Sunday, January 11, 2009

A balloonist's view of agriculture

For the past month and a half, I have been hard at work trying to put together a report of all I have seen and learnt in the past 6 months. This was a requirement from CHC - a good one, because it forced me to put down on paper a lot of thoughts that were randomly floating through my brain!

Below is the chapter on agriculture. The context to the 'balloonist' is from a question posed to us at CHC: 'Do you want to be a balloonist or a molecular biologist' referring to two approaches of looking at an issue. I consider the past 6-9 months of hectic travel to be in the balloonist mode of learning!

Since 2004, I have been building my understanding and perspective on agricultural issues in India and throughout the world. In the last few months, I have met a number of groups and individuals working on this issue and have had extensive discussions with them. Following is a brief description of each of these visits:

  • LEISA project – connecting the dots
In December 2005, Dwiji and I had visited Motaganahalli, a village in Bangalore rural dt., where Prasanna Saligram and others were working as part of AID India with locals on a LEISA (Low External Inputs Sustainable Agriculture) intervention. Back then, their focus was more technical – they were looking at how much biomass was required, what crops to grow together etc. Now, with the implementation of NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) in all districts of the country, the social aspect of this program has increased to getting Panchayats involved and using NREGA funds to pay for some of the off-farm activities such as composting and preparing biosolutions. A new field area: Dhanametapalli in Kolar dt. has been added.

The basic model is as follows: a group of 4-6 landless women are selected to work on leased land to improve its fertility and organic content. In the process, they receive a share of the produce and valuable training that can allow them to become resource-persons or workers on organic farms. The philosophy of work is inspired by Dabholkar's ideas and practitioners like Mr. Renke. The current conceptualization with the social components was done by Mr Datye, an expert who passed away recently.

The challenges in this work are immense, the extremely low levels of the water table, shortage of biomass, good quality seeds etc., dependence on the goodwill of the leasing farmer and now cooperation of the Panchayat and so on. But there has been progress – local leaders have been created at the village level and the project has continued due to their commitment. The women of Dhanametapalli, in particular, were enthusiastic and enterprising. At a point when the work was delayed due to non-availability of seeds, they took the initiative to find out who farmed organically in the area. They visited these farms, learnt some farming approaches and procured seeds themselves! Because of the proximity to Bangalore, selling their produce has been relatively easy as well.

In conclusion, this initiative is worth supporting and learning from. It has pitfalls and inconsistencies, but it has also provided valuable capacity-building. Also, from the beginning, importance has been given to replicability and the larger picture, something that is lacking in many agricultural interventions.

  • Revathi and TOFARM - where there is no alternative
I first met Revathi in early 2005 in Tamilnadu, while helping her draft a proposal for rejuvenating agricultural land damaged by the tsunami. At that time, agricultural unversity professors were saying that it would take 3-7 years for the land to return to full productivity. Revathi, along with Nammalvar and other people involved in organic farming, wanted to prove them wrong and they did. Of course, whether the farmers involved are continuing these practices is another matter...

Since then, Revathi has continued to work on training trainers and on setting up a model farm near Thiruvarur. More recently, her group has worked with Oxfam in Ampara province in Sri Lanka. The entire province has turned organic, in large part due to the difficulties of supplying fertilizers, pesticides and seeds in this conflict-torn region. A huge challenge from an organic farming standpoint was the lack of domestic animals, again due to conflict. But by using techniques such as green manuring with 15-20 seed varieties, they have been able to make land productive again.

The model farm that Revathi is setting up near Thiruvarur is only a year old, therefore it was an excellent point in time to observe her planning. The land she and her husband purchased is low-lying and often gets waterlogged, therefore it was sold at a cheap rate. Revathi and her team are trying out many innovative techniques to compensate for this. A number of ponds have been dug and the mud from them was used to elevate certain fields. In another place, a zigzag system of trenches has been created with the dug-out soil elevating the space in between them and creepers planted to reduce evaporation in summer. Fish have been introduced into the trenches and ponds – their sale provides income as well.
Revathi's mentor is Nammalvar, one of the pioneers in the Tamilnadu organic movement. He once very beautifully explained to us how it is essential to tailor farming practices to the local conditions. Seeing Revathi's work underscores those principles and provides inspiration for coming up with such approaches wherever we are.

