|AGRICULTURE TRIBUNE||Monday, March 17, 2003, Chandigarh, India|
farming: a high-value enterprise
In Punjab, the highly input-intensive conventional agricultural production systems seem to be becoming unsustainable. Therefore, every effort is being made to identify and adopt feasible, profitable and eco-friendly crop/farm diversification plans. Organic farming can be a major option because of the increasing realisation that accumulation of chemical residues in soil, water and plants as a consequence of continued and inefficient use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides can result in severe human and animal health problems.
Health consciousness about food and non-food products and their consumption is dramatically changing in favour of organic products. Though organically managed farms produce lower yields (particularly in the initial years) than conventional chemical-based farming, health consciousness has led to consumers being prepared to pay higher premiums (up to 100 per cent extra), particularly in the international market, which greatly helps in increasing the overall profits.
Moreover, advances in technologies for efficient organic management of soil fertility and pests are making it possible to raise the productivity and profitability of organic farms and also conservation of agro-ecosystem.
Because of such realisations the demand and market opportunities for organic products is rapidly gaining momentum. To take advantage, innovative farmers in selected zones can be motivated to shift from conventional farming to organic systems. These farmers have, however, to be trained about the "why, what, where and how" of organic production, processing and marketing.
Organic farming means using such cultural, biological and mechanical methods that maintain long-term soil biological activity, recycle organic wastes to return nutrients to the soil, provide alternate care for livestock and not using extraneous synthetic additives for growing crops or for post-harvest processing (chemical preservatives) so that the integrity of organic products is maintained until they reach the consumers.
Under the organic milk farming system, disease-free milch animals are given pesticide-free feed and fodder. In the manufacture of organic dairy products special care has to be taken to exclude artificial or chemical ingredients like flavour, colour, sweeteners or stabilisers.
Organic food and non-food products, if ethically certified and labelled as per international rules and regulations, can create immense opportunities for earning foreign exchange. A recent report of the International Trade Center shows that over 100 countries produce organic products and beverages in commercial quantities. The present potential of the international market for organic foods has been estimated at $ 20 billion.
Several countries are particularly interested in buying organic cotton, the annual demand for which is around 15 million bales. Since organically produced coloured cotton lint sells at premium prices, countries like Egypt, Israel, Greece, Peru, Turkey, USA, Australia, Latin American countries and India have taken up its cultivation in a big way. India has also been exporting organic pepper, sliced ginger, turmeric, basmati rice, lentil, gram, peas and sugar.
International markets (particularly the largest market USA) accept organic products only if the farms have the required organic certification and the products are able to meet their quality standards. For obtaining such certification, farmers have to submit an organic-farm plan to an accredited public or private certification authority. The plan must include all current growing and handling methods, all materials that will be used and future intentions and improvements to be made in all areas of production. Organic-farm management practices must not be destructive to the environment or to the future production of crops. They include efficient soil and water conservation, soil fertility management with organic manures, bio-fertilisers, crop rotations and compost and withdrawal of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
However, municipal solid waste compost and sewerage sludge compost are prohibited.
The first crop must be grown on land that has been kept free from the prohibited materials for three years. Crops grown during these three years cannot be labelled as organic. Records of all management practices and materials used must be ethically maintained. Products can be exported as "organic" only if certified by an accredited organisation like the Agricultural and Processed Export Development Authority (APEDA) or the Spices Board. Based upon these guidelines for production, processing, labelling and marketing, we must develop our national quality standards. The EU and the USA have already developed the norms. India has evolved standards only for horticultural crops on the lines of the EU.
A modest beginning has already been made by a few farmers in Punjab, particularly in supplying organic foods to special sectors like five-star hotels. Pest control without chemical pesticides is, however, the real challenge, for which farmers must get properly trained. Protected cultivation under plastic/net houses is being taken up by certain farmers for controlling pests and for early production of vegetables. Entomologists have to generate the required organic pest-control technologies. We have yet to generate and disseminate site-specific technologies for precision organic farm management to ensure cost-effective production, processing as well as quality control, documentation, inspection, certification, branding/labelling and marketing.
Organic farming is not to be recommended for the whole of Punjab. It may be taken up in certain properly selected zones/ villages, where farmers adopt site/ crop/ commodity-specific systems by strictly following the quality control regulations. For profit maximisation, the soils (of the root-zone depth) at each site should be medium in texture, medium to high in organic matter, well drained, without hard/ compacted layer and non-saline/ alkali. The quality of irrigation water should be good.
