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Published: Tuesday September 10, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday September 10, 2013 MYT 12:13:15 PM

How Indian farmers are preserving the good earth

Organic farmer N. Gopalakrishnan makes his own vermicompost using these African night crawler earthworms.

Organic farmer N. Gopalakrishnan makes his own vermicompost using these African night crawler earthworms.

Malaysian farmers take a peek into the books of organic farmers in India.

YONG Weng Thing was amazed when he saw the field of spinach. Being a farmer himself, he knows good quality stuff when he sees it and quickly helped himself to the greens. A bunch of spinach in hand, he gestured a thumbs up to R. Venkatrasa, owner of the organic farm in a village in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

“Very good, very healthy,” quipped Yong. Showing me the leaves, he added: “See this layer of oil under the leaf? It helps repel insects. You don’t get this in vegetables grown using conventional methods.”

The farm was one of several stops for a group of 15 Malaysians on a trip to observe natural farming practices in Tamil Nadu. The visit was put together by the Consumer Association of Penang and on the trip were farmers who grow vegetables, sweet potato, mango, papaya and strawberry, as well as wholesalers and one agriculture researcher.

They hope to learn from the past mistakes of Indian farmers, who had relied on hybrid seed varieties, synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides which eventually robbed the soil of its nutrients and biological life, resulting in poor yield.

In Tamil Nadu, a growing number of farmers are undoing the mistake of the past by returning to the old way of chemical-free cultivation. Over the course of four days, the Malaysians observed how these farmers use home-made fertilisers formulated from farm waste, natural pesticides concocted from plants, and various techniques to grow produce with minimal water and without relying on costly, harmful chemicals.

Indian farmers are gradually going back to the sans-chemical traditional way of farming. At this market in Trichy. 
A market in Tiruchirapalli, a city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Some Indian farmers are going back to the traditional way of farming, one that does not rely on synthetic chemicals. — TAN CHENG LI/The Star

This sustainable approach to farming is best explained by organic farming scientist G. Nammalvar, who stressed the importance of self-reliability: “To get optimal results in farming, farmers should rely minimally on external inputs. All inputs should come from within the farm. So-called wastes should be recycled and used as input.”

He said farming with expensive inputs like hybrid seeds as well as chemical fertilisers and pesticides were futile as farmers were poor. Modern-day agriculture, he added, has become export-oriented, resulting in the neglect of land and people. Food security, he said, should mean the availability of sufficient fresh, nutritious, and locally-produced food to the people.

Integrated farming

The concept of a self-sufficient farm is evident in the 12ha owned by R. Venkatrasa in Velayuthampalayam village in Karur district, where he grows sugarcane, coconut, legumes and spinach.

“I don’t have external inputs. I have my own seeds and make my own fertiliser. Goats and cows are the basis of my farming,” says the 34-year-old who has been farming organically for 14 years. “When you use chemical fertilisers, it is easy to get a boost in yield initially. But eventually, you will need larger amounts to get the same yield. When plants are extra green (because of the chemical fertiliser), pests get attracted. Then you have to bring in pesticide, which will also kill beneficial insects on the farm. Only now, people realise what they have done.”

The manure needs of his farm are met with animal and garden waste. At his farm, he shared the recipes for four different types of growth promoters with the Malaysians. These are made from the dung and urine of goats and cows, a buttermilk and coconut milk concoction, a mix of meats, and fish waste.

No waste: In this poultry farm, chicken droppings are collected and fed to fish. 
In this poultry farm, chicken droppings that collect underneath pens are thrown into ponds to nourish algae, which then becomes fish food.

He also extols the benefits of mulching (spreading a layer of green waste on the field). It is the norm to irrigate sugarcane fields every four days but Venkatrasa’s has not been watered for 35 days due to the dry weather. Yet, they remain healthy, thanks to the mulch (from sugarcane leaves). “With mulching, less irrigation is needed as the vegetation cover prevents evaporation and retain moisture in the soil. It also keeps temperature down, which is suitable for the growth of soil microbes and worms.”

To minimise water usage on his coconut farm, he relies on trench irrigation, whereby water flows through where the tree roots are. With this system, trees are more tolerant of dry conditions and water is not wasted. In the 2003 drought, he did not irrigate the plantation for three months. In the conventional method where water floods the entire field, losses are high, he said.

Farming worms

At the farm of N. Gopalakrishnan in the village of Panickampatti in Karur district, the Malaysians avidly took notes on the technique of vermiculture, the use of earthworms to decompose waste into fertile compost. At the farm, two sheds shield rows of waste that is being eaten by earthworms and transformed into vermicompost.

Gopalakrishnan started doing vermiculture in 1995 with 20 worms of the African night crawler variety which he had obtained from Annamalai University. “Now, whatever the amount of worms you want, I can supply you,” quipped the 50-year-old farmer. “Vermicompost trumps compost as a soil nutrient as it has more enzymes and biological life. Forty kilogrammes of compost is equal to 1kg of vermicompost. The more it is used, the soil gets better.”

He explained that when he inherited the farm from his father, he opted for modern cultivation methods as he felt that making his own compost was too much work. He soon found his farm yield declining, as the soil had lost its fertility. And he was spending more on agrochemicals as prices kept rising.

It was then, in 1998, that he returned to traditional, organic farming methods. Today, Gopalakrishnan grows sugarcane, banana, paddy, turmeric, yam and onion on his seven farms spread over 14ha using natural and self-made pest repellents, fertiliser and growth-promoters. To keep the soil healthy, he practises crop rotation and uses “green manure”.

