My notes and musings …

Posts Tagged ‘sustainable agriculture

The nutrient cycle – closing the loop

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A majority of even the conscious consumers, growing and eating food from sustainable farms are missing a crucial need for a food system to be sustainable – closing the loop of the nutrient cycle.

Lets consider that one grows food crops and livestock using all the sustainable practices, without using chemical inputs and all the while increasing natural resource replenishment. But at the end of the day, a good proportion of the output from the farm is consumed by humans, either living in/near the farm and many a time in a city or town somewhere. What happens to all the nutrients that moved out of the farm in the form of grains, fruits, vegetables, meat, etc?

In nature we see that nothing is a waste – one species’ refuse is another’s food. We digest and assimilate a small proportion of what we eat. Once it has served its purpose, a good proportion of what we consume is sent out of the body – mostly as stool, urine and sweat. What happens to all this “other species’ food”? We flush it down the drain, through a  sewage system where it is concentrated all the while becoming a pollutant and then set up sewage treatment plants (that do not work most of the time) and end up polluting our rivers, lakes and seas.

What is the solution? Its a very simple age old practice. It saves precious water. It creates pure and clean compost. And returns the nutrients as food to plants and micro organisms in the soil. It is what is simply referred to as Dry composting toilets.

The Palar Center for Learning (aka Pathashaala) of the Krishnamurti Foundation of India about 75 kms south of Chennai has deployed this simple technology. They started as a black water free campus back in 2010. Over the years they have championed this cause so much that students, staff and visitors see this initiative as an essential part of the campus identity.

When I was introduced to Pathashaala as a resource person to help develop their local outreach efforts and ground some of their in-campus agricultural activities I jumped at the offer. I looked forward to a process of bidirectional learning. In the few months that I have been associated with the amazing folks there, I have completely fallen in love with their ethos and dedication to sustainable living and food systems. Needless to say, the clincher being the dry composting toilets !

Compost harvested from a dry composting toilet at Pathashaala on Oct. 2nd 2016.

Compost harvested from a dry composting toilet at Pathashaala on Oct. 2nd 2016.

To get a better idea of the initiative do read this article sharing the experience of their recent compost harvest on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti and this video from the previous year’s harvest. And to get a better idea of the technology itself, please see this small handout prepared by the one and only Gautama anna.

Agriculture does not end at the farm gate – eating is an agricultural activity; Food systems do not end at the dinner table. Returning nutrients to the soil is an integral part of a sustainable food system. And dry composting toilets is the simplest and most effective way to achieve this.

More on the concept, theory and some developments in design that have come about following my association with Pathashaala in the coming days & weeks.

Written by Dwiji

Tuesday, November 1st, 2016 at 08:09

Meeting the Indian Fukuoka

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Touring the farm with Bhaskarbhai

Touring the farm with Bhaskarbhai

Soon after I started reading about alternative farming, I came across online conversations and discussions talking about Bhaskar Save’s efforts in Umergam. After reading his open letter to Dr. Swaminathan, of the Indian Green Revolution fame, laying out the reasons for the current crisis amongst farmers, visiting his farm and meeting him became a ‘must-meet’ stop. While planning the Maharashtra-Gujarat leg our travels, we were planning to meet two octagenarians – Datyeji, a noted alterative energy, construction and water resources expert, and Bhaskarbhai. A couple of weeks before we could reach Mumbai, Datyeji passed away. Meeting Bhaskarbhai in this round of travels became all the more important for us even if the meeting would be a short one. Thanks to Bharat Mansatta, of Earth Care Books, and our good friend Sreedevi, we visited Bhaskarbhai’s farm as we started our post Deepavali travels.

Umergam (a.k.a. Umbergam, Umargaon, and variants thereof) is a good five hours from Dadar. It is located in the southern most part of Gujarat and given the low taxes and other incentives for industry in Gujarat, it has seen a steady industrial growth for a few decades now. The area is very fertile – numerous rivers flow down from the hills on the east and into the Arabian Sea in the west. Being a coastal settlement, it is also a reasonable sized fishing township. The growth of factories and industries had been eating into the farming land and a few years ago threatened the fishing community as well when a port was proposed to be built to further ‘develop’ the area. A joint effort by both farmers, fisherfolk, and enivronmentalists resulted in the shelving of the project. I had known about the Anti-port struggle, but unfortunately was not able to plan meeting with Abhabhen and others into the itinerary.

Umbergam receives about the same amount of rainfall as Mumbai does, if not more. Bhaskarbhai’s farm, Kalpavriksh, is located a few kilometers out in the village of Deheri. Bhaskarbhai has been farming here for more than five decades now. He follows natural farming practices and reminded us a few times that it is more like do-nothing farming. Dominated by fruit trees and fed on their biomass, the farm is a beautiful example of how one can make a profit using natural farming techniques. Seeing the rows of carefully spaced composting biomass, water channels and different trees, I could clearly understand why the octagenarian Bhaskarbhai was referred to as India’s Fukuoka!

After the initial few years of watering and bringing in biomass, the fruit trees do require close to zero farming attention. It would take a small effort to maintain the water channels and pile the biomass at the right location every now and then. It was a great experience meeting Bhaskarbhai and hearing from him about how the farm grew to its present state. I wish we could have seen his method at a slightly younger stage … unfortunately, we could not visit Sanghavi Farms.

