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.