Outstanding organic agriculture techniques
At the South Asia Conference on "Outstanding Organic Agriculture Techniques", organised by the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) and Third World Network on 10-11 September 2009, more than 400 farmers from the Indian sub-continent gathered to share notes on the “outstanding organic agriculture techniques” that they use in their fields.
Organic farmers took centre stage as they shared their knowledge and skills on various topics including techniques for replicating natural forests’ rich soil, using biodiversity, restoring degraded farmlands, dealing with insects, disease or weeds and raising organic seed.
Please find below a report on the Conference.
ORGANIC FARMERS CAN FEED THE WORLD!
Claude Alvares provides a bird's eye view of the amazing discoveries and innovations made by organic farmers from India as they quietly and rapidly abandon agriculture dependent on manufactured chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides. The insights into ecological agriculture were shared during the south Asia conference on "Outstanding Organic Agriculture Techniques" organised by the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) and Third World Network.
“Organic farming holds the key to long term, successful, self-sustaining agriculture. Organic farmers can feed the world!” Those, in brief, were the principal messages resoundingly delivered by South Asia’s pioneering organic farmers at the conclusion of a two-day conference at Bangalore, India on 10 and 11 September 2009.
The conference was convened to enable farmers from the Indian sub-continent to share notes on the “outstanding organic agriculture techniques” which they use in their fields. It was organised by the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) and Third World Network (TWN) in association with the National Centre of Organic Farming (NCOF) at the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Bangalore.
The conference was inaugurated on Day One by Mr. S.K. Patnaik, Joint Secretary (Horticulture) in the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India. The Vice Chancellor of the UAS, Dr P.G. Chengappa presided. He later released the fourth edition of the TWN publication, The Organic Farming Sourcebook.
Around 50 organic farmers from Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Malaysia and China joined the conference in addition to more than 400 organic farmers from within India.
The unique feature of the knowledge-and-skills-share event was its faculty. Academics from universities were generally kept at bay (as most of them do not have much to contribute to the subject anyway) while organic farmers took centre stage. It was an exhilarating experience to see so many ordinary men and women, almost all practising organic farmers, many without the so-called benefits of even a college education or English, delivering with aplomb powerpoint presentations based on their own field experience.
So much active learning took place on the two days of the meeting that all sessions were house-full and even announcements for tea and refreshments could not induce people to leave the main hall or the demonstration workshops.
Agricultural scientists from the University who attended some of the sessions had to concede that in many areas – like the use of beneficial microbes to create living soils, preparing economic seed material, restoring degraded farmland – the organic farmers were far ahead of the academic community in using innovative methods to solve problems considered extremely serious (or even hopeless) by conventional farmers.
Learning how forests farm
Organic farming goes back a long way in India. India and China in fact have been doing organic agriculture for forty centuries. Yet less than half a century ago, these “agricultures of permanence” made the serious error of hastily adopting the so-called “Green Revolution” package of techniques comprising new hybrid seed varieties, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This decision ensured that their agricultures would henceforth have to struggle to survive from year to year. Modern conventional agriculture has introduced enormous instability in all aspects of farming, from seed availability to harvest disposal. In India, failure of modern agriculture now leads routinely to farmer suicides, by the thousands every year.
If that were not bad enough, the scale of dependence on external inputs that modern agriculture has induced is also seen as wholly undesirable. Large countries like India are now dependent on foreign countries for the raw materials from which fertilizers are manufactured: petrochemicals from the Arabian Gulf. Since these fertilizers need water to dissolve and to be conveyed in soluble form to the plant, and also to increase the osmotic potential of the soil water, large investments in artificial irrigation have been equally demanding, causing their own brand of ecological havoc and distress to rivers and watersheds. Conventional, mechanized agriculture using combine harvesters also compels the farmers to adopt monoculture of a single crop over large tracts of land, a practice that degrades the soil. In contrast, traditional mixed cropping practices, using as many as 17 different types of crops from cereals and millets to pulses and oilseeds in one acre of land, enhances soil quality.
The package of hybrid seeds, mechanized equipment like tractors, irrigation infrastructure, chemical nutrients and synthetic pesticides has been promoted on the basis of an unnatural assumption: that it is the role of farmers – assisted by profit hungry corporations, international agri-research centres and banking institutions – to supply food to plants.
