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Chapter 5 - Folk agronomy

Prioritisation of crop sowing
Mixed cropping
Rotational farming
Crop threshing employing animals
Use of yak and bullocks for ploughing
Traditional germplasm of agricultural crops
Uniform seed broadcasting and appropriate seed rate
Rice dehusking
Weeding, strengthening, thinning and gap filling in maize crop
Crushing of coriander seeds with shoe before sowing
Crop harvesting on slopy lands
Seed selection for higher productivity
Distribution of organic manure
Minimum tillage (mechanical and biological practices for soil management)
Dividing the fields into sub-plots
Landuse for optimum resource management
ITK for vegetable cultivation
ITK for horticultural crops

The art of crop production which is as old as civilization itself and its essential features have remained largely unchanged over the ages. Productivity in cold deserts in Himachal Pradesh, as elsewhere, is centered around crops and animal husbandry. People, through the ages, have developed need based and location specific indigenous technologies for enhancing productivity. The concept of quality seed is well known and agronomic practices are standardised for tiding up, the limited cropping period. Rotation of crops, particularly with legumes, is adopted for improving soil fertility. Sowing and harvesting schedules are steeped in cultural heritage. Adequate care is taken to protect crops from both pre-and post harvest losses.

Indigenous technologies with regard to mixed cropping, rotation of crops, agronomic practices, use of indigenous genetic seed sources, seed selection, harvesting, threshing, storage, etc., are summarised in the ensuing pages.

Prioritisation of crop sowing

In the West Himalayan Cold Deserts crop sowing in one season is linked with the ripening period of crops of the previous season. Wheat, barley, pea and buckwheat cultivation follow in sequence. In case of fragmented land holdings, sowing is prioritized according to altitudinal zonation. This helps to tide over the rather limited growing period by synchronising harvesting, threshing and storage before the onset of winter. In this manner scarcity of labour is also coped with effective and efficient crop management. The individual farmer is thus able to attend to his fragmented land holdingwhich are spaced over varying altitudes.

Mixed cropping

In the West Himalayan Cold Deserts cultivation of maize with millets, beans or pulses are the constituent crops in mixed cropping. In addition, leguminous pulses (mash and moong) are also cultivated on the available land, along the edges of plots. Mixed cropping affords the advantages of crop diversification along with value addition. It provides a shield against the event of particular crop damage. It also maintains soil fertility and productivity besides conserving soil.

Rotational farming

At the relatively lower altitudes, of the West Himalayan Cold Deserts, rotational farming is traditionally practised for enhanced production. Barley, pea and wheat constitute the common rotation. This practice balances soil fertility and avoids spread of diseases from one crop to another. Pea cultivation after barley crop fixes atmospheric nitrogen. Soil compactness induced by barley cultivation also serves as a check against wind erosion.

Crop rotation and double cropping

This practice is specific to remote locations of Lahaul (Miar nallah) in Himachal Pradesh. Rotation starts with barley in the first year, and buckwheat during the second year. The rotation sequence is governed by the quantity of available manure. Ordinarily one-third of the total holding is thoroughly manured during the year for barley cultivation. In the following year the soil retains a good deal of fertility for buckwheat for which no additional manure is added. In the third year the same field wheat is sown. The remaining two thirds of the holdings are similarly treated in succession. Barley requires heavy doses of organic manure for better crop harvest However, the organic content of the soil after the harvesting of barley is sufficient to raise a good produce of millets followed by wheat This helps to meet the challenges of limited availability of organic manure for successful management of soil fertility levels.

Crop rotation and practice of fallow lands

Under irrigated conditions in Lahaul valley, wherever paddy cultivation is possible, it alternates with wheat. On unirrigated fields, yielding one crop a year, wheat or barley rotates with maize and/or mash. However, the in cold reaches (irrespective of irrigation availability) where paddy cannot be grown and two regular crops are not practicable, cultivation of wheat or barley (or in some cases masur) is followed by a fallow period during winter. Millet and maize or buckwheat are planted in the following year. Usually maize is followed by wheat; buckwheat or mash is followed by wheat after maize. Where maize is not cultivated, wheat and barley crops are generally raised (on unirrigated fields) in the following spring season. This is replaced by buckwheat under irrigated situations.

