Background: MA Defence Studies, Grew up on farm
Size of Farm: 11 Acres
Average Number of Farm Workers: One Full time, 5-6 part time depending on the season
Location: Farwahai village, Barnala District
What was your role as a chemical farmer and what were your main worries?
Before, I was of very aggressive nature. I was easily agitated. I was always worried about yields about getting newer, bigger equipment. I knew that using chemicals was dangerous to people’s health, but I was concerned about my profits while my loan debt continued to increase. I was in the rat race.
What caused you to switch to Natural farming?
My mother died of cancer in August 2011. In 2009 we came to know that she had cancer. For three years going from this hospital to that hospital I came to know what are the causes of cancer and to know the effects of pesticides. I just thought, my mother has cancer, I don’t want to be the cause of cancers in other people. Everything which comes off my farm should be healthy and poison free. Initially, I had very few resources and was worried my yields would go down, so the first year I grew on one and a half acres.
What support did you get in making the change from chemical to natural farming?
When I started, I didn’t have much knowledge on natural farming. Someone told me about the Pinglewara trust, so I went there, saw their farm and was very impressed. They gave me a small book by Subhash Palekar. After my first crop of wheat, I attended a training workshop of Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM) in a local village. From that workshop, I decided to do 2 more acres. The next month, I attended a lecture of Dr. Amar Singh Azad. He spoke on the devastating health status in rural Punjab. The information was shocking, I decided to make a complete change to organic on my 11 acres immediately. After, I attended workshop trainings (with KVM support) in Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Gujarat. KVM staff also frequently visited my farm and gave suggestions.
How did your life/life principles change after changing to natural farming?
Farming became something I really enjoyed doing. In chemical farming there is only monoculture, but in natural, you have to diversify. It is a constant challenge to the mind. I see new things coming every day. Every time I do a new work, with different crops. It is interesting. In many ways my way of thinking has changed. About farming, about life, about family, my mind is very easy now and I can enjoy life. Natural farming is not profit-oriented. If you meet a natural farmer, you can see that they are very happy and live a slow life. If unseasonal rains come, I am not worried. I am out of the rat race now.
Does changing to natural farming require a decrease in income or quality of living? How have you reduced your input costs?
Up to now, my net income in hard cash has been equal, and now beginning to increase. But my income in other things have gone up. I am mentally and physically relaxed, I am eating good things from my farm, and I am selling healthy things to other people so I have peace of mind. During chemical farming, I was spending about 1 lakh on chemical inputs per year. In organic, I have had to spend 25,000 per year on cow dung inputs. Next year, I will make my own compost using 4-5 trolleys of cow dung from the onsite dairy and paddy straw. I think this will cost me up to 6,000 to 7,000 in labor cost only. For my basmati, I am spending less on inputs and my yields have remained the same or even increased compared to chemical! I love to travel. One or two times a year, I go on long motorbike rides. Between harvests I have plenty of time to spend with my family. Sure, I have to spend more time in my fields, but it is time that I enjoy.
My other inputs are diesel, Jantar seed (green manure), and labour. I do less ploughing now, so my machinery use has gone down by 50%, further reducing my costs. I am now selling a great deal of my chemical machinery. Two or three years before I was thinking I needed to take a big tractor of 50 horse power to replace my 35 horse power tractor. I would have had to take loans for 2.5 lakh more. But I thought, why do I need big machinery.
We are using 60% less water in natural farming. All of these chemicals are salts, they take up more moisture just like putting salt on your tongue. We also reduce water loss with mulching. The humus-like soil is able to hold water in it for longer time.
What crops do you cultivate and what is your crop rotation?
My main crops are basmati, then wheat and finally a green manure crop. Two crops for me and one for my land. On three acres, we are growing some cereals, pulses, bajra, moong, maize, mustard, and fodder. We have intercropped five crops in wheat: mustard, fenugreek, two types of grams, and coriander. In moong we are intercropping bajra, maize, and sorghum. In basmati bunds, we grow lady finger, bajra and sorghum. There is no monocropping. For vegetable crops, we sow 10-15 types on raised beds on two acres. I mix all of the vegetable seeds and then spread them randomly. The pests get confused and so there is little chance of attack. I have set aside one acre for a Horti-Silvi-Pastorial system (Orchards+Forestry+Livestock) using an indigenous breed of cows.
What kind of natural farming techniques do you use? Have you made any innovations?
We make some natural cultures to spray before paddy. They spray Jeevamurt, Gurvamurt, Garbage Enzyme, Biodynamic cow pats, paddy straw extract, basemen with cow dung/ urine extract. These are very powerful sprays, chemical sprays cannot compete with them. When I spray sometimes my neighbor farmers would see the results and say what did you do? We get better growth, more flowering, and everything. Quality of production has vastly increased. Each time we use these sprays we learn on which crop do they work. When we see it work we can determine which spray works on which crop. We share these practical experiences among farmers through KVM and we develop a network. Green manuring, mulching and enzyme sprays have been very effective to develop humus. For innovations, I was the first to try paddy extract and was able to get good results. So it has spread from there. I am also having success with a biodynamic spray made from eggs, jaggery, lemon juice and kapur (used in aruvedic medicines, like mint). It has helped increase flowering on mustard and pea crops.