In nature, however, left to themselves plants are able to secure food for free. Has anyone, in fact, ever seen anyone feeding the Amazon forest with chemical or any other fertilizers? Forests manage all their nutrients themselves. They generate and store them without human assistance and can thereby survive and prosper on a millennial basis.
Human beings, in fact, are unable to create natural forests. Science today concedes that the best way to create a forest is to let a plot of land be by itself without any human interference or intervention. By a process of what is called “natural progression,” nature will ensure the gradual emergence of a forest within 15 years.
Most people however – especially the urbanised educated class, deeply alienated from nature – are convinced that plants cannot grow or prosper without the assistance of chemical fertilizers supplied by huge conglomerates. In the case of their own body’s nutrition, they hardly ever think that swallowing nutrients in liquid form is adequate for a normal life. In fact, people fed liquid diets through tubes are mostly found in ICUs. Why then are plants treated differently from the way human beings feed themselves? When did this notion – that unless plants have something constantly “done to them” they will not grow and not produce – creep into the modern consciousness?
Albert Howard, the founder of modern organic farming, wrote that the entry of chemicals into agriculture occurred when companies manufacturing explosives and weapons found themselves without a market or niche once World War II was over. Interestingly, we now use organo-phosphorus insecticides based on the poisonous properties of phosgene gas discovered during WW-II. The same company that manufactured “Agent Orange” to defoliate the tropical rain forests of Vietnam during the unfortunate war of the 1960s is one of the largest manufacturers of herbicides today. Modern agricultural theory conveniently reduced the plant to a combination of Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potash (NPK), laying the grounds for a massive diversion of the deadly production of these war industries and their chemicals to agriculture.
Agriculture has not been the same ever since. Today companies – with the active support of governments – are continuously expanding their control over agriculture across the planet, taking it out of farmers’ hands, messing it up. They should never have been allowed or invited there in the first place as agriculture has always remained a skilled preserve of people who always knew how to grow things for themselves, their community or the market.
That is why discussions in India on good agricultural practice have invariably turned to the forest. It has become a common enough wisdom that the best way to farm is to imitate (or replicate) as closely as possible the dynamics and cyclical flows of natural forests. At the SAC, the Organic Farming Association made a combined presentation of the outstanding practices of its pioneering founders. The principal idea was that the more closely you were able to replicate the practices of the forest, the richer the condition of the soil and soil life and the better the crop you could anticipate. The greatest consequence was the recognition that by doing this one could also easily cut oneself from dependence on companies, banks, seed suppliers, extension agencies, equipment manufacturers and university scientists.
In its presentation, the Association disclosed how farmers had created several techniques for replicating in their fields the rich littered floors of natural forests and the paradise these had become for soil fauna. Most farmers devoted considerable attention to the creation of mulches which not only protected their soils from the sun, but ensured the continued existence of beneficial microbes underneath. The audience got a rich visual treat on the huge expertise in vermiculture that had developed across the country and to the wide range of recipes through which farmers were increasing the populations of beneficial microbes and earthworms in their soils.
The successful imitation of the forest has been the singular achievement of the Indian organic farming community and it came to the fore at the South Asia Conference like a tidal wave. By the end of the two days most people who had come to learn were more than adequately convinced that here was a quiet revolution that needed no AK-47 guns or police or agricultural scientists or universities or even subsidy from the Government. Recently demised Masanobu Fukuoka had once spoken of a “one-straw revolution.” These farmers had taken what he said to heart – that nature, looked after, is overwhelmingly generous. Farming on the basis of natural principles is the only trusted way. All other methods – including the need for unnatural GM seed – are wholly unnecessary, in fact, dangerous and therefore dispensable. They impress in the short term; they impress those who are always impressed with any new technology.
The second presentation on forests and organic agriculture at the SAC came from Ms Kamal Melwani, a researcher from Neosynthesis Research Centre in Sri Lanka.
Melwani focused on the uses of analog forestry to remediate water contamination caused by intensive use of agro chemicals. She observed that the use of agro chemicals often comes together with the removal of other natural vegetation and the introduction of monocultures. The impact was eventually felt on the ground water where concentration of nitrates, nitrites, chloride and potassium now exceeded WHO drinking water standards. She reported that 64% of infants in the Sri Lankan peninsula (where the Centre did its work) have methameglobin levels above the normal range. She also disclosed the alarming rise in spontaneous abortions linked to contaminated water supplies.