This practice of crop rotation helps in maintaining soil productivity. Leguminous crops fix nitrogen. The growing of different crops viz., maize, wheat, barley and millets conserves soil due to their different root systems which extract nutrients from different layers of the soil. This also helps in crop diversification and control of any soil borne or crop residue carrying diseases/insect pests. The practice of keeping lands fallow preserves and restores soil fertility. The altitudinal gradation in land holdings is also harnessed through crop rotation.

Crop threshing employing animals

Animals, particularly dzos, are used for threshing crops by trampling, in the West Himalayan cold deserts. A large circle of packed earth (about 10 in diameter) forms the threshing floor. A number of animals are tied in a line to a central pole. Dzos once stirred, continuously circle the central pole for hours without showing any fatigue (Fig. 5.1a). Often there is a combination of animals, as many as twelve, with the dzos forming the inner circle while horses and donkeys circle along the outer edge. Threshing is accompanied by singing. To prevent the soiling of the grain by animal dung, a container is used for collecting the dung before it falls on the ground.

Fig. 5.1a Crop thrashing employing animals

Even in the lower Spiti areas animals (commonly chum) are used for the threshing of crops (wheat/barley). After harvesting of crops from August to September, the same are left to dry in a common courtyard (Khaliyan). After complete drying, it is spread in circular heap formed around a central pole. Two pairs of chum are used for trampling the dried crop. However, it is also observed in the Tod Valley that inorder to increase the weight of churu a weight of 30-40 kg (made of wooden and husk straw, sealed in gunny bags) is tied to it. Then the chum tramples the crop for one hour after which the crop is turned over so that it may be trampled upon completely. This process of turning the crop over, continues for 5-6 hours. After which the crushed material is collected and piled into a heap. The grain is then separated by air winnowing. The grain is subsequently stored in houses mainly for home consumption.

In Shimla districts of Himachal Pradesh crop thrashing by employing oxen and mule is done on a thrashing floor of about 5 mm diameter (Fig. 5.1b). This is further facilitated by thrashing with a 3 to 4 m long flexible green oak sticks.

Fig. 5.1b Crop thrashing in "khaliyan" made of stone

Thrashing by animals is preferred by the farmers as mechanical threshers are not available in these remote areas and are also costly. Additionally, the general feeling is that wheat straw/barley husk crushed by the mechanical thresher is not palatable to cattle stock because it is reduced to a fine texture. Also mechanical threshers crack more grains which is obviously not preferred by the farmers.

Use of yak and bullocks for ploughing

Yak and bullocks are commonly used for ploughing the crop fields. A lady guides the yak via a ropewhich is tied around its neck to follow a particular furrow and behind the yak, a male does the ploughing trough the plough tied to the yoke of the yak Fig. 5.2a).

Fig. 52a "Yaks" for ploughing

In temperate Himalayan, a pair of bullocks, tied with a common yoke and a plough in between, are used for ploughing. These bullocks are normally small sized and well suited to plough the narrow field strips of hill tract (Fig. 5.2b).

Fig. 5.2b Bullocks for ploughing

Furrow as an Indicator of Sown Field

After the seed has been sown and the field levelled with suhaga, a furrow is drawn in the middle of the field. This furrow acts as an indicator of sown field so as to keep it undisturbed from human and other animal activities (Fig. 5.3a & b).

Fig. 5.3a Laying plough furrow as sign of the sown field

Fig. 5.3b Laying plough furrow as sign of the sown field

Traditional germplasm of agricultural crops

Germplasm of food crops in the West Himalayan cold deserts, which is well acclimatized to the harsh, dry and cold climate, is saved and conserved year after year. The traditional germplasm used in Ladakh are listed in the following table:


Var. of crops




Ne-nak (Lad, nak-nas)





Early ripening



White wealth



Yellow mother



Six cornered




Big wheat



Small wheat

















Buck wheat




The reference to these varieties in folk songs reveals the sustainability of the local germplasm over the millennia. As revealed by studies of the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agriculture Sciences and Technology; Research Station, Leh; some local varieties generate higher yields as compared to recommended varieties from the adjoining plains.

