A farmers' produce company in Rajkot is writing a new chapter on sustainable agriculture in arid and semi-arid zones.
By Hiren Kumar Bose*, Rajkot, Gujarat
"Farmers who are forced to sell tomatoes for ₹1 for a kilo or onions for 50 paise and end up destitute have become the norm," says Neetu Patel, an agri-entrepreneur. "That's not the kind of farming we believe in. We are into growing medicinal plants and even crops like wheat, castor, sesame, moong, arhar, etc., by strictly following organic farming."
The feisty director of Future Farms, which counts Patanjali Ayurved, Himalaya Drug Company, and Zandu Pharmaceuticals as clients, was speaking at her organic food store in a residential neighbourhood in Rajkot. The shop stores a range of products, from alfalfa capsules to organically grown lentils. In 2016, it supplied 750 tonnes of castor grown in Kutch's Bhachau region to Gandhidham-based Castor Products Company for pressing into oil, which was exported to Wala Heilmittel GMBH in Germany. With 100 acres adding up every other month, the farmers' produce company is writing a new chapter on sustainable farming in the country's arid and semi-arid zones.
A sort of disruptive farming is being witnessed as scores of kheduts (farmers) abandon chemicals in favour of organic fertilisers and eco-friendly techniques.
A recent study, titled Development of Optimal Crop Plans (OCPs) for sustainable groundwater management practices in Saurashtra region, and conducted by agricultural scientists of Junagadh Agricultural University (JAU) in two villages each of Jamkandorna taluka of Rajkot and Wankaner taluka of Morbi, both in Gujarat, revealed that farmers cultivate water-intensive groundnut and cotton because of high gross returns compared with other crops that consume less water. The study suggested that in order to improve crop diversification and lessen farmers' dependency on high water intensity crops, suitable crops be suggested after duly considering their income-generating capacity.
The good news is that scores of farmers have already taken the initiative as suggested by the researchers. Neeta Patel's Future Farms is one of them, holding 8,000-odd acres in Gujarat's Saurashtra and Kutch region, and benefiting around 3,500 small and marginal farmers.
While most land holdings in Saurashtra's Surendra Nagar, Bhavnagar, Junagadh, Rajkot, Morbi, Wankaner, and Jamnagar districts are within the range of 3 and 5 acres, the landholdings are bigger in Kutch due to its sandy soil and sparse rainfall. A sort of disruptive farming is being witnessed as scores of kheduts (farmers) abandon chemicals in favour of organic fertilisers and eco-friendly techniques. They use drip irrigation techniques, moving away from farming which relies heavily on overexploitation of ground water. These farmers feed the nascent market for organically grown crops, like wheat and lentils, besides fuelling the demand for herbal and medicinal crops, which go into making wellness products.
Future Farms has been reaching out to small and marginal farmers, organising workshops commending the virtues of biowaste-based organic farming and giving them demonstrations on making compost, organic fertilisers and pesticides. "Each month we get two to three requests from farmers for organising workshops," K. E. Chandravaidya, associate professor at Mangrol-based BRC College who has held workshops on behalf of the farm produce company in villages of Rajkot, Junagadh and Mangrol, told VillageSquare.in. "Those who have followed our advice have found that the land which had lost its fertility has regained it and lessened their dependence on chemical inputs."
In fact, ever since Subhash Palekar, the originator of Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), was awarded the Padma Shri, his daylong workshops held in villages of Saurashtra have been attracting huge participation. "Though we have been popularising organic farming through our extension program within our university campus and through Kisan Vikas Kendras, spread in the 10 districts of Saurashtra, it has been Palekar's workshops which have helped change the mindset of farmers," Amrutlal M. Parakhia, director, Extension Education, Junagadh Agricultural University, told VillageSquare.in.
Like elsewhere, farmers here too are slowly realising that soils rich in organic matter produce more nutritious food with higher levels of antioxidants, flavonoids, vitamins and minerals. An increase in soil organic matter, and therefore total carbon, leads to greater biological diversity in the soil, thus controlling the spread of plant diseases and pests.
Home to black or sandy soils, with a lower percentage of the humus content, the earth of Saurashtra has low availability of nitrogen, medium level of potassium and high level of phosphorous. From the point of fertility, the land is poorly supplied with plant nutrients. To get a reasonable yield each year, the farmer is forced to increase his dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. With subsidies on fertilisers, except urea, being withdrawn, however, farmers have realised the futility of chemical-based farming.
These farmers feed the nascent market for organically grown crops, like wheat and lentils, besides fuelling the demand for herbal and medicinal crops...
From initiating the process of enriching the soil and completing the procedure involving the organic certification to post-harvest sale, Future Farms handholds the farmer for three years. It offers a fixed price to its associates (the farmers) decided at the beginning of the season. "We begin harvesting the tender leaves once the moringa plant is four months old, repeating the cycle every 45 days, not allowing them to flower or bear fruits. The leaves are dried on our solar drier channel for two days and are then ready for sale," says Neetu at a 160-acre farm in Vinaygadh village in Than taluka of Morbi, 55 km from Rajkot town. The farm has rows upon rows of aloe vera, rose plants and shoulder-high moringa, all irrigated by drips, which alternately provide water and a fermented concoction of cow urine, dung, jaggery and powdered lentils.
Future Farms plans to soon host free residential workshops at its Vinaygadh farm for farmers willing to take up natural and ecosystem-based (Natueco) farming method. "We make around ₹1 lakh per acre from sargawah (moringa) and aloe vera," associate Narbheram Vermoda told VillageSquare.in. "Our wheat fetches around ₹800 per quintal, which is ₹200 more than those grown with chemical fertiliser inputs."
Natueco, popularised by Deepak Suchde, is built on the premise that it is possible to create a micro-climate to assure self-sufficiency. It follows the principles of ecosystem networking of nature in our farming system and emphasises harvesting through a critical application of scientific inquiries and experiments that are rooted in the neighbourhood resources. It depends on developing a thorough understanding of plant physiology, plant geometry of growth, plant fertility and plant biochemistry.
Like others, the 25-acre farm owned by Gautam Kangar at Bichdi village in Rajkot, follows the Natueco method and is lush with its banana trees, rose plants and lemon grass. Most farmlands are fenced with medicinal herbs like kakaj (Caesalpinia), senna (Cassia acutifolia), prickly pear (Opuntia (Cactaceae), jaljamini (Cocculus hirsutus), shatavri (Asparagus racemosus), neem, akado (Colotropis gigantean L.), guggul (Commiphora wightii), gliricidia, lemon grass, curry leaf, and adulsa (Justicia adhatoda). Besides creating a microclimate of sorts, these fences prevent the ingress of pests and bring in additional income to the farmers through the sale of their leaves and fruits.
With Gujarat having become the ninth state in India to declare a policy for organic farming with a promise of offering a subsidy to those engaged in organic agriculture, it's likely that more and more farmers will take to sustainable farming in the near future.
Hiren Kumar Bose is a journalist based in Thane, Maharashtra. He doubles up as a weekend farmer.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.