Indian Agriculture: Surprising Similarities

March 12, 2018

No matter where you go, some things do not change. Lush green wheat fields swaying in the breeze look the same on any continent.

I recently had the opportunity to travel for two weeks in India learning about the country’s agriculture industry as a member of Class IX of the South Dakota Ag and Rural Leadership program. We visited a variety of farms, processing facilities and agricultural companies throughout western and northern India, traveling mostly in and around Mumbai, Delhi, Agra and Ludhiana.

My Experiences

My class embarked on a 10-day adventure, experiencing many different facets of Indian agriculture, including:

  • Visiting a fish market at daybreak in Mumbai where thousands of rupees in fresh fish are sold at auction and for export. Indian women, adorned in their colorful saris, bustled around the market with large bowls, filled with fish on ice, carried on their heads. And they mean business, so you better stay out of their way, or you’ll be pushed to the side!
  • Viewing dairy product manufacturing processes, which are much the same, as we saw at the Mahanand Dairy Cooperative. However, what they produced was very different: lassi, a sweet, drinkable yogurt; ghee, similar to vegetable oil, but preferred by Indian families for cooking; and local fruit-flavored curd (mango tasted great!).
  • Visiting a store called Spar, similar to Target in the U.S., that had a vast grocery department. We saw the various food products that Indian families buy, which are similar to those chosen by American families, but with some differences, such as masala-flavored potato chips, large bins of spices for mixing into custom recipes in Indian homes, and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables like tinda. The fresh meat and dairy departments were very small compared to U.S. grocery stores.
  • Seeing fields of paddy, the plant that produces rice, potatoes and wheat that are irrigated by canal—which is not the norm in India, as most crops are flood irrigated. The farmer then graciously welcomed us to a party at his home, with Indian food, drink and dancing to traditional Indian music.

Indian Agriculture

Agriculture in India focuses on growing crops such as wheat, pulses, cotton, sugarcane, and fruits and vegetables. Some corn and soybeans are grown there. The livestock industry is very small and limited to a handful of producers raising hogs and chickens. India has the number one dairy industry in the world, but the majority of the milk is sourced from producers with two to four cows and/or water buffalo. Refrigeration and freezers are not readily available, so products must be shelf-stable.

India is the world’s largest producer of canola, peanuts, milk, cashews, coconuts and tea, and the second largest producer of sugar, rice, wheat and cotton. India is also the world’s largest tractor market, selling 600,000 units annually. The U.S. accounts for 200,000 units annually, for perspective.

More than 70 percent of the Indian population works in agriculture, but the average annual income is about $1,600 U.S. dollars. Farms are very small, with the majority of farms at about 1.5 acres. A five-acre farm would be considered very large, and there is a limit to the amount of land one person can own, which varies by state. This cap on acreage ownership discourages growth in mechanization.

Climate change is a major challenge for Indian farmers, as their crops receive water primarily through flood irrigation, although some pumped water is used for irrigation.

Due to the country’s size, its climate varies considerably, from tropics in the south to more mountainous regions in the north, and thousands of hectares of productive soil in between. With the warm seasons, most farmers can harvest at least two crops each year.

Agri-marketing Opportunities

Currently, India’s agriculture industry is able to sustain itself, without requiring much need for imports. However, that situation will most likely change in the next 20-25 years. More than 50 percent of India’s population is under age 25. As these young people grow up and begin families, there will be an increased need for food. That means there will be opportunities for U.S. farmers to export chicken, lamb, goat, seafood, honey and dairy products.

At this time, marketing to the Indian population starts in the urban centers, targeting urban dwellers with disposable income, as they set the tone for the rest of the population. There are certainly opportunities for U.S. food products to build markets in India, when paired with a savvy, culturally-sensitive marketing approach.

There are also opportunities for agri-marketers to help Indian agricultural companies gain global exposure. As more Indian companies grow, they will want to tap into the bigger global market, including selling products to U.S. farmers. U.S. agri-marketers can help these companies establish themselves in the U.S. ag industry and better present their products to American ag producers.


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