The economics of agriculture under natural farming
An Indian organic farmer recounts how his bitter experience with expensive and impoverishing Green Revolution techniques led him on the road to natural, organic farming. Subhash Sharma
SOIL, water and seeds are in fact the strength of farmers. I could understand this agro-economics only when I connected myself with this ground reality.
I have been in the farming profession since 1975 and during these years I have seen two faces of science in agriculture.
Destructive face of science
I started farming like others, applying plenty of chemical fertilisers and poisons and using hybrid seeds. During the initial years, there were indeed bumper crops but that could not be sustained for any length of time. Production from my farm started declining and the cost of cultivation started rising. Such a situation continued till 1994. This was the year when I adopted natural farming. Nature became my guru and started revealing the causes of reduced production on my farm during the previous nine years (1986-1994).
In the process of farming with chemicals I had destroyed almost the entire micro-organism population in the soil, trees, birds, seeds, water, soil and personal energy and that was what caused the reduction in the yields. Nobody should ignore or underestimate the importance of the aforesaid factors in farming. What unfolded on my farm was also happening with all the farmers like me in India. In the pursuit of increased production, the science of agriculture based on chemicals was adopted but it resulted in continuous lowering of production and damaged agro-economics. I question now: how can this science help the country achieve a higher rate of growth?
The greater consequence was the destruction of the agricultural environment. Increased mechanisation, which made human labour redundant, led to large-scale migration of rural people towards urban areas. The kind of urban living turned out to be worse than hell and gave rise to enhanced urban crime. Those who could not migrate turned into Naxalites and terrorists. Tackling them now is costing enormous amounts of public money. This is what happened to our human resource.
The loss of soils and water is another severe problem because that will lead to managing food grains and water from outside. This in turn will weaken us (India). One needs to remember that money is not the answer to all problems.
We have already lost our seeds and are being forced to depend now on genetically modified (GM) seeds which are harmful to human health as well as the environment. Such seeds are to be considered as ‘terminator’ seeds as they hardly germinate during the following season. Wherever farmers have adopted GM seeds the soils have deteriorated and many new diseases have started affecting the crops. Also, the rising atmospheric temperature has had its own damaging effect on production patterns. In the year 2008-09 my farm production declined by 25% but my profit doubled because of market forces (less availability led to increased prices). But this is not a good sign.
We certainly do not want an economic situation that results in farm produce going beyond the purchasing capacity of people. That is why change in agriculture is essential.
We need to change in order to protect and preserve our soils, water, seeds, environment and labour-power and to strengthen our economics. This is only possible if we can reduce our costs and yet enhance production.
When I first started natural farming, I did not really know much about it. But slowly nature became my teacher and taught me the science and economics of agriculture. I came to understand that this is the only constructive science under which all the constituents of nature are conserved and at the same time show gradual growth. In chemical-intensive agriculture the growth was the result of killing all others - a violent tendency - but this constructive science ended my violent growth and made me totally non-violent. In this non-violent regime I could visualise a strong economics which is in the interest of farmers as well as the entire human race. This reminded me of Mahatma Gandhi whose ideas could give pleasure only when brought into practice. Times will change but this theory of agriculture will remain intact.
This constructive science also made me fully self-reliant. This self-reliance made me strong by returning to me my power of the soil, water, seeds, environment and labour. Nature made me strong by giving me five avenues of success: 1) self-reliance of soils; 2) self-reliance in water; 3) self-reliance in seeds; 4) cropping cycle, and 5) understanding of labour.
Self-reliance of soils
This has strengthened my agro-economics. With my strong economy I have realised the potential strength of the agricultural economy of the entire nation. This self-reliance taught me love and now I do not need any kind of insecticide or chemical fertiliser input to my soil. Both these are managed by nature itself. The four constituents of nature which help this process are: a) the cow; b) trees; c) birds and d) vegetation.
a) The cow
In the year 1994, based on personal observation I developed a process of utilising fresh cow-dung, cow-urine, and jaggery (a local sugar). In Indian villages, fresh cow-dung diluted with water is traditionally sprayed on the open space about our houses (except in the rainy season). As the rains come the earthworms start coming out in plenty. This gave me the idea that if fresh cow-dung is sprayed in the fields, the number of earthworms will increase and thereby other micro-organisms as well. If we use cow-urine along with dung, the fungus of the soil can be controlled.
