Farming on Barren RainFed Lands

Namaskaram All;
I am a newbie to this forum and would like to gets some insight / KT on how to start a natural self-sustainable natural farm on barren rain fed over grazed land.
Canvass for sculpting details:
The land has been acquired after long drawn out process of 3-4 years and finally the god sent Katha’s are also in hand. As the land is next to a reserve forest, prone to thefts being very remote about 1.5 km from closet village and grazed extensively am trying to come up with a model to start the farm. Land currently has some rock clusters and lots of bushes and yes some very good grown need trees, so seems like signs of good soil. It is also sloping and undulated, heavy eroded with years of neglect and over grazing by livestock. 
GOAL - Trying to start the farm using natural farming / ZBF and minimum investment. Prevent further erosion and save the top soil from further erosion and restore top soil cover using traditional Rishi Kethi farming techniques.
After reading extensively on permaculture, rishi kethi, ZBF etc this is what I have in mind.

  1. Clean bushes using (Stihl - powered saw of all unwanted plants mainly weeds and thorn bushes… leave young neem and other plants intact and create trenches around them.
  2. Use proclain / tractor with bull dozer fitted and push smaller surface rocks and boulder to the borders based on the levels. Then create countour trenches along the contours for water harvesting and also dig a 1 foot pit along the outer boundary and in the lowest area a farm pond in NE or N.
  3. Plant 2-3 rows of live fence. Cactus other fence plants mentioned in the forum Agave etc. in 3 layers of diff species so even if one fails the other two should compensate for the gaps.
  4. Use farm yard manure and then plough only once not more than 6 inches in order not to spoil the natural balance of mother earth.
  5. Now the MAIN question is in order to fix nitrogen and also create permanent mulch on the land which is the 2-3 verities that we can plant which will NOT be eaten by livestock. The plan is to then cut the plants and let them fall as is where is using motored weeder. (Stihl- … ystem.aspx). The plan to have permanent cover so that the soil gets replanished by the micro nutrients.
  6. As it would take 2 years for the fence to come up fully and having no returns on investment for 4 years now have to hasten the process of healing the land ASAP and restoring its natural balance.
  7. Once the above are done create a low cost temp shelter and during the two monsoon seasons decide on plants that have good value but do not need frequent maintenance and scatter those seeds using Fukouka seed ball technique after soaking in Gomuthra. Need help to identify the plants like wild Neem (Melia Dubia, Subabul, Bamboo, etc.)
  8. Apply for current after tying up with local farmer so we can get connection in his name as it will a lot faster and way cheaper.
  9. Do water divining and if we are assured of the same point by 2-3 local diviners as well as using scientific then go for bore well.
  10. Once the fencing is fully operation and the plants that have been planted using seed ball techniques come to size  where there is a threat of being poached then build a low cost farm house using natural available materials  with labor quarters and guard the plants using well dogs.

Please suggest based on your experiences and knowledge.

Land Photo’s


More Photo’s

last one

  what about creating a small pond/watershed to collect excess water during rainy season .
Land is having natural slopes which can be used to create pond .


namaskaram and congrats for your treasure. and wish you all the best to convert this land to a gold mine of nature.

with my little knowledge you got a very good, virigin land and your plan is seems to be very good, less investment and a gives a learning face without investing major risks. and it is the nature way to do the things too. we will wait to see this land sloly and gradually converted to dense green cover within next coming years and after 4-5 years this land will able to produce high yealds. hope you will get good ground water and you can chanalise ground water or rain water in each corner of the land by manual slops/canals…

best wishes and prayers.

we are still in search of barren land in TN and pray to God to get us asap to full full our passion and to listen our souls …


Looks like a nice piece of land to me.
Do consider vetiver as part of the mix to minimize erosion, though it is not a nitrogen fixer.

I will move this topic to natural farming section where you might have more responses.


Thanks you Mr. Mathew for your encouragements and well wishes.

Its a long road But will post more photo’s  at each stage starting  with once  the land is cleared and the watershed managements has been completed.


Thanks Chandra!