Adequate linkages of these zones with state development agencies, private environment-friendly companies and other organisations will help in setting up organic-food production, processing and handling units.
Ensuring reliable independent accreditation, quality control, documentation, inspection, certification, branding and labelling systems will be extremely important for establishing credibility of our "organic product industry."
Farmers associations in each of these
zones can greatly help in facilitating management of production
systems and marketing by identifying and maintaining reliable
relationships with importers, traders, wholesale dealers and
The value of traditional organic manures, like farmyard manure (FYM), compost, crop residues, or green manuring, is assessed by the current market value of the potentially available plant nutrient content. However, their contribution towards the addition of secondary and micronutrients, improvement in soil physical properties and overall increased soil productivity is often not considered.
A number of non-traditional organic manures are now available, generally referred to as soil and plant additives. Among such sources of organic manures, vermicompost is found to be one of the best alternatives, having the potential to sustain soil productivity and health and yields. The method of making compost involves earthworms, which generally live in soil, eat biomass and release it in digested form as excreta. This is generally called vermicompost.
Crop residues, farm and household waste are converted into valuable compost, which otherwise goes unutilised. Compost making by use of earthworms is very fast (45-60 days) and of good quality. As major part of available dung is used as fuel, the importance of vermicompost over FYM is all the more.
Ensures availability of all essential nutrients in soluble form in required amount.
Improves soil structure and chemical properties of the soil.
Having considerable water-holding capacity, it helps maintain water regime of the soil under both excess and shortage conditions.
The Presence of beneficial microorganisms like Azotobacter, Rhizobium, phosphorus-solublising bacteria (PSB), Nitrobactor, etc., helps in improving the otherwise deteriorating soil health.
Metabolic activity of microbes results in the release of plant growth regulating hormones, thereby enhancing plant growth.
Antibacterial activity of coelomic fluid of earthworms acts against pathogenic soil bacteria.
A cheap and good quality organic fertiliser, which can be used in place of chemical fertilisers.
Due to its granular form, it can be used easily at any stage of the crop.
Vermicompost produced is 65-75 per cent of the waste material used. It is odourless and has a high concentration of nutrients. The general composition of vermicompost is as given below:
Other essential elements are present in soluble form in required amount.
The composition of vermicompost is dependent on the quality of waste material used. The concentration of nutrients in vermicompost is higher than FYM, owing to reduction in compost recovery from the total material, the grinding and enzymatic activity of earthworms, and degeneration of worms’ bodies. Vermicompost can be further enriched by addition of micronutrients, bacteria, etc., externally.
Vermicompost can be applied in any crop at any stage, but it would be more beneficial if mixed in soil after broadcasting. Any quantity of vermicompost has been proved to be beneficial in rainfed crops where chemical fertilisers have not been used in the past. However, where crops are supplied with adequate amount of chemical fertilisers, one-third of the fertilisers can be replaced by vermicompost on the basis of nitrogen content and requirement of the crop. Generally, it can be used in following quantities for different agricultural crops: Field crops 8-12 quintals/acre; Vegetable 12-20 quintals/acre; Flower plants 100-200 grams/sq. ft.; Fruit trees 5-1 0 kg/tree
At present chemical fertilisers are used for providing nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. Taking into consideration the nutrient content and fertiliser use efficiency, the cost per kg of available nutrients has been estimated to be Rs 49.00, 75.94, 108.82 and 105.00 for urea, DAP, SSP and CAN, respectively. This clearly indicates that chemical fertilisers are fairly expensive and a large amount of subsidies has enabled their use as nutrient sources for crops. However, the average cost of vermicompost is Rs 200 per quintal and considering the available nutrients content and 65 per cent use efficiency, the cost per kg of available nutrients comes out to Rs 37.00. Besides this, vermicompost also provides better aeration, water retention and other benefits. Vermicompost on subsequent use has been found to provide at least 20-30 per cent more nutrients. This ability can continuously reduce the quantities of vermicompost used in the field over long durations.
Vermicompost can be obtained from any commercial vermiculture unit at a mere Rs 200 per quintal. Also, farmers can start their own vermiculture units. A space of 15-20 cubic feet can provide about a quintal of vermicompost, which will cost just Rs 50-100 per quintal, depending upon the size of vermiculture unit and the requirement of vermicompost.