Melwani recounted that her group was contracted in 2001 to use bioremediation methods to reduce the concentration of nitrate and nitrite in the soil which had got there from chemical fertilizers. The bioremediation they introduced included use of both microbes and plants. The principal means was the restoration of the vegetation in the micro watershed around a drinking water well. Over six to seven years, deep rooted plants were established forming a root web below the surface to draw up contaminants. The downward trend in nitrate concentration was indisputably established with the help of piezometers. (Control wells, on the other hand, continued to indicate an upward trend in nitrate concentrations.)
The pilot area was then converted into a production area for both trees and annual crops including vegetables. The project was able to establish that with the maturity of the vegetation there was a decrease of nitrate and nitrite within 4 years. The biodiversity created brought in birds, butterflies and reptiles. The technology guaranteed organic food at negligible cost when compared to conventional water treatment technology including reverse osmosis. The demonstration was replicated in other wells that had been rendered saline and contaminated with sewage after the 2004 tsunami disaster that hit the island republic.
These broad ecological perspectives set the tone of the presentations to come. Organic farmers thereafter addressed a bewildering range of issues organised around three major themes of importance to organic farming: a) soil and water conservation; b) problems faced with insects, weeds and plant disease and c) raising and using organically grown seed.
Natural farming is good economics
Subhash Sharma, one of India’s best known organic farmers, commenced the first session with a review of his own farming practices over three decades. Speaking only in Hindi, he recalled how as a farmer he had been inducted into the methods of a purely “destructive science”. “In the process of farming with chemicals,” he confessed, “I destroyed almost the entire micro-organism population in the soil, trees, birds, seeds, water, soil and personal energy and that is what caused the reduction in the yields.”
In 1994, he turned 100% to natural farming. He uncovered traditional techniques like infusing the soil with liquid cowdung manures; he planted trees to host birds and regulate climate; he redesigned land use following a detailed study of the farm’s contours which enabled him to catch and husband every single drop of water that fell on his land. Today his organic farm is a “mecca” for farmers and scientists alike.
N. Deva Kumar, former Director of the UAS-Bangalore’s Organic Farming Research Centre at Shimoga in Karnataka State, explained to the participants how best they could prepare microbial mixtures and just when and at what stage they ought to use them for maximum benefit. Deva Kumar shared research which indicated that populations of beneficial microbes in fermented solutions used commonly nowadays by farmers attained their maximum potency always a few days after they were prepared. He said using these mixtures either before or after the peak period would not generate the results expected. Perhaps this was the reason why some farmers found they were getting varying results from their own prepared microbial solutions. The problem was not with the solutions prepared, but with the timing of their use.
Susan Burnell Edwards of the Institute of Sustainable Development in Ethiopia (Africa) made some heartening disclosures about organic agriculture at the conference. She observed that of 13 million farmers in Ethiopia, 8.5 million use only natural fertilizers and their own seeds. There are already 1,37,000 certified organic farmers.
ISD started its extension work with farmers in 1996 assisting to rehabilitate degraded and eroded land through the use of plants, specially grasses. More recent work has concentrated on encouraging farmers to make compost. The association has kept detailed records of the real difference that compost can make to crops like maize, Faba beans, finger millets, etc. For example, she said, yields have risen from less than 5 quintals per hectare on non-composted plots to around 25 quintals per hectare when compost was properly applied. Finger millets with compost produced yields of around 78 quintals per hectare. ISD is now introducing SRI methods in the production of finger millet and other crops.
In 2006 Ethiopia has passed a law to support organic agriculture and has incorporated the making and use of compost as a feature in its main extension system. An Ethiopian Association of Organic Agriculture has already been formed to take the movement forward.
The first session concluded with Dr Sultan Ismail, India’s ace earthworm specialist, discussing the need to make an intelligent choice of earthworm species if they were to be used for agriculture. Though he was not against the use of exotic species that had been imported into India in the past from Africa and the US, his own work in the field – and research done by his students who also attended the conference – clearly indicated that on most counts, indigenous worms outperformed exotics and had far greater beneficial impacts on soil microfauna. The introduction of exotics, on the contrary, often led to the decline in the population of indigenous worms. Dr Ismail showed slide by slide how one could harvest naturally occurring earthworms in the soil and use them for vermiculture and vermicompost.