God willing your word come true.  Still trying on finalize on what plants like clover etc. which are nitrogen fixing BUT not eaten by grazing animals. Also researching the live fence trees to plant along the boundaries.

On these are finalized next step would be to source the local indigenous seeds.

Suggestion welcome form the farmnest Guru’s and senior’s.

Best Regards,

Thanks Chandra!

God willing your word come true.  Still trying on finalize on what plants like clover etc. which are nitrogen fixing BUT not eaten by grazing animals. Also researching the live fence trees to plant along the boundaries.

On these are finalized next step would be to source the local indigenous seeds.

Suggestion welcome form the farmnest Guru’s and senior’s.

Best Regards,

[/quote] Velvet beans can be grown for fixing nitrogen, eating any part of this plant is poisons to animals, you caution the nearby people who leave their animals in to your field by informing consumption of  the plant is poison for animals.
Cactuss( Kathali in Kannada & Telugu) can be a good plant for fence as well as its leafs are ingredient for making ropes & its tubers are edible for cattle and fig, cattle can also consume its leaf as fodder. Grown stem of this plant can also be used as pole for any useful requirements.

Hi Swamy, looking at your pic on the other thread (Natural/Live Fencing), this is probably Agave and not Cactus? I didn’t think cattle can feed on cactus given the thorniness.

Hi Swamy, looking at your pic on the other thread (Natural/Live Fencing), this is probably Agave and not Cactus? I didn’t think cattle can feed on cactus given the thorniness.

[/quote] Kathale is right but I don’t know exact English name. Cactus is throne and cattle cannot eat it, but this can be consumed during drought situations.


Have been trying to get hold of this book and had called twice but they ran out of readily available prints so would really appreciate if those farm nest subscribers who are close can reach out and buy copy and let us all know what the essence of this book is. Am sure the tried and proven techniques of our seers and elders will be invaluable for those doing farming in drought prone areas.

Article pasted below for quick ref along with the actual source at the bottom.

[size=100]Drought-proofed by traditional wisdom [/size] Three generations of a farming family in Bagalkot district in Karnataka campaigned to drought-proof the fields and to conserve the soil and water. Their inspiration was a 170-year old book that until recently remained only in manuscript form. Shree Padre reports on the enviable results.

23 August 2005 - “Yes. During the last three years, the drought has affected a good many people. But if you carefully analyse who were affected by drought, you’ll find that only those who haven’t constructed bunds across their fields have suffered. Those who have nicely raised bunds haven’t experienced the drought”, says 72-year old Hanumappa Chandappa Mukkannavar of Bagalkot district in Karnataka. His own experience is adequate proof, he says; since 1972, his fields haven’t failed him even once! There were many ‘drought years’ in between, but even in years of very low rainfall, he always managed to raise enough grain to feed his family. Hanumappa isn’t alone, either. There are thousands of farmers in this region who have defeated the drought. At least 10 villages in Hungund taluk of this district share his success.

Bagalkot, the weather records remind us, is a district that gets the least rainfall in the state (543 mm annually). The last three years were drought years, with an average rainfall of 390 mm. The productive rainfall may have been even less - farmers in the semi-arid area grow food grains under rain fed conditions that can’t withstand very long gaps of rain in the monsoon, and in even years of normal rain, their crops can fail if there are long gaps between showers. Despite this vulnerability, most of the villagers in Badavadagi, Chittaragi, Ramavadagi, Karadi, Kodihala, Islampura, Vamdavadagi, Kesarabavi, Hungund, Tumba, and elsewhere didn’t have to buy food grains from outside. Nor was there migration due to hunger.

The secret of this ‘escape’ from drought is diligence. These farmers had painstakingly prepared their lands to harvest all the rain, even if a single good shower was all that they got in a cropping season. Hanumappa himself adopted these ‘drought-proofing’ techniques for his fields as far back as 1972.

The larger the leveled area, the more of the crop that gets moisture from a single rain. Even if the surrounding areas cannot support any crop, this moist belt yields its harvest without fail. 

