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Using lasers to level farm land saves water and energy

A flat surface means irrigation water reaches every part of the field evenly with minimal waste. It's just one climate-smart farming practice that will be needed as climate change poses new challenges to agriculture.

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    A farmer uses a laser-land leveler in Haryana state in northern India. The devices ensure that irrigation water is used to maximum benefit and results in increased crop yields.
    Courtesy of CIMMYT-India
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Life in rural India evokes an image of a farmer leveling the land with an ox-drawn scraper. It’s one of the most basic preparations before sowing, as uneven land does not bode well for water absorption and farm productivity.

But for many farmers, animal power is being replaced by machines. A laser land leveler – a machine equipped with a laser-operated drag bucket – is much more effective and quicker at ensuring a flat, even surface.

A flat surface means irrigation water reaches every part of the field with minimal waste from runoff or water-logging.   

Mechanization is good news for farmers, as climate change and variability pose unprecedented challenges to agriculture.

The need of the hour is climate-smart agriculture practices and technologies that save on scarce resources like water and energy but increase yields and incomes.

A portfolio of climate-smart practices can equip farmers to adapt to changing weather patterns amid depleting natural resources.

For instance, groundwater in northwestern India has been declining at alarming rates due to the overuse of electric pumps, largely thanks to subsidized electricity, and inadequate recharge from erratic rainfall.

Recent studies predict that demand for irrigation water will increase at least 10 percent with a 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature in Asia’s arid and semi-arid regions.

Irrigation is the biggest user of groundwater in northwestern India, and unless steps are taken to reverse this trend, farmers face a water-scarce future.   

A study by researchers from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture ,and Food Security (CCAFS) looks into the impact of laser land leveling in rice-wheat systems in north India.

The study aims to assess if and how laser land leveling helps farm communities by improving productivity, saving on water and energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and boosting incomes.

Using household surveys and comparing data from traditional leveling, the study shows the benefits of laser land leveling and the policy implications of promoting new climate-smart farm technologies:

Irrigation time: Laser leveling in rice fields reduced irrigation time by 47-69 hours per hectare per season and improved yield by approximately 7 percent compared with traditionally leveled fields. For wheat, irrigation time was reduced by 10-12 hours per hectare every season and yield increased by 7-9 percent in laser leveled fields.

Food security: The study calculates that if 50 percent of the area under rice-wheat systems in Haryana and Punjab states were laser leveled, it would result in additional annual production of 699 million kg of rice and 987 million kg of wheat, amounting to $385 million extra per year. Not only does this translate to higher incomes for farmers, it also increases food security in the region given that the Indo-Gangetic Plains are a bread basket and rice bowl for South Asia.

Energy:  Less time spent on irrigation means less energy used for irrigation. The study shows that laser land leveling saves electricity amounting to about 755 kWh per hectare for rice-wheat systems.

Costs: The study challenges the perception that only large-scale or rich farmers can afford and benefit from laser-levelers. It is common for many small-holder farmers to rent the equipment or form a cooperative to share the costs of around $10 for a day’s work.    

Water: Laser land leveling is a water-saving technology as it uses scarce groundwater optimally by ensuring even coverage. A laser-leveled farm minimizes runoff and water-logging, ensuring that farmers use just as much water they need in the optimal way.  

Less greenhouse gas emissions:  A previous study (Gill 2014) from Haryana reported that use of laser land levelers over traditional land levelers reduces emission of greenhouse gases through decreased water pumping and cultivation time and better use of fertilizers. 

Income: The higher yields and money saved on water and energy mean farmers benefited by an additional $143.5 per hectare a year from growing rice and wheat.

While the uptake of laser-land leveling does not discriminate against poorer farmers, the study highlights how women farmers are less likely to adopt new technology due to sociocultural barriers.

Gender inequalities in states like Haryana and Punjab mean women have less access to information and resources, and often have to depend on men to negotiate prices with male service providers.

Laser land leveling is just one among numerous farming activities that contribute to sustainable agriculture. When combined with other resource-saving practices and technologies like solar irrigation, agroforestry and proper residue management, the gains can be multiplied for each farmer and the community as a whole.

As a standalone intervention, the benefits highlighted by the research call for investigating business models that could expand this technology in different landscapes and socio-economic settings.

View a video from CCAFS on how laser land levelers benefit farmers

• Dharini Parthasarathy works on communications for CCAFS South Asia.

This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.  

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