Empowering yet exhausting: Organic dilemma of women farmers

Projected as the face of organic farming, policies do not underline the hurdles women farmers face in the male dominant markets.

Credit : Indie Journal

This report was produced through the grants provided under the Laadli Media Fellowship 2022.

Snehal Mutha | Women farmers confront myriad challenges while undertaking organic farming. While natural farming is proved beneficial, behind the curtain, it is yet unaddressed. Organic farming is promoted as an alternative to high-investment traditional agriculture, keeping in mind environmental and health benefits. The government agencies have projected women as the face of organic farming, but policies do not underline the hurdles that come in their way while claiming space in the male dominant markets. The cost of production hardly gauges a woman’s labour. It has failed to address the loopholes in policies, especially from a gender perspective.


Labour intensified and time-consuming

“My day starts at 6 am and ends at 10 pm. Domestic work and farming occupy most of my time. Organic farming demands a lot of physical work compared to chemical farming. Besides, it is time-consuming,", says Ramabai, an organic farmer from Panna, Madhya Pradesh (MP). 

Ramabai works 15 hours a day, and household chores, childcare, domestication of animals and fieldwork are part of her daily schedule. She learned organic farming from the Lok Vidya organisation in MP.

Chaya is an organic farmer from Hingoli in Maharashtra. “Organic farming calls for the excellent quality of the land. We have invested a year or two to improve soil quality. The essentials needed are prepared from scratch. For instance, Jeewamrit (organic fertilizer), MatkaKhad (organic fertilizer), Neemastra (pesticide), Aageneyastra (pesticide) and Bramhastra (pesticide) are made after collecting raw material. A few times, if the raw material is unavailable at home, we go door to door in the village to collect it.”

According to an Oxfam study, an average woman devotes nearly 3,300 hours in the field in harvest season as against 1,860 hours by a man. The data on time spent by women farmers in organic farming and juggling multiple roles is insufficient. On average, a woman spends 300 minutes per day in unpaid work at home during cooking and other domestic activities, including caring for the family.


Farmers from Andhra Pradesh. All photos: Snehal Mutha


Organic farming involves tremendous hard work, which tallies with the other so-called household duties of women. Mostly, the time-consuming characteristic is considered from a farming perspective and not from how much time women spend doing the work. There is an immense need for innovative technology to minimise women's working hours. Furthermore, despite working long hours, labour is still disregarded as a factor of production while calculating the cost of inputs.

A report titled "Organic Input Production and Marketing in India – Efficiency, Issues, and Policies" by DK Charyulu and Subho Biswas states that in the absence of mechanisation (due to lack of research support from the mainstream system, several organic farming protocols are indeed labour intensive. Organic farming does provide jobs to the masses but requires immediate attention for innovation and thorough research.


Lack of support from partners and family

Women take up organic farming to produce nutritional crops for their children and focus on the proper diet intake for their families. Overlooked in terms of commercial farming is also a reason for male counterparts to never view organic farming as profit-oriented. From a broader perspective, it is again a loop in which women are seen as caregivers, not profit-making farmers.

Organic farming poses an epitome of women empowerment in rural India. Women intuitively attain decision-making power and mobility up to a certain level. Although to obtain this power, she has to convince her partner and extended family (landowners) of her intention for organic farming. No ownership of land sabotages her decision-making power, which a woman is usually unaware of.

Manuben says, “In the beginning, my husband was not supportive of this type (organic) of farming. It was hard to go ahead and make a decision. A lot of risks are involved. If something goes wrong, who will take care of it was a question! However, over time he was convinced. Now we have planted a mango forest - Ambawadi."


Rani, a farmer from Assam


Convincing the head of the family is a challenge for rural women while venturing into organic farming. Lack of ownership makes women's decision-making and risk-taking power fragile.

Men and women’s work is dichotomised with men ploughing the field and getting rid of the animals. Women undertook farming activities such as weeding, manuring and harvesting. When women choose organic farming against the will of their spouses, they have to perform both of these roles. Animal interference is high on farms, especially in nearby forest areas i.e. tribal villages.

Rani, a farmer from Assam says, “Animals such as elephants attack our farms and destroy crops during night times. Working the whole day in the field and then taking care of the field at night becomes challenging for a woman to do alone.”

Naru, an activist working with farmers in Wardha says, “Training sessions conducted by government organisations and Ngos must involve men farmers to convince them about farming so that women could get support from their male counterparts reducing the cultural burden.”


Market issue

“Our produces are comparatively good quality, high in nutritional value. We expect a premium price, though seems improbable in the same market. We created a separate market by tying up with Zilla Parishad quarters, wherein we supply our products to 1,200 families,” says Chaya.