Following this, I placed one 200-litre drum for each acre, filled it with 60 kg of fresh cow-dung, 5 litres of cow-urine and 250 grams jaggery, and used this mixture (diluted with water) extensively on the fields. I named it Go-Sanjeevak, the application of which gave me better yields in the very first year itself. In four years the micro-organism population increased. In each square foot, 6 to 10 earthworms could be found. The increase in bacteria and earthworms demanded more feed, which was met by constituent no. 4, i.e., vegetation. The increases in earthworm and bacterial numbers resulted in less input cost along with better yields. This helped me to develop a new agricultural economics.
In the years 1990-92 I had realised that the temperature increase because of industrial pollution would certainly kill millions of plant species and living organisms within the next 40-45 years. For me, a farmer, this was a serious warning. To check the rise in temperature, I decided to plant trees. In one hectare I planted 2,000 wild trees to create a forest around me and in the remaining 11 hectares I planted bird-loving trees. These 150 trees included jamun, goolar, aam (mango), peepal, bargad, neem, imli, arjun, etc., and I brought them up as children. As these trees grew, my farm output increased and I could understand how the trees helped in agricultural production.
The trees control the rise in temperature. This is a great help for the growth of bacteria and friendly insects. The big tree-leaves which fall on the earth are converted into manure. As the trees increase, birds multiply and a new economics of agriculture is revealed.
The growth of trees within the farm increased the micro-organism population and the supply of good manure. Birds started multiplying. On observation I found each bird eats at least 50 destructive insects and contributes its excreta to the soil as manure. Where there is good vegetation this process goes on the whole year round. Within 8-10 years the number of birds increased to the thousands. You can imagine how many insects are being managed every day and how much manure is added to the soil. This also helped me to write a new economics of agriculture.
In 1994 I started using crop residues and the grasses of the farm back on the farm itself. Each hectare of my farm started getting around 25 metric tons of this wet biomass. This enhanced the micro-organism population within our farm, which in turn converted this biomass into manure and simultaneously controlled the fungus on the soils. Growth of microorganisms, earthworms, etc., made our soil porous, which helped plant roots to get oxygen and rain water. Millions of such micro-organisms in their lifetime help the soils and after their demise, they become top-quality natural manure.
In this way these constituents of soil self-reliance provided me with free manure, insect control and water, making my farming less costly and more productive. A new agro-economics was thus revealed.
A study of the large number of living organisms and creatures doing the work of soil self-reliance gave me the understanding that every living being on the earth plays an important role in the well-being of the human race. Soil self-reliance will solve problems related to temperature rise and scarcity of water.
Self-reliance in water
India has been blessed by nature with abundant water but a crisis is now developing. The change in agriculture technology in the 1960s resulted in immense use of water in farming along with chemical fertilisers as well as poisonous compounds. These destroyed and killed large numbers of insects and small creatures which used to make the soil porous and capable of absorbing water and thus recharging the groundwater table. Chemical-based farming caused rapid lowering of groundwater levels while the rainwater on the surface was allowed to flow through drains and rivers. Along with the rapid flow of rain water, useful soil also started getting washed away, affecting soil productivity enormously. The washed-off soil silts dams and irrigation reservoirs and gives rise to more and more water shortages and crises.
A large number of irrigation projects were built for developing agriculture but the growing urban population and industries forced the diversion of this enormous quantity of water away from farmers and agriculture. Water, on the other hand, is also being polluted by chemical-intensive agriculture as well as by the discharge of poisonous effluents from industries. Management of such harmful and unhealthy water is no easy task.
Planning should, in fact, have been done with a view to providing good potable and purified water to all citizens, helpful for healthy farming as well as human health.
Instead, as production of hydro-electricity increased, more and more groundwater was exploited for irrigation as well as for drinking purposes. The result was that in several states groundwater has declined to dangerous levels, thereby affecting ground temperatures as well. This situation is alarming because it directly affects crop productivity as well as human health.
Thus the destructive science promoted after 1960 polluted water and exacerbated the water crisis in a big way.