Several other key ideas on sustainable agriculture emerged during additional sessions addressed by organic farmers. These included:
Biodiversity-based organic farming
V. Ravi, an organic farmer from Tamilnadu State (who spoke in Tamil) showed the audience how he had converted his farm from a monoculture of sugarcane into a biodiversity-based organic farm after he had become convinced that organic farming based on single crops was also against nature. He told the conference that some of the routine things that farmers do including clearing of natural vegetation and planting single crops were causing huge losses by way of genetic erosion in the country’s resources.
His own farm today has more than 40 species of plants and trees. To support this biodiversity, all organic matter produced is left on the soil without disturbance and contributes to effective rain water harvesting, just like in a forest. His banana crop residues are decomposed by the action of termites. The banana plant stalk itself is a good food for earthworms. Ravi said he had studied all the soil organisms on his farm including earthworms, termites, ant, snails, rabbits and spiders. His farm includes several varieties of fodder grasses. He has based his farm dairy on native breeds of buffalo and the Tellicherry goat.
For Ravi organic matter is a key component of the soil and without a good population of trees sufficient quantity will not be available to the farmer. He therefore used bamboo, glyricidia and other local trees including pathimugam, kumil and malaivembu species of local trees which can produce enormous quantities of biomass and timber in less than five years.
Begari Sammamma, a woman small-holding farmer associated with a womens’ grassroots organization in Andhra Pradesh, spoke of her own experience with biodiversity based farming. The soils in her village are very poor, she said. Despite this, they grow 15-20 food crops per acre. These include a variety of millets, legumes and oil seeds. Sammamma’s story was remarkable testimony of how the village women that she represents eat food that is tastier, healthier and more nutritious than their counterparts in the city – who eat rice day in and day out – and how women can also have complete control over their seeds, crops and food.
Organic techniques for restoring degraded farmlands
Ms M Revathi of the Tamil Nadu Organic Farmers’ Movement spoke of her involvement in using organic techniques for the rehabilitation and revival of lands affected by salt water after the tsunami disaster of 2004. These methods were tried out successfully by her association in Nagapattinam, India; Banda, Aceh, Indonesia; Ampara, Sri Lanka and in the Sundarbans of West Bengal, India.
Revati explained how they first ploughed the salt-affected lands thoroughly. Trenches were created along the fields. These were packed with coarse material to absorb saline water and to encourage the microbial population to increase. On the ploughed land daincha seed was broadcast to provide the required biomass and to initiate soil activity. Farmers were shown how to prepare panchagavya (a popular recipe for dramatically increasing the population of beneficial microorganisms). Large numbers of vermicomposting units were also set up to produce additional organic manure to save on input costs. Through these methods, in less than a year, fields were replanted with paddy successfully to the absolute amazement of government officials and international agencies who had earlier thought of solving the problem by simply dumping huge quantities of gypsum in them.
Deepika Kundaji, an organic farmer from Auroville (on India’s east coast), made a beautiful presentation on how one could grow food on severely eroded lands. She told the story of a 6 acre plot at Auroville which Bernard deClercq and she had taken up for rehabilitation several years ago with the aim of turning into a natural forest and wilderness. When they first took up the land it had no topsoil, and was a compact mass of only pebbles and laterite.
The main challenge was how to build soil, as cultivated plants need a minimum of 6 inches of good soil. Their ecological rules forbade them bringing soil from outside, or even purchased compost or manure. All biomass had to be grown at the site and all resources would come only from the home and surroundings. No paid workers were taken as Deepika and Bernard worked without grants.
Their process of soil building included immediate measures to protect the land from further assault by the elements, creating water bodies and contour bunds, establishing pioneer vegetation to produce biomass at site, creating raised beds and then building up and maintaining organic matter by creative use of local resources. Deepika’s slides showed how this was done and how it could be replicated anywhere, provided the principles of ecological restoration of soil were strictly followed. Once the soil was restored, the next stage of working with the land was to ensure that no more soil was turned.
