India's summer crop planting down 5.3% from last year, gap narrows

A farm worker looks for dried plants to remove in a paddy field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India

By Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian farmers have planted 87 million hectares with summer-sown crops so far, farm ministry data showed on Friday, down 5.3% from last year, narrowing the sowing gap as monsoon rains picked up from the previous week.

The planting of rice, a key summer crop, was at 26.5 million hectares on Friday, against 30.4 million hectares at the same time last year, the ministry said. Corn planting was at 7.2 million hectares, unchanged from the same period last year.

The area planted with cotton totalled 11.5 million hectares, up from 11 million hectares a year earlier.

Sowing of soybeans, the main summer oilseed crop, stood at 11.9 million hectares, compared with 11.3 million hectares at the same time in 2018.

Farmers generally start planting rice, corn, cotton, soybeans, sugarcane and peanuts, among other crops, from June 1, when monsoon rains typically arrive in India. Sowing usually lasts until July.

Monsoon rains play a crucial role in agriculture - which employs 50% of India's workforce - as nearly half of the country's farmland lacks irrigation.

The Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers' Welfare will keep updating provisional sowing figures as it gathers more information from state governments. The planting figures are also subject to revision depending on the progress of the June-September monsoon season.

India's monsoon rains in the week through Wednesday were above average for the second straight week, easing concerns of drought, although excessive rainfall flooded some areas on the west coast.

The weather office said last week that monsoon rains were expected to be 100% of the long-term average in August and September, making up for a shortfall in the first two months of the season that began in June. That would boost prospects for the agricultural sector.

India's weather office defines average, or normal, rainfall as between 96% and 104% of a 50-year average of 89 centimetres for the entire four-month season beginning June.

Water levels in India's main reservoirs were at 47% of their storage capacity, unchanged from the same time last year, government data shows. The average for the past 10 years is 48%.

(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj; editing by David Evans)

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