This article is to help you understand our farming practices. We provide you with details of our farming practices at the end. We would like begin a little bit of briefing about various types of farming methods so it is easier for you to place our practices in an appropriate reference frame.
In essence modern farming believes that it can scientifically analyze and standardize production of anything be it Wheat, Rice, Fruits or Chickens. It employs the same principles as employed in factories. Design seeds that multiply more, evolve fertilizers that are absorbed faster and better, cultivate crops on large scale. While nature still affects farming yields, modern farming can guarantee yields per acre with much more precision than natural methods, protected farming (Green houses and Playhouses) can even control nature and allow production of virtually anything. Modern seeds, green revolution etc. are touted as our great achievements.
Since objective is to produce more and more from same piece of a land, modern farming has full array of chemicals that kill any insect or pest or even weeds and increase farmer’s yields. Food that is produced like this is then packed in plastics; in some cases, it travels thousands of kilometers across the globe. Storage of this food again requires poisons for insects and mice so that most of it reaches the consumer. And finally, you get your shiny Capsicums, long Radishes, well-shaped Carrots, and other such fruits in your supermarket.
Modern farming starts with creation of agro-machinery and tools followed by synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and seeds. Use of tractors and other agro-machinery made it possible to cultivate very large tracts of land. Building of dams and canals made it possible to irrigate lands that would not have enough water otherwise. Use of synthetic fertilisers to feed plants growth and use of pesticides to kill various insects, pests, fungi, birds, rats, snakes. Basically kill all the life that a farmer may wish to kill regardless of consequences to others and our environment with a single goal of maximizing the production of a desired crop in quantity. It has serious consequences for our planet from various different angles.
In recent years, there is a growing realization of dangers posed to our health from products of modern farming. However, there still remains a big fear in the minds of many people that whether it is possible to produce enough food for 7-8 billion people if choose to stop using fertilisers and pesticides. Modern farming makes everyone believe that while it is bad, but it is a necessity as otherwise feeding 7-8 billion is not possible and off course that’s frightening.
This claim is partly true. If we humans wish to consume what we consume now and in the same manner, then any restrictions on modern farming and poisons (insecticides and pesticides) would lead to mass hunger. However, what if we change what we eat?
If you are a vegetarian, you shouldn’t be afraid. Whatever land produces for 7 billion will suffice for 20 billion Lacto-vegetarians and will suffice for 40 billion humans if all turn vegan. So only people in trouble are non-vegetarians. According to a few estimates, almost 80% of world’s farming production esp. food grains are further fed to animals being reared for meat production in various animal farms. While 80% of agricultural land is engaged in production of food grains for meat production, this constitutes only about 20% of calories consumed by humans. So modern farming being only hope for mankind to sustain itself is a claim that assumes we as humans cannot make changes to our food. History tells us otherwise.
Organic Farming in Developed world allows for decent amount of naturally occurring chemicals. So, Rock Phosphate (which is raw material for Phosphate fertilizers across the world) is permitted to be used and so are a host of other intervention. Pyrethrin which is a potent poison that can be made from chrysanthemum root and hence natural can be used. So essentially, organic farming as practiced in western countries continues to focus on producing more by using natural inputs.
Indian Organic/Natural Farming
Indian Organic/Natural Farming’s popular Indian adaptation is known as Zero Budget Natural Farming where Cow takes a central place in farming. The microbes discussed above are part of Cow’s feed as it eats a lot of grasses and then these multiply inside cow. Using Cow dung and Cow urine as base, these techniques add inputs like Gur and pulses and create conditions for these bacteria to multiply. These preparations are then irrigated to fields or sprayed. So, this method focusses on providing a dose of microbes to soil much like probiotics taken by us. In this method a few insect repellants (not poisons like insecticides) are also prepared using Chilies, Garlic etc. and sprayed. Neem Oil is used extensively. It is an extremely popular system amongst organic farmers in India with few variations here and there. At Sanesa, we started our farm in 2017 with this farming method at Sanesa and practiced it with somewhat lax discipline for the first year.
In natural farming practices, we try not to deplete the soil microbes. We create conditions whereby it is easier for them to increase their population and help soil reach a balance over time. In this system, we can’t mindlessly chase the yield per acre parameter of conventional farming. We must be content with what a farm can produce on a sustained basis with as little intervention as possible. Crop rotation and mixed cropping also helps. Essentially, it is about the belief life supports life and killing even one type of life indiscriminately usually doesn’t work. Primary difference between Natural and ZBNF is that we don’t take out fodder and feed it to cows and then recycle cow dung etc. back to farm. Instead all the things that are fodder - grasses, wheat stalks, rice stalks etc. are not taken out of farm in natural farming. Instead all this is left to decompose in soil and soil biomass is encouraged. Natural farming will gradually increase the carbon content of soil and create good living conditions for microbes who then help various other plants grow.
Permaculture goes a step further than natural farming. In this method, not even external watering should be done so is tilling is not to be done. Even sowing should be discouraged after initial plantations. This method is ideal, closest to nature but obviously harder to fit into demands of consumers. For this farming to grow, we need to change our definition of food quite radically. Food under a permaculture farming society will be completely local and seasonal. You live off whatever is available near you. In many ways, this can be healthy but changes being asked for are substantial. For those of you who are skeptical about whether something like this can work, we recommend a visit to “Pebble Garden of Auroville” where care and commitment of Deepika and Bernard has created a forest which was barren land without even soil some 30 years back. There are quite a few other very sincere efforts in this direction.
At our farm, we started with practices that follow Indian Natural Farming method mentioned above. We prepared Jeevamrut, Agni-astra, Dashparni, ghan-Jeevamrut etc quite intently for the first six months of our operations. We also used organic fertilisers for Patash and Phosphate in a few fields. We also purchased and added Gobarkhad extensively. We used Neem oil etc also quite frequently. However, the gap between expected and actual production of most crops remained substantial. By the end of one year, we decided to stick to natural farming methods as closely as possible. Right from beginning, we haven't taken out any straws of any crop from our farm which has helped enrich soil gradually. It is still only two years and activity of earthworms is substantially up. We see more birds on our farm than the neighboring areas as there is more food available for them. We still purchase rice and wheat straws for composting at our farm. in terms of insect management, we do use culling only in case of excessive and extreme infestation (we define it as 75% or more of plants or fruits getting damaged). This is something we wish to discontinue as soon as it becomes practicable but we don't have clear path on it nor do experiences of other farmers help. However, we wish to stay open to non-poisonous methods of organic farming to control insect damage beyond the above mentioned limit.
So you can broadly put our practices in sync with Natural Farming with a few elements of organic farming still surviving. Permaculture is our aspiration though it doesn't appear achievable in next few years.
Standard types in farming and their practices are summarized very briefly below in table below.