Saturday, February 7, 2009

Going Green

After the success of the Green Revolution and its accompanying lessons, the Punjab farmer is waking up to the benefits of organic farming, reports Jangveer Singh

In Punjab, the ‘food bowl’ of India, where a high yield has always been the main pursuit of farmers, organic farming has never been a preferred option because of low output. But things have changed over the last few years, due to increasing awareness as well as preference for organically grown food, not only in many major cities, but also in small towns. Even farmers know that these organically grown crops are not a health hazard.

The organic movement in Punjab has many home-grown components as many social activists as well as NGOs are working for a change in their homeland. Though many activists from other states, too, are flocking in, appalled at the high suicide rates and health problems being faced by the farmers of India’s food bowl.

A serious debate is presently on, following the publication of a paper "Organic farming and its necessity – how far it can go" by the Punjab State Farmers Commission in December last year. However, the farmers of Punjab are yet to give their verdict on the issue. Although the yield-loving farmers are still sticking to intensive farming or ‘chemical farming’ as organic adherents call it, but many ‘chemical farmers’ are now also experimenting with organic crops.

Novel concept

One such NGO is Kheti Virasat, which started the Nabha organic cluster in 2000. It is providing real time as well as extension service to farmers wishing to go organic. Meeting the organic farmers of Nabha is like meeting converts to a new religion. They have been armed with light traps (to trap flies), pheromone traps (to stop harmful insects from mating), trico-derma cards (to help friendly insects), vermin composts and mixtures of neem and dhatura to tackle pests. However, their mainstay is jeevamrit, a mixture made from the dung and urine of indigenous cows, jaggery and gram flour. These ingredients are mixed with water during irrigation of crops. This mixture is also sprayed on plants during the growing stage.

Seventynine-year-old Balwant Singh of Khanora village is one of the first farmers in Patiala district to opt for organic farming. "People try to discourage you but you have to override this negativity to start off on the road to self-discovery," he says, adding he grows organic produce on six acres. "It is booked in advance in the Gobindgarh market. I get 72 quintals of wheat from five acres. Although the yield is not much, but still it has been difficult to save enough even for my own consumption," he adds.

A Saholi village resident Inderjit Singh, who has been a successful intensive farmer, says he also started organic farming on five acres. Inderjit has two Sahiwal indigenous breed cows and gives away jeevamrit, free of cost, to neighbouring farmers. Inderjit says the possibility of yield reduction should not be made an issue while opting for organic farming. "In future people may start getting more from organic farming than they do from chemical farming. Yield in chemical farming is also decreasing despite an increase in the use of fertilisers and pesticides. So the farmer has to be presented with an alternative."

The organic cluster in Nabha is continuously adopting new practices. The cluster also believes in the science of ‘bio-dynamics’ with farmers planting crops according to the different phases of the moon. Ram Singh of Labana Tikku village claims that this sowing pattern gets him a better yield. Kheti Virasat director Surinder Singh says presently 246 farmers are cultivating more than 447 acres, which have been certified for organic farming. The Nabha foundation, headed by the late Maharaja’s grandson Uday Khemka, has borne the expenses for getting the certification.

Kheti Virasat is selling organic milk and vegetables to consumers in Nabha at only 25 per cent more price than that of conventional products. "We have contacted Vishal mega mart and Reliance for the purpose and also propose to start processing plants to add value to our organic produce," adds Surinder.

Social movement

Unlike in Nabha where the organic farming is aimed at the market, the organic movement, also known as ‘natural farming’, started as a social movement in the Bathinda belt. It was aimed at making farmers aware of the hazards of "chemical farming’ following news reports of farmers boarding trains to get treatment for cancer.

Umendra Dutt of the Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM), which is spearheading this movement, is of the opinion that farmers alone can bring in the change in farming practices. The mission claims it has reached 400 villages with the farmer strength in each village ranging between two and 70.

Dutt says his organisation is against certified organic farming being thrust on the farmers by some other organic farmer organisations as well as the Punjab Farmers Commission. "For us, farming is an issue of livelihood, sustainability, ecology and agricultural sovereignty. I have to rid Punjab of this poison. Bhad me gayi market (the market can go to hell). It (market) will come afterwards," is how he puts it.

The KVM leader says he would not like to go in for certification, which has corporate control. Dutt advocates the participatory guarantee scheme method of certification. He says under this method it would be the responsibility of village-level committees to give certificates, which could be verified by district-level and state-level committees. "This system will have more checks and balances and will be stronger than any MNC certification," he says, adding, "The International Federation of Organic Farming (IFOM), too, has accepted this model." Dutt, who regularly conducts drives against the use of pesticides in the Malwa region, says in Indonesia 56 pesticides were banned in one day. He says even if this cannot be replicated in Punjab, the government should at least give a time-frame of two to three years for this to happen. He claims that Rs 12,000 crore is being given to Punjab farmers by the way of subsidies to purchase pesticides, which about one-third of the state’s total budget.

