“We took a chance and tried something different,” explains Rajan, a farmer from the small tribal village of Sadivayal in Tamil Nadu. “The result was selling a new crop for double the price of anything we had grown before. Not only had that, but the seeds we planted given us a double yield.”
Towards the end of 2016, a group of marginal farmers from Sadivayal came together as a team and began to earn money from their crops after five years of failure. First, lack of rainfall had affected growth. Next came the problem of wild boar and elephants destroying the fields. Most of the farmers were forced to become day laborers in the nearby forest just to get enough money to feed their families.
Of course, to hear that the farmers overcame such difficulties is a great inspiration, but there is something even more interesting about this story. These farmers decided to grow organic rice. It was the first time anyone in their village had even tried for decades, since such practices had been abandoned for the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
“Honestly, we didn’t have a clue about organic farming,” says Rangaswami, another local farmer. “We had no advice on how that system worked nor did we know about the damage pesticides and fertilizers are causing to the soil. We needed someone to tell us.”
So how did success finally come?
The first step had nothing to do with the agricultural practices themselves, and everything to do with how these farmers came together to save each other from complete poverty. The struggles in the livelihood of agriculture are a common story across India since 70% of our country’s poor—770 million people—live there. And most of our farmers, again 70% of them, are marginal and working with less than one hectare of land.
Meanwhile, the tragedy of farmer suicides continues to rise. Newly released data from the National Crime Record Bureau in January 2017 reported an increase of 42%. There were 5,650 suicides by farmers and cultivators in 2014. In 2015, 8,007 of them ended their lives.
On the other side of the coin, India’s food security depends on our farmers because, with our growing population, demand becomes higher and higher each day. Our farmers provide us with all the grains, fruits, vegetables and milk we need.
Finally, comes the most crucial problem—we are losing our farmable land. The chemical practices of the past decades in both agriculture and industry have wreaked havoc on the environment. The soil is losing its microbes and organic matter. Without a chance to rejuvenate, there is actually no source for the nutrients plants need.
“The bigger problem is that the soil is losing fertility due to pollution, global warming and the additional demands placed upon the earth due to the exploding population,” says Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, commonly known as Amma, the head of MA Math. “Nowadays, humans are trying to exploit nature. This is why there are floods, droughts and earthquakes, and everything is being destroyed.”
In short, if things don’t change, the day will arrive when nothing will grow. In India, the amount of wasteland is quickly rising. According to our ministry of environment, fertile land is losing water bodies, vegetation and wildlife. Seventy percent is already dry and another 32% is on its way to becoming desert. The Modi government has decided to join the global movement of becoming land degradation neutral by 2030. A big task, indeed.
However, one of the key goals of Amrita SeRVe, the self-reliant village project with MA Math, is to work with India’s farmers by taking small steps. The vision is to blend traditional agricultural methods with new technologies that are eco-friendly.
“The Amrita SeRVe and Amrita University people came and held a meeting instructing us how to proceed with organic farming,” explains Rangaswami. “They suggested that we first form a farmers’ club and gather money from each member to open a bank account of Rs 9000. After that, the plan was to contribute Rs 2000 each to start the organic farm project.”
Another part of Amrita SeRVe’s work in Sadivayal was to use the convergence method to help the farmers gain access to government schemes and other support mechanisms. This means that Amrita SeRVe coordinated connections with all possibilities so that the farmers themselves would not have to take on the stress of application processes.
To begin, on May 9, 2016, a resolution was passed at the village level where 20 of the most deprived families were selected to start group farming. The farmers’ club opened a bank account with Canara Bank Alandurai under the name Amrita Vyavasayam Kulu.
Next, along with counsel from the Amrita SeRVe staff in Tamil Nadu, the farmers together defined their responsibilities and formulated guidelines for internal management. They started with activities like selection of seeds, soil testing, seed testing, crop planning, water budgeting and water conservation measures. Upon completion of all these discussions, the farmers could begin their field work on June 20, 2016.
Together, the group contributed their labour for land clearance, development and plotting. They also constructed a water channel and fenced in the fields to protect from animals. Meanwhile, using the convergence method, Amrita SeRVe organised the rental of a tractor for primary tillage and then a cage wheel from Pudhu Vaazhvu—the farmers’ federation. Extra support came when the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) and the state Department of Science and Technology (DST) provided seeds for the crops.
The farmers prepared a field of 35 acres and planted 535 kg of Bhavani Organic Rice. This type has more hay than other varieties, which turned out to be a huge plus because it could be sold as cattle feed. In fact, Bhavani hay is in demand and one acre can fetch about Rs 24,000.
A work team was formed by all families with men and women given various tasks. The group contributed their labour for land clearance, development and plotting. They also constructed a water channel and fenced in the area. The farmers used jivamritam to tend to the crop—a traditional method using cow-waste like dung and urine for natural treatments of the soil and the plants. As a result, they stopped having the usual skin ailments like itching and burning caused by the chemicals they had used before.
“At first we were unsure and more than a little tensed,” tells Kaliswami, another member of the farmers’ club. “But once we started to see the first rice sprouts spring from the ground, we knew success was on its way.”
After 140 days of persistent care and hand weeding, the village farmers began harvesting a healthy crop of organic rice and the team was overjoyed. In fact, they found that their profit margin had actually increased, despite the fact that organic seeds cost more. For one, they didn’t have to buy pesticides and fertilisers. Secondly, the Bhavani Rice went for a much higher rate than their previous crops. The old rice sold for Rs 9 to 13 per kg. The Bhavani Rice sold for Rs 28 per kg. On top of that, the crop yield of the Bhavani Rice doubled. So each member of the farmers’ club made nearly Rs 20,000 after all costs.
To earn such profit was an incredible experience. In previous years, the farmers often still owed money for their loans, even after harvest. For example, one farmer had a debt of Rs 20,000 from previous years’ failure, but thanks to this year’s results, he was able to pay that off completely. Now he can move forward and make profit once again.
“We are committed to continuing with organic farming,” says Kaliswami. “It won’t be easy. We know there are challenges. The soil does need to be revived after decades of chemical use, and that will take a couple of years. But we have to continue this practice to heal the soil.”
For Amrita SeRVe, the work with the Sadivayal farmers’ club was a pilot project to see what could happen after such an approach. Next step is to start farmers’ clubs in all of our villages across 21 states. In fact, in some regions of India, there is no longer a choice between chemical and organic farming. The soil is already too damaged.
“If we approach Nature with love, it will serve us as our best friend—a friend that won’t let us down,” says Amma. “Most people are concerned only with what they can get from the world, but it is what we are able to give others that determines the quality of our life.”
Contributed by :
[The whole project is coordinated by Sreeni K.R , Program Manager Amrita Serve.]