The principle is a simple one. Put good earthen bunds across the slopes. Construct holagatti or gumdavarthi (waste-weirs) to safely allow the excess run-off outside. And as a still advanced step, level the sloping fields into smaller plots without the slopes. The last method requires huge investment, and only very few farmers take this step, and that too in a phased manner. The success of drought-proofing critically depends on the amount of amgala (well-leveled field area) a farmer achieves. The larger the leveled area, the more of the crop that gets moisture from a single rain. Even if the surrounding areas cannot support any crop, this moist belt yields its harvest without fail.

Who taught these drought-proofing measures to the villagers here? Three generations of a farming family of Hungund campaigned with a missionary zeal to achieve this. Mallanna S Nagaral, 54, is the latest in the line of these educators; his grandfather Sanganabasappa Nagaral was the first to set off on this path, and handed it down to his son Shankranna, and then to Mallanna. The Nagarals demonstrated the success of these measures in their own fields. Setting their professions aside, they then traveled widely inside the taluk to physically guide and supervise the construction of bunds and weirs. Shankranna Nagaral has written many vachanas (poems) to make people aware about soil erosion, the importance of bunds, crop rotation, and the necessity of tree-based farming, among other things. Most of these vachanas are still in manuscript form safe, in Mallanna’s custody.

The mantra of Nagarals was this: ‘Ara-baradaagoo aaraane-emtaane bele baro hamge hola tidkolli’. (Prepare your fields so as to raise at 6 or 8 annas - 16 annas made one rupee in the old currency system - crop during half-rain/drought year)

Sanganabasappa’s original motivation to take up the cause of soil and water and drought proofing lies in a unique book written by a seer 170 years ago. Decades ago when Sanganabasappa chanced upon this book, it was still in manuscript form, and Sanganabasappa wanted a copy. Lacking any other option, he prepared a handwritten copy himself, working for months together. The contents were so impressive that Sanganabasappa read it 6-7 times. In the process, it turned out to be his guiding light for the rest of his life. After implementing the guidelines given in the book, he realized that this would save lakhs of dry land farmers’ bayaluseeme (flatland) from the deadly jaws of drought.

  Mallanna Nagaral’s levelled field and waste-weir constructed 100 years ago.

This book, Krushi Jnana Pradeepike (KJP), now available in print, is unique. It was written based on the time-tested practical knowledge of farming. Ghanamatha Nagabhushan Shivayogi Swamiji, the author of this book, hailed from Daroor, in Andhra Pradesh. He had spent a good part of his life in northern Karnataka. The 350-page text is full of practical information to help farmers grow a variety of crops, to prepare manure and to conserve soil and water. Ten pages are allotted for soil and water conservation and drought-proofing. The book, in Kannada, was published only after Shivayogi Swamiji’s death. So far, it has sold more than 40,000 copies. Says D.D. Bharamagaudra, a well-known organic farmer of Yelavatti, Karnataka, “KJP is the scripture for the farmers pursuing dry land agriculture in Karnataka. It is unfortunate that the book isn’t known to many farmers even now.”

In 1969, Mallikarjuna Swamiji of Sangapura Mutt, Gangavathi, realized the importance of the book, and had it published. Since then, it has seen 9 editions, including one from Hampi University. Mallikarjuna Swami says, “I am so impressed by Nagabhushan Shivayogi Swamiji’s writings that we went on a study tour to Andhra Pradesh to learn more about him. I have a collection of all his books, except Jalashilpi, which I hope would throw very useful light on the issue of water. KJP has already been translated into English. Efforts are on to bring it out in Hindi and Telugu as well. I am suggesting to our University to encourage a student to take up doctoral studies on the work of this great seer.”

  The hand-written copy Sanganabasappa has prepared.

Three generations of Nagaral family’s preachings hasn’t gone in vain. From decades, farmers of Hungund taluk have been spending 20 to 30 lakh rupees annually for soil and water conservation as well as drought-proofing. At least half a dozen workers trained under the late Shankranna Nagaral have full-time employment in this task. Directly or indirectly, at least 500 families in the taluk earn their bread from drought-proofing work. All this work is carried out without a single paisa of subsidy from the government. Though a bit expensive, wherever construction of bunds, waste-weirs etc. was taken up systematically, no drought was able to snatch away a particular farmer’s harvest.