Kavita Kuruganti, a volunteer with the KVM, says it is unfortunate that business interests have crept up into organic farming (certified farming) which has made it expensive. Kuruganti says there is a need to make the farmer realise that if he himself brings down the input costs then only can his exploitation through a rigged market be brought down.

Litmus test

The two men behind the report of the Punjab State Farmers Commission, which advocates organic practices for vegetables and milk production but says these practices may be counter productive for wheat and rice due to their effect on yields, are sticking to their guns. They have decided to check the yield claims of organic growers for the coming rabi season besides analysing jeevamrit scientifically. Dr Karam Singh says the claimed efficacy of jeevamrit, as a source of nutrients, will be put to test by Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana. While admitting that jeevamrit is a rich source of microbes, he said he had doubts whether it could provide the needed nutrients. "A Punjabi farmer puts in 60 kg of nitrogen in his field. Whether jeevamrit can replace this has to be tested," he added. Dr Karam Singh claims a reasonable yield of rice is possible through organic farming but it is not possible for wheat and maize. "In winter, the availability of nitrogen decreases. Only if you put the recommended fertiliser, will you get the results or else the yield will decrease by 30 to 35 per cent." He said the decomposition of organic matter also slows down in winter.

There is scepticism about the claims of organic growers among agricultural scientists. "If organic farming can ensure the same yields as those achieved with intensive farming, and can improve the quality of the produce and reduce input costs, then why are Punjabi farmers not taking to organic farming en masse," asks Dr Karam Singh. He said marketing was another major issue and it was to be seen whether organic produce would continue to fetch the prices being demanded at present.

Dr J S Kolar, paper’s co-author, who visited organic fields in March last year, says the state of the crop did not look as if it would give the yield ,being projected by organic farmers. "The organic farming is okay for virgin land but not land under the wheat–rice cultivation. Also the call by organic proponents to use cow dung of only indigenous cows could also affect the milk productivity."



A bank to bank upon

Amarjit Sharma at the seed bank started by him at Chaina village in Bathinda
Amarjit Sharma at the seed bank started by him at Chaina village in Bathinda.

In Bathinda district, organic farming took root when three farmers – Amarjit Sharma, Charanjit Singh Punni and Pritpal Brar of Chaina village decided to go natural. Today the village has 37 farmers, who practise what they term as zero-budget farming. An equal number of farmers use the barest minimum fertilisers or pesticides.

Organic farmers of this village have achieved many firsts, with the latest being the formation of a seed bank. The man behind this is Amarjit Sharma, who has dedicated a room in his house for this purpose. The seed bank has a number of traditional varieties of wheat (Bansi, Chaval Katta, Mundri and Sharbati) besides traditional seeds of cotton, jawar and bajra. Amarjit has travelled far and wide to collect the seeds, which include black corn and ‘rajmah’ varieties from Sikkim.

Explaining how the bank is run, KVM volunteer Ajay Tayagi, a chemist who doubles as a social activist, says the concept behind the bank was to ensure that farmers could have their own seeds. He had brought a few kilos of Bansi variety of seeds from Maharashtra because of its ability to withstand pests. It is available to farmers at the bank for cultivation in the state. He said the seed bank does not accept money but employs a novel concept. “Farmers taking seeds from the bank have to return the original seed quantity as well as 25 per cent extra to ensure that there is enough for subsequent customers,” says Tyagi.

The seed bank is not the only venture initiated by the trio along with organic farmers of Chaina. Recently they have also established an Environment Society, which is presently engaged in talks with Nabard to supply them equipment worth Rs 10 lakh as a special grant. Punni says the equipment, which includes a high-horsepower tractor, rotavator, reaper and a laser leveller, would be maintained by the society and would be leased out at nominal costs to its members. “Because the present rate of lease of such equipment is beyond the means of small farmers,” says Punni.



Jeevamrit — organic to the core

The essence of organic farming is the concoction referred to as jeevamrit. For one acre, a farmer needs 10 kg/litre of indigenous cow dung and urine (the dung of other cows will not do, say organic proponents), two kg of gram flour, two kg of jaggery, one kg of mud taken from a bundh in the field and 100 litres of water. This preparation is mixed with water during irrigation of fields.

Farmers says contrary to what is being told by agricultural experts, one needs only two indigenous cows to do 10 acres of organic farming.

Moreover, as KVM volunteer Gurpreet Rattui points out, they are ensuring their own food security. He says most organic farmers are reaping 10 to 15 different vegetables for their own consumption in 10 to 15 marlas of land.

Rattu says farmers are also encouraged to plant sugarcane and pulses so that they can prepare jeevamrit, without buying anything. Farmers like Amandeep Singh from Dabri Kalan village, near Jaito, also plant neem and dhatura plants in their fields as also marigold flowers on bunds, which, Amandeep says, attract flies, who then deposit their eggs on them and leave the plants in the fields alone.