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.

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