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Cluster-based Farmer Field School in the polders of the coastal zone of Bangladesh: improving effectiveness of extension approach

By Manoranjan Kumar Mondal, Mary Ann Batas, Muhammad Humayoun Kabir, and Sudhir Yadav

Bangladesh has achieved self-sufficiency in rice using Green Revolution technologies. But, with a population of 165 million that continues to grow at 1.22% annually, the country faces enormous challenges in maintaining food security.

In addition to its increasing population, rapid urbanization is reducing the share of cropland, which is decreasing every year. The cropping intensity and productivity in Bangladesh are already high. There is little scope to further increase food production, except on the underutilized coastal zone lands, especially 1.2 million hectares of arable lands in the polders of the coastal zone of Bangladesh.

High risk, low investment, less production

The agricultural environment in the coastal zone is generally termed as “high risk”.  Most farmers adopt a “low investment” risk aversion strategy and ultimately get “less production.”

The polder lands are deprived of technological advancement in agriculture despite significant investment from the government, nongovernment, development partners, and international organizations.  The main reason probably is the adoption of “one-size-fits-all” scaling approaches or replicating technological innovations from other regions without adjustments to fit unique socio-organizational and hydrological conditions of the polder ecosystem of coastal Bangladesh.

Too complex polder hydrology for Farmer Field Schools

Many approaches are adopted in agricultural technology dissemination across the globe. Among them, the Farmer Field School (FFS) model has been widely adopted in Asia, especially in Bangladesh. The key features of the FFS model include primary learning, which starts at a crop field and lasts for an entire cropping season; the meeting place is close to the learning plots; the FFS educational methods are experiential, participatory, and learner-centered; and are generally done involving between 25 and 30 farmers of a village.

The FFS approach enhances the knowledge and skills of a group of farmers sporadically chosen from a geographical area (a village) to improve productivity and farm income on a seasonal basis but not focused on year-round cropping and farming system. Since FFS is focused on geographical boundaries, hydrology is not considered one of the determinants for technology dissemination. It is broadly assumed that an individual farmer can successfully adopt agricultural innovations without linkages with other community members.

Since the hydrology of the coastal zone differs from other parts of Bangladesh and is mainly governed by the lunar tidal phenomenon, it is practically impossible for an individual farmer in this zone to adopt agricultural innovations to manage the enormous volume of tidal river water entering through the sluice gates of the polder ecosystem (see map below). Without the community’s cooperation it is very difficult to manage irrigation and drainage for successful cropping within its catchment area of a sluice gate generally consists of several villages, either whole or part. 

This complexity distinguishes the polder ecosystem of the coastal zone from other parts of the country. Such hydrology demands community coordination for wide-scale adoption of improved agricultural technologies for higher productivity and improved livelihood of the coastal polder ecosystem. 

On the one hand, Water Management Organizations (WMOs) are formed by the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) for in-polder water management by synchronizing the operation of the sluice gates with the tidal phenomenon of the coastal river systems with the farmers’ cropping plan. On the other hand, the FFS is formed by the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) involving 25–30 farmers, randomly chosen from a village, with practically no control over or influence on sluice gate operation. This is a key factor hindering the wide-scale adoption of improved agricultural technologies and innovations in the coastal polder zone. 

A farming community bound by water

The Cluster-based FFS (CFFS) approach (synchronized cropping) is required for technology dissemination in the coastal zone, particularly in the polder ecosystem. The distinguishing features of the CFFS model are the synergies among practices as well as institutional efforts for the dissemination of technologies. Farm clustering based on hydrology (using the catchment area of a sluice gate) and synchronized crop management practices (including choice of crops, varieties, irrigation, and drainage scheduling) can be achieved by empowering and engaging the farming communities and community leaders (WMO and Union Parishad representatives) within the farming cluster or watershed area.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in partnership with the DAE, implemented the CFFS approach in scaling the rice-maize and rice-sunflower cropping system innovations in collaboration with partners with the mandate and capacity to deliver at scale and sustain delivery of the improved cropping systems through improved water management at catchment level of the sluice gates in the polder ecosystem. The CFFS approach has been included in various R&D efforts, including the Feed the Future Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab, a USAID-funded program, and the One CGIAR regional initiative Asian Mega Delta.

In this model, instead of forming separate FFS groups, the WMOs are empowered through improved in-polder water management synchronizing with the tidal phenomenon and crop growth stages for adopting improved agricultural production systems and climate-resilient management practices involving all the farmers in a cluster of land areas.

The CFFS covers season-long training on various topics, including high-yielding rice varieties, sunflower, and maize production practices, nutritional awareness among mothers and school teachers, terminal drainage, planting window for dry-season crops and agricultural mechanization involving women and youth.

