Traditional Farming Practices in Meghalaya, Northeast India.

Want to hear interesting real-life stories about farmers in a remote corner of India?

I bring you this story based on our first-hand experience of working with farmers of Meghalaya.

Zizira operates from Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya in the Northeast part of India – a region known for its verdant landscape, natural springs that irrigate fields, and unique herbs and spices.

Over 80% of the population depends on agriculture but struggle to market their produce. Zizira is striving to open markets for them.

Traditional farming methods are prevalent and used by the different indigenous tribal folks of the state. Farming methods such as shifting cultivation and terrace (bun) agriculture are the two popular ones.

Farmers also practise the method of tree-based farming practice, where the crops are grown together with trees such as alder, areca nut, coconut, bamboo, and Khasi pine.

Here, I would like to talk about the traditional farming methods practised in Meghalaya. You will also learn how farmers harvest crops in Meghalaya in such a way that it improves the fertility of the soil, and the traditional storage rooms are made in such a way that they are pest resistant.

Traditional farming agriculture Meghalaya

Traditional Farming Methods — What are They?

Traditional farming methods embody the original method of farming that has been practised by traditional farmers from generation to generation. These farming practices develop a balance between meeting our present needs, preserving natural resources and protecting the environment for the needs of future generations.

It is vital to identify and utilize such indigenous knowledge from our elderly folks, which will help bridge the gap between modern science and age-old practices.

Find out what is unique about Meghalaya and the potential of the land. Download ebook.

Traditional methods of agriculture in India

Traditional agricultural practices have been part of India’s farming history for generations now and contrary to modern agriculture with the likes of new interventions such as high yielding seed varieties (HYVs) and modern machinery, these traditional methods are not just prevalent today, they’re still relevant a well.

Some of the prevailing traditional methods of agriculture in India are:

  1. Crop Rotation
  2. Mixed cropping or inter cropping
  3. Agroforestry
  4. Use of heirloom seeds
  5. Poly culture

Present Status of Agriculture in Meghalaya

Agriculture is the main occupation of the people in Meghalaya, 83% of the total population depends on agriculture. However, the agricultural land accounts for only about 48% of the total geographical area of Meghalaya. Locals cultivate a wide variety of crops which include rice (Oryza sativa Linn.), maize (Zea mays Linn.) which are the major food crops. Important fruits grown are orange (Citrus reticulate Blanco), pineapple (Ananas comosus Merill), lemon (Citrus limon). Commercial crops include black pepper (Piper nigrum) etc. are some of the chief commercial crops of the state. (source)
Traditional farming farmer ploughing field

Major crops of Meghalaya

As mentioned above, 83% of the total population is engaged in agriculture. With that many people working in the agricultural sector, Meghalaya is bound to produce plenty of produce, and rightly so.

The major crops grown in Meghalaya include rice, maize, potato, pineapple, and a wide range of spices as well. It is also known to produce a wide range of vegetables such as pumpkins, French beans, cabbage, tomato, carrot, and squash.

Traditional Farming Methods in Meghalaya

Local folks of Meghalaya mostly use two types of farming practices, the shifting cultivation, and the terrace or bun cultivation. These traditional farming methods are properly adapted to the environmental conditions of Meghalaya. The locals are already acquainted with these methods of farming and they know the ecological balance it restores.

1. Shifting cultivation

Shifting cultivation has been a popular farming method in Meghalaya. Farmers also practise 'slash and burn' method. Commonly called the Jhum or the Swidden cultivation method, it is one of the most ancient methods of cultivation.
Swidden cultivation is believed to have originated in the Neolithic period around 7000 B.C. This agricultural system is a primitive method of cultivation. This system of farming is a transition between food gathering and hunting to food production. It is still in vogue in Meghalaya as well as the Himalayan region. About 350,000 people practice shifting cultivation on about 4,160 km sq. of surveyed lands. The folks who practice Jhum cultivation are called Jhummias. (source)

Shifting traditional farming trees bushes Shifting cultivation involves the clearing of forest areas to grow agricultural crops for a short period of time, ranging from over 1 to 10 years. After this period, the cultivation is moved to another site. The farmers may or may not return to the old site after the fertility of the soil has recovered.

