Saturday, March 05, 2005

Organic farming in action

Feb 21st:

The best day of my trip so far! We headed out by bus to Sathyamangalam in Erode dt., where a number of farms have become organic. This is where Nammalvar-ji first started working after quitting his government job. A few successful experiments and satisfied farmers provided the impetus for a great many others to change their practices.

We first met up with Mr. Kumar, an organic farmer who has recently become a trainer. He had hired a car to take us around the area to see various practices. We first toured his farm. He has 7 acres under cultivation and plenty of water, but is moving in the direction of using less and less of it. He is a bit of a poet and used eloquent language to describe how he is trying to revive and rejuvenate the earth so that it can take care of the plants under cultivation by itself. In some fields, he uses various mixtures of cowdung, cow urine, jaggery, coconut milk etc. as fertilizer. In others, he uses green manure – in a field of banana trees, the trees were nearly buried under a crop of 'daincha'. The trees were growing better than those in a neighboring field which were receiving mulch and organic solutions. Mr. Kumar has vermicomposting pits where cow slurry (the leftover product after biogas generation) and organic matter is deposited. A handful of worms are enough to start the process of manure generation. He showed me some of the compost deposited under a tree. It smelt like the earth does after the first rains – what we typically call 'bheegi mitti ki khusboo'. “Ah, but this is not the smell of mud. It is the smell of life – of earthworms, micro-organisms and everything that thrives in the soil. We just have to let them live.”

Mr. Kumar also showed us his paddy nurseries. In his style of planting, based on the Madagascar method, only 2 kg. of rice seeds are sufficient for one acre of a paddy field (conventional methods require at least 10 times that). The saplings were very lightly watered. He pulled one out to show us its roots and the number of processes formed. In typical paddy cultivation, he said, the roots are flooded and do not develop this good a network of roots. Therefore, they are weak and vulnerable from the start. Nearby, he had planted some saplings. They were about a foot apart and lightly flooded, with plenty of organic manure in the field. The water was bubbling and green due to the presence of earthworms and algae. “This is all the nourishment I'll give this field,” he declared. “Even watering will be once a week after the ground starts drying up. The crop doesn't need more.”

Every ten feet, he would stop to show us another plant variety to talk about its nutritional and medicinal value. This one was good for treating urinary tract infections, that one for blood pressure and so on. His field has a green fence, with coconut and drumstick trees and creepers galore. In each of his plots, he has at least 2 varieties of plants growing together – in his opinion, mixed cropping is the best method of pest control. Also, none of the organic material in his farm is thrown out – it is all dumped in the fields to reduce evaporation and provide the next layer of mulch. We ended the visit with a delicious lunch, in which everything except the salt was homegrown.

The visit ended on a bittersweet note – with the news that a new railway line is to be laid out, bisecting Mr. Kumar's field. The government will purchase one acre of his land at a greatly reduced price – just one-sixth of their assessed value, which is again one-sixteenth the market value. And of course all of his field will be adversely affected by the noise and pollution. He plans to close shop and start off somewhere new, and is remarkably cheerful about his changed circumstances. “This place is getting too 'developed' – I had to move out anyway!” he says.

We next headed to Mr. Nagaraj's fields. Mr. Nagaraj has about 10 acres and practices raised-bed harvesting in a portion of his field. Here plants are grown on a layer of compost generated the year before while new mulch is deposited in between rows of plants. Watering is done on the mulch, in every alternate row since the loss of moisture is so low. Mr. Nagaraj had a different setup for vermicomposting – instead of pits, he had piles of slurry and organic matter (wood, straw, leaves etc.) covered by gunny (jute) bags. These piles are watered once in a while – too much moisture drives the earthworms away.

Another novel setup in Mr. Nagaraj's field was the mother-daughter banana trees. Here, instead of cutting down all the smaller trees near the banana tree, he allows them to grow. So, around each tree is a ring of younger trees 4,8 and 12 months younger. After the banana harvest is collected, the mother tree is cut and the remainder of the trunk left in place. As Revathi put it, the nutrients from the mother tree flow to the daughter tree. As in Mr. Kumar's farm, all the stem, leaves etc. are spread in the field to generate mulch – all that is not used for vermicomposting, that is. In this system, bananas can be harvested every 4 months instead of every 10 as in conventional practice. The bananas were also more healthy and tasty – especially the red variety, of which I happily consumed 3-4.

The third farm we visited was Mr. Appaswamy's, who has about 3 acres. The main thing to admire here was his watering system for vermicomposting, which consisted of tubes with holes to generate a fine spray, a system he had built himself. He used techniques similar to Mr. Nagaraj’s for his bananas.

The fourth farm was very different, in a much drier part of Erode. This is being farmed by a manager – the owner lives in a nearby town and is a textile trader. The farm consists of 65 acres of dry, sandy terrain and was purchased at Rs. 10,000/acre (in comparison, Mr. Kumar's farmland could fetch Rs. 16,00,000/acre). A number of trees were planted here – chikoo, amla (gooseberry), mango, jackfruit etc. The farmer does not do any composting – he simply mixes water with cow urine and dung and waters the trees with this mixture once or twice a week. A thick layer of mulch has been deposited around each tree. The trees are lush and healthy in a region filled with scrub and yield a bountiful produce. In fact, the value of the land has increased five-fold in the last 4 years. Since a network of tubes has been set up for the entire process, the manager has only to turn the taps, do routine maintenance and harvest the crop - “This is do-nothing farming,” he said!

Finally, we visited a farm that is turning organic – this 35 acre farm had been bought recently by Mr. Chezhiyan, a young MBA graduate. Mr. Chezhiyan has rows of coconut, cocoa and areca nut, all planted alternately. He has designed a sprinkler system which simulates natural rainfall and thereby cut his water consumption to a fourth of his previous usage. A lush undergrowth has developed and the place feels like a forest. Mr. Chezhiyan plans to grow ginger and turmeric in the areas between the rows of trees. His sugarcane fields are still conventionally farmed and he plans to shift gradually – the transition has not been uniformly smooth and he has loans to pay off.

On the way back to Sathyamangalam, Revathi and Kumar, who had accompanied us, got into an argument over whether the last farm we saw could ever be considered truly organic. The varieties of plants and trees are non-local and the crop will be completely commercial – therefore, was it following organic principles? But they agreed that giving up chemical fertilizers and pesticides was in itself a good thing and should be encouraged.

They asked me what I thought about the farms and Kumar had a number of questions about America and its government. I tried my best to answer them and to tell them about the organic movement there. One significant point about the Indian organic methods is that they use locally developed compost and manure and reduce external costs - therefore organic food is cheaper to produce than conventional food. This should be the clincher where organic farming is concerned. The reasons why most farmers do not practice these methods are varied and include lack of knowledge, suspicion and a 'mental laziness' – it is easier to follow instructions than to think and innovate by oneself, according to Kumar.

Finally, loaded with plenty of food and food for thought, we headed back to Coimbatore.

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