- Akkadi Saalu, a traditional intercropping system followed in Karnataka, encourages biodiversity on the farm and secures the yield from the farmland. It is traditionally practised on rainfed agricultural land as dryland agriculture.
- While the advantages of lower input costs in many natural farming systems are well documented, one common critique is that avoiding pesticides renders crops more vulnerable to pests. However, farmers following Akkadi Saalu view weeds favourably and pests with tolerance, instead of trying to destroy them.
- Multicropping gives farmers with smaller landholdings more security. There is less risk of losing all crops at once at a time of multiple intersecting risks, from erratic weather and degrading soils to unpredictable markets.
Prabhakar B. is a traditional farmer from Nangali village in Karnataka’s Kolar district. Along with P. Srinivas, popularly known as ‘Soil Vasu’, he leases degraded rainfed plots and converts them to biodiverse agroecological farms.
Prabhakar’s mother, Rajamma, also swears by the traditional farming practices and seed varieties passed on by their ancestors. “When I got married, my parents passed on these seeds to me, they told me to take care of them and that one day, the seeds will take care of my family,” said Rajamma. She said that they preserve their seeds with a great deal of care and do not use them during particularly harsh summers when drought-like conditions prevail over this semi-arid belt in Kolar. Rajamma considers a farm “an equal resource to all forms of life including pests and insects”.
The farm follows a traditional intercropping system followed in Karnataka called Akkadi Saalu, which encourages biodiversity on the farm and secures the yield from the farmland. It is traditionally practised on rainfed agricultural land as dryland agriculture. Akkadi Saalu is all about growing diversified crops – a mix of millets, oil seeds, pulses and other medicinal herbs along with greens and flower plants.
Large parts of agricultural land in Karnataka is undergoing degradation, affecting crop yield and farmers’ incomes. There is an urgent need to look beyond high-input monocropping systems and towards agroecological systems such as Akkadi Saalu, especially for small or marginal farmers whose precarious rainfed agricultural livelihoods are vulnerable to extreme weather events and pest attacks.
But what does Akkadi Saalu entail? How have Prabhakar and Vasu been able to keep his biodiverse farm thriving in a semi-arid landscape through this method? Based on our interviews and observations, we have documented the practices that they follow.
Creating farms that provide food, nutrition and fodder security
Akkadi Saalu was promoted keeping in mind that the crops may grow for two agricultural seasons – monsoon (kharif) and winter (rabi). This type of farming involves working with the land, the soil and the seasons. A variety of seeds are sown just before the first pre-monsoon rains. A couple of weeks after these germinate, the soil is turned over. This increases the organic matter in the soil but also ensures that the seeds of most weeds have germinated and been eliminated.
In the monsoon season, multiple crops are grown. The primary crop is intercropped with crops that have different growing periods ranging from 3 to 6 months. While the primary crop is grown for sale in the market, the intercrops and weeds are intended for home consumption. The inter-crops include crops like pigeon peas, millets, and oilseeds. Both hybrid and native seeds are used. The intercropping plants are usually placed in the periphery of each plot.
After the kharif harvest, the soil is turned over and the crop residue is mulched and the field is sown again with four or five types of seeds. The rabi crop is almost exclusively meant for fodder, for cattle. Generally, the hay produced on one acre is sufficient to tide three to four cattle over the hot summer season. One of the primary characteristics of the Akkadi Saalu method is the equal focus on food and fodder. The diversity of harvest timings ensure that benefits accrue at different times. The field is covered with crops for almost 8 months of the year relying entirely on soil moisture with no supplementary irrigation.
The discarded crop residue is used as manure for the main crops grown in the next season. The constant mulching ensures that all soil organic matter is conserved and soil is nutrient rich.
Focusing on soil health and moisture rather than irrigation
In the Akkadi Saalu method, earthworms and other soil organisms are used to create preferential pathways. The central principle of the method is that if soil biodiversity is conserved then the soil fauna will dig tunnels and burrows and create preferential pathways for the rainwater to infiltrate. Engineering studies investigating infiltration into soils tend to underestimate the role of biodiversity in determining soil infiltration characteristics. One of the critical aspects of Akkadi Saalu is therefore to preserve life in the soil and not use pesticides.
Additionally, differential root depths create pathways in soil in this method. The use of multiple plants for intercropping is not just for nutrition but also to boost nutrients (nitrogen fixation), soil carbon and soil moisture. The plants are specifically chosen for their diversity in rooting systems. Some have a single deep tap root, others have lateral roots and so on. Each of these root systems aids in filtration and spreading of soil moisture.
One of the common species used in intercropping is castor. Castor is an annual crop with large leaves, which grows to a height of about 6 ft by the summer. Leaving castor in the field over the summer months reduces bare soil evaporation and further conserves soil moisture. It is mulched again before the next kharif crop and the cycle begins again.
Because of the emphasis on high soil organic carbon and moisture, farms that follow Akkadi Saalu need very little ploughing. Farmers argue that the soil organisms act as tractors, keeping it porous and constantly turning the soil over.