Shifting cultivation is practised widely in the hilly regions of Meghalaya. Local farmers first select a piece of land in the forest. Then trees or bushes are cut down, left to dry and burnt. Then in the cleared area, the seeds are broadcast without the use of ploughs. When the crop yields begin to decrease after a few years, the farmers move to a new patch of forest area and repeat the same process.

Farmers abandon the land to let it recuperate and after a period of 2 to 20 years they come back to the same location. This primitive method of cultivation has been used for thousands of years. But, due to its adverse ecological effect on forested areas, it is now only practised in a few communities of Meghalaya.

The village council, known as  “Dorbar Shnong”, preserves the land and allocates forestland for cultivation.

2. Bun or Terrace Cultivation

Bun or terrace cultivation is practised widely in slopes and valleys and in Meghalaya. This cultivation method has been prevalent for the last 3 decades.  It provides an improved production system, helps conserve soil moisture, and prevents land degradation and soil erosion.

In this system, bench terraces are built on the hill slopes. The gap between each bun is levelled using the cut-hill method. The vertical break between each terrace is one meter. Thus, preventing erosion and maintaining a balanced water holding capacity within the slopes. It also helps to safely dispose-off the additional runoff from the slopes to the lower areas.

Of the total agricultural land in Meghalaya, 62% is used for food grains, 25% for cash crops, 9% for horticultural crops and the rest 4% is used for raising miscellaneous crops. Potato (Solanum tuberosum Linn.), the most important commercial agricultural crop, covers about 7% of the total agricultural area of the state. It was introduced in Khasi hills by David Scott in the early part of the 19th century and grown mainly in the terrace fields of the high altitudes of Khasi hills. (source)

Read the story of farmer Bah Khonji who lets nature do the composting.

Traditional Irrigation Practices

The process of irrigation is an important factor in crop production as it allows proper utilization of water and leads to an increase in production. It provides a moisture-optimum environment for the crops. Irrigation of the crops begin during the rainy season and is continued in a controlled method as much as the water supply is needed. Thus, irrigation comprehends soil management and cropping pattern according to the growth of the plant.

Irrigation is especially required in places where the soil has low water holding capacity, and in undulating terrains.

Here are two types of traditional irrigation methods widely practised in Meghalaya:

Bamboo drip irrigation traditional farming

  1. Bamboo drip irrigation:

    This irrigation method is a perfect specimen of a traditional farmer’s skill and resourcefulness in agriculture. It is widely practised in Jaintia hills, Meghalaya, where the hilly terrains are steep and the soil has poor conditions for farming. 

    The bamboo culms used for this method are obtained from locally available bamboo species. Water channels supported by these bamboo culms carry the water to different parts of the cultivation area and distribute the water, thus preventing leakage and water loss.

    Plantation crops such as black pepper (Piper nigrum), areca, betel vines (Piper betel), and nut Areca catechu are irrigated using this system.

    Read more on bamboo drip irrigation! Bench terrace irrigation traditional farming
  2. Bench terrace irrigation:

    Terrace farming is practised in areas where the topography of the region is mainly hilly and uneven. In hilly states like Meghalaya, terrace farming is practised as a means of making the best use of a hilly plot of land. This practice of irrigation method is one of the most commonly practised irrigation methods in Meghalaya. Water from streams is utilized as soon as it emerges from forest areas and channelled to a series of accommodated, terraced fields.

    In this system of irrigation, the channelled water flows uninterruptedly from the upper to the lower parts of the terraced fields. The fields are well-irrigated using this method. Thus, it is widely being practised in non-fertile areas, especially while cultivating rice crops.

    Farmers also use stones and gunny bags that aid in the maintenance of terraces and stop soil erosions problems. The fields are submerged in water up to 5-8 cm throughout the year.

    Read more on bench terrace irrigation.

Traditional Tree-Based Plantation Practices

Tree traditional farming plantation Traditional tree-based plantation practices have been long used by the native folks of Meghalaya. It involves various traditional and symbiotic tree plantation methods of timber trees and other cash crops. It is practised according to the agro-climatic condition of the areas. These plantation practices help in the conservation of soil and increase agricultural crops and forest production.

