I had to absorb generations of knowledge while on the job, in addition to reviving forgotten traditional practices lost to ‘lazy’ chemical farming, for a natural farm to start to take shape on the sandy, degraded, low organic matter land in the Mangar valley. This ‘Bhur’ (sandy) soil was quite unlike the alluvial, silty soil of my village in Bulandshahr next to the Ganges.
|Aman Bagh is in the hot & arid south-west region of Haryana, receiving 300-500 mm rain a year; 80% of this in the months of July and August. Strong NW winds blow in May, when the sun can take the temperature in the soil to 50 degrees Centigrade. Our soil is ‘coarse sand’, very low (<0.2%) in organic matter. We are located in the Mangar valley where the surrounding Aravalli hill range radiates heat in the summer and traps cold in the winter thereby creating a challenging microclimate for most of the year. We experience extreme temperatures, from a low of 5 degrees C in January to 47 degrees C in May, and high humidity in the 3 monsoon months.
Haryana is an ‘intensively cultivated’ state, and only 3.5% of our state’s land is forests – mostly unregulated, and degraded land planted with the invasive Prosopis Juliflora. There has been a drastic reduction in area under coarse cereals and lentils since 1950, and farmers grow rice, wheat, fruits & vegetables, cotton, sugarcane. Haryana applies the second highest amount of fertilisers & pesticides in India after Punjab. 53% of state uses groundwater irrigation, a limited resource that reduces each year. Haryana exhibits all the ills of market and industrial agriculture as well as unregulated urbanisation: air, water, and soil pollution.
The People Challenge
Finding the right people to run the farm was a foundational decision, I learnt this lesson in the corporate world where our 5,000-strong global software services company ran only as well as the character and abilities of the leadership at multiple levels. I was in an alien village, an outsider to the ecosystem already hostile and suspicious of the urban investor since Delhi’s growth overflowed into Haryana in the early 2000s. I also knew that the peasant is a transformed man when he works his own land, and is a much lazier one working on someone else’s. I needed to find men and women with a strong work and moral ethic who I could convince, through good wages, caring and compassion, to treat Aman Bagh as their own. I needed to get lucky here, and I did.
I was able to call upon two young peasants from Bihar possessing a rudimentary understanding of farming, and soon five peasants from nearby villages who worked as casual labor cleaning up the land in the first few weeks in May 2012. I quickly realized the locals possessed ethics and knowledge closer to what I thought were ideal. Seven were too many hands for our limited land, but I had no idea then what it would take to sow, till, irrigate and harvest, look after the cattle and all the other farm work; I took refuge in numbers. The two Bihari men, by serendipity, could not handle the separation from their families and left that year itself after serving their useful pioneering purpose.
We retain our original five local peasants, and have since built a camaraderie based on mutual interests and respect. Four of them are from Dhauj, a majority Muslim village close to Mangar, and share with the locally dominant Hindu Gujjar peasants’ the language and all aspects of an agrarian way of life. They have little in common with their urban co-religionists, but preachers live to extract a commonality of ideology. Rajan, our cook with magic in her hands, is a landless Dalit from the Chamar (once the leather skinning) community. She works as hard as any of the men, all seven days of the week. They get time off when they need, and I’ve realised they enjoy the discipline of work and would rather be here than at home or elsewhere.
There is a powerful localization lesson in this: all the 5 are local marginal or landless peasants, they understand the local cropping patterns, the weather, the seeds, the soil, the cattle, the food; and they are embedded in a local, community network that is immensely helpful in all kinds of situations. Abdul Sattar, the supervisor, is a walking encyclopedia of local farming and ecological knowledge and has been my teacher in the ways of traditional farming. It is a tragedy of contemporary civilization that a peasant can be labeled unskilled and uneducated simply because he hasn’t studied in the formal school system. In his environment, he is one of the most intelligent and certainly the most knowledgeable man I have come across: if he had not been with Aman Bagh, my journey would have been extremely painful and indeed would likely not have taken the positive path that it has. My Master’s degree in business and three decades of corporate work experience was of no use in front of the generations of knowledge he is able to apply: I am the unskilled one, and have no hesitation in accepting this. Should education and literacy be separated from experiential and traditional oral forms of transmitting inter-generational knowledge? Children in the village school are taught English, Hindi, math, science – and nothing about agriculture or the pastoral way of life, the primary way of their people for many generations. They grow up believing the break between what they learn at school and live at home is because of the superiority of classroom learning from books written by urban ideologues. The stripping of the rural of his self-respect is obvious; as someone said “if we start the story with the city as the ultimate resting place, then the village is the place to flee”. India must find a way to reconcile the two, to understand the village way of life as it was and integrate it with what ‘could be’. Modernity comes at such a frightening pace, though, that we’ve lost the plot even before we comprehend where we are.
