Friday, March 9, 2012

An alternative mode of farming

An alternative mode of farming

Baba Mayaram

Natural farming has always been on my radar. The following write up is a centered on one such implementation of natural farming. It is necessary to explore if this alternative can be adopted on a larger scale.

Just 3 kms outside the town of Hoshangabad, MP is the home of Titus Farm. Here, for the last 25 years, a unique method of natural farming is being practised. Raju Titus, who started out as a chemical based farmer, has now become famous for natural farming. His farm draws visitors from all over the world. Hoshangabad recently witnessed the suicide of three farmers. This saddens him, but he does not lose hope. He sees natural farming as a viable alternative for farmers to escape their current predicament.

He believes that the days of chemical farming are numbered. Excessive use of chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides and tilling has reduced the regenerative power of the soil. Early on, people definitely increased yields using scientific methods. Irrigation enabled by the Tawa dam lead to high yields initially, but sustaining those yields is a pipe dream. This year, the soybean crops failed in Hoshangabad: yields ranging from 20Kg to 200Kg per acre. Against this background of uncertainty, it becomes important to think of alternatives. And this is what draws our attention to natural farming.

His partner in this unique venture is his wife Shalini, and she accompanied us on a tour of the farm. Supple, green guava trees were swaying in the breeze. A young employee was working with a tool to flatten the weeds. A simple crimper-roller is used to bend down the weeds and leave them in place. Wheat had already been planted in this field. A layer of green covered the whole field: the weeds acting as a green ground cover. Here the field was also covered in paddy straw. Weeds like parthenium were being used in the cultivation as well. When asked, he explains that after a little bit of watering, the field is covered with weeds and straw. The rays of sunlight filtering in through the covering help the seeds to sprout, and the green shoots come up. This is beautiful to behold. Raju mentioned that maintaining a green cover allows micro-organisms, worms, and other insects to thrive, and they increase the porosity and moisture retention capacity of the soil. All these contribute to the overall health and fertility of the soil, which leads to good harvests. He says that in chemical farming, the fields are flooded with water, but the tilled and disturbed soil does not allow the water to seep deep into the ground. In contrast, natural farming allows deeper penetration of water, and in the long run, increases the ground water levels.

While the ground cover helps conserve water in the soil, it also help increase water availability in nearby wells. The covering also helps protect plants from pests by playing host to many natural predators. This prevents major plant diseases in the first place. According to him, whenever the soil is tilled and turned, the soil disintegrates into fine particles which are washed away in the rain. This leaves the fields hungry and thirsty, and necessitates the use of external inputs. Chemical fertilizers or other supplements need to be introduced to the weakened fields from the outside. As a result of tilling, the organic matter in the soil, which is stored in form of organic carbon, gets oxidized into carbon dioxide and leaves the soil. This adds to the problem of global warming, heating up the earth and causing severe changes in weather patterns. Global warming and climate change have come to dominate the world as issues of major concern. But if no-till farming is adopted, then this problem can be addressed as well. Raju believes that the use of tilling and tractors can only exacerbate the global warming problem.

Raju Titus has 13.5 acres of land, and he cultivates 12 of those acres. This year, he is experimenting on some neighbors’ fields. Out of the 12 acres, 11 acres are covered in a heavy jungle of Subabul (Australian Acacia) trees. These trees provide good fodder for animals, and firewood for the local people. He sells the firewood to the poor labourers nearby, at about half the market price. According to him, just selling the firewood earns him about Rs. 2.5 lacs per year. Active farming is happening only on one acre of land.

Raju Bhai maintains that he is farming to meet his own needs, not the needs of the market. His needs are met by farming a single acre. All his family’s basic needs of grains, vegetables, fruits and milk are met by his farm. Wheat in the winter, maize and moong in the summer, and rice in the rainy season: this is the cycle of crops.

After showing us the wheat fields, he took us towards the forest. We had to cross over a small flowing stream, and the bridge too was hand built using local wood and supplies. We crossed over it to reach the forest: the crossing was similar to walking on a tight rope.

Natural farming is also know as ‘Rishi Kheti’ (Rishi: the sanskrit word for a forest dwelling ascetic; Kheti: means farming). Raju Titus calls this Natural Organic farming. There are absolutely no inputs required from the outside. Neither is the field tilled with a plough, nor is there any application of man-made fertilizers. For the last 25 years, he has not ploughed his fields, nor  has he applied any pesticides to control plant diseases. This is a truly non-violent form of farming.

This was pioneered by the famous agriculture scientist Masanobu Fukuoka of Japan, and he himself visited this farm. Fukuoka practised these methods in his fields for many years, and wrote about his experience in his book “One Straw Revolution”. This book has influenced farmers all over the world, including America.

Ordinarily, anything that is not the main crop is considered a weed, and an enemy to be eliminated. But natural farming flourishes in co-existence with these weeds. They are treated as friends, and not destroyed. This maintains a constant green cover on the fields. When asked if the crops are hurt by the presence of trees, Raju answers: “Definitely not.”

Raju maintains that due to the trees, a deep network of roots is created under the soil. And this strengthens the soil. Grains and vegetables grow quite well in the shadow of the trees. The impact of shadow on crop yields is also influenced by the strength of the soil. Since his soil is already strong, the shade from the trees do not have any negative impact on the crops. He says: “People think no till agriculture is difficult, and this is understandable. When I first heard about it, I too could not believe it. But once you see it with your own eyes, then all doubts disappear. In fact, this style of farming continues to increase the fertility of the soil over time. In contrast, chemical farming gradually reduces the natural fertility of the soil, rendering it barren over a short time.”

Natural farming is a way of life. This not only addresses the problem of feeding humans, but pays attention to the welfare of all life forms. Natural farming ensures a supply of fresh air, and increases water levels in the soil. Trees provide shade, and help stabilize the erratic shifts in climate due to global warming. This is known as Rishi farming because the ancient Rishis lived on a simple diet of grains, leaves, fruits, and milk.  They were able to get healthy harvests on small plots of land. They looked upon the earth as their own mother. They would only take that much from mother earth as was necessary, they were not trying to extract every last drop from the earth. This attitude can be revived through natural farming. Even though it is not common today, it does provide a viable alternative. 

Translated by sri koushik katari

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