Mother earth’s beneficence has given us so much, trees, foliage, flowers, fruits from seemingly small seeds or shoots from older plants! How are such huge trees, forests, crops made possible from tiny seeds or roots or shoots?
The earth uses up the ambient elements in the air and the minerals from the soil to produce all the greenery, shade, food, beauty, building material, etc., there can be a long infinite list of use humans and animals derive from growth from Mother Nature.
Growing demands and food choices
Some statistics say the world is projected to hold a whopping 9.6 billion people by 2050. Figuring out how to feed all these people along with fulfilling their need of clothing and shelter, and doing it sustainably through inclusive and rural development, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and protecting valuable ecosystems—is one of the greatest challenges of our era.
The Sustainable Development Goals (or SDG’s) set by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 for the year 2030 is a collection of 17 global goals, of which several are relevant for our purpose:
No poverty; Zero hunger; Good health and well-being; Clean water and sanitation; Affordable and clean energy; Responsible consumption and production; Climate action; Life under water; Life on land.
To fulfil these Goals research, innovation, and global knowledge sharing along with trade has enabled methods to hasten the growth and productivity of crops through chemical fertilisers, growth hormones and tackling unfriendly pests through pesticides. During the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, India adopted High Yielding Variety (HYV) of crops to ensure food security to its burgeoning population. In the 21st century, India is striving to progress from a calorie based diet to a nutrient-based diet as awareness of malnutrition causes come to light. There has been a push towards horticulture and high yield and productivity research, extension work and incentives.
Around 2012, I was figuring out what to do with my life having resigned from a 28 year Bank job, trying entrepreneur ventures along with consulting in the waste management sector. The government was promoting hi-tech polyhouse cultivation through knowhow from Israel which was an ideal way of conserving water, and producing more with less! (of all inputs).
I got interested, having just acquired a piece of land near a Government Centre for Excellence for Horticulture. To a banker, the economics they projected in the project report was mouth-watering, to say the least. Dissuaded by many and encouraged by few I took the plunge and put in all my retirement savings into it, judiciously following what the horticulture dept. officially advised. There were subsidies to the tune of 65 percent.
My first crop gave half the projected yield, the next 30 percent, and thereafter even less. I went on enthusiastically for 2 years, putting more money every 4 months even though I lost the previous mullah.
Further, the expected selling rate of the crop crashed to less than half of the projected sale price and went down to 20% even, from Rs.30/- to Rs.6/-. As the projected yield was to be around 1500 kg per day for 40 days I needed to have marketing tie-ups. By the time I had a tie-up, my crop failed me. When I tried to sell in the open market the buyers did not find the look and size appropriate. Urban, elite buyers are used to good looking standard size of fruit and vegetables.
I continued making my excel sheet filling in each and every kilo I sold and gifted out, balancing it with every cost I incurred on transport, men and matter. The women labour I patronised, 10 -12 of them in a day did not give enough productivity! The 3 men worked but the supervisor was hauled up by them for not putting in enough work. Daily minimum wages were to be paid, Rs. 250-300/- a day! (Now it is 350-400 a day). There was fertiliser cost of Rs 1500 per day. Every day a new pesticide was to be used to control the weak condition of the crop. Cost of pesticide kept going up and the yield kept going down. At the slightest wind, the polyhouse would get a tear which would require a few thousands to make it workable, not perfect.
I tried organic tonics, both drenching on the roots and spraying on the plants which would show signs of recovery, but not enough to give a good yield. I realised this was happening as we were going against nature and trying to grow in offseason with lots of artificial fertilisers.
When I cried, my son consoled me saying agriculture is the toughest profession, and your hard work will be rewarded by God. I had to be patient! I waited another year, experimenting with legumes, leafy vegetables, nitrogen-fixing grasses, without fertilisers. Some worked some didn’t. It was a great learning experience but drilled holes in my pocket.
Quality of soil
This region has a very conducive climate for seasonal vegetables and all types of cereal and cash crops. In hindsight I realised that the soil I inherited from the previous owner was not high-grade soil, it had become clayey from growing paddy and application of fertilisers.