Peasants in India are conservative and generally slow to change. They are risk averse due to their life of subsistence, they know life in nature is unpredictable and always balanced on a thin knife-edge, and implementing anything unproven can possibly bring their brittle world crashing down. Sattar too was slow and cautious, skeptical, and opposed reviving the old ways of his grandfather as he clung to the security of chemical farming. This needed initial firmness on the key boundary condition of farming at Aman Bagh: no chemicals, no matter what the urgency. The real work could begin only once this became established, which took years. I must confess there are times where he secretly hopes we could use some pesticide, some urea.
Manure, Irrigation and Seeds
The two key operational issues I grappled with first were organic fertilization of the sandy, low-carbon soil and the need for responsible irrigation. Cattle were the essential solution for natural farming, important for their dung rather than their milk as an agriculturist scientist from PUSA in Delhi shared with me; perhaps the only good thing that came out of that bureaucratic symbol of a closed scientific mind. Indian traditions integrated cattle and farming in a manner unprecedented in world agriculture, and this is one of the secrets of the fertility of our soil. This came as a startling revelation, and I started to understand the reverence the cow has in the eyes of the villager: its dung formed the foundation of soil fertility over millennia of intensive farming, its milk the basis of family nutrition, and bullocks the only source of energy till the 1960s.
For irrigation, we sunk a bore-well to 100 feet (sweet water was struck at 50 feet) and invested in a comprehensive drip and sprinkler system that grids the entire farm to minimise both water use and irrigation effort. Little did I realise in 2012 that underground aquifer water is a limited resource under severe stress as we extract more than we put back. This is especially true for Aman Bagh where a once large, natural perennial pond that abuts our land is now a dry bed and encroached agricultural land. It can be revived, I am sure, but the energy required will be enormous. Who knows, one day.
I started to understand seeds in 2013: the differences between open pollinated (or heirloom), hybrid and GMO; and the need to save my own seeds as part of sustainability (‘Seed Swarajya’) and controlling input costs. The traditional village system of exchanging seeds with neighboring farmers is non-existent today, and I had to seek out desi (local) seeds from others that I could save and re-use. For example, I bought indigenous tall wheat variety MP306 from the wonderful seed-saving NGO Navdanya, and we use these as seeds till date. Sattar buys open-pollinated seeds that are yet available at the village seed store for common crops like mustard, millet, sorghum, oats, clover and many vegetables. Local seeds are genetically suited to our soil, moisture and ecology; they often thrive when seeds from outside fail.
We implemented the cycle of traditional cropping on all the land: ploughing, sowing, watering, de-weeding and reaping; and again. This wasn’t stressful on my men and woman, as they knew this life and it gave them plenty of down time between cycles – why we see farmers lounging around in the village. I knew nothing about growing food without ploughing.
For the first year, we used a hired tractor (though we were advised a small tractor was an absolute necessity), in the next year we hired a set of bullocks with a peasant hali (plough-man) from Dhauj village (he has since retired himself and sold his bullocks), and in 2013 we purchased our own pair of breed bullocks for the princely sum of rupees 14,000 from the neighboring village of Bandhwari. Momi was appointed our resident expert hali, and he is absolutely brilliant as he navigates them with expertise and ease. Dalsher and Shamsher, our bullocks, cost us a fraction of a tractor, live off the hay and green-feed from our land, give us valuable dung that we use as manure, haven’t once fallen sick, and retain employment within the community. The tractor is expensive, replaces labour in a country whose biggest problem is creating employment for the rural poor, uses expensive imported diesel and all that entails, voids polluting diesel fumes, costs an enormous amount to maintain, and makes Mahindra & Mahindra richer. (A tractor replaces 12 bullocks, and while working emits 1 ton of noxious fumes a year; and uses 3 tons of imported diesel annually). For Indian small farms, 80% of all farming households, shared bullock services supported by government loans would be an ideal solution if we weren’t blinkered by the ideology of modernity.