Ray of hope
I am sure if we change our agricultural policies even now we can get rid of the water crisis for ever. This I say because of my personal experience of adopting natural farming in place of the destructive science earlier pursued, which has provided a ray of hope and a path of comprehensive development in addition to solving the water problem.
Since I turned to natural farming, I have realised the importance of water. Now when I hold 100% water which falls on my farm and divert it underground, the soil is automatically saved from erosion. This tends to enhance productivity of the soil. Thus when I was able to hold 100% water on my farm, I realised that I had achieved self-reliance in water. In order to verify this I undertook a scientific study of my 12 hectares in the year 2003-04. This was as follows:
When one hectare of farm receives 1 cm rain, the total precipitation is 100,000 litres.
If rainfall during a particular year in that area is 100 cm, the total precipitation per hectare is 10,000,000 litres.
3. Thus a 12-hectare farm, like mine, receives a total of 120,000,000 litres of rain water.
4. On average 30% water evaporates from the surface, which means nearly 36,000,000 litres of water is evaporated.
The remaining 84,000,000 litres of water are diverted below ground, i.e., groundwater is recharged.
If we draw more water than this for irrigation, this means we are not self-reliant in water.
On my farm I have two bore-wells, each fitted with a 5-hp pump which draws about 36,000 litres of water per hour. Normally my pumps run for 800 hours per year. That means each motor draws 28,800,000 litres of water per annum. The two motors thus draw out 57,600,000 litres of water. Since I have recharged 84,000,000 litres of water in that year I have a net gain of 26,400,000 litres of water. This shows that I am fully self-reliant in water resource. In spite of drawing groundwater I am contributing 26,400,000 litres to the groundwater reserve.
In addition to the above, water was conserved by appropriate methods of cultivation following the contour system, sowing across the slope, natural absorption because of porosity of the soil, and digging 20ft x 10ft pits/ditches in each hectare to store rain or excess water. With this water I harvest 450 tons of vegetables and food grains while during the years 1975-86 the maximum production that I got was only 400 tons. My production from 1986 onwards started coming down and during 1990-94 it turned out to be only 50 tons. The cost of production continued increasing in those days till I was forced to abandon that system.
I adopted natural farming methods in 1994. Slowly, after realising the importance of Go-Sanjeevak, trees, birds, biomass and water and properly utilising them in my production, I was once again able to push the output upwards from 50 tons to 450 tons by the year 2000.
A new record was again set.
My farming experience clearly belies scientists’ claims that chemical fertilisers, poisons and hybrid seeds are the main factors behind higher production.
The increase in production seen from the introduction of chemical farming was essentially because of enhanced availability of water and energy. Prior to 1960 we lacked water as well as energy (electric power), natural farming was not properly developed while the increase in population continued. After 1960 water resources were created and availability of energy too went up. From 1975 onwards chemical-intensive farming was taken up on a large scale. In the beginning that showed higher production but by 2002 the production stabilised and thereafter started declining. In spite of our enhanced water capacity due to dams like Sardar Sarovar, the production kept on dwindling. Why that was happening was clear to me because of nature’s teachings.
During the years 1986-94 why did my production come down? Cotton output was reduced from 30 quintals to 10 quintals, jowar from 50 quintals to 15 quintals, tomatoes from 350 quintals to hardly 5 quintals (because of mosaic infestation). As a result, my production declined from 400 to 50 tons. Despite available power, the same water quantity, and increased use of chemical fertilisers as well as pesticides, the production came down to 50 tons. The cost of running the farm was increasing but gains were dwindling. In 1994, the first year I turned to natural farming, I received 50 tons only but achieved savings in terms of much lower costs. By 2001, my farm production increased to 450 tons of vegetables as well as food grains. For this higher production, I am using the same power and water as before. Only the chemicals have been ousted.
Once farmers understand the techniques of natural farming, their agro-economics will become strong. Villages will have abundant water, the groundwater level will increase and the nation will become rich in water resources.
Thus I must say that agriculture demands major changes today. The new agro-economics based on natural agriculture can only benefit the farmers, society and the nation.
Subhash Sharma is an organic farmer whose farm is located at Yeovatmal in Maharashtra state on the west coast of India. He regularly addresses training colleges all over the country on organic farming.