Saturday, January 2, 2010

Natural Farming Workshop, Kheti Virasat Mission 25th – 27th of December A Report by Trent Brown

Natural Farming Workshop, Kheti Virasat Mission
25th – 27th of December
A Report by Trent Brown
In many ways now is not a good time to be a farmer in Punjab, or anywhere in India, for that matter. Debts are high. The price of inputs is increasing. Soil quality has diminished. The development of pesticide-resistant insects is leading farmers to use more and more toxic chemicals on their crops, thus increasing the risk of cancer for them and their families. The combination of these factors has led many farmers to commit suicide. The Natural Farming Workshop, hosted by Kheti Virsat Mission from the 25th to the 27th of December 2009, showed farmers another way. It showed them a type of farming that requires no external inputs whatsoever, that does not involve violence against humans or nature and whose yields are good.

The workshop was held at the Bhai Bhagtu Institute of Higher Education, in Bhagtuana village, near Jaito, Faridkot District, where Kheti Virasat Mission has an education centre for natural farming. The workshop had the support of its founder Swami Krishna Anand ji who has himself been a powerful advocate of natural farming for several years. Over the course of the three days, farmers learned about the philosophy, science and techniques of natural farming. They were addressed by several of the most respected figures in the field, who gave them confidence that natural farming can take them into a brighter future.

There were over 150 people who attended the workshop. They were a diverse crowd. Not only were there farmers, but also teachers, college lecturers, activists and doctors, all wanting to take the message of natural farming to the wider world. Among the farmers there were some who have been farming using natural methods for several years. Others were still practicing chemical farming, but looking for a better way. They came from all parts of Punjab and from other states. There was a group of women from the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) who travelled all the way from Gujarat just to attend the workshop.

They came to the workshop for a variety of reasons. Some were fed up with paying the chemical companies excessive amounts of money for fertilisers and pesticides. Others were concerned for the impact of these chemicals on the health of their families and communities. Others wanted to live a lifestyle that was more in tune with the rhythms of nature. All of them recognised the importance of natural farming for the future of Punjab, India and the world.

The first of the speakers was Dr. Om Rupela, from Hyderabad. Dr. Rupela had worked for many years as an agricultural scientist in the field of microbiology, but resigned after concluding that most agricultural research institutions are largely working on agro-technologies that reach farmers through market forces and do not empower the small farmers of the world. He has since been a passionate campaigner for reforming the research system so that it is focused more on the needs of farmers and on sustainable agricultural practice. Dr. Rupela spoke about how the nutrient needs of crops can easily be met through re-building the organic content of the soil.

Dr. Rupela also spoke about the different messages being put forward on whether chemical inputs should be used in agriculture. He told farmers that when they consider these debates that they need to start thinking about who is their friend and who is not. So many people and agencies gather around farmers to try to influence them: governments, corporations, research institutions, NGOs. Most of them have their own interests in mind, and their interests are often tied up with the corporations. It is only the civil society groups, like KVM, that are really looking out for the farmer, and Dr. Rupela encouraged farmers to forge stronger relationships with them, and not be conned by those with vested interests.

The next speaker was Deepak Sachade, a highly respected natural farmer from Madhya Pradesh. Sachade ji taught the principles of his own farming method which he calls “natueco farming” (natural-ecological farming). This approach takes inspiration from the ecology of forests. Using its principles, one can build a highly productive ecosystem which can support human life and all other life forms as well. Sachade stressed the resonance of the principles of natural farming with India’s ancient philosophy, in which violence against any creature was considered sinful.

Over the three days of the workshop, Deepak Sachade also gave several interactive, practical demonstrations on the techniques of natural farming. He demonstrated how to produce amrit mitthi and liquid manures in which nitrogen-fixing bacteria can develop and provide plants with all of the nitrates they require. He also gave a demonstration of his “seed ball” technique, which assists germination. Throughout his demonstrations, Sachade ji explained to farmers, in his very eloquent Hindi, the science behind the techniques. This was very inspirational, and gave farmers confidence that natural farming is backed by sound, scientific reasoning.