Treating weeds as wealth and living with pests
While the advantages of lower input costs in many natural farming systems (including Akkadi Saalu) are well documented, one common critique is that avoiding pesticides renders crops more vulnerable to pests. Here, there is a fundamental philosophical difference: farmers following Akkadi Saalu view weeds favourably and pests with tolerance, instead of trying to destroy them.
American biologist Rachel Carson famously wrote in her seminal book, Silent Spring, 60 years ago, “One natural check is a limit on the amount of suitable habitat for each species. Obviously then, an insect that lives on a wheat farm can build its population to much higher levels on a farm devoted to wheat than on one in which wheat is intermingled with other crops to which the insect is not adapted.”
One of the striking characteristics of farmers who practise Akkadi Saalu throughout Karnataka, is the recognition that weeds provide direct and indirect benefits. Many rural farmers are able to recognise the medicinal benefits of weeds, which are used in soppu saru (green stew) and as fodder for their cattle. It’s common to see the weeds being taken home for dinner.
Resilience to pests is one of the much-touted benefits of a diversified farm. One of the key features of Akkadi Saalu is the use of ‘trap crops’. These crops are deliberately chosen to attract unwanted pests. The pests feed on trap crops and leave the main crops alone. Typical trap crops are oilseeds like castor. If there are enough trap crops, pests are able to complete their entire lifecycle on the crop. Other plants are bird attractors. The birds come and eat pests and the grain/fruit on the bird attractor plants leaving the main crop alone.
The principle of ‘leaving some for nature’ and using biocontrols is dramatically different from the conventional approach of killing pests. In the Indian context of small farm sizes, it may be effective, especially in the context of rainfed agriculture when farmers have to keep input costs under control.
Making a decent living off a single acre of rainfed land
The most important feature is that Akkadi Saalu may be more economically viable and less risky, than conventional agriculture, particularly in small rainfed plots. The key to the economic viability is that every single component of the groundnut is used and the farmer gets the benefit of the value addition, only paying a nominal processing fee for rental of the equipment.
For example, an acre of land yields about 700 kg of groundnut, which yields 230 litres of oil. Each litre will sell for around Rs. 400. Also the processed groundnut oil cake would be around 450 kg and it will sell for Rs. 50 per kg. So, if processing is considered inhouse, then total earnings would be approximately Rs. 1.12 lakhs (Rs. 112,000). This might not seem like much, but it is almost thrice what conventional ragi farmers make per acre.
Similar agroecological practices are followed across India
This form of intercropping is not unique to south-eastern Karnataka; Akkadi Saalu is the local name here. Similar traditional practices are still widely practised by farmers, who own small or marginal land holdings, across the country today. For example, Navadhanya in Andhra Pradesh. Mainly followed in the Rayalaseema regions of Anantapur and Chittoor, this poly-crop system caters to commercial markets through a ‘main crop’ and provides for domestic consumption by cultivating several varieties of pulses, oil seeds, vegetables and cereals. Traditional farmers in Andhra Pradesh and parts of Telangana also use the name Pannendu Pantalu to refer to cultivation of 12 different food grains on one plot of land.
The Himalayan states, including Uttarakhand, also follow a similar practice but they call it Barah Anaaj. The 12 crops that typically make up their method include ragi (millets), amaranthus, kidney bean, green gram, buck wheat, lobia (black eyed pea), horse gram and a few other crops.
In parts of Tamil Nadu, farmers who practise intercropping call it Oodu Payir. They mainly grow a combination of ragi, groundnut, horse gram, sesame along with field beans (Avare), cowpea, toor dal, black gram. Hangadi Kheti in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh; Kurwa in Jharkhand; Baradhanya in Maharashtra all refer to traditional forms of intercropping. This reflects the diversity of such practices that exist all across India, as smallholder farmers adopt unique cultivation methods and crop choices based on the soil and climatic conditions of where they are based. But some of the principles of preserving soil health, and managing weeds and pests remain the same.
Multicropping gives farmers with smaller landholdings more security. There is less risk of losing all crops at once at a time of multiple intersecting risks, from erratic weather and degrading soils to unpredictable markets. Rachel Carson had also written, “Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it.” Prabhakar’s 1.06-acre Akkadi Saalu plot is an example of what retaining ‘great variety’ looks like.
Veena Srinivasan is the Director of the Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation at ATREE, Bengaluru. Sandeep Hanchanale leads the Farms and Forests Initiative at CSEI and Manjunatha G is the Field Partnerships Associate. Additional inputs by Revitalisation of Rainfed Agriculture Network (RRAN) and freelance journalist, Mallikarjuna Hosapalya.
The authors met Prabhakar and Rajamma at a two-day soil training workshop, organised by CSEI-ATREE and the Rainmatter Foundation, and led by P. Srinivas Vasu, the founder of SOIL, a trust that focuses on protecting and rebuilding soil health.
Banner image: Prabhakar B. next to his plot of rainfed land in Nangali village in Karnataka’s Kolar district, where he practices a traditional form of intercropping called Akkadi Saalu. Photo by Manjunatha G.