CREATING AN ORGANIC FARM
It's back to basics, says Rina Kamath, who is painstakingly and patiently cultivating her farm the organic way. It's frightening to think how much pesticides we consume through the vegetables and fruits we buy in the market, she says.
A weekend visit to a friend's farm, a casual mention of land nearby for sale and before you could say "sons of the soil", there we were, proud owners of a patch of barren, windswept land off the Mumbai-Pune highway. Hugged by a lake and cupped by hilly ranges, this idyllic tract of land had never been cultivated. It was perfect setting for our dream family project: an organic farm.
As a family, we were not quite kisan material. Prem, my husband, is a mechanical engineer turned corporate management executive turned HR consultant. I am a journalist turned lawyer turned social sector service provider. Our younger son, Raoul, left home for undergrad studies abroad and is now with a financial services firm in Chicago. It was only our elder son, Neel, who returned home with a master's degree from Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Management, who had some relevant credentials.
What drew us die-hard city dwellers to organic farming? Reports of decreasing crop yields, rampant deforestation, floods, climate change, irradiated foods (to extend their shelf life), hybrid seeds, genetically modified (GM) crops and farmer suicides had been appearing with dismaying frequency. The link between synthetic chemical fertilisers and toxic pesticides on the one hand and soil degradation, groundwater contamination and the rising incidence of certain diseases on the other, had been established. We began to question the quality of what we were eating - produce bought in good faith from the local markets. We were happy that dry organic provisions and some organically produced oils were available, but what about vegetables, fruits and herbs?
So we decided to set up an organic farm. We called it Terra Farma - the earth farm. This would be our tiny personal contribution to the undeclared war against the worrying trends in agriculture in contemporary India.
Till the mid-1960s, India as a nation followed traditional and natural practices of agriculture. We were organic by default. But food production fell far short of the demand. The government was compelled to import food, spending vast amounts of precious foreign exchange. It set up a public distribution system. It rationed food supplies. Still, it failed to combat the famines and starvation that affected millions.
The well-intentioned Green Revolution was launched in India in the latter half of the 1960s. It introduced synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and hybrid seeds to generate higher yields. The crops that responded best were the staples - rice, wheat, millet and maize. From a famine-stricken nation, India achieved a food surplus and even became a food exporter. The Green Revolution was a celebrated success - for about 20 years.
Then, something strange happened. The yields began to plateau, then decrease. Alarmed, farmers pumped in greater quantities of chemical fertilizers. Succeeding generations of pests had developed a resistance to pesticides, requiring stronger concentrations with increased levels of toxicity. Farmers were becoming debt-ridden, spending increasing amounts on fertilizers and pesticides for diminishing returns. When it became clear that the mounting cost of these synthetic additives was making farming economically unviable, the government, prodded by the powerful chemical fertilizer lobby, diverted its scarce revenues to underwrite the rising costs in the form of fertilizer subsidies.
What went wrong? The very chemicals that had artificially plumped up the yields had, in the long term, slowly and inexorably ravaged the land and adulterated the groundwater. Pesticides began to enter the bodies of farmers. Though DDT was banned in India as an agricultural pesticide in 1989, there was simply no way to get rid of the permanent residue in the soil and water. Till today, mothers in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh breastfeed their infants with milk containing sometimes as much as 40 times the safe levels of DDT as recommended by the World Health Organisation. Medical studies linked the rise of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, fibromyalgia, lupus and other blood disorders and even polio to the ingestion of chemicals absorbed by the crops.
Meanwhile, flood irrigation had resulted in salinisation, a process by which soil salts rise to the surface, rendering soil infertile. The most basic requirement for sustainable agriculture - healthy, living soil - had been systematically destroyed. And the ground water into which the chemicals had leached had become irrevocably polluted.
So ours was a simple agenda. We would grow vegetables, fruits and herbs as purely, as organically as nature intended. No synthetic chemical fertilizers, no poisonous pesticides. How tough could that be? Innocent of the challenges ahead of us, we built our farmhouse and appointed a savvy local villager, Vithal Kedari, and an experienced farmhand, Michael Pothan, as our farm managers. We hired an organic farming consultant. We installed a hybrid wind and solar energy system, fitted solar water heaters on the farmhouse terrace, laid drip irrigation pipes and dug compost pits. We explored the market for suitable buyers for our produce and initially found 24 Letter Mantra, an organic food chain with outlets in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Pune. We gratefully received additional knowhow from its parent company's (Sresta) technical expert. We are now hoping to retail in Mumbai and are in the process of exploring options. We sponged up all the literature on organic farming we could lay our hands on.