A total of 8,445 participants attended 15 training sessions highlighting improved water management and year-round cropping opportunities in the polders from October 2020 to May 2022. They are mostly farmers (83%), where 33% were women, and 11% were youth. The team also conducted training on the use of machineries such as the mini tiller for intercultural operation, fertilizer and weed management in maize, and sunflower, the reaper for harvesting rice, and a refresher course on troubleshooting machinery.

Field days and travelling seminars were organized for 1,885 individuals, mostly farmers and members of WMO (WMGs – Water Management Groups and WMAs – Water Management Associations), where 39% were women and 22% were young people.

Life-changing lessons

The CFFS trainings are a means to an end, a way for the farmers in the polder communities to get out of the cycle of poverty.  Some participants have used the CFFS to upskill and build skills that bring positive real-life changes.

Like many farmers in the polder, Kalam Seikh used to cultivate traditional aman rice and keep the land fallow in the dry season. In a 2016-17 survey, 41–53% of the farmers in the polders left their land fallow in the previous dry season. The practice results in a significant loss of residual soil moisture that would otherwise be sufficient to grow pulse or oilseed crop.

“The SIIL-Polder Project shared the prospect of intensifying cropping by cultivating HYV rice in the wet season followed by sunflower and maize in the dry season by dibbling method,” Mr. Seikh said. “From the training I received, I cultivated BRRI dhan52 and got good yield; after that, I have grown the sunflower and maize, which were established by the dibbling method. I was able to use my land for both seasons.”

Mustafiziur Rahman, secretary of the Noailtola-BaroHajirabad WMG, keenly observed farming in a contiguous area.

“Synchronizing sluice gate operation for water management with crop planning is new learning for me,” Secretary Rahman said. “This cluster farming approach may help disseminate agricultural technologies in the polder area.”

Obaidul Sheikh, the public representative of the local government institution (Union Parishad), stressed the need for research-extension initiatives involving the community are helpful for agricultural development in the coastal zone.

“Cluster farming involving a group of farmers and WMG officials as shown by the SIIL-Polder Project is very useful and should be promoted in other polders for food security of the farming communities of southern Bangladesh,” said Mr. Sheikh.

Parbati Sikdar, a school teacher who attended nutrition training on BRRI dhan72 and sunflower edible oil in 2019, noted that BRRIdhan72 is zinc-enriched and more nutritious for women and children. Ms. Sikdar and other teachers shared this with mothers and school children, and many households have cultivated and benefitted from it.

Cultivating the reach of extension partners

Farmers are very knowledgeable about their farming system. But they also need access to new information, technology, and practices, especially with the changing climate patterns and decreasing productivity. The role of extension and development partners in closing the gap through the knowledge they can bring to farmers is crucial.

Rabiul Islam, Upazila Agriculture Officer at DAE in Batiaghata, Khulna, commended the technical support from DAE, and IRRI is assisting the farmers in converting single crop land to double cropping.

“This year, we introduced sunflower and maize and provided the seeds to 100 farmers in the Noailtala cluster,” Mr. Islam said. “All of them successfully cultivated the crops. We will continue mentoring the farmers in the coming years. When they widely adopt this technology, cropping intensity in Batiaghata Upazila will increase. Salinity will not be a problem in extensively cultivating sunflower and maize as the crops need less irrigation and have some salt-tolerant ability. I hope more farmers will adopt this technology as maize production is more profitable than rice.”

Additional Deputy Director (Crop) of DAE Mosaddek Hossain mentioned that the farmers of the Khulna area are blessed with synchronized cultivation of rice-maize and rice-sunflower through DAE-IRRI research initiatives.

“By practicing synchronized rice cultivation using short duration aman rice, now the farmers are getting two crops in a year,” he said. “The process of seed sowing, intercultural management, and harvesting is done simultaneously, thus creating opportunities for agricultural mechanization and helping combat the adverse situation in the coastal area.”

Deputy Director of DAE-Khulna Md. Hafizur Rahman concurred.

“If we can extend this technology, we are very hopeful that maize could be a promising crop in salinity-prone and other adverse lands in Khulna district where no crop can be grown in the dry season,” Deputy Director Rahman said. “The farmlands are small for various reasons, including division of inheritance and the farmers are also not very keen on pairing them. The farmers in an area do not cultivate their land at the same time and use crop varieties with different growth duration. As a result,the entire crop fields do not mature simultaneously. That's why using agricultural machinery at any particular locality is not economically viable. Synchronized or cluster farming might remove the key bottlenecks hindering agricultural mechanization in Bangladesh.”

Hope for millions of farmers in polder communities

Successful demonstration of the CFFS model in partnership with the public and private sector extension agents might be an eye-opening step to influence the farming community, community leaders involved in water management, agricultural technology dissemination personnel, and the policymakers to adopt appropriate policies necessary to scale agricultural innovations through modified technology dissemination model across the coastal polder zone of Bangladesh.

Thus, food and nutritional security and livelihoods of millions of farmers in polder communities will be improved and will help the country to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 1 (No poverty) and 2 (Zero hunger) within the targeted time frame.