  • Farming in Auroville
Around the time we were to visit Auroville, we found that some friends from ReStore, a Chennai collective fostering consumer-producer links, were attending a 10-day workshop at Solitude Farm. We decided to attend part of the workshop while visiting other groups at Auroville. The parts we attended included discussions on Fukuoka's methods, digging a soak pit with banana saplings and other seeds and processing of traditional grains. I also briefly participated in making seeds pellets – encasing them in clay to prevent being eaten by birds and insects when broadcasting (no-tilling sowing).

Solitude farm fits seamlessly into the Auroville ethos of living in harmony with the earth. Also, since Auroville markets and consumes a huge amount of organic produce, the market does not seem to be a problem. The farm, like everything in Auroville, seems quite disconnected from the surrounding population. The cook, who comes in from a nearby village, told us: 'What is the point of going through all this trouble to pound, clean and then cook these grains?' Perhaps, because the farming and food practices are so rooted in spirituality, the residents of Solitude Farm and Auroville are willing to work harder, and pay more, for this lifestyle.

  • BAIF Karnataka – tree-based dryland cultivation
BAIF is one of the oldest NGOs in the country, set up during Gandhiji's lifetime by Manibhai Desai. It works in a number of states across the country. BAIF Karnataka works on a number of issues, but we were primarily interested in the agricultural aspects of their work. They have been promoting tree-based farming as the best solution for dryland areas. We saw two types of interventions. One was with individual farmers, where over a 3 year period, they introduced organic practices such as trenches filled with organic matter, biosolutions etc. A lot of their work has been with mulberry growing in this silk-producing area. Through use of biomass, they have cut down on water consumption significantly.

Another effort has been to rejuvenate huge tracts of land, such as a 100 acre barren area that was distributed among landless families. BAIF provided training, support and funding for 3 years, at the end of which the land is productive and covered with trees. This is quite an achievement, given that many such projects are not successfully implemented. The BAIF staff told us that they paid people to water saplings in the summer and extensively monitored to ensure that they were doing so. In the words of their director, 'such work requires commitment over long periods of time'.

The work that BAIF does requires a lot of funding. They have even signed MoUs with the government in order to implement some of this work, and advocate similar styles of functioning for other NGOs. They do not have faith in local government functioning in an honest manner without inspection by NGOs, but NGO can be as susceptible to corruption as a local official, in my opinion.

  • Bhaskar Save – the voice of natural farming
In 2007, Bhaskar Save, a famer who has grown using natural methods for decades, wrote an open letter to M.S. Swaminathan about the agricultural crisis in the nation. That letter was an inspiration and we were keen on meeting Bhaskarbhai. We met him a couple of days after Diwali at his farm near Umargaon. A number of pilgrims seem to have found their way here and he now has developed a 2 hour session for visitors! He talked about realizing that he was losing money rather than making a profit through chemical farming because he was spending so much on seeds, fertilizers etc. The understanding that he needed to bring down costs led him to Fukuoka and natural farming. Since then, he has not looked back. His son, Nareshbhai, is also farming organically – the premium these products fetch in the market is also attractive.

Sadly, the area around Umargaon is rapidly getting industrialized. Land prices are shooting up and pollution has shot up. It will be sad if the land that was nurtured carefully for all these decades will be impacted by these new developments.

  • Becoming the change – individual experiments in farming
A significant path for people aiming to lead more meaningful lives has been agriculture. I have heard of and met people both in India and the US who have given up professional careers, bought land and begun growing their own food. It is an option we have considered too. In early November, we met Smitaben and Dhirendrabhai, a couple who were professors in Baroda. Through a process of reading, discussions and reflection, they decided to live a more sustainable life and moved to Sakvi, a village near Rajpipla. They learnt traditional farming methods from their Adivasi neighbours, who have now ironically moved to chemical farming.

The couple educated their children at home, allowing them to learn what they were interested in. They grow all they need on one acre of their land. The other acre is devoted to trees and is almost like a forest. They provide mentorship and guidance to others interested in taking up farming. If there is regret, it is that they have not been able to do more work with the villagers. But they feel that such efforts would lead them to neglect the land for which they came here in the first place. It was really nice meeting them and their older son. However, I think I would need a lot more patience and humility than I have to live life as simply and steadily as they have!

  • The farmer-labourer connection
In more than one place, we have heard farmers talking about how hard it is to find farm labourers. 'People don't want to work hard','Men are addicted to drink' etc. are some of the comments I have heard. On the other hand, we know that many in rural areas are poor and underemployed. So why does this situation persist? Visiting Subhash Sharma's farm near Yavatmal might provide some of the answers.