We had some notion about the basic principles of organic farming and sustainable agriculture, but we soon discovered how clueless we were about the nitty gritty - seasonal crops, local conditions, climate deviations, planting cycles, soil quality, composting techniques, indigenous plants ... it was a long list. Spoilt by the 24/7 supply of power in Mumbai, we were unprepared for the nine-hour power cuts that rendered our pumps impotent during daylight hours on all days, although Thursday was supposed to be the official weekly load-shedding day. We thought that since we would be generating employment for the villagers, there would be no problem in getting farm workers, only to realize that their own ploughing, planting and harvesting seasons coincided -- obviously - with ours. So when we needed them the most, they were simply not available. Plus, our hybrid wind and solar energy system, while lighting up our farmhouse, failed to power our pumps. The learning curve could not have been steeper. With nothing to lose but our dwindling funds, we dug our heels into our precious patch of living soil and decided that come what may, we would soldier on. The concerns were simply too urgent to abandon.
The mantra for organic farmers, which is both philosophical and practical, can be summed up thus: to source and use in an optimum, non-wasteful manner locally available natural resources employing sustainable farming methods. As we learnt, there are several key elements that constitute organic farming. Among them:
Living soil: The most vital requirement for an organic farm is soil teeming with microbial activity, fungi and other tiny creepy crawlies. Nurturing these micro-organisms and protecting their environment is essential for healthy, living soil.
Soil enrichment: This is a fundamental duty of an organic farmer. There are several different natural methods, such as green manuring, composting and vermicomposting:
Green manuring: This means treating the soil with green (plant) manure before the actual planting. At Terra Farma, we use a plant locally called dhaincha. It turns our plots into lush green carpets in about 45 days, after which we cut the plants and turn them into the ploughed soil. Green manure helps to fix nitrogen - an essential nutrient - in the soil by converting atmospheric nitrogen into a biologically effective form.
Composting: Ah - this wondrous process! Green or fresh waste (newly discarded plants, food waste, cut grass); brown or dry waste (hay, wood shavings, sawdust, dried leaves) and cowdung, chickenshit and/or fishmeal (preferences vary) are churned together in compost pits. After a few weeks of watering to maintain a moist environment, and occasional turning for oxygenation, this somewhat appalling mess is magically transformed into a rich, aromatic, chocolate-hued crumble bursting with all the goodies that make the earth go "Yum!" All the friendly fungi, the exploding population of good bacteria and a host of other little critters such as microbes and tiny insects frolic in well-tended compost, having systematically broken down all the components into a uniformly textured substance containing all the required major and micro plant nutrients. Compost blended into soil also improves drainage, acts as a binding agent and encourages moisture retention.
Vermicomposting: Earthworms should take a bow. They are the stars of a show that has run for millions of years in the soil of our earth. These small, hard-working wrigglers have a voracious appetite for all manner of organic waste, which they process with stunning efficiency through their sleek, slim, supple little forms. The result emerges at the other end as nutrient-rich organic manure. Deep-burrowing worms, while processing waste, tunnel through the soil, effectively aerating it even as their secretions bind it. Bend down within an inch of a vermicompost pile, and instead of the expected stink of rotting waste, you get the seductive aroma of rain-kissed earth. Experienced organic farmers think nothing of plunging their hands into a vermicompost pit and proudly displaying a shifting clutch of intertwined worms. (We can't say we've reached that stage yet.)
Plant diversity: Walk into any natural forest. You will see plant diversity in all its green glory - several species of trees, bushes, creepers, vines, foliage, moss, lichen, undergrowth - all forming a perfectly balanced ecosystem. Modern conventional farmers, apart from defiling the soil and groundwater, defy nature further by their practice of mono-cropping. You've seen those scenes in Hindi movies, where the hero serenades the heroine while scampering through an entire field of sunflowers, or where the bad guy chases the good uy through an endless field of sugarcane. Organic farmers practise multi-cropping - planting a mix of seasonal crops simultaneously in a given plot. This has two positive spinoffs. One, since the roots of each plant type are of varying lengths, the plants can source sufficient nutrition from the different layers of soil. Two, most pests are plant-specific. If a plot has a single crop, a pest attack could rapidly destroy the entire crop. In mixed cropping, only the crop specific to that pest would be under attack. The rest of the crops would be spared.
Crop rotation: Organic farmers also believe in crop rotation. This means planting a different subsequent crop in the same plot. If the first crop is short-rooted, the subsequent crop should be medium- or long-rooted so that the soil nutrients are absorbed from different layers in successive seasons, giving each layer, in turn, a chance to regenerate. Crop rotation also confounds pests which, having developed a "path" to a particular crop, find that with the change of season their menu too has changed.
Local sourcing: Think local, act local. Organic farmers source locally produced seeds and saplings to grow crops that are indigenous to the region. This not only enhances the chances of a successful crop, but also minimizes environmental footprints. In fact, instead of sourcing seeds externally, seed propagation should be a standard activity in an organic farm as many seed varieties that are available commercially are treated with poison to deter pests and have to be thoroughly washed before use. Disposal of the water in which the seeds are washed adds to the nuisance factor. Organic farmers should, ideally, also raise cattle that can graze on their pastures to produce nutrient-rich organic dung and urine. The dung goes into the compost pit. The urine is diluted and used as a natural pesticide. And the cattle can be used to pull the plough.
