Sowing nature back into agriculture

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By Nahla Nainar

Organic farming gets a boost through the efforts of these New Age farmers

While the monsoons have created havoc this year with unprecedentedly high rainfall that has led to flooding, the fallout of climate change and unmonitored real estate development has also highlighted another problem: the steady decrease of cultivable land in the country.

And nowhere is this more obvious than in the village of Mantharai, around 10 kilometers from Tiruchi, where ancient irrigation channels have dried out and plots are being marked out for gated residential communities. Bore-wells supply the water that was once supposed to flow in from Mukkombu 25 kilometers away.

In the midst of this, is a three-acre farm that its owners hope will change the face of agriculture in the coming years.

Started last year by A Janet Rajeswari, a computer science graduate who switched over to the production of vermicompost (the end-product of the breakdown of organic matter by earthworms) after running internet browsing centres in Tiruchi, the test farm is her way of bringing organic agriculture to the fore.

“While selling our vermicompost and talking about the benefits of organic farming, we felt that the public didn’t seem to understand or appreciate the concepts. I felt that a test farm on our own land would be the best way to demonstrate the merits of organic agriculture,” says Janet, who recently received the state-level Dr BV Rao Award for Rural Innovation given at the Y4D New India Conclave, organised by Y4D Foundation, Dalmia Cement and Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) in Delhi.

Early experience

Already a trailblazer with her vermicompost venture DJ Agros, which has been converting over 10-15 tonnes of biowaste from domestic and municipal sources and cowdung manure into organic fertilizer per month in the nearby village of Mullipatti since 2013, Janet is collaborating with her uncle M Xavier in the Mantharai farm project.

And it has been a rollercoaster ride so far, as the habits engendered by chemical-based farming die hard, say the budding organic farmers.

“We chose to plant the same crops as those in our neighbourhood, to convince our neighbours about switching over to organic farming,” says Janet.

The farm has tried the short-term (kuruvai) Aduthurai Samba rice, gingelly, and Split Black Gram (Urad/Uzhunthu) in a rotation pattern that follows that of the regular farms in the vicinity.

“At first, it was a bit of a disappointment, because regular paddy has very deep green shoots within the first three days,” says Janet. “Ours were a very pale green, and the labourers were dismayed. They tried very hard to make us add chemicals to enhance the colour, but we refused.” The colour eventually became deeper after transplantation, she reveals.

An achievable target

Having spent over three decades in the aviation sector in Oman, Xavier returned to India for good in December 2017 and decided to revive his family’s interest in agriculture with the Mantharai farm.

He agrees that one needs a certain level of financial independence before becoming an organic farmer. “There are fewer risks of crop loss in organic farming, but you should be able to bear the brunt of the low yield in the first three years as the soil revives itself,” says Xavier.

It costs around ₹30,000 to plough and plant an acre in the organic way, with an approximate profit of ₹10,000.

The first year of organic farming requires a lot of inputs in terms of fertilizers and additives to help the soil recover its fertility. But this comes down in the long term, unlike in chemical farming, where the injection of supplements is constant.

“Though the plants grow faster in chemical farming, organically grown crops are full of nutrients. The grains are shinier and give more flour when they are ground. Getting the message out to the rural producer that organic farming is an achievable target is important,” says Xavier.

In the first harvest, the test farm produced 26 sacks (of 70kg each) of rice from one acre. “Modern farms can get up to 40 sacks of grain in an acre depending on the crop variety, but when you compare the nutritional quality, clearly organic is better,” says Xavier.

Looking for a platform

Besides using vermicompost and organic plant fertilizers like panchakavya and jeevamrutham, Janet and Xavier are constantly on the lookout for old farming methods that have been displaced by the Green Revolution. “I think only the first step, of preparing the field for planting with cow dung manure remains. All the rest of the measures involve incremental use of chemical supplements,” says Janet.

“Farmers in our vicinity keep comparing our work with theirs, and only now, they can see the difference in our yield,” says Xavier.

Farmhand Nagaraj, who has been overseeing the planting with his father Valayapathi, says that getting to grips with organic agriculture was quite difficult at first. “We were quite sure that this farm was going to fail because we weren’t using any chemical fertilizers,” he says. “But now, I can see the difference in the quality of not only the crop, but also the soil. Earlier, the mud used to become sticky after planting. Now, because of the vermicompost, it is aerated, and falls away when we wash it. This is helpful when we are creating irrigation channels in the field.”

The next logical step, says Xavier, would be to have a common platform where organic farmers can sell their crop. “People are aware of organic vegetables, but a grain grower has no place in the market,” he rues. “And unless you assure the grower a regular demand, it is unlikely that farmers will switch over to organic cultivation.”

Both Janet and Xavier offer consultancy services for interested farmers and laymen in vermicompost production and organic farming. They are waiting to complete three years successfully in organic cultivation before applying for certification. “Everyone agrees that organic farming is the best method, but not many are willing to accept its success. Maybe it hurts their ego,” says Janet.

Source: The Hindu

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