I knew nothing yet of the violence ploughing does to the soil (especially deep tractor ploughing, with all its fancy iron attachments) in India’s arid or tropical environments: the breaking of the soil structure, the compacting of soil, exposure of soil to the elements where precious carbon escapes to the atmosphere as CO2, and the loss of moisture. “No Till” farming, as practiced by the Japanese sage-farmer Masanobu Fukuoka was yet in the womb of the future. I had read his ‘One Straw Revolution’ in my youth, without understanding it one bit; I went through it again. How could one grow food without tilling, it was unthinkable. Actually, what I had to do was redefine food and nutrition in my head as fruits and harvests from perennial trees and not just annual cereals and lentil, but that thinking was a distance away.
I had now to learn how to grow a range of food. While Sattar understood the lifecycle of cereals, oilseeds, cattle fodder and other very local crops like Til (Sesame), Guar (Cluster Beans) and Sunn (Sunn Hemp) extremely well but he had only a faint idea how to grow fruits and vegetables.
We had to learn through doing, painful as it was, but our mistakes taught us each season. It also taught me patience, as the learning from the current season in one fruit orchard could only be implemented after 12 months. I researched which trees would do well in our ecology, with least water, and citrus, guava and mango were the choices that stand validated today. Four groves were planted with fruit saplings in the monsoons of 2012 and 2013, each then a monoculture of one kind of fruit tree, and planting saplings was an art we learnt and got better at each year. We continued to plough the orchards and plant inter-crops of one kind or another, mainly low-rise lentils that didn’t interfere with the fruit saplings and indeed helped by adding nitrogen to the fruit orchard soil. Fruit trees need caring for the first 3-4 years of their life, and then depending on which variety, the tree lasts from 15 to 50 years. Besides being a stable source of produce, fruit trees are perennial and eliminate the physically demanding cycle of ploughing-sowing-harvesting. Fruit replacing cereal as food is a novel concept without much traction in society, but at a farm replacing cereals with fruits does away with the repetitive cycle of drudgery for the peasant. We were moving towards a via media, one that allowed us to do both.
Cattle: why Indian Could have been Better than European
Another key expertise required was cattle, of which I knew nothing. Sattar and the others on the other hand were well versed in cattle rearing, and each of them has a buffalo or more for nutrition at home and for selling milk for additional income. Few kept cows in 2012, as they give less milk with a lower fat content, and today the cow is on the way to extinction due to the extreme rules for the protection of all cattle from slaughter. If a domesticated animal outlives its economic utility, it will go extinct no matter what organized religion says. We had to buy them, and we went to the cattle markets of Muzaffarnagar and Karnal, at a time when gau rakshaks (religious goons) did not patrol the roads. I had a production mindset of keeping ‘high-yielding’ Sahiwal cows (from Sahiwal district, now in Pakistan Punjab) that promise 12-15 kg of milk. I knew vaguely that the mixed breeds – Indian breeds fathered by Jersey and Friesian bulls from Europe – would not be able to handle our ecology, but little did I know that the cows we bought as Sahiwal from cattle fairs were actually significantly mixed breeds. We were stumped for pure Sahiwal semen, and were forced to depend on artificial insemination that simply didn’t work. It cost rupees 500 each time whether it worked or not, there was no guarantee that the semen was actually Sahiwal (one of the offspring looked quite like a buffalo): the government compounder made money for sure. We even reared a Sahiwal bull for 3 years, but this was too much too late as and we lost two of our three gentle Sahiwal cows within the year to unknown diseases before he came of age. That hurt terribly, and we ultimately gave him away too.
It was an expensive experiment. I learnt that local, hardy Hariana cattle – with genes that protect them from the heat, cold, winds and diseases of our area – from within a few miles of Aman Bagh provide the best life-cycle investment. Indian farmers have learnt this lesson: the mixed breed cows may give more milk (European cows give upwards of 30 kg a day versus 2-15 kg from Indian breeds) but their progeny are so poorly adapted to our hot and humid environment that they either die or live on antibiotics. Instead of improving our own breeds using local bulls and European and American scientific methods, some dolt took the easy way out and imported pure-bred Jersey and Friesian bulls from cold, temperate lands to mate with Indian cows – and forever killed the Indian breed and its possible revival.
