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[HYDERABAD] Farmers in dry regions of developing countries could increase their incomes by growing common plants and using a simple technology to extract valuable aromatic and medicinal oils from them, say scientists at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

The researchers are teaching farmers in Andhra Pradesh, India, to extract oils using steam distillation, which uses heat to separate the different components of a liquid or vapour.

Steam from a boiler fuelled by firewood or waste grass enters a drum containing leaves and 'picks up' the oil, which is then extracted as the steam condenses and passes through an oil separator.

Ravindra Reddy of ICRISAT says the operation makes economic sense as it will boost farmers' income and the necessary equipment can be installed in villages using locally available materials at a cost of about 115,000 rupees (US$2,600). The government is offering 'soft loans' — with lower interest rates than bank loans — to farmers' groups to cover these costs.

According to ICRISAT, farmers in the pilot programme could earn US$333 per acre each year from the medicinal and aromatic plants, compared with US$156 growing rice.

Most farmers in dry regions of Andhra Pradesh have at least five acres of rice fields. ICRISAT suggests that they convert a portion of this land to planting of medicinal and aromatic plants while retaining rice cultivation on the remainder.

The scientists identified plants for use in the scheme on the basis of the demand for their products and their ability to grow in dry areas where farmers have limited water supplies. Among the species selected are basil, lemon grass, eucalyptus and palma rosa.

Under an agreement with ICRISAT, a local private company, MAK Royale, will provide technical support to the farmers and buy the oils at a 'support price' set by institute. Under the agreement, ICRISAT acts as an intermediary between the company and the farmers to protect the farmers' interests.

Over the next two years, ICRISAT hopes to introduce the technology to 20,000 farmers in 50 villages in India.

Reddy told SciDev.Net that if the Indian programme succeeds it could be repeated elsewhere as the institute has detailed information on agricultural systems from 42 countries in the semi-arid tropics.

ICRISAT is running its pilot scheme as part of the Andhra Pradesh state government's Rural Livelihoods Programme, funded by the UK Department for International Development.

The initiative comes at a time when rising debts due to crop failure have been blamed for an upsurge in suicide rates among Indian farmers, especially those in Andhra Pradesh.

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