Uniform seed broadcasting and appropriate seed rate

Broadcasting is performed by girls in West Himalayan cold desert areas. One handful of seed is uniformly broadcast in three to four equal lots. The quantity of seeds thrown in each lot is determined by the distance of furrows made during ploughing. For verification of properly spaced broadcasting a handful of soil is picked up at random from any part of the field and if in each pick there are seven seeds it is indicative of proper broadcasting. Incidentally, this "seven seeds test" roughly coincides with scientifically recommended seed spacing.

In the Spiti region, for wheat/barley, an expert from the family casts the seeds with such precision that each pick will contain seven seeds, thus distributing a measured quantity of seeds. After casting the seeds ploughing is done using a local plough. This operation covers the seeds in soil up-to a depth equal to two times the diameter of the seed.

Broadcasting as practised, is advantageous when compared to line sowing since it reduces labour requirement.

Shangma Stone for Weed Control

In Changthan area of Ladakh, a light bluish local stone called Shangma is used for weed control because it seems to possess toxic properties. Pieces of stones are spread over a small heap of soil, in the middle of fields in the month of December. This soluble stone, when mildly irrigated, percolates into the field. The postponement of sowing by two weeks and this practice of allowing the stones to percolate into the field is done probably to regulate toxicity levels for crop management.

Rice dehusking

Rice dehusking is done by using a wooden pestle and mortar. Usually two ladies perform this function by using the pestle alternatively (Fig. 5.4).

Fig. 5.4 Traditional rice dehusking

Weeding, strengthening, thinning and gap filling in maize crop

The standing maize fields in Mandi area of Himachal Pradesh are ploughed, when the plants have attained a height of 15-30 cm for weed control. Ploughing strengthens the root system of the maize crop because loosening of soil enhances aeration and water infiltration. It also helps in thinning of densely cropped maize. The farmers also undertake gap filling during this operation. The whole process is known as Halod by the local farmers. Mash can also be sown during this operation.

Crushing of coriander seeds with shoe before sowing

Coriander seeds in Kinnaur, and other regions of Himachal Pradesh, are crushed by being trampled upon by leather shoes before sowing for better germination. While the exact use of this technique is a subject for research, it appears that this mechanical exercise exerts just the right pressure to break the hard testa without causing any injury to the seed itself, thereby facilitating germination.

Crop harvesting on slopy lands

In West Himalayan cold deserts, crop harvesting is affected by a sickle used in the upstream direction for maximizing biomass. Eight to ten plants held right near the base, are pushed forward and then cut. This method of crop harvesting from bottom to top ensures maximum harvest by reducing wastage through easy handling and consequently saving labour.

Seed selection for higher productivity

Again in West Himalayan cold deserts, seeds for future cultivation are collected from selected plots manifesting vigour, early maturity, disease resistance and higher productivity. After three to four years, the seed source is shifted to other villages without diluting the selection criteria. This practice of collecting seeds from different villages after every three to four years is a check against inbreeding which otherwise may induce low productivity.

Harnessing of Local Agro-climatic Conditions for Crop Management

Lahaul valley remains snow bound generally from December to April and as such no agricultural operations are possible. However, in the Pattan valley, where in one season, two crops are raised, one of barley and the other of buckwheat, snow is melted off the fields by covering it with earth for timely ploughing and sowing of seed. In the upper portions of the Chandra and the Bhaga valleys where the snow lasts longer than in the rest of, and the crops are liable to be damaged by early snowfall, ploughing and sowing operations are delayed. In the Pattan valley which has a somewhat longer summer on account of its slightly lower elevation, it is possible to sow barley at the end of March or in early April and harvest it in July. This is followed immediately by the sowing of buckwheat which ripens towards the end of September. Kuth is sown in November before snowfall and also during April. November sowing is, however, preferred as the seeds get more time for stratification which is essential for better germination. Harvesting commences by mid August. Thus farming operations are synchronized with agroclimatic conditions.

