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Drought and debt, from Punjab to California: Unearthing the Green Revolution

Gurdeep Singh Dhaliwal
Sandeep Singh working his 70-acre farm in Tracy, California.

Unearthing the Green Revolution, Part I: California's fertile Central Valley is home to a sizable community of farmers from Punjab in India, a region also famous for its rich cropland. Why they came to the United States is a story as layered and complex as the politics and science of the crops they cultivate. 

Part II: A pattern of farmer suicides in Punjab
Part III: Chemicals without borders

A Punjabi farm in California

To find an almond, you have to crack open the layers that conceal it. You have to get through the green, leathery exterior shell to the rough, brown, interior shell deep in the center. There, you’ll discover the small sweet white nut – something to chew on, like a kernel of truth waiting to be found.

Sandeep Singh is cracking open almonds on his 70-acre farm in Tracy, California. He picks one off a tree to show me the inside.

"While the nut is on the tree it's called a shell," he says.

California produces four fifths of the world’s almonds. Almonds are a $5 billion industry for the state. And Singh is now a small part of it. 

"We can hardly make enough money to survive by farming."

He marvels at how tall his trees will eventually be. He says they’ll grow up to three times their current height, and they’re already 12 feet tall. Taller trees mean a lot more almonds, which is good for business.

"It used to pay for itself in two years," he says. "It was serious money."

But it isn’t easy money. Almond farming is costly, and it’s hard work.

"I’m looking to buy all the tools for harvesting, because it costs a lot," he says. "Before the harvesting you do three or four weed sprays on the ground and four or five sprays on the trees."

Credit : Gurdeep Singh Dhaliwal
Sandeep Singh's almond trees in Tracy, California.

Singh came to the United States from the state of Punjab in northern India when he was 19 years old. He sought economic opportunities and chose not to go to college, but to work instead.

"I really wanted to help out my family back in Punjab" he says. "My dad, my grandparents, my brother, my sister."

He took a job as a construction worker, then as a taxi driver in New York, and then as a truck driver in California.

But three years ago, he decided to return to his agricultural roots.

  Singh may be a young farmer in California, but he comes from a family that’s been farming for generations. His father was a farmer, his grandfather was a farmer, his great grandfather was a farmer, on and on, as far back as he can go. Actually, his family is still farming today, on their ancestral land in the state of Punjab, in northern India.

So, why did he come to California to farm when he could have just farmed where he grew up? To answer that, we’ll go to Punjab, to the small village where he was born.

Roots of struggle

I’m standing in the village of Bhairomuna, near the city of Ludhiana, in Punjab, India. Singh's ancestors came and settled in this village about 300 years ago. They’ve been farming ever since.

Today, on their 17 acres of land, they grow rice and wheat, like most farmers in Punjab.

But Balvir Singh, Sandeep’s father, says they’ve been struggling to make ends meet. 

"In the next 20 years, we may not any have any water left."

"We can hardly make enough money to survive by farming," he says. "After the harvest is over, when we’re balancing our accounts, we find that we barely have enough left to eat. We aren’t able to save money for anything else."

He says that’s partly because of how expensive farming has become in the last half-century. It wasn’t always that way. 

"Back when we had a well on our farm,” he says, "I used to operate it myself. It didn’t cost much. We had two oxen that pulled water from the well. We would feed them grain, lentils, chickpeas, sugar. Whatever we had at home, we never had to buy anything for them."

Fifty years ago, that’s how irrigation used to happen in Punjab. With water wheels attached to wells, pulled round and round by oxen. 

Today, most farmers in Punjab use tubewells — long pipes that bore down into aquifers deep underground and pump the water up, supplying it through pipes to the farmland.

Water, rice and "revolution" 

Sandeep’s brother, Virinder Singh, shows me the tubewell on their farm. 

He opens the door to a dark room filled with switches used to operate the tubewell. When his family installed it back in 1965, the water was 15 feet below the ground. Now, he says, they have to drill down 200 feet to get their water. And the water levels are continuing to recede.

Balvir Singh says, "In the next 20 years, we may not any have any water left."

But how can water disappear in Punjab? The soil-rich state is full of rivers. It’s actually named for the five rivers that flow through it, and is historically known as one of the most fertile regions on earth. Sixty percent of Punjabis work in agriculture. And their small state provides much of the food for one of the largest nations on the planet.

Credit : Gurdeep Singh Dhaliwal
Water-intensive rice fields in Punjab.

Virinder Singh and I take a walk on their family’s farmland. All around me, rice plants sit in fields flooded with water for miles and miles.

He tells me they will sit like this for almost five months, using water 24 hours a day. But Balvir Singh remembers a time when they didn’t grow rice at all. 

He says, "We used to grow cotton, corn, wheat and sugarcane. There was no rice back then."

Things started to change in 1965. That year, they had their first tubewell installed, and it was the year the first high yielding varieties of rice were introduced to Punjab.

