Going back to the roots with natural farming

From Asha’s Farm-- Top (right to left) Bajra, a grape vine at her home, moong dal Below (right to left) keenu, a mango tree, lemons. Photo by Vaishnavi Rathore.

  • Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her speech of Budget 2019-2020 emphasised the practice of Zero Budget Natural Farming, a type of farming which involves elimination of chemical pesticides, sustaining agriculture with eco-friendly processes, and restoring soil fertility and organic matter.
  • In Pichompa Kalan village of Haryana, Asha practices zero budget natural farming on her plot of three acres where she grows fruits, vegetables and pulses.
  • While farmers like Asha, practicing zero budget natural farming, have found success, various challenges like a long transition period and a limited market have restricted the spread of the practice to only about 0.1% of the total cultivators in India.

Asha’s husband did not believe her initially. Neither did most of her neighbours in Pichompa Kalan, Haryana. An orchard of citrus fruits, mangoes, watermelons, amla, jamun, apricot, pulses and cereals—how could that grow given the limited productivity of red and clayey soil of the region?

But for the last 10 years, Asha, with help from her family as well as hired labour, has been growing all of that and more. And the trademark of these crops — they have been grown with chemical-free inputs. This is akin to what Nirmala Sitharaman, the Finance Minister in her speech of Budget 2019-2020 mentioned, when she said, “We shall go back to basics on one count: Zero Budget Farming.” This type of farming emphasises on the elimination of chemical pesticides, sustaining agriculture with eco-friendly processes, and restoring soil fertility and organic matter.

About 25 kilometers from the district headquarters of Haryana’s Charkhi-Dadri, Pichompa Kalan is home to about 3,200 people. A negligible number of them practice chemical-free farming. Amongst them are Asha and her daughter-in-law, Jyoti, who spend time every morning and evening in their three killa (three acres) of land, pulling out unwanted weeds. The trees of lemons, oranges, sweet limes are interspersed with vegetables like spinach, methi (fenugreek), and pulses like chana (gram), bajra (pearl millet), and wheat. She is also currently experimenting with custard apples within the same fields. Intercropping, growing multiple non-competing crops in proximity, is considered to be an important aspect of zero budget natural farming.

Asha who practices ZBNF stands alongside a tree of naturally-grown fruits. Photo by Vaishnavi Rathore.

The farms also require constant attention; one attack by pests is enough to ruin the entire crop. To avert pests from attacking, Asha resorts to a spray made of buttermilk, which is kept in a mud pot immersed in cowdung for about 3 months. Another method to keep the pests away is to burn guggal, a resin available from trees. “Our grandmothers used to prescribe this method of burning guggal during the flowering stage,” she said.

To increase the fertility of the soil, she uses jeevamrut which is a concoction of cow dung, cow urine, gram flour, jaggery and water after letting it prepare for the same duration. She adds this to the soil once every two months. For the same purpose, she also prepared vermicompost. Everything that Asha needs as manure, and to keep the pests away is available at home. Her expenditure on inputs then is almost zero. “This type of farming may have low investment, but requires a lot more hard work and labour,” Jyoti adds.

Like most of the farmers in the village, Asha too depends on her tube well for irrigation, but with a variation. The economic survey 2018-19 claimed that 89% of groundwater extracted in the country is used for irrigation, and it further suggested that the focus should shift to irrigation water productivity from land productivity and thrust should be on micro-irrigation. Zero budget natural farming also calls for water-efficiency. Asha and team thus, have been practicing sprinkler and drip irrigation.

In her budget speech, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had gone ahead to say, “Steps such as this can help in doubling our farmers’ income in time for our 75th year of Independence.” While Asha’s land gives her a variety of organic produce, if it can really double a farmer’s income, or can be scaled-up, are questions without an easy answer.

The initial shift

In the early years of the farm, a labourer had quit because he did not believe that the farm could grow without use of DAP (a phosphorous-based fertiliser) and urea. Jyoti Awasthi, Founder-Director of Satat Sampada, a social enterprise to promote organic farming also noticed the same while working with farmers in Uttar Pradesh. “They were absolutely unsure about working without fertilisers, DAP and urea,” she said. “They have really lost the trust that agriculture can happen without these.”

Asha’s daughter-in-law Jyoti taking out weeds from vegetable saplings. Photo by Vaishnavi Rathore.

The initial two years of gestation period, which is the time taken for a farmer to shift to zero-chemical farming and for their soil to be completely free of chemicals, is a challenging time. For these first two years, since the soil takes time to respond to the shift from chemical inputs to organic ones, the produce falls lower — sometimes as low as 40% of what the farmer was receiving with the conventional farming methods. Needless to say, many farmers drop out during this phase.
Asha began her organic farm as a hobby. For those who are dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, the initial years of lower productivity, the risks of a pest attack and the high requirement of labor are costs that they simply cannot afford.

