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PERLE, Maharashtra (Reuters) - As a shiny red harvester bounces across the black earth into the first row of sugar cane, excited schoolchildren run after it and several dozen men stand gaping in the wake of its swift progress.
It's the first time that Perle, a village on the banks of the Krishna river in Maharashtra, has seen a machine used for cutting the tough cane.
"This machine will harvest my entire field today," says Prashant Kadam, the young owner of the compact two-acre plot. "Had it been harvested by labourers, they would have taken at least a week."
A short drive away in a field where the sun is just getting hot enough to halt work, a team of 12 couples cut cane the way it's been done for centuries -- with machetes. They load the cane into carts each pulled by two white bullocks with gaily painted horns and head for the local mill which dominates this sugar-growing valley some 300 kilometres south of Mumbai.
It is a way of life that is fast disappearing in the world's second-biggest producer of rice, wheat and sugar. India is finally embracing mechanisation after centuries of farming with methods the United States threw out with the British.
Interviews with farmers, tractor salesmen, economists and agricultural officials show a country on the cusp of deep change. Indian food consumption is rising and farmers are under pressure to produce more, faster and cheaper. Yet Indian farms traditionally use far fewer farm machines than their peer nations, partly because their acreage is so small.
Lately however, farmers have been buying new tools and machines to cope with a labour shortage triggered by government policies aimed at promoting non-agricultural work.
Tractor sales have increased 42 percent in India over the last five years to an estimated 552,434 in 2011/12, according to industry figures.
The consequent boost to their productivity is helping them sustain more expensive lifestyles and that could spur India's cantering growth, averaging 7-8 percent a year.
(India farm mechanization link.reuters.com/dyp57s
India farm productivity link.reuters.com/fyp57s)
The sweeping changes are crucial as India adds the equivalent of an Australia to its 1.2 billion people every year. Many of them are too poor to feed themselves and rely on government subsidised grains. At the same time, the swelling middle class of Asia's third-largest economy is demanding more and better quality food.
By 2020-21, Indians will consume 280 million tonnes of food grains a year, compared with a record output of 241.6 million tonnes in 2010/11, said V. Venkatachalam, special secretary at the Farm Ministry.
At the moment, India still uses under half the amount of power on farms that rival Asian giant China does and a tenth that of Japan.
It was Sangramsingh Jayanvantrao Jadhav's father who bought the harvester that caused such a sensation in Perle, where cane has grabbed more than 80 percent of cultivatable land.
Jadhav takes the harvester around to neighbouring farmers, such as Kadam, who can work late into the night and through the noon-time heat in its air-conditioned cab.
"The harvester is new for the farmers. So we are convincing them about its benefits," says Jadhav. "From next year, we will be working in full swing."
Renting out equipment makes sense for many farmers in India, whose plots and income are too small to justify outright purchases of expensive vehicles and tools.
Farm Minister Sharad Pawar has thrown his support behind custom hiring and the Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering (CIAE) says renting equipment could be the best way to boost production in India.
"Small farm holdings mean every farmer can't have the equipment. So what we are saying is let there be intermediaries who could purchase the equipment and then provide it on a custom hiring basis," says Pitam Chandra, who heads the CIAE.
Jadhav, who earned an MBA in agriculture and works in a bank, says he spends as much time as possible working with the harvester "because I like to be here".
At an office in a showroom for Mahindra's Swaraj brand of tractor in Satara, just 30 kilometres away from Perle, Sachin Sambhaji Shelke points out that small tractors are more cost-efficient than the traditional bullocks.
"A pair of bullocks costs 100,000 rupees. You use them only during the season, but you have to take care of them the entire year. With a tractor, if there's no work, you don't have to look after it," says the 36-year-old, who runs the business set up by his father in 1984.
While India is one of the largest markets for tractors, their use is limited -- mostly on construction sites or for ferrying anything from wedding decorations to field labourers.
