Get out of the classroom.

Halfway  down the coastal train line between Chennai and Kolkata, there’s little  inland village called Annavaram. From the train station, the village is  towards the mountain ridge with the single, white temple on it. As you  make your way to the top, you’ll see the Pampa Resevoir on one side, and  if you turn back, you can see towards the Indian Ocean, ten kilometres  away.

Only  about 6,000 people live in Annavaram, but its getting something right  that companies like Nestle and Unilever are struggling with. The region  is a major agricultural producer, and through a network of co-ops and  distributors, it produces agricultural commodities that are sold around  the world.

Thumati  Sivasankararao owns 2 acres of farmland there. He’s been a farmer for  22 years. This part of India is famous for black gram, which he grows on  half his land. He grows turmeric on the other.

Farmers are risk adverse — they can’t afford to lose a crop, and a lot of their choices are driven by avoiding short yields.

Rotating  land from one crop to another is a decision that weighs up the value of  the output, the way different crops affect the soil, and the risk of  yields.

Every  year, most Indian farmers end up further in debt. The cost of seeds,  chemicals and interest rates go up, and market prices for what they sell  are volatile.

Failing  to control what grows, and what shouldn’t, could mean a completely  destroyed field. So even though chemical pesticides and artificial  fertilizers are expensive, and sometimes illegal, going without them is  not a risk worth taking.

So  each year, farmers continue to the vicious circle of choosing the  safer, but more expensive option of chemical farming. This gives them  the best chances at a good crop, but also guarantees they’ll be further  in debt.

The  large buyers of agricultural commodities, multi-nationals like Nestle  and Starbucks, have long realised that this is a problem to the  sustainability of their supply. And governments see the same problem.  Their typical interventions are to educate farmers at scale, deploying  classroom training on topics like cash management, and how to use  fertilizer. Because they’re taught in classrooms, the lessons aren’t  practical, and the teachers are usually inexperienced university grads,  deployed by NGOs working with shrinking budgets.

Thumati had been to these classroom programs, but his situation was still getting worse.

Mr.  Subhash Palekar, who lives across the country in Karnataka, has had the  solution to this problem since 1996. His approach became clear after 8  years of studying Karnataka’s forests:

In  the forest, there is no human existence, but even though, the trees are  having enormous fruits. That means nature had supplied all the  nutrients needed for the plant. Our soil is prosperous-enriched with the  nutrients!
But when I say that our soil is enriched with the nutrients, then I have to prove it scientifically.
It  is the ultimate truth that without adding from outside, the plants  grows and give the production. It means that, all the nutrients needed  for the growth and production are available around the root zone. There  is no need to add it from outside.

Palekar’s  method is based on observing high-yielding plants that grow in  completely natural environments. He calls it Zero Budget Spiritual  Farming, and it has been proven to outperform chemical farming using  only inputs that are available from the farm itself. No chemicals.  Nothing extra that a farmer needs to buy. The method involves mulching,  choosing a combination of mutually-beneficial crops, augmenting  microbial culture by processing cow dung, protecting seeds using cow  urine, and managing moisture and soil aeration to maximise water vapour  without conventional irrigation.

Back  in Annavaram, Thumati heard about this method as Zero Budget Natural  Farming. The name change came when the United Nations Food and  Agriculture Organization (FAO) took it on and starting organising  training around India. Thumati had heard about this program over the  last few years.

From the start, Thumati noticed it was different from the way other farming education was organised. Where a conventional program provides farmers with explanation in  theory, on a chalkboard, this Farmer Field School (FFS) was more  practical because it took place in his field.

They  are mostly focusing on soils and water management. I have observed that  this is not a normal lecture mode of session. They are starting the  session with an activity.
In  the first week I was very happy by knowing the relation between soil  and water where we have done a soil and water brigade game. In that game  we have discussed about types of soil and water holding capacity of  soil too.
Later  in the 2nd week I have a change point here. In this session we went for  soil where we have collected different types of soils. We have observed  ZBNF and non-ZBNF fields soil difference, a gummy substance difference,  the soil colour difference, the earthworm count between the two fields.
The  main thing is the ZBNF mulched soil is so soft and smooth where as the  beside non-ZBNF field soil is too hard without any moisture.

All  these data points together, observed first-hand, convinced Thumati to  invest more in converting his management practice to ZBNF. He is now  diversifying his crops to manage his soil optimally for growth.

He  thought that he wouldn’t be able to get results immediately, but it all  started accelerating production even as early as 2 months into the  program. Now he is attending more of the FAO training, because in the  end he wants to diversify the use of his crops as much as possible, and  make more income from his farm. Because the program takes place in the  fields, he is learning not only why he should change his practices, but  also how to actually do it.


This is an excerpt from the Peer Learning Guide, a book Bart and I are writing to help education keep up.

Salim Virani

Salim Virani

Founder of Source Institute. I've developed educational programs for some of the world's top-tier accelerators and business schools, like Seedcamp, Oxford, UCL and the Royal Academy Of Engineering.