As conventional farming techniques such as monocropping and the high use of fertilisers are proving ineffective in the face of climate change, some farmers in India are beginning to turn to mixed and organic cropping for their many benefits. This article takes a look at the techniques used in one mixed-crop, organic farm in southern Karnataka and advocates for the return to such farming methods.
Driving up to Ksheerasagar’s farm, an oasis of green aliveness in a sea of parched fields, one gets the sense of a faintly magical place where anything could happen. Although it is clear that the plants are organized intentionally, with banana plants in straight rows and pepper plants climbing up trimmed silver oak trunks, there is still enough flexibility in the layout that the farm is imbued with a sense of possibility and excitement about the unknown.
Indeed, it should feel like this, because the farm has been Ksheerasagar’s experiment for the past five years. Leaving his previous job, he used his severance pay to buy his four acre plot to create a project in organic mixed farming, feeding his passion for nature – especially “birds and butterflies.” A renowned writer who was recently awarded the Karnataka Janapada Academy award for his book about the sensibilities of tribes, Ksheerasagar came into farming with just two core ideas. First, “we don’t put in anything from outside.” This means no fertilisers or GMO seeds, with an emphasis on local varieties of plants. Second, “what we take from the land is not important; it is what we give back to the land.” Everything is focused not on production, but regeneration.
With this in mind, our first stop on the tour is his water tank, which has stones and sand inside of it to filter the water naturally before it goes into his irrigation systems. With this system, it is also possible to infuse manure into the water going into his drip and sprinkler systems, thereby feeding each plant with a natural fertiliser. This is just one way Ksheerasagar rejuvenates the earth, not only bolstering its ability to produce but also improving the biotic content of the soil.
Small papaya saplings peek out of his mini-nursery, a small plastic-walled greenhouse, as we head toward the main section of the farm. Ksheerasagar acquired them from the back yard of a house in Coorg district, and has been raising them for eight weeks now. He doesn’t just choose local varieties of plants such as these papaya trees because it is better for his farm and they are less likely to succumb to disease – he notes that even though these papayas are smaller than the ones grown commercially, “the taste is like honey.” The name of this particular papaya variety is ‘Coorg honeydew,’ which speaks to its taste.
As we reach the main section of the farm, he explains a few of his systems for organizing his plants to support each others’ needs, as well as the needs of the soil itself. Banana plants need sun, so they form the upper layer. But areca nuts and turmeric need shade, so they are grown underneath the banana plants. Betel nuts need to climb, so instead of putting posts in the ground, Ksheerasagar grows them around silver oak trees, which, though not native, help store water and provide a windbreak. In this manner, he grows more than 100 varieties of plants, mainly tree plants, all relating symbiotically to each other in a plant-dense farm.
With so much growth, there is also some decay that must be managed. Banana plants are cut after banana harvesting, but Ksheerasagar keeps the offshoots of the banana plants for the next crop, planting an offshoot of a new banana plant next to every full-grown one each season to ensure ongoing production. As the old plants die, he takes what might be referred to as their waste – their dying leaves and stalks – and places them on the ground in a long row of compost. This way, instead of throwing away organic material, he uses this output to become input for the microorganisms in the soil.
Ksheerasagar says that his farm has been a success, and clearly loves spending time making the plants and land grow well. But such a project, though exciting, is not without its challenges. When asked what the challenges were, he said, “everything.” Let’s start with the land. He was lucky to be able to afford his four acres at Rs. 25,000/acre. That was fifteen years ago. Now, the same land would go for Rs. 25 lakhs/acre.
Although he was able to purchase the land from his severance pay, he is well aware that this would not be an option for most would-be new farmers. Another major concern is that, five years in, he is not making any profits yet because the plants he decided to grow take some years to begin producing. Although he says he will make a profit next year, starting with the 140 coconut trees and 1200 areca nut plants, it would not be feasible for most farmers to spend five years without making a profit. However, he says that “profit is not the only motive of farming; immersing with nature is a great gain and profit is also guaranteed” once the farm starts producing. Although he is doing all he can to support his plants’ growth, he still lies awake at night sometimes wondering if there is something he has done wrong or something more he could do. Fortunately, he is joined in his endeavor by his family and some friends, who share the joys and triumphs, and the frustrations, of the farm.
As we exit the farm, he points out a small ground covering of green on what looks like an uncultivated field on our left. Ksheerasagar tells us that he is cultivating horsegram plants as a way to add nutrients to the soil. After eight weeks, he will till the ground lightly to allow the natural organisms in the soil to do their work. He reiterates his belief that “what we take from the land is not important; it is what we give back to the land.” Thus, even if he is not making a profit right now, the project is worth it in an ecological sense.
Why farmers should consider using organic, mixed cropping methods
Ksheerasagar’s choice to buy and farm his land in a way that, first and foremost, is good for the land itself stands in stark opposition to the choices of those that lease land to monocrop ginger, turmeric, Bt cotton, and other cash crops. While this chemical-heavy monocropping produces high yields, farmers who lease others’ lands typically desert these lands after 3-5 years, leaving them laced with chemicals and virtually unusable for many years after. The choice to do so solely for the sake of greed results not only in barren land, but also in loss of biodiversity, contamination of soil and drinking water, and possibly even illnesses related to the brain, heart, intestine, and lungs (see “Into the ginger trap”). Deciding to pursue organic, mixed cropping instead of harming the land for short-term economic gain is a moral imperative for ensuring that India’s land, water, people, plants, and animals can be healthy for years to come.
But sustainability for the future isn’t the only reason to farm using organic, mixed crop methods. Farmers who have long held their wallets close in fears that such farming methods will lose them money may need a reminder that organic, mixed cropping methods are actually more profitable over the long term.
For some time now, many farmers have been drawn to the promise of big bucks coming from monocropping – but huge profits don’t materialize and money is often lost when such crops are struck by drought or disease. Mixed cropping helps create security by spreading out risk among a variety of plants with different susceptibilities. It also ensures that, even in bad years, families have food to eat because they are growing it themselves, rather than relying on the money earned from cash crops to buy food. Because of this, mixed cropping is more profitable than monocropping in the long term.
Likewise, in the second half of the twentieth century, farmers were drawn to the promise of producing more on the same land through the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, time has shown that to get the same yield, farmers must continue increasing the amount of chemical fertilizer they use, continually increasing their spending inputs and destroying the natural productivity of the land. Furthermore, pests are now developing resistance to most chemical pesticides on the market, rendering toxic pesticides useless. In order to rejuvenate their soil after using conventional farming methods, farmers must switch to organic methods carefully and gradually. But over time, producing organically only increases the quality of the soil and produce, rather than decreasing it as chemical fertilizers and pesticides do. Furthermore, many cases have shown that organic systems of cultivation produce just as much output as do chemical ones.
Ecological benefits, long-term sustainability, food security, and steady profits make organic mixed cropping a great choice for farmers currently engaged in conventional monocropping. While the switch takes time, patience, knowledge, and some upfront cash expenditure, it is definitely worth it!