When this success story of drought-proofing was brought to light at the recently held jalajatha - a water-awareness mass campaign of Bagalkote district - Mallanna was a star attraction in the rural meetings. Now the Bagalkote District Collector K S Prabhakar is planning to bring out a video documentary titled ‘best farming practices’ including the drought-proofing techniques demonstrated by Nagarals. ⊕

Shree Padre
23 Aug 2005

Shree Padre is a journalist with many years of experience in agricultural reporting. He is the author of several books, including one on rainwater harvesting, published by Altermedia. Mallanna S Nagaral can be contacted at (08351) 260303. Mallikarjuna Swamiji can be contacted for copies of KJP in Kannada or English, at (08533) 231168.

Go Green!

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Another drought resistent tree is simarouba( paradise tree). We had planted some in the borders last year and with no irrigation, we already have a 2 feet growing tree with a complete green canopy. And the cows grazing near our farm do not seem interested in this either. it is mostly grown for it’s bio fuel content, but it is also supposed to provide enough nutritous mulch material over the years. Here is link for an article on the same … 80eb29866e


Hi Vedha,

I can’t open the link, but some pics from your farm will be great. Thanks.

Hi Chandra,

I this is the article Vedha was referring to… … i/comments

To solve the problem of hunger, and population growth here is a workable system that can be easily adopted at global level. The people in tropical world can easily give a solution by planting multipurpose trees like Simarouba glauca both in reforestation and agro-forestry programs. The leaf litter has effectively improved the fertility status of even barren soils. This versatile drought tolerant water prudent tree can be easily grown as an intercrop along with the traditional water prudent annual crops without decreasing the regular annual food production. Once established, this ecofriendly tree showers following benefits on growers every year for more than 60 years, irrespective of erratic rainfall. 1. The seeds give about one ton good quality edible oil worth about Rs.30,000/ha/year. 2. The surplus oil produced can be easily transesterified and converted into biodiesel to take care of the very much needed energy requirements. 3. The oilcake (one ton/ha/year) with 8% nitrogen is good organic manure that can fulfill the fertiliser requirements of the farmers. Its money value is about Rs.10,000/ha 4. The fruit pulp with about 12% sugar can produce as much as 10,000 liters of beverage/ha/year. The waste fruit pulp also can be gainfully employed to manufacture ethanol. 5. The leaf litter is relished very much by earthworms and it can used to produce vermicompost or compost of about 10 tons/ha/year worth Rs.30,000/ha. 6. From about 500 trees in a hectare the farmer can fell about 25 trees every year and sell for about Rs.25,000/- as it is good timber as well as fuel wood. 7. Apart from these monetary benefits, the decoction from leaves of the tree (harvested in a sustainable manner) is antiviral, antibacterial, antiamoebic, antimalarial, antihelmentic, antiulcerous, antitumorous, anticancerous, antileukemic. This enables the poor villagers to have easy access to cure many human and livestock ailments with almost no financial burden. 8. Cultivation of this tree as an intercrop without disturbing the regular food production gives an additional financial benefit of Rs.50,000/ha/year every year without fail, irrespective of the vagaries in rainfall. Thus it gives stability at microeceonomics level to the poor farmers. 9. A nation like India with about 140 million ha of land (dryland and wasteland put together) can easily attain self sufficiency in the production of edible oil, biodiesel, organic fertilisers, vermicompost, timber, just in a matter of two decades and attain stability at macroeconomics level. 10. To establish one tree it requires just only, that is Rs.500/ha, to an actual cultivator. The gestation period is about 5 years and it attains stability in production by about 10 years. 11. Its cultivation helps in establishing industries concerned to the production of edible oil, vegetable butter, margarine, biodiesel, lubricants, soaps, shampoos, other cosmetics, beverages, electricity, thermal power generation, timber, pharmaceuticals etc. at village level and thus helps in creating income generating green jobs to crores of villagers. 12. This evergreen tree cultivation helps in preventing soil erosion, improving ground water position, combating desertification and checking greenhouse effect and global warming. 13. AFTER ATTAINING ECONOMIC PROSPERITY, THE VILLAGERS MAY BE ADVISED TO ESTABLISH THEIR OWN STANDARD EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS AT THE RURAL LEVEL INVITING THE DEDICATED AND EFFICIENT TEACHERS TO IMPART BEST EDUCATION TO THEIR CHILDREN. THIS WILL AUTOMATICALLY SOLVE THE PROBLEMS OF POPULATION PRESSURE AND THREATENING POLLUTION. The additional money generated at the rural level may also be wisely invested in developing infrastructure such as water supply, sanitation, incessant electricity supply, medical facilities, transport etc so that the villages will become self sufficient in every way. This discourages villagers from migrating to urban areas. No wonder if reverse migration begins from urban to rural areas. References: Google search: Simarouba glauca cultivation; Simarouba medicine; Simarouba glauca – Wikipedia; Simarouba Bangalore Mirror. Contact address: Dr. Syamasundar Joshi and Dr. Shantha Joshi; 23, R.B.I. Colony, Anandanagar, Bangalore; Mob:(0)94486 84021; E mail