I left it vacant. Bought a year’s collection of dried cow dung from my neighbour’s dairy, and spread it in my fields. Got earthworms from all and sundry and tried vermicomposting in pits, on rows in the polyhouse, in cool corners, in the warm sunshine. I even began buying vermicompost in tonnes.
Over these years of experimenting, and now another 4 years down the line I use cow urine of the native Indian cow and make a solution with cow dung, curd, gram flour and jaggery. Some call it Jeevamruth. In 15 days it becomes a potent fertiliser which has enriched the soil of my fields by increasing microbial activity, helped the crops grow into happy and healthy yields. Healthy plants are pest resistant too. I don’t use weedicide which is used in these parts to dry up the unwanted undergrowth. Therefore my land produces friendly and nutritious weeds which humans have learned to use as seasonal outcrops. My neighbouring fields are struggling to get the weeds down as they become resistant to the chemical sprays and come up with a vengeance.
Forwarding off pests, I use a concoction of neem, Hemp (bhang), tobacco and green chilies. These have been able to ward off predatory insects, not kill them completely. The fungus is still a challenge which spoils the flower and fruit but Trichoderma, a friendly fungus has given good results.
Organic farming is very labour intensive. It requires making and storing the various mixtures, applying them to the soil, spraying them when necessary, watching over the insects and plants like babies and pets. A regular de-weeding exercise has to be done. What the other farmers spray with off-the-shelf pesticides and weedicides has to be taken care of by regular watch and hard work.
Organic Farming: Recycle, Improve Land and Water Management
Coming back to nature’s bounty. So much grows from the soil and man takes the fruit, flower, seed and grain from it and leaves the rest for herbivorous animals. The dry leaves, stock, seed shells, other residues which have been produced from the earth, can go back to the soil and build the plant humus and organic carbon instead of going up in flames, or devoured by pests or destroyed by the chemical.
There is a whole big kingdom of life forms on the subsoil which requires food. These organisms feed on dry foliage, dead insects, carcasses and food leftovers and metabolise and excrete ready to eat plant food in the soil. Alternately, the manufactured chemical fertilisers imbalance the natural texture of the soil as their concentration don’t allow the underworld life forms to thrive. Conservation agriculture like reduced tillage, crop rotations, and mulching not only maintain soil health but assist in retaining moisture in the soil.
By removing topsoil or tilling it too much, or burning leaves or forests, we are destroying this undergrowth which metabolises the natural elements in the soil and air and makes them available as plant food. It is akin to the underwater world of sea animals and plants. We can’t cover them with plastics and chemicals, which will choke them. Overheating and overturning will also destroy them. Natural habitat includes the natural temperatures and season changes they are used to.
At my farm, it is encouraging to see small ant hills and trails of earthworms that help in tilling the soil and digesting the dry leaves. Having taken care of the pests and the weeds it isn’t exactly time to sit back and enjoy. There’s always another round of spraying or de-weeding.
Around my fields, the paddy grows beautifully in the month of August. So does mine. Mine is not so green as I have not sprayed urea. One application of the homemade concoction improves the colour to a darker hue, the height remains smaller than the neighbours.
They sprinkle another round of urea and weedicide to take care of unwanted stuff. Their crop grows further in height. Before the flowering stem appears, their paddy has grown so tall that it requires a trimming lest the stem start bowing with the weight as the flower and grain develop. I would spray the insect repellent mixture when the flowering starts as that’s the time some insects or fungus starts developing on the flowering shoot. The weeds are uprooted to give space to the roots to develop and left on the side berms to dry and decay into the soil to be eaten by the insects in there. Even the crop residues are tilled into the soil. North India is infamous for burning crop residues which we obviously don’t practice and also educate others to drop the practice. The yield from my fields is also catching up with the chemical-based practices. As can be observed the input cost has drastically reduced. It a low input, no wastage system, taking from Nature as it ordained and giving back what we don’t use!!
The Sustainable Development Goals (or SDG’s) can be achieved
My experience and practice is a tiny spec in the universe to fulfil the SDGs. These initiatives can close the food gap, provide safe food, generate environmental health, and development co-benefits for all stakeholders. Governments, businesses, and others need to act quickly and with conviction to scale these solutions up. This is a value proposition waiting to catch the attention of powerful industry influencers.