“The elephant saved my life,” says Arutla Narsimha. The 30-year-old, who lives in Chirimiyal village in southern India’s Andhra Pradesh state, has never seen a real elephant. But for Narsimha, “elephant” refers not to an animal but to long-stalked Miscanthus grass.
The grass has proven a cheap and nutritious fodder for Narsimha’s cattle, dramatically boosting milk production and helping him and other farmers in drought-prone areas of India fight poverty.
But while the advantages of the crop, also known as Napier grass, seem clear, some agricultural experts warn farmers against becoming too dependent on a single, thirsty crop while neglecting to grow food that they can eat themselves.
Persistent poor rainfall in Nalgonda district, where Narsimha lives, had forced him to sell off his cattle, pawn his land, and leave home each summer to work as an itinerant well-digger.
But that changed six years ago, when he first noticed Napier grass while working in a coastal village.
“It was green even in the peak of summer,” recalls Narsimha. “People there said it was very healthy for cattle. So I brought home a few stalks and planted them here in my land. I have never needed to migrate [for work] since then.”
Narsimha grows Napier grass on a quarter of an acre (0.1 hectares) of land, and feeds it to his six buffalos and two bulls. Each day, the buffalos produce 30 liters (8 gallons) of milk that Narsimha sells at 40 rupees (about $0.70) a liter.
Karinga Maraiya, also of Chirimiyal, started growing the plant in 2005, and credits the use of the fodder with doubling his income from his buffalos’ milk production.
“This grass is magical; it is green, grows all through the year up to 4 feet, and needs little care,” said Maraiya. “I can harvest about 10 kg [22 pounds] of fodder every 10 days from a single clump and can easily feed all my cattle with half an acre [of grass].”
Napier grass has a highly developed root system that helps it withstand wind and that can also reduce soil erosion. Indigenous to Africa, the plant also grows well in India, where scientists have created hybrid varieties. Its high protein content makes the grass high-quality forage for cattle. A single acre of land can yield an average of 250 tons of grass each year.
The grass was introduced to Chirimiyal village through a British government-funded project organized in five drought-affected districts of Andhra Pradesh. The scheme, run by the Andhra Pradesh Rural Livelihood Program (APRLP) and the International Rice Research Institute, identified activities to strengthen livelihoods in the villages, said Ponneru Jayrao, the project director. These included growing fruit and kitchen gardening, as well as cultivating Napier grass.
“Lack of forage is a huge issue in the drought-affected villages. In the summer, when normal grass doesn’t grow, farmers spend thousands of rupees to buy dry fodder. But, when you feed your cattle dry fodder, they also drink more water, which the farmers can’t provide,” Jayrao said.
Six years on, although many villagers have abandoned the other income-generating activities, they are still cultivating Napier grass.
Farmer Chenna Reddy, 54, said that Napier grass fodder had enabled his village of Amidalagunta in Anantapur district, 360 km (225 miles) from the state capital, Hyderabad, to sell over 500 liters of milk daily to a dairy.
Napier grass is also being eyed by biofuel producers. Narayana Rao Vanapalli, who owns a biomass-based power plant in West Godavari district, buys 30 tons of the crop daily from local farmers to produce 7 megawatts of electricity.
“There are thousands of farmers who experience crop failures every year due to drought or flood. Growing Napier grass could give them an excellent alternative livelihood opportunity,” says Vanapalli, citing countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Thailand, which he says have already started to produce energy from Napier grass, or are planning to do so.
“The grass needs no pesticides and can be grown in all kind of soils,” Vanapalli says. “Those who are selling us the grass earn 7,500 to 100,000 rupees [$140 to $1,800] annually.”
Not everyone has had success with the crop, however. Napier grass must be watered at least twice a week, and in districts such as Anantapur and Nalgonda, where the groundwater level has dropped from 100 to 180 feet over the past decade, water is ever more scarce.
Pasham Anjamma, who lives in Gudimalkapur, near Chirimiyal, grew Napier grass until 2010, but her well dried up and she was unable to afford the cost of digging a new one. After paying 8,000 rupees ($150) for a ton of dry fodder, which lasted only a couple of weeks, she was forced to sell her cattle.
Veldurthi Shyamala of APRLP said the government is implementing a program to provide free water for irrigation to low-caste Dalits and tribal people. She feels that if this could be extended to all drought-prone villages, nobody would abandon growing Napier grass.
“Every village then could become as rich as Chirimiyal and Amidalagunta,” she says.
However, some fear that unregulated production of Napier grass for biofuel may result in less food production. Manju Dungdung, who heads a women farmers’ organization in eastern India’s Jharkhand state, says the country should learn from its past experiences of biofuel production.
“About a decade ago, several states in India actively promoted jatropha cultivation,” said Dungdung. “Many farmers then stopped growing food crops like rice. But it made them totally dependent on the market for food and when food prices started to rise about 3 to 4 years ago, they were spending more than what they earned from selling jatropha.”
The solution could be a balanced approach, argues Deepalayam Dhanapalan, a livestock and sustainability expert. Dhanapalan suggests that farmers with more than 10 acres of land be asked not to grow Napier grass on more than a quarter of their land. Small and marginal farmers, on the other hand, could be trained to use the grass in different ways so as not to be dependent upon a single market for their livelihood.
• Stella Paul is an environment and development journalist based in Hyderabad, India.
• 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.