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Working with nature, in suicide country

By Aparna Pallavi

Twenty years after the glory days of the Green Revolution, the yield from Subhash Sharma's farm plummeted, even as input costs increased. He switched to organic farming as a last-ditch effort. Thirteen years on, his farm in Yavatmal is flourishing, and has become a model for hundreds of other farmers

“You can’t hold on to business and still do farming. The two things are enemies of each other. Agriculture is nature; it demands that you give it your all. Then alone will it be bounteous to you. If you have an eye on business, land will never give you anything because you will be robbing the land.”

When Subhash Sharma talks like this you know he is not merely spouting poetry. Because the month is June, when sowing in Maharashtra’s ‘suicide-prone’ Yavatmal district has just begun, and he is standing against a backdrop of lush, healthy crops of pumpkin, chauli beans and tall, delicious-looking corn at his farm in Dorli village. The crops, as Sharma points out with justifiable pride, were sown in April which is certainly not when farmers in water-scarce and scorching hot Vidarbha wish to sow anything at all.

Sharma has seen a lot of ups and downs to arrive where he is. In his early days as a farmer, in the mid-’70s -- the glory days of the Green Revolution -- his 32 acres of land yielded a record crop of 400 tonnes under artificial stimulation from chemical fertilisers and pesticides. But 20 years later, he was struggling under huge debts as yields shrank to 50 tonnes, cultivation costs shot up, and the land became more and more impoverished under those very same chemicals.

“I was very close to breaking point, in 1994, when I got to hear about organic farming and decided to switch to it as a last-ditch effort,” says Sharma. Today, 13 years on, production has peaked to 450 tonnes on the same 32 acres of land. Sharma even leased an additional 35 acres of land three years ago, to better carry out his organic experiments.

Sharma says he owes this dramatic turnaround to a deeper understanding of the dual nature of science. “The science of agriculture I was following earlier was a destructive science, which destroyed life and ecology for profit. The science I am following now is the science of creation, which is in harmony with nature and enriches nature even while it takes what it needs from it.”

According to him, prolonged use of pesticides had killed the soil fauna on his land, and erosion had drained the top soil. “The entire ecology of the farm -- which involves trees, birds, soil fauna like earthworms, ants and termites, along with crops -- had been destroyed.”

To reconstruct this intricate system, Sharma began with two things -- water management and natural manure.

Water management was very important because Yavatmal district is a hilly area and both irrigation and soil quality are affected by rain water run-off. Sharma designed a simple technique to conserve water – planting along contours. As a result of this, the rows of plants in his fields are often undulating, instead of straight. But the advantage is that the plants in every row are at exactly the same height; each row becomes a miniature check-dam. And when it rains, the water collects in shallow trenches between the rows. The excess water that these trenches cannot hold is channelised through small drains into irrigation ditches located at strategic points on the land. Sharma has dug one small irrigation ditch for every acre of land. “First the contour planting reduces run-off, and, in the second stage, the run-off -- both water and soil -- is collected in the irrigation ditch. So, not a single drop of rain or a single grain of soil from the land is allowed to drain away.”

Constant practice of this method of water conservation has raised water levels on Sharma’s land, and the effects are visible. He now gets three crops from his land every year, while in most parts of Yavatmal farmers have just one.

The manure and pest control problems were solved in stages. Initially, Sharma began making organic fertiliser and organic pesticides out of biomass, cowdung and cow urine. But he soon realised that there was a better way of doing it. “Organic farmers usually make vermicompost separately and then add it to the soil, saving the earthworms, whereas nature has provided for earthworms and other fauna to work in the soil itself and enrich it naturally.”

After a while he stopped making fertiliser and instead started turning farm waste and cowdung into the earth directly. Soon, natural soil fauna like earthworms, ants and termites revived in the soil that began to get softer, richer and more porous.

For pest control, Sharma realised the importance of birds on the land. “Farmers believe that birds are harmful for their crops, as they eat the crop,” says Sharma. “But the fact is that birds are valuable agents of pest control as they eat the pests and their larvae. And their droppings also enrich the soil.”

To attract birds, Sharma started planting different kinds of fruit trees on his land. “Farmers today fell standing trees on their land because crops don’t grow under trees. But they miss the point that trees attract birds, hold water in their roots, bring down temperatures, add biomass to the land through shed leaves, and finally also give you a profit in terms of fruits, leaves, wood and whatever else you can harvest off them.”

Unlike chemical inputs, natural processes do not perform just one task, says Sharma. “A bird controls pests and provides manure. An earthworm enriches the soil by breaking down biomass, makes the land porous and helps conserve water, and the slime off its body -- known as ‘vermiwash’ -- controls fungus in the soil. Termites and ants also help break down different biomass, make the land porous, and attract birds that feed on them. And there may be so many other functions that these creatures perform without our knowing. By opting for chemical inputs we destroy these systems, deny all these creatures a right to life, and finally destroy ourselves and our land.”

The rise in production and drop in input costs has also enabled Sharma to find a solution to the labour problem that plagues farmers all over the country. “When a farmer is impoverished, when his input costs are high and returns are low, he resents labour costs and tries to exploit labour,” he says. “I have done that too. But after turning to organic farming I found a unique win-win solution to the labour problem.”

Initially, Sharma used to pay labourers daily wages. But after production soared, his need for labour increased. Unable to find more labour, Sharma started contracting the day’s work out to the labourers at the same wage. The result was amazing. “Work that used to take eight hours was completed in 2.5 hours. The remaining hours were utilised for other work, and, at the end of the day, the labourers took home three times the daily wages and I got all my work done faster, and without having to employ additional labourers.”

Today, Sharma employs 14 families on his land, on a permanent basis. They receive wages worth Rs 50,000 per couple per year, and enjoy free housing, electricity and water. They also get vegetables from the farm all year round, again for free. Apart from these he also has a loyal non-residential labour force of 35 women and 14 men, all of whom take home anything between Rs 90-Rs 100, sometimes more, daily, and are employed throughout the year.

“My cultivation cost for the 32 acres of land is Rs 9 lakh per year, out of which Rs 7 lakh goes towards wages.” It is well worth it, as Sharma’s turnover is Rs 17 lakh.

Significantly, Sharma follows no fixed pattern for cultivation. He rotates crops a lot, and the choice of crops keeps changing. This year, for instance, he planted a combination of corn and tur on 1 acre, in alternation, something he has never done before. “This rotation is important as it keeps the land rich in various elements,” he explains. He doesn’t even plant the same vegetables every year.

Farmers who plant cotton should not do so every year, he urges. “The cotton crop has a nine-month cycle and does not allow for rotation if planted every year. Also, it is a demanding crop. Planted every year it leaches the soil”. His suggestion to cotton farmers: Resist greed and take a cotton crop every alternate year, if not once in three years.

While Sharma has not made a conscious effort to spread his knowledge, around 3 lakh farmers have already visited his farm, and all day long farmers call him for guidance. Replying to the propaganda that organic farming is not viable for small farmers, he says: “The problem is not with the size of land but with attitude. The government and input companies have created such a paranoia that farmers are now too scared to trust their indigenous wisdom.”

Sharma admits that organic farming takes time to yield results, and for a small farmer it might be difficult to switch to it all at once. “But surely ways can be found to return to nature in stages? But the attitude of the farmer has to change first, and government agencies have to play a big role in this.”

“Land,” says Sharma, “is the source of life for all creatures, and when you co-exist with them, all prosper. But when man arrogates everything to himself, he can’t survive either. Life, you see, sustains life.”

(Aparna Pallavi is an independent journalist based in Nagpur)

InfoChange News & Features, July 2007