Here are a few traditional tree-based, plantation practices of Meghalaya:

1. Alder based plantation practice

Plantation of Alder (Alnus nepalensis) together with turmeric, sweet potato, ginger and potato is a common practice among native communities of Meghalaya.

2. Areca nut-coconut based plantation practice

Areca nut and coconut are considered commercially vital for the economy of Meghalaya. This plantation method is practiced in various areas of the state. Intercropping involves cultivation of pepper, ginger, maize and turmeric along with these trees.

3. Bamboo based plantation practice

Bamboo (Bambusa sp.) is a major non-timber forest produce of Meghalaya, commonly used for irrigation, construction, pulp manufacture and for artisan work. Its shoots are edible and used by the local folks. Rhizomes and tuber crops are intercropped in this plantation practice.

4. Khasi pine based plantation practice

Trees such as the Khasi pine (Pinus kesiya Royle) are widely planted in dry and exposed lands. It is extensively prevalent in Meghalaya and dominates the broad-leaved forests. The local folks cultivate ginger, turmeric, paddy crops and vegetables together with this system.

5. Timber tree-tea based plantation practice

Timber-trees that provides shade such as, Aquilaria agallocha and Alnus nepalensis, along with climbers such as Piper betel Linn. and Piper nigrum are cultivated together in tea plantation areas.

Traditional Soil Management Practices

Traditional soil management practices Soil is an essential resource provided to us by nature. It performs multiple functions essential for the maintenance of the ecosystem. It supports plant growth, stores nutrients, filters the air quality through atmospheric interactions and stores and purifies the water. Thus, management of soil conditions is vital!

Soil management or conservation in farming aims to sustain the productivity and production of crops. It is for preserving and restoring the lands. It also safeguards the soil against the depletion by natural or anthropogenic activities.

Non-cereal crops such as grass clover Trifolium repens and alfalfa Medicago sativa as they conserve the organic matter in the soil. (source)

Farmers here use bamboo culms, stones and gunny bags with the soil to prevent soil erosion. Green leaf and farmyard manure are also applied for improving the soil conditions as a traditional method of soil management. This process further improves the soil through natural nitrogen fixation method.

Lakadong is famous for growing high curcumin Lakadong Turmeric. Read the turmeric growing practices in this village.

Traditional Harvesting Practices

traditional system harvest farming
The harvesting process for crops such as rice and maize, under shifting cultivation involves, the removal of the ear head using a knife or a sickle.
There are about 15 types of sickles that were used indigenously in the region, these vary in shape and size from tribe to tribe. Farmers also plant indigenous species for repelling off insects. (source)

Husk rice traditional storage After the harvest season, it is essential that the crops are dried before storage.

Traditional storages have ventilated outlets that are constructed using materials such as bamboo and timber. When the rice is de-husked, these are then stored in bamboo containers locally called ‘thiar’ in Khasi. The bamboo containers are coated with mud on its inner sides.

The rice is stored primarily for consumption and for seeding purpose. The folks of Meghalaya believe and practice traditional methods of cultivation. They have been using these methods since time immemorial.

Traditional agricultural system has proven to increase the soil fertility through the decomposition of plant materials that have been left in the soil.

Do you know of any ingenious traditional farming methods in India that farmers of Meghalaya can use?

If you do share it with us in the comment section below.

It would be of great help! 

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Dr Abdul Hamid

Dr Abdul Hamid

it’s an excellent narrative of Meghalaya agriculture. Indigenous farmers in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, located in southeastern corner of Bangladesh, practice nearly similar form of agricultural practices in the uplands. But because of steep slope and mountainous terrain, they do not have irrigation facilities.
Agrarian Research Foundation, where I am based in, has been working with indigenous peoples for more than a decade. It’s my understanding that linkage between your organization and ARF might be of mutual benefits.

Dr Abdul Hamid

Dr Abdul Hamid

it’s an excellent narrative of Meghalaya agriculture. Indigenous farmers in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, located in southeastern corner of Bangladesh, practice nearly similar form of agricultural practices in the uplands. But because of steep slope and mountainous terrain, they do not have irrigation facilities.
Agrarian Research Foundation, where I am based in, has been working with indigenous peoples for more than a decade. It’s my understanding that linkage between your organization and ARF might be of mutual benefits.

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