The next speaker was Dr. T. A. V. S. Raghunath, from the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad. He told of the great success of natural and organic farming in Andhra Pradesh and of some ways in which this might be replicated in Punjab. Importantly, he spoke on how government support in A. P. gave farmers greater confidence in making the transition to natural farming. He also told of how the involvement of women was crucial to success in A. P., as it allowed for a more complete transformation of social relations. Now in A. P. the chemical input companies are projecting losses, as both farmers and consumers are moving away from the toxic approach.

Dr. Raghunath gave a practical demonstration on how to produce natural bio-pesticides. These pesticides, unlike the chemical varieties, are not hazardous to the health of humans or the ecosystem and can be made using mostly items which can be found on or around the farm. He showed how bio-pesticides can be made with plants that grow abundantly in Punjab, including congress grass and neem. Even troublesome plants like eucalyptus and lantana can be put to some positive use in bio-pesticides. One of the mixtures that he demonstrated has the additional benefit of promoting the growth of flowers, which attracts friendly insects like bees and butterflies to promote pollination.

Over the three days of the workshop, there were several sessions in which farmers were able to share their experiences in natural farming. Jarnail Singh from Majhi village and Hartej Singh from village Mehta were among the many farmers who shared their stories. They told of how their lifestyle has improved since they converted their respective farms to natural techniques. They no longer need to go to the market to be exploited by the chemical companies; they are free. Both have experienced no major difficulties in their transition, and their stories were very important in showing farmers that these methods can be applied to success in Punjab. Several of the farmers who were still practicing chemical farming became enthusiastic about changing to a more natural approach.

Towards the end of the workshop there was a discussion of marketing strategies, in recognition that natural farmers need reliable avenues to sell their produce. Several important strategies were discussed. It was suggested that farmers should begin by networking locally to find markets. By establishing live contact with consumers in this way there will be less need for farmers to depend upon organic certification, a process which has frequently been to the detriment of farmers.

At the conclusion of the workshop, Dr. Om Rupela made a commitment to having a deeper involvement in Punjab, to assist farmers in their transition to natural farming. In his experiences during the workshop, and in the visits he made to local farms, he found that many farmers are doing natural farming on one or two acres of land only, and have been going like this for several years. Clearly, he deduced, they are interested in natural farming but feeling unsatisfied with their yield so far. “They need further input of knowledge and experience,” he said, “on how to get the yields equal to or better than can be obtained through farming with chemicals. At present they are not fully aware of how to manage biomass and surface mulch. In all these respects I can help them”.

Dr. Rupela has proposed a joint project, between himself, Kheti Virasat Mission, local research institutions, support groups, Pingalwara natural farm and the farmers themselves, to implement innovative natural farming techniques. This will be a comparative study, to try to prove the benefits of natural farming on a number of variables. It will also help farmers in making their transition. At the workshop itself, he had seven farmers volunteer to be a part of his study.

Those who attended the workshop were provided with delicious, naturally and locally grown food. They also enjoyed listening to Jagdeesh Pappra and Gurpreet Singh, who sang uplifting songs about nature to traditional Punjabi beats.

Overall, the workshop was a great success. Farmers gained confidence through hearing from those with expertise and through networking with each other. They learned important techniques which they will take to their fields. Umendra Dutt, Director of Kheti Virasat Mission, who was part of the team who organised the event said “This a continuation of our attempt to make Punjab free of contamination and disease. In Hindi we say zehir mukt Punjab, rogh mukt Punjab, karz mukt kisan, sogh mukt samaj, chiranjeevi Punjab.”

In English, this means: ‘a Punjab without pesticides, a Punjab without disease, farmers without debt, a society without sorrow, Punjab’s sustainable and eternal prosperity’. May natural farming take it there.

Trent Brown is an Australian student and activist, travelling India to learn about its sustainable agriculture movements. He is currently staying in Jaito and working with Kheti Virasat Mission.

A Natural Farming Movement in a Sangat mode - Report by Amarjeet Singh

It is unfortunate that Punjab with the total area of 2.5% of area of the country consumes 18% of the pesticides consumed in the country – exclaimed one of the participants of the training camp on natural farming (Kudrati Kheti). This aptly describes the reason behind emergence of Kheti Virasat Mission and what they have achieved in the last 4 years of their existence was quite evident all through the 3 days of the training camp.