That's partly because farm sizes remain so small -- more than 83 percent of India's farms are on less than 2 hectares per capita, well below global averages of 3.7 hectares, according to advisors KPMG. As a result, small-size tractor sales are booming.
"Most of the manufacturers are shifting their focus to smaller and low-cost tractors and specialized tractors to attract the marginal farmers," says Vishal Srivastav, deputy manager at Credit Analysis and Research Ltd (CARE).
Sharply higher labour costs are also helping to make using machines a more attractive option.
In Maharashtra, government efforts to ensure a minimum wage for rural households have pushed up labour costs nearly 40 percent in the past year.
Urbanisation is also pushing up labour costs. The latest census shows city populations jumped 31.8 percent from 2001 to 2011 against growth of 12.2 percent in rural areas.
"The new generation is not interested in farming," says Vasant Nathu Rajpure, who grows turmeric near Shahbag village, about 250 kilometres south of Mumbai."My children are studying. Their aspirations are different. They don't like laborious farm work."
Sugar cane is the dominant crop in this region, after the arrival of cheap motor pumps and electricity around three decades back allowed farmers here to make better use of the river and grow the crop, which needs huge amounts of water.
Sampant Vishnu Chavan, a 77-year-old whose son cultivates sugar cane on most of his land in Perle, says focusing on this crop has meant farmers have switched to a cash economy from largely barter.
"Around 50 years back ... we were giving grains to the carpenter, the goldsmith, the potter and farm workers for their service ... But sugar cane changed this practice. We sell cane to the factory. Now we pay them money."
With this move to cash and cane comes higher income for farmers and increased discretionary spending.
"They are building concrete houses. They are buying modern electronic equipment like televisions, fridges," says Mohan Patil, cane development officer at the Sahyadri co-operative mill, who has worked with local farmers in Perle for over three decades.
Just two months ago, turmeric farmer Rajpure bought a new Maruti Suzuki Swift Dzire sedan, worth about 500,000 rupees. In the last year, the 52-year-old has bought three motorbikes for family members and an LCD television.
Sitting in his backyard, carefully removing the stitching on fertilizer bags to turn them into a waterproof cover for crops, the white-haired Chavan points to a tractor parked outside a neighbour's house.
"Tractors have changed everything," he says. "In the old days ... four pairs of bullocks were taking a day to plough an acre of land. Now, a tractor ploughs an acre in two to three hours. Farmers don't need to keep bullocks," he says.
Around half a century back there were 150 pairs of bullocks in Perle village, but now the number has come down to 20, he says.
Pitam Chandra at the CIAE estimates animals are now used for about 300-400 hours a year compared with over 1,500 hours in the 1960s.
"Animal power is going down because the cost of maintaining animals is going up and we are not employing them throughout the year," he said.
Reducing the number of animals has had a knock-on effect on fertiliser use, however, costing the government dear in subsidies as it tries to hold down prices in the face of 20 million tonnes of annual imports.
"From animals earlier we were collecting dung, which we were using as fertilizer. Now since we have only one cow, we are not getting sufficient manure. We have to buy chemical fertilizers in large amounts," says Sambhaji Chavan, a farmer from Perle who sold his bullocks and hires a tractor to do their work.
As he patiently crafts a wooden grip for a cane-cutting machete, 61-year-old Dadaso Khashaba Sutar reflects on the need for him to change his skills as tractors take over.
"My father taught me techniques he learned from my grandfather. Those skills are no longer required. Few tools (for use with bullocks) are in use and very soon they also will be replaced by new machines," he said.
One of Sutar's sons has migrated to Mumbai for a job, while his second son is now working in the construction industry.
"I am doing some work, but that will also vanish in the next few years. With me, our tradition of serving farmers will disappear," Sutar says with a smile.
He shows off the old tools he keeps which were in use some 30-40 years back in Perle. The current generation of farmers don't even know the names of some of these, he says.
Sutar now spends half his time on a new branch of carpentry. "I have started making furniture. I am making doors, for them there is good demand from farmers as many are building new homes."
Editing by Bill Tarrant