Deepak Suchde, another expert organic farming teacher from Madhya Pradesh, made an elaborate presentation on the principles of “natueco farming” based on the theories of Prof. Dabholkar, a popular scientist from Maharashtra who worked with farmers to produce miracle crops without having to use chemicals and poisons. Suchde said the two problems farms faced were decline in soil carbon and reduction in the soil’s water-holding capacity, both sourced to green revolution techniques. Constant tilling of the soil was itself disruptive, but farmers knew little else.
Suchde spoke of his work at his Krushi Teerth farm on which a quarter acre plot had 150 varieties of crops and it generated food for a family of five. He showed the audience how we can manufacture “amrut pani” (water elixir) and “amrut mitti” (soil elixir) that would meet all the problems faced with current day soils already rendered sterile and ruined by chemical farming.
Dr A Thimmaiah made a slide slow on the growth of organic agriculture in Bhutan where he works presently as Adviser to the Bhutanese government. Ten organic farmers had come from Bhutan and they stood by with recognisable pride as Dr Thimmaiah showed pictures of successful organic vegetable growing, composting and other organic farming techniques (including preparation of biodynamic compost) and microbial recipes like panchagavya that are now a way of life among organic farmers in Bhutan as well.
Facing insects, disease or weeds
One major problem facing all farmers, organic or conventional, is the appearance of troublesome insects, weeds and plant disease. S.R. Sundaraman, a highly respected and knowledgeable organic farmer from Tamilnadu, made the main presentation on techniques farmers can use to solve most of their plant disease problems and any difficulties with insects.
The interesting thing about Sunadaraman is that he not only functions as a knowledge centre, but his knowledge and expertise keep growing. Universities find it hard to keep up with him. Being two decades ago a chemical farmer, he knows what he went through and why chemical methods failed.
Sundaraman has worked with interested colleagues and engineers to create microorganism-enriched mixtures (which he calls MEM) for the control of soil-borne diseases, nematodes and root grubs. He also has a large number of recipes made from leaf extracts, buttermilk, waste fish and egg extracts, panchagavya and some unique other solutions which he calls “fruit gaudi” and “archae”. While some of these are bacterial preparations, others deal effectively with unwelcome visitors to his soils, including grubs. All his recipes and techniques today are freely available to other farmers.
Sundararaman was followed by Joseph John, another organic farmer, who presented a wide range of non-chemical based bioremedies for plant illness and disease.
On behalf of herself, her husband Dr Anurag Goel and their daughter Maya (a family of organic farmers from Coorg), Sujata Goel shared ten years of rich insights on their organic farm which grows largely coffee and spices. Ms Goel told her attentive audience that plants have their own natural defence mechanisms and it is far more effective to work in tandem with the plant’s own defence strategy than attempting to bypass it with deadly chemicals. Unless we understand these natural defence mechanisms, she said, we would continue to make costly and unnecessary mistakes. Using deadly sprays of chemical poisons not only suppressed these defense mechanisms, they ruined the product as well since pesticide residues are bound to remain after the harvest since most pesticides are non-biodegradable. The Goels are trained microbiologists and lab technicians who deserted Delhi to move to Coorg in south India where they took over an existing spice farm and turned it completely organic over a ten year period.
One of the youngest and most dynamic presenters was B N Nandish who started farming after he intentionally discontinued his pre-university studies. Nandish started natural farming in 2000. His main proposal at the SAC was about using green manuring plants. He said he was using over a hundred different species. His fields look like forests, but his yields were above average. His presentation fairly electrified and astonished the audience.
Conventional agriculture, said Nandish, is obsessed with being clean. This means all organic matter is removed, that the farmer is in a state of constant warfare with weeds. The exposure of the soil (after cleaning) encourages loss of moisture and soil erosion. Nandish calls this “do-everything culture,” where the farmer is constantly doing unnecessary things and eventually loses out.
His solution: use the family of plants that will fix atmospheric nitrogen free of cost. Nandish said there were over 12,000 species of such plants in the world and they were all available freely to farmers. There were annuals, bi-annuals and perennials and they included herbs, shrubs, twines, creepers, bushes and trees. They also produced a bewildering range of useful goods for human beings, from fibre to gum.
He dubbed weeds as “misunderstood” plants. In fact, weeds are an index of the quality of the soil, of diversity. Conventional farming comes equipped with powerful herbicides or weedicides and patented seeds resistant to certain corporate-controlled weedicides. Destroying weeds (like grasses) is impossible and nonsensical. Farmers can, by selective introduction of certain species of green manuring plants, gain full control over what we call weeds.
