Sowing Change: A Journey from a Soldier to an Agricultural Pioneer

written by Adeeba Hoor, Research Scholar, Atal Bihari Vajpayee School of Management and Entrepreneurship, Jawaharlal Nehru University

In the serene landscapes of Kisthwar, Jammu & Kashmir, a compelling tale of agricultural innovation and sustainability unfolds through the endeavours of Sunil, a former soldier in the Indian Army. After 17 years of army service, Sunil returned home to address the challenges that loomed large over his village in Kishtwar. As the sole breadwinner for his family, he sought to bridge the gaps in employment opportunities and halt the migration of his fellow villagers to urban centres. His agricultural innovations have not only revolutionised his own farm, but also empowered local farmers and brought about a positive shift in the community.

Revolutionising Walnut Farming

Kishtwar provides the perfect conditions to cultivate walnuts, and the region’s produce is known globally for its exceptional quality. However, there are challenges to harvesting the crop, with walnut trees usually towering at heights of 60 to 70 feet. Tragically, some have lost their lives performing this activity. Furthermore, orchards suffer from a lack of uniformity in quality of the walnuts. Sunil set out to revolutionise walnut farming, first, by choosing the best walnut tree with which to experiment for grafting. The success rate of grafting walnuts was a mere 50%, but Sunil’s determination led him to discover that through bud grafting, and certain temperature and humidity controls, he could achieve an astounding success rate of 98%. The result was a variety of walnut he named Suneel 1 or S1 Walnut.

Grafting brought the height of trees down to a manageable 25 to 30 feet, and ensured uniform quality across the orchard. Sunil not only transformed his orchards but shared his knowledge, and expertise in grafting with 2000 farmers in the region. His service become a lifeline for farmers facing market challenges.

Diversifying Agriculture

Sunil’s journey didn’t stop with walnuts. His passion for farming and innovation led him to attempt grafting for hazelnuts, pecan nuts, kiwis, apricots, grapes, and persimmons (a fruit originating in Japan). Selecting mother plants from the local area ensured sustainability and adaptability. Another experiment has been to cultivate apples without using any pesticides or chemical sprays. He sourced local apple seeds and germinated them, grafting the seedlings using organic manure. In addition to apples, Sunil extended his commitment to organic farming across various crops. Integral to his efforts was a nutrient-rich vermicompost he made using dung from desi cows, often referred to as “black gold” for its high productivity.

Sustainable Dairy

Sunil also put his mind to addressing the low milk yields of local cows. He conducted extensive research on indigenous breeds, identifying the Gir breed from Gujarat as having the highest milk production. He reached out to Ramesh Bhai Rupali, a breeder in Rajkot, Gujarat and acquired a Gir cow. There were many logistical hurdles during the lengthy journey back to Kishtwar, and the Gir cow struggled with the cold climate due to its thin skin. Undeterred, Sunil exchanged it for a Sahiwal cow from Ludhiana, which thrived and produced another 200 cows in the region, through natural breeding. The variety yields an impressive seven to eight litres of milk daily.

Sustainable Structures

Sunil’s next innovation were polyhouses tailored to Kishtwar’s harsh winters, as existing structures were prone to breakage due to heavy snowfall. He modified the design of existing structures with wood, PVC pipes, and bricks for durability, and guided other farmers in constructing similar polyhouses.

A Vision for the Future

Sunil is exploring global markets for the export potential of his walnuts. Samples have been sent, including to the U.S., signalling the recognition of the exceptional quality cultivated in the heart of Kishtwar. His story is not just about agricultural innovation; it’s a blueprint for community development, and a vision for collective transformation. His innovations have helped increase income for farmers, employment opportunities, and a rejuvenated environment.

As Sunil continues to sow the seeds of change in Kishtwar, his advice to aspiring innovators echoes through the mountains and valleys: “Know about your area, see what potential exists in your area. Work in your area.

His journey is a testament to the power of local knowledge, passion, and a steadfast commitment to making a difference. In the high-altitude realms of Kishtwar, his symphony of innovation continues to resonate—a melody of change, growth, and hope for a sustainable future.

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