Gopalakrishnan also produces panchagavya, a growth promoter blended from a mix of cow dung, milk, curd, ghee and urine, with other ingredients such as sugarcane juice, coconut water, bananas and toddy.

Reuse and recycle

At A. Mathiyalagan’s poultry farm in Nadaiyanur village, the Malaysian visitors were able to enjoy an afternoon tea of sweet lemonade, biscuits and fruits – because the farm is like no other; it does not reek of chicken droppings. The secret is that panchagavya is added to the feed and sprayed on chicken droppings.

Panchagavya, being rich in nutrients, vitamins, amino acids, micro-organisms and enzymes, is an excellent growth-promoter. Mathiyalagan said its immunity-boosting properties also meant that no antibiotics were used for the 50,000 chickens, reared for their eggs.

He, too, adheres to the principle of integrated farming in which wastes become inputs: chicken droppings are thrown into ponds to nourish algae which is eaten by fish; wastewater from the fish pond nurtures fodder grasses for the cows; cow dung is used to make pancagayva; and panchagayva is added to the chicken feed and waste.

Various organisations are assisting Indian farmers who are keen to adopt eco-friendly practices. Inba Seva Sangam, an organisation that aids the downtrodden, are training 150 poor farmers on organic farming methods and helping them to market their produce.

So far, a third of the 180ha of agriculture land in Kadavur valley is being cultivated using natural farming methods. “People were initially sceptical about organic farming but now, they are more acceptable to it as they see better benefits such as higher yields,” says trainer Balasubramaniam.

Meanwhile, the organisation Peace Trust is helping to transform dry lands to productive lands. “Tamil Nadu has some of the driest lands in India and years of mismanagement of water such as wastage, over-drawing of groundwater, misuse of land, erosion and land degradation have led to serious problems,” says chairman J. Paul Baskaran. “With no water, there are poor yields, no jobs, unrest and ultimately, poverty.”

With funding from the European Union, Peace Trust has conducted integrated watershed development programmes in six drought-prone villages in Dindigul district to improve farming practices, and consequently, the people’s livelihoods. Farmers are taught ways to conserve water, such as by building check dams and percolation ponds on farms.

While not all the methods employed by the Indian farmers can be replicated in Malaysia (farmers who do not rear cattle will face difficulties in obtaining large quantities of cow dung and urine, for instance), most of the Malaysians found the trip insightful.

Yong’s previous attempt at vermiculture failed, so he is keen to try Gopalakrishnan’s method. He was also impressed with the poultry farm, which hardly smelt. He already adheres to good agricultural practices; he makes his own growth enzymes and compost to reduce usage of agrochemicals, and uses minimal amounts of pesticides in his farms in Gopeng and Kampar in Perak, and Cameron Highlands in Pahang. The leafy greens which he grows are supplied to Tesco through middlemen, so he says he has to comply with standards on permissible levels of pesticide residues.

Tang Chee Sing and his wife, Lee Ching Mun, found the India experience very useful. “We’ve heard about these methods but we’ve learnt so much more during this trip and we see them in practice,” says Tang, who runs an organic farm in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, and a tilapia fish farm in Puchong, Selangor, He also runs the House of Joy homes for orphans, old folk and the underprivileged. He is especially interested in doing vermiculture and intercropping (practice of growing two or more crops in proximity).

Also keen to shrug off their dependence on agrochemicals are farmers from Hulu Yam Lama in Selangor. Six years ago, 10 farmers there had set up a company, Hulu Yam Fresh, to promote safer farming practices and to market their produce.

“After 10 to 20 years of farming using chemicals, farmers are experiencing low yields, some even zero yield,” said company chairman Chan Lay Onn. “The soil is no longer fertile. Farmers all over the country, including those in Hulu Yam, suffer from this. That’s why they’re here, to learn new solutions.”

At Hulu Yam Lama, he says one farmer is making liquid fertiliser from fruits and fish waste but he cannot make enough to meet demand. Chan said some of the organic farming methods seen in India are not new, but are not practised as some farmers opt for the easy way.

The Indian farmers have shown that it is possibly to wean themselves from a dependence on chemical-based farming, and it appears that some Malaysian farmers are keen to do so too.

 

Organic farmer N. Gopalakrishnan will be in Malaysia from Sept 16 to 24 to conduct training. For more information, contact N.V. Subbarow: 04-829 9511 012-537 4899/Email: subbarow@gmail.com

The vermiculture way

 

1. Prepare compost from organic waste and cow dung. Sprinkle with water over 45 days, turning the heap occasionally.

 
2. In a shed and on earthen ground (not cemented), place a row of coconut husks about 1m wide and 7.5m long. This will provide hiding nooks for the worms. Heap compost on top of husks. Sprinkle with water to maintain a moisture of 40% to 50%.
 
3. Release 3kg to 5kg of earthworms onto compost heap. As the earthworms feed on the compost, they discharge castings which are rich in nutrients and beneficial soil organisms.

 

 
4. After 15 days, you can harvest the vermicompost. To do so: Sprinkle water over the heap daily for 10 to 15 days, then don’t water for two days. The worms will crawl up and can be removed so that you can collect the vermicompost. You can collect the vermicompost every 15 days. After 60 days, add fresh compost.

* Replace the coconut husk after a year. The worms will multiply; you can share the excess with friends.

Related story:

Farming the natural way

 

Tags / Keywords: Environment, Environment, ecowatch, sustainable agriculture

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