With participants coming from Gujrat, Haryana and Rajasthan, the state level training camp really turned into a national level one. The experts on the issue who attended and passed on their teachings included Dr. Omprakash Rupela (former principal scientist ICRI SAT India), Shri Dipak Suchade , expert in Natueco farming – a practice of organic farming from Devas, MP and Dr Raghunath expert in Non Pesticidal Management NPM from Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad.

I think the camp provided a wonderful platform for experts to pass on their knowledge and farmers to discuss their doubts and learn new techniques. The audience comprised of a big range of small farmers with about a quarter acre (primarily from Gujrat) to large farmers owning more than 100 acres. In that context, I believe that the questions that came up broadly represented the complete class of farmers across India.

There was both passion and discontent floating around amongst the farmer participants. Some of them were really passionate about natural farming aligning with the philosophy of poison free Punjab. On the other hand there were also few who were discontent with the produce they were getting and the question – Jhaad kitna aaya (How much was the produce?) was the first one to come in any session and response to any energetic farmer’s experience telling. Such a mix was a true evidence of genuine evidence of hard work put in by KVM people in convincing these farmers to practice organic farming (even if it is on a smaller percentage of their big land holding) and also bringing such critical issues to the forefront in a common audience. Till the time such issues are resolved widespread adoption seems unlikely and the only way to resolve it is through a dialogue and not putting it behind the agenda during these public camps. Kudos to KVM people for their effort so far.

Dipak Jee was probably one of the most passionate person in the camp – every time he demonstrated the different steps involved in the process of Natueco farming, he will get completely immersed and the pleasure was quite apparent on his face and his activities. He patiently addressed some tough, into the face questions from farmers giving convincing answers almost all the time. Wherever he went too deep into philosophical ideology behind natural farming, Dr. Rupela chipped in with his wonderful Punjabi extending those justifications on practical grounds and sometimes even with scientific explanations. They formed a very fantastic team together.

The amount of effort that went into the planning and organization was quite evident. The sessions seemed to be hand picked so as to cover all the major issues – ranging from introductory sessions, practical demonstrations of the technique of Natueco farming, interactive question and answer sessions to addressing the marketing challenges through success stories of independent farmers were all very relevant, involved the audience and lead to quite a lot of healthy discussions.

The idea of comparative studies of Dr Rupela wherein he wanted some of the farmers to come forward to take up two plots of 1 acre each with organic farming practiced in one and chemical in another seemed really bright. The ultimate objective being to demonstrate practically the benefits of organic farming on the specific soil structure of Punjab and to test a conglomerate of organic farming approaches that can be practiced on such a small piece of land. It was quite interesting to see that the number of farmers that came forward for such a study were more than what Shri Rupela wanted.

Finally, such a successful camp wouldn’t have been possible without the dedicated efforts of the team of KVM. They made all the prior arrangements for the successful coordination, pitched in at the right moments to steer the direction back to the topic whenever it was digressing, involved the whole community of audience, tried to address the language barrier amongst the audience and the speakers and plethora of other small and big activities. It was all done quite successfully. An interesting and differentiating factor was that the organization runs primarily in a Sangat mode - extending the Sikh philosophy of getting personal funds from the donors and members while not buying into the large funds from big organizations. Any support to the organization, small or big, surely goes a long way in converting the dream of chemical free Punjab into reality.

Organic groundnuts, organic kinnoo and processed rose water other amazing stuff was on offer for the palates all through the three days which told their own story of success of the chosen few who have dedicatedly pursued organic farming with the right approach. Their taste will linger on, together with the taste of the deep discussions held all through the camp, for a long time to come.

The author is currently Assistant Professor at Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi. He is interested in exploring how technology (particularly widely available mobile networks) can be used to help in rural setting. He is greatful to Umendra jee for their invitation to attend the training camp and giving him an opportunity to be amongst the farmers and interact with them to understand the issues involved first hand. If you have any ideas about how technology can benefit you, please send a note to him. He will be very interested in getting ideas on ground wherein technology can be used for the masses instead of the selected few.