What Happens when Scientists Design Soil Health Cards for Farmers

The Ministry of Agriculture in India is placing all bets on the 86 million USD Soil Health Card Scheme to provide nutrient recommendations to farmers based on soil health tests, with the expectation that it promotes balanced nutrient management practices. The Soil Health Card (SHC) scheme was launched by the Government of India in 2015. Under the scheme, the government has mandated the provision of SHCs to every farmer at an interval of two years (previously three years). These cards contain soil test results and crop-wise recommendations of nutrients and fertilisers required for the individual farmer to help them improve productivity through judicious use of inputs. These results are based on soil tests that are being conducted on a grid basis - samples are drawn in a grid of 2.5 ha in irrigated area and 10 ha in rain- fed area with the help of GPS tools and revenue maps. About 100 million cards have been printed and distributed to farmers across the country, with the counter increasing with every passing second (PIB, 2017). These results are presented to farmers in dual-coloured single-side printed A4 sheets (here).

Photo Credits: Dakshinamurthy Vedachalam, CIMMYT

Do farmers understand these cards?
In 2017, researchers on the CSISA project undertook several focus group discussions with farmers in Bihar and Odisha, to seek answers to the following questions. Are farmers able to:
i) understand the card
ii) trust it to provide accurate information and finally,
iii) change nutrient application behaviour as per the recommendations provided in the cards (we ask these questions in one-to-one surveys with farmers who are then brought together for FGD’s)
With a total of 21 FGD’s involving more than 100 farmers, and 5 Key Informant Interviews in the states of Bihar and Odisha, we conducted user tests of the present form of the SHCs. Those farmers who had received the cards had kept them in safe custody after having received them and had only taken those out on the day of our interactions when they were informed they were requested to carry those to the meeting place in the village. The interactions lasted for about an hour with questions directed towards assessing the usefulness, attractiveness, comprehensives, relevancy and persuasiveness of the cards.

What do we find?
There were two major barriers to comprehension of the SHCs – even for the most well-read respondents (most of whom had studied at least until the primary grade and one of whom was an MBA) in our sample. Both logical and lexical semantics were misplaced in the cards, with information relevant more for the scientists than for the farmers. The present cards are more technical than user-friendly and contain more information than is needed for action with the result that lack of relatable visuals and crowded texts are driving away any attention from the relevant information contained in the cards.

Too scientific
Farmers were often unable to distinguish between the different sets of tables mentioned on the card. The fonts were found to be too small and most farmers faced difficulty in reading the text in less than 8-point size fonts. Respondents were not familiar with all nutrients and micronutrients listed on the cards. For example, the soil results table in the present table begins with details about their soil’s Ph, EC and OC content – all three of which was gibberish for them in the local language. With a little probing and assisted reading, some farmers could follow and identify the nutrients listed further, albeit with local reference terms.
In both the states, we found a mix of cards in English. Hindi and Oriya languages and where there were translations, they were mostly phonetic translations of the English words. For example, Ph (which is the numeric scales used to specify the acidity or basicity of a solution) in English was represented as /f/ in the local language. Literal translations of some of the most common nutrients restricted the interpretation for those farmers who could read but not comprehend. Some farmers could infer the values mentioned, with prompts from our end. They read the recommended values of nutrients very carefully, after being explained.
For those who could not read, it is a different story altogether.
Recommendations for input application were of nutrients (and not the final fertilizer name that is prepared from these combinations), which not more than a handful of farmers in our sample understood. Nitrogen was inferred as Urea while Potash was inferred as DAP by the respondents– in reality, they are only components of the overall fertilizer. Such interpretation can be very risky for most farmers who are unable to distinguish between nutrients and fertilizers.

Not from my field!
The lack of site-specificity of the test results was an overpowering determinant of the lack of trust the respondents had in the results provided on the card as well as the recommendations provided therein. When the values were in the range of their existing practices, recommendations were perceived as correct. Whereas, when the values were different from their expectations or practices (particularly in Odisha where the urea recommendations were almost twice of their present application rates in the villages we went to), the immediate response was to discard the recommendations in lieu of the fact that soil samples were not taken from their respective fields.

The first step to prompt action is to generate understanding. If farmers do not understand the content, there is little value addition of the program. As a result, we took some efforts towards redesigning the SHCs to simplify the contents and to also make it more attractive for the relevant audience by using more visuals. Visuals help overcome language barriers, and hence should be the focus of a scheme that aims to reach out to the masses. With the assistance of development communications professionals, we redesigned the present cards, reduced the total amount of text and increased the font size of the texts, used symbols to represent levels (low, medium and high) and added several illustrations (such as pictures of fertiliser blends) to inform the less educated. These new designs were retested over 2 rounds in Bihar, in coordination with the Bihar Agricultural University (BAU), Sabour. Several iterations were also made in the new designs to account for suitable colours and clearer symbols. A final design, that farmers found attractive and easy to understand was submitted to the BAU for all their SHC work moving ahead. This new design was also launched by the Union Minister of Agriculture, Shri Radha Mohan Singh on the 24th February 2018.
These cards are expected to be distributed to several hundred farmers under the University’s program area and our follow up steps in this regard are to undertake an assessment of the receiver’s experiences with the new cards, their interpretability and its eventual impacts on nutrient application behaviour. Further research and more concrete evidence on the usability of these SHCs will help inform the policymakers of the relevant changes that are needed to be made in the national Soil Health program to encourage greater adoption.

Vartika Singh is Project Manager in the Environment, Production and Technology Division of IFPRI and Sujata Ganguly is Research Consultant with International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

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