The first thing he has done, which is simple yet profound, is provide employment for his labourers all year round. Conventionally, agricultural work has been seasonal, with a lot of demand during the sowing and harvesting times, but little in between. Subhashji has planned his farm so that there is somthing or the other to do. He provides food and accomodation to his employees and even takes them on early vacations! These systems have allowed him to not only farm successfully on his own land, but also lease others' and make them productive and profitable.

Subhashji mainly grows greens, vegetables and pulses. He sells almost all his produce in Yavatmal, with oly a few items bought by dealers in Nagpur. He firmly believes in selling in the open market as close to the farm as possible. I agree with him on this – food that is labeled organic and sold in the export market defeats the goal of sustainability. Subhashji has been able to make good profits by timing the arrival of his produce in the market, for example, the first methi in the market always fetches a good price, so he plants an early crop even though the yield is low. By incorporating natural farming techniques, Subhashji has been able to reduce his costs and his water usage. The tree cover on his land provided a haven for birds, which naturally control pests. He leaves some land fallow every year to let it 'rest'.

After touring Subhashji's farm, I was stuck with the uncomfortable thought that this kind of planning and practices would be possible only on a large landholding. One would need atleast a few acres to allow some of it to remain fallow, to plant trees etc. Would the labourers on this farm follow these practices if they owned the land? I talked to some of them who have land back in their native village – one said that his son, who farms the family land, grows cotton using chemical methods. I was left wondering how to incorporate some of Subhashji's approaches in a collective of marginal farmers.

  • 10-gunta farming, rooftop gardening – a model for Indian farmers and cities?
I have been reading 'Plenty for all', a book on how everyone can enjoy a good quality of life with juat half an acre of land. The author, Dabholkar's description of Prayog Parivar, a network of people who learn from and teach each other and collaboratively build on existing knowledge. Dabholkar passed away recently, but many people inspired by him continue to work and refine on the techniques he propounded. Even the aforementioned LEISA project draws on some of these techniques, though one problem with them that the group found was the huge biomass requirements in the first year or two.

Anyway, we heard of a rooftop garden experiment by the manager of a Bombay Port Trust canteen, Preeti Patil. The approach taken by her is inspired by the Prayog Parivar. She has been able to convert all the organic waste produced by her canteen into compost and her team grows a number of vegetables using them. While nowhere near producing the vegetables needed daily in the canteen, this effort effectively manages waste and is a green oasis in the dreary Port area.

We also visited Deepak Suchade in Bajwada, MP. Deepakji is Dabholkar's protege and is working on documenting many of these approaches and providing training and workshops. His farm is on the banks of the Narmada and is a beautiful place. Over the past two years, he has transformed his land and has laid out a model of a 10-gunta (quarter acre) farm that will provide for all the food a family needs. Another model that is called the Gangamaa mandala uses all the household wastewater and provides enough fruits and vegetables for a family.

While these techniques are worth learning, the earlier mentioned drawback of huge amounts of required biomass still exists. Further, the principles that Dabholkarji laid out and which Deepakji advocates seem a bit unrealistic. For example, they say that the Gangamaa mandala would yield atleast 2 kg of vegetables every day. One kg. Can be used for domestic purposes and another kg. can be sold. In my opinion, one cannot sell 1 kg. of vegetables unless one belongs to a cooperative that can take small quantities from a lot of people and sell them collectively. To set up such a cooperative is not a trivial task and may not make business sense, but the Dabholkar school of thought does not seem to give much importance to this problem. From a personal nutrition point of view, this approach is very useful, but I am not convinced that this can provide a livelihood for a marginal farmer, let alone a middle class lifestyle.

All these visits, combined with my learnings in the past have now given me the confidence to begin some work on agriculture in Sitapur dt. The farmer-members of SKMS hold small tracts of land, many under an acre. Most have access to irrigation and therefore grow 3 crops a year. The rabi crop is usually wheat, followed by lentils or vegetables etc. In the monsoon, some grow paddy, others corn, groundnuts etc. A lot of sugarcane is grown, though receiving prompt payment from the sugar mill is a challenge. Monocropping is prevalent and soil erosion is extensive. On the nutrition front, there are high levels of malnutrition and anaemia.

There are many fronts on which I could proceed and I plan to explore them in the future months.

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