Distribution of organic manure

In Ladakh and in other regions after every seven steps taken by a woman, 20 to 25 kg of organic manure is scattered in the fields. This technique aims at uniform distribution of organic manure. It is reported that the quantity of manure spread is optimum for the plot of land falling in the range of seven steps taken by the woman.

Minimum tillage (mechanical and biological practices for soil management)

In the Lahaul area, wheat and barley are sown directly after a single ploughing. No second ploughing is undertaken. Sometimes, if in areas where upland paddy is sown when dry season prevails at the time of harvest, wheat is sown immediately after the harvest. No preparatory tillage is undertaken. Fields are left fallow in rotation. Soil management practices like minimum tillage/only one conventional tillage (ploughing), ensures least disturbance to the soil, thereby reducing soil loss through surface run-off. The nutrient losses are also curtailed. Consequently an improvement in the soil's physical properties e.g. water holding capacity, chemical properties like nutrient availability and microbial properties are affected, by leaving the fields fallow during rotation, there is a consequent improvement in soil fertility due to absence of erosion and crop nutrient uptake.

Dividing the fields into sub-plots

In Spiti and Kinnaur, fields are divided into smaller sub-plots for irrigation, otherwise land being sandy, water percolates immediately through one large plot. To stop water at each level sub-plots are made on sloping land. The same practice is also observed during vegetable cultivation in the Spiti valley.

Ploughing with the Indigenous (Desi) Plough

Use of the indigenous plough is still prevalent in the Spiti valley. During the month of April, farm yard manure is first spread uniformly by the women and then the fields are ploughed (Fig. 5.2a & b).

Local farmers confirm that the Desi plough does not bring the bottom soil to top and vice-versa, by virtue of this the top humus layer does not get turned under. This layer of humus also acts as mulch thereby optimizing the use of irrigation water.

Landuse for optimum resource management

In the Lahaul valley, wheat, barley, lintel etc. are sown in the post monsoon season while, millets, potato, maize and leguminous crops are sown in the monsoon season. Rotation is operationalised in such a way that no exhaustive crop is repeated in the following year. A two year rotation is thought to be necessary for optimum resource (land) use.

The cattle are grazed by one man who belongs to the lower caste. Food is provided to him by the villagers for the service rendered. Sheep are grazed together. This practice has the advantage of providing employment to one with no regular source of income and it is, at the same time, labour saving.

Extraction of fibre and seeds from Bhang (Cannabis)

Bhang (Cannabis) is cultivated in the Chhota/Bada Bhangal of Kangra district and Karsog area of Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh for the extraction of fibre and seeds. Its green leaves are used for extracting narcotics (Fig. 5.5a, b & c) which is very addictive and its cultivation is also illegal. After maturation the harvested crop is set aside to dry. After drying, the seeds are collected and the fibre is separated from the stems and branches. Its fibre, being stronger than jute, is used for making ropes of varying thickness. The rope making process is depicted in Figs. 5.6a, b & c. Besides its acknowledged strength, it is one of the cheapest materials for rope making.

Fig. 5.5a Narcotic extraction from Cannabis

Fig 5.5b Cannabis smoking

Fig. 5.5c Cannabis smoking

Fig. 5.6a Fibre extraction from Cannabis

Fig. 5.6b Rope making from Cannabis fibre

Fig. 5.6c Rope made of Cannabis fibre

ITK for vegetable cultivation

Root spreading for surface feeding in vegetable plantation

In Ladakh, a small wooden structure called the tokhre is used for digging the soil facilitating the horizontal spread of roots in cabbage and other vegetable crops thereby increasing production. This practice facilitates enhanced moisture/nutrient uptake along with the removal of weeds. The wooden structure protects roots from mechanical damage which could result from an iron implement.