An ideal organic farm, Nandish related, should be able to feed human beings and provide food for birds and animals. Its income should meet all expenses. The principal crop should be harvested with a minimum of labour and time. One should be able to feel cool air, the aroma of soil, flowers and fruits, see colourful creatures, have varieties of seeds, vegetables and fruits to taste, together with the pleasant noise of bees, insects, birds and animals, just like in a forest.
Just as Nandish thrashed public perceptions about weeds, Dr Mahadeo R. Pachegaoncar, an organic farmer from Maharashtra, upset several popular notions of the activity of termites. He said termites should be used on organic farms. They would only help the soil function better. Termites are known to chop any form of lignocellulose (paper, wood, jute, cotton) into pieces. However, just like with the cow, it’s what happens in the rumen of the termite that is of great importance: the bellies of these tiny beasts have a goldmine of microbes that are rich sources of enzymes for converting lignocellulose into organic manure and biofuel. In fact, this is exactly how termites assist forests to survive, by helping in the recycling of dead materials.
Salma Jafferali from Kerala made a presentation on the techniques of applying herbal repellants. Organic standards prohibit organic farmers from using chemical sprays that kill insects. Killing is a prohibited word in such agriculture. In fact, organic farmers do not refer to insects as “pests”. The term “pest” is an entirely human construct. In nature we find only insects, not “pests”. The only activity that is permitted in organic agriculture is the repelling of insects that compete with us for crops. Those organic farmers who are still not able to achieve balance in insect populations rely on insect repellants. These drive away but do not kill problem insects.
Of the biological forms of control, noted Ms Jaferali, that by natural predators is the most effective, so populations of lizards, frogs, spiders, insects and birds should never be disturbed. In the intervening period, till these populations are stabilized, one can rely on effective herbal repellants. For the preparation of these, select those plants which are not eaten by cows or goats; plants that yield a milky sap; plants that have a bitter taste (neem); plants that give off a bad odour and plants that are poisonous.
Raising organic seed
One of the problems most organic farmers face is the availability of good organically grown seed. Sangita Sharma, an organic farmer from Bangalore, introduced a rich and colourful variety of vegetable seeds available to organic growers through Annadana in India and the Kokepelli Group located in France.
She also demonstrated extremely simple methods of seed extraction, treatment and conservation which could be learnt and exploited by any farmer anywhere. Through her slides Ms Sharma showed how organic farmers faced with scarcity of organic seeds can grow their own seed. She also explained the different processes of dry and wet extraction of seed from ripe fruit. She showed how one can easily maintain varietal purity through the adroit use of mosquito nets.
She was followed by Deepika Kundaji, another organic farmer who has perfected the art of reproducing and conserving organic seeds in the most simple, cost effective manner. Deepika cultivates and preserves 80-90 varieties of all kinds of vegetables, a miniature seed wealth centre as a home activity, ideal for small and marginal farmers. She made a presentation on small scale production of home garden seeds.
She dwelt first on simple techniques for keeping varieties pure (for example, using mosquito nets to control and prevent cross pollination). She also explained procedures for selection of seeds from the harvest, their processing and storage and finally, doing simple germination tests. She said she shared at least 3,000 packets of seeds every year with other farmers in one of the most carefully documented home-seed production initiatives available in India.
Ms Alka Najan, a small woman organic farmer from Aurangabad in Maharashtra, showed the conference how her bag of tricks for dealing with insect and disease problems in cotton cultivation was far more effective, if tried, than Monsanto’s Bt cotton which was mostly of benefit to Monsanto.
Begari Laxmamma,also a marginal woman farmer from Andhra Pradesh, demonstrated her methods of seed saving. “Seed keeping is our tradition. It is in our blood. We supply seeds to everyone,” she told the audience. She described the process of drying the seeds from the harvest and the use of ash and neem leaves as effective protection agents. After the seeds are embedded in neem leaves and ash, they are effectively sealed in small baskets with a layer of clay, dung and ash. This traditional method has kept seeds from insect attack for centuries. She described methods of keeping pulses and rice seed viable with these methods for two to three years.
In his presentation, George Antony, a small farmer from the State of Kerala, dwelt on various devices that he used to keep his farm free of interference from rats and insects. These included a mechanical “yellow trap” which effectively trapped insects that caused damage to vegetables and tapioca.