Last year, I found an indigenous mustard crop in my field. I decided to protect it. Using a technique called nipping (clipping the top of the plant), 7 or 8 new branches formed and the mustard plant grew double or triple. From the one plant, I yielded 375 grams of mustard. I kept the seed. Conventionally, a good yield of mustard is 6 quintal per acre. We calculated the potential yield for this crop could be above 20 quintals. Next year we will try in one acre and, between the 4 ft spacing, we will plant grams. No water is required. It is not that I am doing these experiments, but nature is pushing me to do them.
What kind of problems did you face at the initial stages of natural farming?
At first, I faced the problems of weeds. I thought I needed to rid the field of all the weeds. In this crop, weeds have not been a problem. I realized that weeds do not harm your crop. If they are in certain number, they will help your crop. KVM introduced me a green manure called Aurogreen which consists of 10-15 seeds which is sown (10-15 kilo per acre). Instead, I use only 2 kilo of Jantar per acre and allow some of the weeds that I want to stay in the field. This fixes nitrogen, maintains soil pH, it reduces alkalinity by absorbing the salts. Weeds are more powerful than our crops and when they are mulched they put all kinds of powerful nutrients back into the soil. Before sowing my crop (basmati), I will cut the weeds and mulch them into the soil.
Up to today, it is very hard to find desi seeds. I have bought seeds from Bangalore and Gujarat and I am multiplying them. Some of the KVM farmers work a lot on seeds and they gave me some seeds. Slowly the seed banks are growing.
In wheat, the yield has decreased, but we are working on new techniques which are giving promising results. In vegetables, the yield does not decrease, but they take much longer to reach maturity. For cabbage and cauliflower we used to harvest in 70-80 days, now it takes 110-120 days. I used to have three commercial crops, now I give one back to the land in the form of green manure.
Do you have difficulties marketing your crop?
I don’t have many problems. If my yield is okay (such as with Basmati), I can sell in the open market. I have been selling produce at a local store and do my marketing there. I really enjoy it. I learned from consumers that it (organic) tastes better, it is preserved for many more days. These things they tell me, I don’t ask. Every day, I am getting phone calls about my wheat, I have to tell them to wait until after I harvest. During chemical farming, I had no contact with the consumer, I just delivered to the market. Now, it feels good to meet the customers. When people tell you that what you are doing is good and visiting my farm, it feels good.
What are the risks of Natural Farming?
If you don’t operate within the principles of natural farming, yields may be low, so one needs to keep an open mind. The second risk is that the farmer doesn’t know how to market his yield. The dry crop is easy to market, but vegetables are perishable and so difficult to market.
Why hasn’t natural farming been popularized and how can we better promote it?
People’s mindset. In Punjab, the mind is all about hard cash. You can tell farmers all about the health impacts and the first question they will ask is, “What is the yield?” Natural farmers are in profit. They may have a small tractor, but they don’t have big loans. People are not willing to commit without government support.
At first, people did not take me seriously, they said this is not possible. After seeing my basmati crop last year (18.5 quintals per acre) people were impressed and now three people have tried natural farming in my village. A fourth person will grow organic paddy this year.
What are your views on government policy?
Now agricultural policies are against farmers. They have allowed open air trials for GM crops, which is very dangerous. Farming should be pushed to grow certain crops which match the particular region. Punjab should not be growing the majority of the rice in India. The rice produced in Punjab is not of good quality, it is not eaten anywhere in India. All of the states have their own traditional varieties. The rice here goes to a central government pool FCIE. This is stored and during emergency times they give the rice. Otherwise, it is spoiling in their warehouses.
There is no market in Punjab for organic food, so there is no money in it for Artia (middle-men/moneylenders). If the government supports organic agriculture, the market will be created. If government support or policy is there, then organizations like KVM and Pingalwara trust will be able to convert all of Punjab to natural farming in 5-7 years. Karnataka government has its own state organic policy and their agricultural department helps people to convert. So they have had a high rate of switching to organic. KVM has started a signature campaign against GM which is being sent to the prime minister. Last August, 2-3000 farmers went to protest GM crops in Delhi organized by KVM.
What do you plan for the future?
I am still trying to find the best spacing for the wheat crop. Before, I tried growing at 7 inches, but was unable to get maximum growth. This year I spaced the wheat at 12 inches, but I think this was too much. I will try 9 inches next year.
Three acres have been selected for direct sowing (one acre fodder, two acres pulses, ½ acre paddy/ wheat combo). I would like to do as much direct sowing as I can to reduce the amount of tractor work and water required. In 2016, I am planning an open organic desi cow dairy. I have never seen this anywhere so I will start with between 5 and 10 cows to see if one acre is enough fodder for them. The key is for this one acre to bring income of 40-50 thousand rupees per year to offset taking our basmati-wheat crop out of the acre. I have also started an orchard with bananas, mango and other fruits.