Osmoconditioning of pea seeds

In Kinnaur, Spiti and higher reaches of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, the garden pea is a significant commercial crop. The crop sown in the month of October-November, before it snows, shows relatively better/early germination when compared with seeds sown in the month of March/April. Sowing in winter allows adequate time for the physiological activities to occur within the seed, resulting in an early crop.

The early germination may also be attributed to a better hydrothermal regime during February-March for the crop sown in the month of October-November. The additional advantage is that the produce can be transported to the plains to secure excellent economic returns.

Cropping pattern

In the Spiti valley, in Kinnaur and also in the higher reaches of Shimla district monocropping pattern prevails. The crops like potatoes and peas are sown in the month of April and harvested during September to October. The poor fertility status of soils requires that such soils should not be overutilized.

Instead of sowing whole potato tubes, it is chopped into two to three pieces and each chopped piece must have an eye, to ensure seedling after germination (Fig. 5.7).

Fig. 5.7 Chopping of potato seed for sowing Home/kitchen garden

Garlic, dhoonu (wild onion) and coriander were sown in kitchen gardens in Lahaul and Spiti valley. A perennial wild plant locally known as jarga in Lahaul was also a permanent feature of the kitchen garden.

Leaves of garlic, dhoonu, coriander and jarga are used as spices.

Mahotar/dhingri/guchhi (mushroom)

Generally, during the rainy season, in Mandi and Kullu, prolific growth of dhingri is observed on termantoria. It is also observed that during lightening/thundering of clouds mahotar abounds on grasslands and guchhi (mushroom) sprouts in deodar forests. Guchhi (mushroom) besides being highly nutritive and tasty it fetches a handsome price. Collecting it from the wild requires trained eyes and considerable expertise.

ITK for horticultural crops

Localised green house conditions in grape cultivation

Grapes are cultivated in the Nubra valley by regulating the temperature of basins using local stone (called bricks), grasses, warm clothes, gunny bags or wooden baskets. Grapes are grown only in sunny niches. Pits are filled with locally found stone, grasses and soil. The white brick pieces help in warming the otherwise cool sandy soils in die basin. Grape vines are covered with warm clothes or gunny bags or wooden baskets to shield them against the cold and animals attacks, especially during the initial one to two years.

This method indicates the use of localized green house conditions for grape cultivation and subsequent fruit sweetening.

Apricot grafting

In the Nubra valley of Ladakh, apricot grafting (seedlings) is commonly practised. Scions (sweet types) are grafted over bitter forms of wild apricot. This job is carried out by three to four experts (free of charge) in a village. Local techniques are known as Kalam and Dambu. In Kalam half lamina along with the petiole is inserted into the peeled part of the stock and the removed bark is then used to secure the union. A two to three years old scion is preferred. Dambu is practiced on one year old seedlings. In this case a cut is made in the bark at the point of bud with a deliberate slow rotatory movement and the entire piece of cylindrical bark is removed much like the cap of a pen. It is then rewrapped and secured so that the petiole region of the scion is properly united with the stock. Protection of two to three vital veins in the petiole region is regarded as essential for the success of this graft.

The use of peeled off bark as a piece in Kalam and Dambu displays local wisdom for providing moisture to the grafted union. The use of the half leaf lamina is a check against possible damage to the union due to strong blowing wind, a common phenomenon in the region. Protection of specific veins indicates a knowledge of the nutritional linkage between scion and stock.

Enhancing soil fertility

Animal bones are hurried in the basin area of the plants. The animal bones improves soil fertility by adding phosphorus to soil.

Fruiting in apple

It is believed that if an old leather shoe is hung on the non-bearing apple tree, the tree starts fruiting.

Fruiting in walnut in Kinnaur

A hole is bored into the trunk of the walnut tree(s) up-to the hollow pith region. This results in oozing out of extra water present in this region and the tree starts bearing fruits because the water present in the pith retards the movement of nutrients from the roots to the upper region. Additionally, the branches of the non-bearing trees are pruned for bringing it to bear fruits.

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