Natural pest control: Outwitting pesky pests is pretty much a full-time, ongoing challenge on any farm. Organic farmers can opt for a mix of natural methods. Neem cake can be crumbled into the soil at the time of planting. Some pests flee from bio-pesticides made from garlic, turmeric, tobacco, ginger, a dilution of neem oil or chilly. Basil or tulsi, planted typically by householders in Maharashtra to ensure a happy marriage, multi-tasks as a pest deterrent. Another smart tactical method is the planting of trap crops - plants that divert pests away from the main crops. The trick is to figure out which trap crop attracts which pest. So while marigolds are pretty much broad-spectrum traps (and look gorgeous when they bloom), castor, for example, is plant-specific, diverting pests from such crops as groundnut. If the crop is not over-infested, handpicking pests such as caterpillars (this is clearly not for the faint-hearted) off the plant, or using light traps for moths and other insect species are other options. Some organic farmers have experimented with pheromone traps. Pheromones are organic compounds secreted by female insects to attract the males. The randy males are lured into the trap, ruining their chances of a date with the female insects. This, naturally, leads to reproductive failure.
Water conservation: Organic farmers believe in economical and non-wasteful use of resources.
Drip irrigation: We have the Israeli father and son team Simcha and Yeshayahu Blass to thank for the modern drip irrigation method that has become all the rage in both conventional and organic farmlands across India. Drip irrigation is preferred to the spinning sprinkler and flooding methods (unless specifically required), which lead to water loss through evaporation and run-offs. As mentioned, flooding also salinises the soil. For the drip method, slim black pipes with holes at intervals snake down rows of crops, with emitters pulsing controlled quantities of water (or water mixed with fertilizer) directly at the plant base, or through tubes down to the plant roots.
Mulching: This further discourages water evaporation. Mulch is a bunch of matter such as hay and other organic material, which is used to cap the plant base as it receives the drips of water from the irrigation pipes. Mulch also creates a warm and cosy shaded environment, highly conducive to growth while preventing soil erosion by the wind.
Rainwater harvesting: At Terra Farma, two government guys showed up one day with a form in Marathi for us to sign. "What's this?" I asked our farm manager, suspicious of any government presence on private land. (The SEZ controversy was raging at the time.) "It's to give them permission to enter our land to build check dams for rainwater harvesting." It sounded too good to be true (I even had the document checked out by a Marathi lawyer colleague) but to our surprise and delight, we were indeed the beneficiaries of the Maharashtra government's assistance to farmers to capture and store rainwater. A check dam is one of several methods. The collected water seeps into the surrounding land, raising the groundwater level.
No heavy machinery: Mechanization and the use of heavy machinery such as tractors are frowned upon by organic farmers. The weight compacts the underlying layers of soil even as the heavy metal front end loaders, disc ploughs, blades and other attachments tear up the top soil in excess of planting requirements, sometimes even gouging out worms in the process. The loosened soil is then subject to wind and rain erosion. Sustainable farming propagates minimal tillage, so that there is least disturbance to the soil's ecosystem. Controlled tillage also allows crop residues to "lock" the topsoil against erosion. So it's back to the good old bullock and the lighter traditional plough.
Certification: Let's say you've been to a retail outlet that says its food produce is "farm fresh", "nature fresh" or "natural". Does this mean the produce is chemical-free? No! The only guarantee for genuine organic produce is a mark that proclaims it is "certified organic". Organic farmers who apply for certification from any of the registered certifying agencies - such as IndoCert, the Natural Organic Certification Association (NOCA), EcoCert or OneCert to mention a few - are subjected to onsite inspection by the certifying authority. Every aspect of farming operations - farming methods, the materials and substances used, even documentation and records - is examined. The inspection covers the sources for the seeds and saplings, the ingredients in the manure, the substances used for fertilisation and pest control, the soil and water quality, plant tissue diagnosis, the process of ripening - the works. Certification fees are unfortunately heavy and several small organic farmers sometimes form an association for group certification to minimize the cost.
Thanks to Terra Farma, we now lead a schizophrenic existence. We are working professionals in the city for five days of each week, and farmers out under the blazing sun or in the blessed driving rain along with our farm managers and workers for the remaining two. The farm is capital intensive, even with government subsidies, and the recurring monthly costs for salaries, daily wages, materials and maintenance often makes our hair stand on end. Prem likens Terra Farma to a black hole that swallows up all our funds. And then, when there is no electricity to run our pumps, or we suffer severe labour shortage, or when we lose a season's entire crop because of water shortage and delayed monsoons, I won't pretend that we are not daunted.
But when we sink our teeth into an amazingly sweet and pulpy papaya, or bite into a tender stalk of lightly cooked bhindi, or nibble at the elegantly long and crunchy cluster beans (perhaps gently tossed in ginger and garlic), we rejoice in the taste, quality and purity of the organic treasures from our farm. It is enough to make us determined to defeat the odds. Yes, we still have much to learn. But we dream of Terra Farma becoming one of the drivers of a growing movement that will make organic farming a mainstream form of sustainable agriculture in our country. We want to be counted among the proud providers of nutritious, unadulterated and safe food on the tables of India.