In Uttar Pradesh, when Awasthi showed farmers the chemical-free produce of her own eight acres of demonstration plot, they looked at the quality of the soil and the grain and exclaimed, “This is so beautiful, ours is not as good.” Slow confidence building, and hand-holding through the process allowed for the adoption of change.

Since they eat what they grow, Awasthi saw that farmers were now beginning to understand the importance of family health, apart from the fact that chemical-free farming allowed for sustained fertility of the soil. When people around Asha started questioning the use of such a practice that is not bringing any profits, she showed them a different type of profit: nests built by birds in her orchard’s trees. Excited about the species of birds that visit her farm, she has also been conscious of the delicate interlinkages that exist in the agriculture ecology. Apart from the shift to organic farming as a livelihood option, both Asha and farmers from U.P. have found a more personal resonation.

Missing markets

Mera sona peetal ke daam par jaa raha hai (What is as valuable as gold is being sold at prices of brass),” Asha said. “The selling price of our products are higher, and they have very few takers in the village. It will sell in the cities, but we have not been able to figure out a transportation system for that. There is no market mechanism available.”

Asha’s orchard of fruits and the neighbouring farmlands of the village. Photo by Vaishnavi Rathore.

Awasthi of Satat Sampada decided to fill this gap. Her team created an e-commerce platform, Eat Right Basket, to sell organic cereals and vegetables that their network of farmers in Uttar Pradesh grows. “From the very beginning, we involve them in the prices of the produce, and the transport system. This ensures that they are a part of the process.”

Even from a small village called Talbehat in Uttar Pradesh, farmers have signed contracts and vegetables are transported every day from Jhansi’s Railway Station to Nizammudin Railway Station in Delhi. “Unless there is a guarantee that their produce will be sold, there isn’t really any incentive to produce chemical-free vegetables.”  This is possibly one of the reasons as to why 1,63,034 farmers, a proportion which is only about 0.1% of the total cultivators in India, are practicing zero budget natural farming.

Tackling unawareness

Asha had helped her neighbour convert 1 killa of land into organic farming. Following that, they applied for organic certification by the government. But when no one came to test the soil for a long time, they did not know who to approach for further communication. Soon, they shifted back to their chemicals.

“No one in the village has much knowledge of the processes under organic farming, even the sarpanch (village head) does not know.” Awasthi reinforces that even when the government has announced schemes for supporting this type of farming, it has not reached the grassroots.

(L) Jeevamrut being prepared, (R ) Buttermilk in earthen pots dug in cowdung. Photo by Vaishnavi Rathore.

Asha has been an avid reader and learner, and has been using YouTube and news to update herself on processes of chemical-free farming. With that, in the past ten years, she has also been able to take benefits from the National Horticulture Mission. This government scheme provides financial assistance for activities such as setting up of vermicompost production units at 50% of the cost, and it even got Asha subsidies on installing the drip irrigation system. Others in the area have not been made aware of such benefits.

For the purpose of knowledge sharing and keeping a check on each other, a few like-minded farmers from the region have created small groups. With about five organic farmers in one group, they visit each other’s fields to ensure that no chemicals are being used. They have occasional meetings and discussions, and hope to inspire more people to shift to chemical-free farming.

Creating an ecosystem

For a shift to take place, Awasthi believes that it is important to set a whole ecosystem for the shift. “Announcing schemes and budget allocations are only a part of the ecosystem,” she said. The rest of the ecosystem requires platforms to sell products, awareness of processes and trainings, constant hand-holding, and support from the government in the face of risks.

However, with the government announcing schemes on the same, Awasthi has started observing something interesting — when it comes to organic farming, at least government officials are willing to support their initiatives. “When we have a conversation at the block level, or at the Krishi Vigyan Kendras, there is no longer a denial that organic farming gives results, since the government also has to now collect and produce data in this sector,” she said. “It has given us a high moral ground to work upon.

Challenges like transition period and limited access to a market keep many farmers away from practicing zero budget natural farming. Photo by Vaishnavi Rathore.

But apart from that, the announcement for a shift seems to be a feel-good decision, but largely hollow, and scaling up of such initiatives it still doubtful. It will then be taken up by only a few like Asha, who initiate such shifts out of a love for the practice. “Duniye mei aye aur baag-bagiche na lagaye toh kya fayeda? (Coming into this world and not planting orchards and gardens, then what’s the point?)” she said. The rest, like her neighbours, may not adopt the practice with the same enthusiasm.

Read more: Andhra Pradesh’s push for zero budget natural farming inspires others.


Banner image: Produce from Asha’s Farm. Top (left to right): bajra, grape vine, moong dal. Below (left to right): keenu, mango tree, lemon tree.


This story is co-published by Mongabay-India and The Bastion.

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