Patelben and her husband run a food processing unit with organic farming in Nadiad, Gujarat. Accessing the market in metro cities involves market costs, which further increases the total product costs. Patelben says, “Our customers are usually relatives or clients who have visited us earlier and have developed their trust. Awareness about the product is still low."

Women organic farmers are of opinion that their produces do not get an appropriate market. Organic farming requires additional inputs in the form of labour, time, care and money. So, farmers demand special markets for their produces. Besides, women are oblivious to market prices and with little knowledge, it is tougher to deal in markets. So the awareness is low at both ends.

Training should involve live marketing approaches. The government needs to make interventions from the perspective of how to make organic agriculture more commercial than limiting it to family consumption. So, male counterparts find profit-making farming.


Patelben from Gujarat a food processing unit with organic farming.


The government has implemented the integration of labour-saving technologies in the National Mission on Agricultural Extension and Technology (NMAET). The aim is to restructure and strengthen agricultural extension to enable the delivery of appropriate technology and improved agronomic practices to the farmers. However, on the grassroots level, women have little idea about it.

Saurabh Yewale says, "There are meetings and training on organic farming, but hardly any learning comes out of it. Organic farming is not reasonable for everyone. There are a lot of gaps in Knowledge transfer." 

Saurabh is an entrepreneur, who quit his IT job to start the dairy product startup Milkroot. He himself undertake organic farming, but later turned back to chemically approached farming, citing less profitable and time-consuming aspects.

A most popular initiative under NMAET is an encouragement to form Women-led Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs). An FPO provides support for an organisational structure for farmers. Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu have witnessed success in organic farming on a commercial scale through FPO. For other states, it is still a beginning.


Complexities in availing certifications

Organic certification involves a lot of challenges. The certification process lacks to cater to women explicitly. There are challeges at every stage right from applying for certification to receiving one. The primary issue is ownership of land. The process requires the ownership of whoever is availing of the certificate. Often land is in the name of male counterparts. Lack of ownership is a hindrance for women availing of certificates single-handedly. Despite being prominent agricultural workers, only 13.96 percent of women own land in India. Women are often unaware of certification. Certification is essential to identify their products as organic and receive a premium price.

Chaya complained, “The applicant needs to fill forms, fees payment, organise field inspections and then get the produces certified after long interrogation process. After doing so, women still have to keep proving their products are organic. Many a time, journalists keep investigating our products, new customers do not trust them immediately."

The certificates are issued under the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP), 2002, Participatory Guarantee System for India (PGS-India) or any other standards as may be notified by the Food Authority. 29 Accredited certification agencies authorised are certifying organic producers. The state government's policies are yet vague in implementation. As per the NPOP guidelines, to certify a farm operation, the producer is typically required to do documentation work. Detailing farm history, current set-up, annual production plan, fertilizers/pesticides record and marketing records must be available for inspection at any time. The illiterate rural women had to depend on their spouses or NGOs and other agencies to file certifications.



Vasudha Sardar says, "For organic farming, you don't require a certificate, but selling the produces certification is a must. Certification is both an expensive and complex process. Government should make it more user-friendly and easier to avail certificates." Vasudha is an Organic Farming expert/ Entrepreneur from Daund taluka in Maharashtra.


Insufficient government budget for innovations

The government has formulated several programs and schemes to promote and subsidise organic farming. For example, Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana. States also have their schemes like Bihar's Organic Farming Corridor Scheme. Centre and State are involved in promoting programmes, yet fail to do an assessment. Thorough research and development are needed to bridge the gap between the knowledge women acquire and the technology that women need to reduce their hardship. Research and technological development in organic agriculture is crucial to overcome a few problems and make it gender inclusive.

The Union Budget of 2022 stressed the need to encourage organic farming in India. The central Budget allocation for agricultural R&D is Rs 8,514 crores in FY 2021-22 as against Rs 7,762 crore in FY 2020-21. Approximately 85 percent of the budget goes towards salaries and other administrative/establishment expenditures, with little left for research. The allocated budget cannot tackle multiple agricultural challenges such as changing consumer preferences, declining resource capacity and the harmful impact of climate change that leads to farm distress.

Organic farming benefits a woman in many ways, from making them self–sufficient to being instrumental in the upliftment of other women in the village. It is vital to look at another side where women's labour is yet not counted in monetary terms and treated free. Even if the organic foodstuff is expensive, profit remains nominal. Several reports ascertained the potential of organic farming if limitations are tackled. Innovation and research technology can make organic produce available to the masses, which is now only consumed by economically viable society.  


*Women from different states were interviewed at Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (MAKKAM)-organised conference at Wardha and a few in the Hingoli region.