Written by Dwiji

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008 at 19:19

Fish if you can’t sow

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We visited RT and Revathi’s farm on July 17th in Aliyur, half way between Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam. While looking for a piece of land that had some problem, and thereby would be cheaper, they found the 13 acre plot with major water logging problems and purchased. Over two seasons they noted the areas that were water logged, tried different types of seeds to identify what grew better where when not being taken care of at all.

After the first rainy season, they identified 7 spots where water accumulated. Using a Tamil Nadu govt. scheme to encourage rain water harvesting and recharging ground water, they had ponds of different sizes dug in these spots. Using the dry land variety of seeds and techniques that require lower water input, they plan to irrigate the fields around each pond through out the growing season. An extensive drip irrigation system covering their entire farm reduces water consumption further.

In the central region of the farm they have dug a few parallel trenches and in using the soil coming out of the trenches, raised the land in between the trenches by more than a foot. Water collects in these trenches and the raised bed has a variety of fruit and other trees planted. In order to reduce evaporation, they are growing climbers all along the trenches designed to provide a green canopy throughout.

The most impressive part of the farm was what was going on in all these water bodies. When they drafted the plans for the farm, they talked to local fishermen and discussed with them the different kinds of fish, their needs, their market demand, etc. After the ponds and trenches started filling up, they introduced a few varieties of fish. In a month or so they saw that the population was large enough to start fishing ! So while preparing their farm for sustainable agriculture, and even before harvesting anything from the farm, they have managed to set up an income stream fishing in rain harvested water!

Written by Dwiji

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008 at 17:14

Using local materials in Dhanametapalli

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Dhanametapalli is located a few kilometers beyond Chintamani as one drives from Bangalore. The arid low rain conditions prevailing in and around Dhanametapalli is typical of Kolar district. Surprisingly even in such a place, tomatoes are the most grown crop in these parts. Extensive use of ground water has resulted in water levels dropping well below 300 feet rendering dry borewells dug less than five years ago.

The stalk of the Agave flower used to build a shade for the vermi-compost pits

The stalk of the Agave flower used to build a shade for the vermi-compost pits

Following a lead from a patron, Prasanna and team approached the MLA from Chintamani to try and implement LEISA-NREGA in some of the villages there. While landless women working agricultural labour jobs came forward in different places, in Dhanametapalli, a farmer also stepped up to offer his land for the project.

Bhagya, a young woman from the local community has been with the project over the past year and leads the group in the field and within the community too. Pramila, another local woman has stepped forward and is coordinating the self help group co-formed alongside the project while also helping spread the ideas of LEISA-NREGA to more such groups of women. Shashi Raj a dynamic young activist from near Mysore is camped in the village to spread the idea of LEISA amongst farmers and wean them away from the monoculture of water intensive crops.

While touring the farm, I noticed that the thatched shelter put together to provide shade for the vermi-culture pits were standing on green pillars. Taking a closer look I realized that they were actually the flower stalk of the Agave that grows abundantly in the area. The male Agave plant sends out a thick and firm stalk almost almost 6 inches in diameter at the base and gradually tapering over its 15 to 20 feet length with flowers at its apex. A classic example of low external input in practice !

Written by Dwiji

Sunday, July 20th, 2008 at 14:38

Parallel processing in Motagaanahalli

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Most of the works undertaken by gram, block, and zilla panchayats under NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarentee Act) have been the usual pond and road construction. There are a few examples of places where land conservation efforts have been taken up. In a few rare cases, works proposed by the community is being taken up by the gram panchayat utilizing funds available under NREGS. Land development and preparing of compost and vermicompost for Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA) was approved by the Motagaanahalli gram panchayat earlier this year.

The project is being coordinated by Prasanna Saligram, from AID Bangalore, Community Health Cell, etc. We had visited Motagaanahalli back in Dec. 2005 and met Ravi a confident and determined local activist who had taken up the task of mobilization and working on the social aspects of the project within the village. Using techniques and ideas of LEISA, the project intends to train women from landless families as LEISA resource people. The group would work on fields that a farmer is not cultivating and wishes to see the methods tried out right on his field. At the end of the growing season, the women share one half of the produce with the land owner and the other half amongst themselves. They are also paid a fair wage during the training period. NREGA are planned to be utilized for the non-farming activities within the project, as detailed in Prasanna’s blog on LEISA-NREGA.

On July 11th we visited Motagaanahalli to meet with Ravi and the group of women working on the project. They are all land less, except for one or two with about an acre or less in their family. After going through the prepared land, compost piles, nursery, etc. we settled down for a conversation with the group of women. They took some time from clearing up a region of the land they were planning to cultivate this season. We had a wide ranging discussion about their motivations, goals, ideas, concerns, and fears regarding the work they had undertaken.

As the conversation progressed I started noticing that an expanding area around each woman was cleaner than its immediate surroundings. We have come across many stories of how women, especially rural women, sing when working together in groups. The force of habit, of hands working away while talking, even when they actively participate in the conversation, was a reconfirmation of this old truth …

Written by Dwiji

Saturday, July 19th, 2008 at 14:34

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