The seeds of the Green Revolution were planted.

"A helpful way to think of the Green Revolution," says Eric Holt Gimenez, the executive director of Food First, a nonprofit advocacy agency in Oakland, "is as a capitalist marketing campaign that sort of got out of hand."

Chemical infusion

To understand the Green Revolution, we must go back to the years immediately after World War II.

The U.S. had stockpiles of chemicals, tanks and other equipment left over from the war. The chemicals were turned into pesticides and fertilizers. The tanks were turned into tractors. The government and banks gave out loans to farmers to buy this equipment and increase production. 

"The cost of production has increased so much but the price of our crops hasn’t."

"That was very important," says Gimenez, "because that extra food production not only fed the United States, it fed Europe."

In 1944, the Rockefeller foundation funded the scientist Norman Borlaug to go to Mexico, where he developed high-yielding varieties of wheat, called "miracle wheat." Around the same time, the corporations that produced agricultural equipment were trying to expand.

Gimenez says this is how the Green Revolution began. 

"The Green Revolution was a campaign to export not just the products but the form of agricultural production to the Third World," he says.

Punjab was flooded with high-yielding seeds, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, advanced farming equipment, and scientists trained by U.S. universities. As food production grew Borlaug was hailed as the scientist who would end world hunger. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. 

During his acceptance speech, he said, "The Green Revolution has not yet been won. It is true that the tide of the battle against hunger has changed for the better during the past three years. But tides have a way of flowing and then ebbing again."

Boom, bust — and debt

Whole nations bought into Norman Borlaug’s ideas. Balvir Singh remembers when India invested in the miracle wheat the scientist had helped invent, and which the Indian government bought by the ton in 1966.   

"The first seed we ever got from a foreign country came from Mexico," he says. "It was for wheat."

I ask him if it actually helped produce more wheat. He says it did for a while, but today, it doesn’t really make a difference. 

"We have to spend so much money," he says. "We get more wheat, but it costs so much to grow. So, even if there’s more wheat, what’s the point?"

His son Virinder agrees. 

"The cost of production has increased so much but the price of our crops hasn’t," he says.

Miracles can have consequences. More food means more dependence on water, chemical fertilizers and pesticides that lose their effectiveness over time. 

"The first pesticides stopped working after a while, then we had to buy more expensive ones," he says. "Then those stopped working. Every five or six years, we have to buy new ones."

Credit Gurdeep Singh Dhaliwal
A sign advertises agricultural technologies in India.

Eric Holt Gimenez calls this the pesticide treadmill. It’s when farmers are, "taking out credit in order to buy more and more pesticides more and more fertilizer and getting diminishing returns. So there's a cost price squeeze between higher and higher costs for the factors of production and then lower and lower prices for the goods that the farmers sell. That's a characteristic of people who are who are swept up in the Green Revolution in the capitalist food system."

As a result, Balvir Singh says, most farmers in his village became indebted.

Today that debt continues to grow.

"On average, each farmer in my village is about 2 million rupees in debt," he says. "For some it may be 5 million, for some 1.5 million. But 2 million is about the average."

That’s more than $30,000. And this in a state where the average annual income is about $1,000 per person. 

Balvir Singh says the land has become dependent on pesticides, even as debt and high production costs reduce the value of crops grown there. He felt the effects of this acutely in his potato crop. 

"When we grew potatoes, it cost us 180 rupees per bag,” he says. "But they were selling at 150." 

"The first pesticides stopped working after a while, then we had to buy more expensive ones. Then those stopped working."

The Ludhiana district, where the Singh family lives, received lots of attention during the Green Revolution. Fifty years ago, it was thought to be one of the areas with the most potential for success. But now, people want to leave. 

"Everyone would leave if they could"

"Out of the 50 farming families in this village, 15 have left for other countries," he says. His son Virinder adds, "And everyone would leave if they could."

I ask Balvir Singh if he wants the rest of his family to leave and join his son, Sandeep, in Modesto.

"I would want us to," he says. "But who would stay and take care of our ancestral land?"

Almost 10,000 miles away, Sandeep Singh tends to his farm in California’s Central Valley. He sends money home to his family regularly. He even helped them build the house they live in now. He says his peers who left Punjab are doing well.

"If you go down south to Fresno or Bakersfield, you see every other farm is owned by Punjabis," he says.

Farmers like Sandeep Singh have left the country where the Green Revolution was carried out. They’ve come here, instead, to the country that created it. 

And more are coming, because, Singh says, those left in Punjab aren’t doing so well.

This may be one result of the Green Revolution that its founders never expected.


This article was made possible in part by the Bringing Home the World International Reporting Fellowship Program for Minority Journalists offered by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), with support from the Ford Foundation, the Scripps Howard Foundation, and the Brooks and Joan Fortune Family Foundation.

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