of Indian Mineral Industries, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, and Corteva Agri-Science, a division of DowDuPont.
“We visited with Indian Mineral Industries about their coal mining industry. They have some of the same challenges we face with a lot of environmental pushback. The next generation wants more to be done to address climate change; however, the staff noted the next generation must understand why coal mining is necessary.”
India has a goal of generating enough electricity to supply their country with energy 24/7 by 2025 which they don’t currently have. (One of the farmers told them that there are only certain hours they can run their irrigation pumps.)
While in Delhi the group had the opportunity to celebrate the Diwali Festival with a local family. “We were invited to the home of our tour company owner to celebrate Diwali. Diwali is the Festival of Light, it is all about bringing in good fortune, good health and celebrating a good life,” Cremer said. “Imagine Christmas, New Year’s Eve and July 4th rolled into one with special holiday foods, music and gifts. We shared Hindu prayers, enjoyed delicious traditional Indian foods and danced to street drummers. Keep in mind there were twenty-one of us in this group, truly strangers in a strange land, yet the family insisted we celebrate with them. We were treated to generous hospitality.”
The next day, the group traveled to Agra where they visited a sugar cane factory; it wasn’t running while the group was there, but they met with the growers from the co-op.
“In addition to sugar cane, they grow a lot of cotton, rice and sorghum alfalfa along with other crops to feed livestock. There was a lot of rice being grown,” Cremer noted. “We learned that the Indian government doesn’t allow private land ownership of more than 20 acres, with the average size being four acres, although there are farmers who have found ways to be larger. There is a lot of work done by hand. Apparently, there is a huge range of soils; it’s very fertile land.”
Leaving Agra where they toured the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and a small diversified farm, a train transported the group to Ludhiana where they visited the Punjab Agricultural University, a cooperative bank, the Beauscape vegetable and flower seed farm, and Gill farm, a family operation that grows seasonal vegetables, marigolds, and other cash crops. The last day in India included a tour of the National Dairy Research Institute at Karnal and a rice mill.
Cremer enjoyed interacting with farmers. “The first farm we visited was the most primitive; they grew vegetables and fruit. Those foods stay local and although rice is a huge export, India is very protectionist. They don’t do much importing except some pulse crops. However, India’s middle class is expanding and there is potential for huge market growth. There is a lot of governmental control over agriculture, and growers know they will only make so much money on their crops. For instance, the government decides how much sugar cane can be planted; that’s how their system is designed.”
The endless crowds proved slightly challenging for Montanans who are accustomed to so much open space. “We traveled into the “country” but it never seemed like a rural area. It is so populated. If you go 100 meters and don’t see another person, something is wrong,” Cremer said.
Jillien Streit of Chester grows pulse crops—a mainstay of India—so she was interested in seeing agriculture in this foreign land. “The farmers were surprised that Montana grows what they call dal (lentils) and chana (chickpeas). There is an isolationist mentality, so the farmers were amazed to discover that Montana ships peas and lentil here. A lot of that stems from the fact the government doesn’t tell them about it.”
The Hill-Liberty-Blaine County Farm Bureau secretary explained that as a pulse crop producer, she was intrigued to see the sheer number of people and experience the way they eat, many with a vegetarian diet with pulse crops as their main protein source. “They eat them morning, noon and night. The way they eat them, though, is different. In the U.S. we mainly turn them into ingredients (like hummus), but in India, they eat them in their whole form turning them into curries and dishes like that.”
In Ludhiana, the group visited several farms including a large-scale farm that grew only marigolds. Although the average farm size is less than an acre, the Beauscape Farm grew flowers on 500 acres and the farming was done by hand. The farm has a niche market selling marigold seed to Germany for a pesticide.
“Apparently, German farmers with organic crops plant the marigolds seed, then once the plant blooms they plow it under; the marigolds work as a natural pesticide,” Streit said. “I was intrigued how a third-world country found this German market, especially when you see places in India that don’t have electricity.”
A visit to a basmati rice facility was eye-opening for Streit, as it was a manufacturing plant with dim lights and multiple layers of production; very different than processing plants in the U.S. “There weren’t many safety precautions and the massive amount of labor was amazing to see. They don’t want to mechanize because they want to keep people employed.”
The group repeatedly learned a huge difference exists about what farmers said versus what government officials said. “The farmers said their government was very disconnected and they mistrust their government. We heard undertones that farmers want to export more but the government tells them they don’t need to export anything.”
A visit to a co-op with 1700 farmers sharing equipment and fertilizer, reminded Streit of home. “When we first started growing pulses all of the farmers purchased rollers together and figured out how to move product together. We live a world away but the spirit these farmers had at this co-op was the same spirit we felt with ours.”
That kindred feeling among farm families was apparent during a visit to the home of the Gil Farm owner in the Punjab region. “He talked about how much it meant for him to have a multi-generational farm and how much it meant to have his grandson go out with him. We were all sitting around and none of us wanted to leave. We had found home there sitting with a farm family, just talking.”
One of the unfortunate aspects of the trip was the air pollution. “Even though it can be frustrating to have the Environmental Protection Agency and its regulations, going to India made me appreciate that we have environmental oversight,” Streit acknowledged. “To me, the pollution in the country was hardest and saddest to see as the air quality was terrible. We take for granted our beautiful blue skies in Montana. You think the air quality during our fire season is awful, but they live with that every day. Even though EPA can be cumbersome, we are blessed to have clear skies and clean water, trash management and sewer service.”
The farmer reflected on the experience. “It was a test in open mindedness. It’s a colorful, vibrant culture. The environmental challenges are overwhelming, but they make up for it with their hospitality.”
Jeff Welborn who serves as a state senator from Dillon, noted that because of the legislative session, he had to leave before the end of the trip, primarily missing the segment touring Indian farms.
“India is hard to put into words, especially its agriculture. They don’t have much mechanization, just a few small tractors. A lot of their technology dates back to the 1800s,” noted the Southwest Counties Farm Bureau member. “They do a lot of hand planting and harvesting. Most of what they grow is sold within a few miles of open-air-markets. There are cars, but a lot of times you’d see a whole family riding on the tractor into town,” Welborn said. “The first emotion is to feel sorry for them because of their lack of technology, but they don’t really know the difference. What they get by with and function as a country is fascinating. For instance, if you look at the way electricity is run into building it’s very antiquated, yet they are running world-class call centers.”
“It was explained that the reason they are purposefully slow to catch up with mechanization is they are afraid to put people out of work,” said Welborn. “They’re afraid what would happen if suddenly their jobs were replaced with machines. The country is purposefully slow to catch up with the rest of the world in so many areas.”
Welborn added that everything they learned came back to the people. “I was impressed by the people. They are hardworking, unpretentious, honest and straightforward. They don’t seem to sweat the small stuff. It’s interesting to see the largest capitalist country in terms of population is so different than the United States, but we are similar in many ways.”
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