Another %ing article…

Link below for ref with photo’s

When Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi started their experiments in natural farming at Sarang, they didn’t have any book knowledge of alternative farming and had no guidance. But their experiences of living and working with their agricultural families were deeply rooted in them. Once they started working on the land all their instincts came alive. They also walked all over Attappady and traveled afar, learning farming practices, suitable for their land, from old farmers. Slowly their experiences metamorphised into innovative work on the Sarang land.

In 1983, when the Sarang family bought it, the land was poor due to the ploughed soil being continuously exposed to rain year after year. Through their work in the field Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi understood that tilling or ploughing, a soil preparation method widely used, was unsuitable for steep sloped areas since it helped soil erosion.

Covering land with bio-mass prevents soil erosion and provides growth of micro-organisms.
By experimentation they found that mulching with biomass had great effect on the soil condition. Mulching helped to retain moisture, controlled soil erosion and facilitated growth of microorganisms. When after mulching the soil with available local material  a variety of gram and grain were sowed without ploughing only the gram sprouted but not the grain.

The family used small pit latrines which were covered up with soil after use. This significantly added to the enriching of the soil. Green gram, a legume, was grown to enrich the soil. Percolation pits were dug to retain rain water in the ground. On continuing to mulch along with these activities, in 2-3 years the surface soil became loose and rich. Eventually grains which were sown started emerging.

Sarang Farm : Vegetables, Honey and medicinal fence
The initial 5 years were spent in cultivating soil and nourishing it using these techniques. Eventually, the top soil became black, fertile. From then onwards, pulses and grains needed for the family were produced on the farm itself.

Now the once barren land has rich top soil with the depth of half a foot and is even ready for the rain-fed cultivation of paddy.
According to the rain pattern, crops can be cultivated twice a year (May to September and September to October). A mixture of pulses and grains (black gram, green gram, cow pea etc and maize, millet, sorghum etc) are grown as per the needs of the household. Banana, elephant yam, pumpkin, and other vegetables are grown. Varieties of wild bitter gourd and tomato which were self seeding grow with zero attention.

Elephant foot yam. The average weight is 15Kgs
Now since the family is away studying in different parts of Kerala, only vegetables and drought resistant banana are grown. The two families that look after the campus protect the land, harvest produce like gooseberry and lime, mulch the land and clear the fire boundaries. They are protecting and keeping the land well-tended for the time the whole big Sarang family returns home.

Even on their travels the children are learning the basics of natural farming by cultivating vegetable patches, experimenting with seeds, working on the land whenever possible and keeping their minds as fertile as the land.


Thank you Madhukali, that was the exact article I was referring to.
Chandra, I will remember to take some pictures and post the same, when I go there next.


Hi Chandra,
Attached are the promised photographs. These were planted exactly a year back and have done well under absolute rain fed conditions. Infact we have had great success with Silver Oak, Simarouba,Neem and Pongamia. Although drips are installed we dont have enough water for them yet.