The South Asia Conference made another striking departure from present day conference styles. While some farmers continued with their powerpoint presentations in the main hall, dozens of farmers set up workshops outside under the shade of trees to demonstrate in practice several of their unique recipes. Most of these demonstrations focused on how to make a range of microbial mixtures and plant extracts from materials and resources available on farmers’ own farms.
Where an academic conference would have demanded computers, markers, pointers and xerox machines, these workshops required a more demanding set of materials which included quantities of cowdung, cow urine, sugarcane stalks, milk, butter milk, leaves of various plants, knives, cutting boards, waste fish, eggs, etc., all of which the organisers had requisitioned from farms around Bangalore and from the University’s own veterinary campus for the workshops.
One of the most popular of the workshops was conducted by Dr K Natarajan, a medical doctor who also runs an NGO that promotes organic farming. Dr Natarajan is the individual who first came up with the idea of a modified panchagayva formula which is now used by most farmers in India to increase microbe populations in their soils. (Despite his recipe being unique, Dr Natarajan refused to patent it. He ensured it would never be patented by giving it wide publicity. Now panchagayva is made by farmers and also by a few small industries. Farmers can buy it or make it.)
Dr Natarajan conducted several repeat workshops over two hours, patiently explaining the ingredients, mode of preparation and final uses of panchagavya. (His powerpoint presentation introduces the audience to various scientific studies that have validated the use and benefits of this traditional fermented solution.)
In another corner, S.R. Sundaraman showed participants how to make “archae” and “fruit gaudi”, microbial mixtures that farmers could produce with benefit for themselves.
While Salma Jaferali made a presentation on insect repellents in the hall, her husband, A. Jaferali, conducted a workshop on how to manufacture insect repellents from specific plants combined with effective microorganisms. Rajani Patel, an organic farmer from Gujarat, demonstrated the preparation of insect repellants from recipes extracted from ancient Ayurvedic texts.
N. Gopalkrishnan, a wizard earthworm expert and organic farmer from Trichy in south India set up six repeat demonstrations on how to make fish and egg solutions which – once fermented – worked miracles on crops. While he talked, a videographer carefully filmed him. (The videos are scheduled to go up on the OFAI website.)
Others who conducted practical workshops and demonstrations included Sarvadhamman Patel, Deepak Suchde (water/soil elixirs), Deepika Kundaji (seed conservation), Jayant Barwe (jeevamrut preparations), Pradip Nikam (making sugarcane planting material), M. Revathi and others. Seeing is believing. Doing is better. Participants had to soil their hands. Buckets of water and soap were thoughtfully provided. All the recipes were freely shared, a grand tradition that has remained alive among farmers till today and which both corporates and governments with all their patents, patent laws and thick heads simply refuse to understand.
In the evening of the first day of the conference, a grand panel of fifteen of the oldest and most experienced organic farmers was set up to answer any technical problem raised by any organic farmer in any language from the audience. The panel discussed specific problems posed over a period of 90 minutes without flagging interest.
The conference concluded with splendid reviews by Dr K Narayan Reddy (Bangalore’s most well known organic farming pioneer); Sarvadhamman Patel, India’s best known biodynamic practitioner and T.G.K. Menon (an experienced organic farmer and promoter from Madhya Pradesh). They recounted vivid insights into the organic farming process garnered after decades of experience in their fields.
This was India’s first conference where all food served to participants was sourced to organic farms. The Millets Network of India provided a dinner based purely on millet preparations. Kailash Murthy, an organic farmer from Mysore, brought 200 kg of papaya for delegates to relish and enjoy. When all the foreign delegates returned to their hotel rooms, they were gifted a packet of choice organic coffee and spices. All the Indian participants paid for their own travel, food and accommodation.
Susan Edwards summed it all: “Every single moment of this conference was simply worth it,” she told the organisers as she packed her bags to return to Ethiopia. By the end of day, more than 100 written applications had come to the organizers for the conference DVD containing all the power point presentations.
All the various powerpoint presentations described in the article above are available on a single CD which can be ordered from:
Third World Network
Or downloaded free from the website of the Organic Farming Association of India (www.ofai.org)
About the author: Claude Alvares is Director of the Central Secretariat of the Organic Farming Association of India, located in Goa, India.