I also learnt that the local government veterinary extension services are quite useless in Haryana: the government doctor is never to be seen, and the government compounder goes home to home in the village making money for himself by the thoughtless administration of antibiotics and other powerful allopathic medicines of which he has little knowledge. If only they were taught a first line of defense of time tested local, herbal remedies; then homeopathic and finally allopathic as the last line of defense in extreme or life-threatening conditions. But this succession of medication doesn’t work for human health in India with our long traditional of herbal and natural medicine, what are cattle.
Aman Bagh has moved, over these years, to an equilibrium of three desi cows and our pair of bullocks that can be sustained by the green fodder and hay off a portion of our land, and all of these are the Hariana breed that gives less milk (5-6 kg a day in milking period) but rarely fall sick and don’t need the visits of the moneymaking compounder. Instead of focusing on high-input, high-yield revenue, we moved to low-input, low-maintenance. Local won yet again. Thanks to Sagari Ramdas, a veterinary doctor in faraway Andhra Pradesh with a big heart and even deeper knowledge who helped us numerous times, and her book on treating cattle we learnt that balanced nutrition was crucial to cattle health (as indeed for the soil and for ourselves), and we learnt herbal medical solutions (feeding all the cattle neem leaves every Friday, neem juice to the new born as de-wormer) as well as cattle homeopathy, and they have responded by not falling sick.
Manuring was super critical, and while we spread the dung from our own cattle first, but it was inadequate quantity to build the fertility of our dry, sandy soil. Every family in the villages around have many heads of cattle and buffalo, primarily as the cattle rearing Gujjar and Meo communities are dominant, and I thought it would be a once in a while operation to truck in dung from the villagers who had more than they needed. Not surprisingly, I need to buy and apply dung twice a year.
In 2013 we obtained the service of an old hand at making “Bio Gas” plants, Ramesh Saxena. This 10-cubic-meter floating iron tank ‘Gobar Gas’ plant works flawlessly till today, giving us methane gas to cook food, and slurry that is instantly usable as manure as harmful bacteria have died in the anaerobic heat of the biogas tank.
Finally, we Reach the Soil
I read in one thoughtful essay that healthy soil gave birth to healthy plants and trees, and thus no diseases would strike healthy plants if the soil were full of nutrients; quite like humans eating a balanced, healthy, vegetarian diet. This was useful book knowledge, but I didn’t really know how to build soil health as well as I knew to build mine. Neither did I know our sandy soil was so denuded of organic matter that it gave little nutrition to the plant to withstand pest attacks. On testing the soil much later in 2016, when testing at government laboratories was made free, I saw to my horror that our soil organic matter was a pitiable 0.2%. The gold standard in temperate ecologies is 5-10% organic matter, while tropical and arid soils are in the range of 1-2% – our soil organic matter was really not that out of whack. But I was no longer surprised that our plants were not as healthy, it was clear that the soil did not support them adequately with nutrition. I had to make the manuring of the land as an ongoing project, after each crop. This was done with renewed vigor, but from 2016.
Neither was there a diversity of plants such that natural predators, like the ladybird, would be there to prey on pests. Our less-till, bio-diverse plant environment was yet a few years away. Instead, we made our own organic pest repellants (fermented garlic, chili, cow urine etc.) and micro-biotic soil amendments (fermented dung, urine, lentil powder etc.) learnt from organic farmers from South and West India. We applied these mechanically, and I gradually realised there was no benefit to applying teeming microorganisms on bare soil as the hot sun at 40 plus degrees Celsius kills these microbes immediately. The soil needs to be covered first with protection for the microbes – a layer of biomass to allow the microbes and other flora and fauna to work on eating the biomass and feed the roots of the trees and the crops. This knowledge, too, was a distance away.
However, unprecedented learning was part of the first intense ‘operational’ phase that lasted 2 years, till mid-2014. The daily tasks of setting up the farm, building a culture of trust and a work ethic with my men and woman, understanding the ecology, learning which crops and trees prospered were occupying. Many seeds had been sown in my fertile mind that now possessed a superficial understanding of the basic elements of conventional organic farming.
Intellectual change does not have a sequence, it happens when the time is right. The cumulative impacts of my experiences and the full weight of knowledge from others were settling in. Some change was instantaneous, like a revelation, but this too had an incremental gradualism that brought about the change. I had to embrace change, for that I needed an open mind willing to accept all possibilities; specially the humility that what I knew could be all wrong.
Natural Farming at Aman Bagh Part III continues here: https://amanbagh.org/2017/10/05/natural-farming-at-aman-bagh-part-iii-2014-2017/