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Late Monsoons and Agricultural Improvisation in Telangana, India

Andrew Flachs researches the trials of Indian farmers and their rush toward modern farming practices, such as GMO crops and new pesticides. In this post, he waits patiently with them for the rains as they hope and prepare.

Dark clouds and the low rumble of thunder sprawled across the sky interrupting my interview transcriptions. Finally, I thought. The rains have come. Since I arrived in late May, I’ve joined Telangana farmers in weeks of 100- to 110-degree weather. Monsoon rains signal the beginning of the most important phase of agriculture, a welcome sign in a country where six out of ten people farm for a living. But like all the other false alarms, that storm also passed without hitting our village. “I knew it,” observed one farmer wryly. “You can know that the rain is coming because you start to sweat.” Raising an eyebrow to this logic, I grinned and wiped the sweat from my forehead.

Banyan tree at sunset
Storm clouds roll in at sunset in Telangana. This banyan tree has been allowed to stay in this rice field because of the shade and comfort it provides on hot days. (Photo by Andrew Flachs)

Agricultural researcher Paul Richards likens agriculture to a musical performance, where farmers improvise among a symphony of pests, weather problems, chemicals, seeds, extension officers, neighbors, and many others to play their part and have a successful season. As a music performance student at Oberlin Conservatory, my own saxophone teacher used to hate that word, improvise, preferring to call his art “composing on the spot”. To be a composer, you have to know everything about your instrument, the people you’re playing with, and the sounds you want to have.

"What do you do when the rains are late?" I ask.  "Sleep, eat, talk", the farmers answer, "and pray."
“What do you do when the rains are late?” I ask. “Sleep, eat, talk”, the farmers answer, “and pray.” (Photo by Andrew Flachs)

The same is true for farmers. By now, most but not all farmers have burned last season’s corn or rice and plowed their fields to return nutrients to the soil and prevent weeds from taking over that prime real estate. Plow or burn too early and you have to do the process all over again. Plow or burn too late, and you’re behind everyone else in the village. Farmers and musicians both balance the known and the unknown, responding not to some pre-determined rules about playing this scale or planting this seed, but to the needs of the moment insofar as they can set you up for what comes next.

Trees, walls, doors, houses - anything is fair game for seed advertisements.  Across from the bus station at the district capital is a street of seed and fertilizer shops hoping to entice traveling farmers.
Trees, walls, doors, houses—anything is fair game for seed advertisements. Across from the bus station at the district capital is a street of seed and fertilizer shops hoping to entice traveling farmers. (Photo by Andrew Flachs)

For me, as a researcher, late rains mean replacing plans with new research questions about how farmers deal with late planting. That, and despondent calls to friends and family. But for the farmers, the unpredictable monsoons mean that they have to delay seed buying and planting, putting their cotton and rice crops at greater risk during the violent October rainstorms that ruin fluffy cotton and flatten rice to the ground.

One way to cool off in the hot sun is to take a snootfull of palm wine.  It's an acquired taste that requires excellent balance and precision cutting by the Goud community, who bring it down from on high in clay pots.  The taste is hard to describe:  something like a combination of coconut water, pabst blue ribbon, and palm tree.

One way to cool off in the hot sun is to take a snootfull of palm wine. It’s an acquired taste that requires excellent balance and precision cutting by the Goud community, who bring it down from on high in clay pots. The taste is hard to describe; something like a combination of coconut water, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and palm tree. (Photo by Andrew Flachs)

For those lucky few with access to reliable irrigation and the electricity necessary to run a pump, the cultivation season has already begun, but most farmers prefer to wait until rains offset the cost and effort of dragging rubber pipes to fields and the local tanks, ponds, and canals are flowing with water free for the taking.

Rain or no rain, normal life goes on, especially when fixed by the astrologer. The bride at this wedding, auspiciously timed to begin at midnight, wears a cloth over her head and ceremonially cries and hugs her relatives goodbye in preparation to move to her husband’s home. (Photo by Andrew Flachs)

Listening to farmers discuss their seed choices in a focus group, I realize that I’m sweating and look hopefully up at the sky. No, I realize looking around at the group, it’s just me. Wearily I ask, “When will the rains come?”

“In about two days,” one farmer answers seriously before he and the others crack up. “Only God knows”, he says, “Not me or you or the weather forecasts. But it had better be soon.”

A farmer drives his bullocks to inspect his rice field in the early morning.  Rice provides food in the form of seeds, of course, but the tall grasses also feed livestock and return nutrients to the soil when burned.
A farmer drives his bullocks to inspect his rice field in the early morning. Rice provides food in the form of seeds, of course, but the tall grasses also feed livestock and return nutrients to the soil when burned. (Photo by Andrew Flachs)

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