Harbant Singh from Punjab switched to organic farming to cultivate dragon fruit and sandalwood as they require less water than conventional crops.
When Harbant Singh from Punjab’s Thulewal village joined his family occupation of farming in the 70s, the groundwater was available at 15 feet. Decades later, when his son, Satnam started farming, groundwater tables had drastically fallen to 150 feet.
This had a direct effect on the Singh family. They were reeling under debt due to the high input costs for motors to pull up the water, the tubewell and the heavy usage of chemical fertilisers.
In the land of five rivers (Beas, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej), the father-son duo stared at a looming water crisis – just like tens thousands of farmers across the state.
Figures back up this unfortunate plight.
As per a 2019 report by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), Punjab, where today paddy fields thrive, will turn into a desert within 25 years if rampant groundwater extraction continues.
Way before this report was released, Harbant realised the environmental damage his farming techniques were making and even predicted deteriorating conditions of farmers.
But he lacked avenues and resources to implement pro-environmental changes on his farm until 2016.
In that year, Harbant and Satnam participated in a workshop organised by Kheti Virsasat Mission (KVM), a charitable trust helping farmers switch to organic farming. They interacted with farmers, learnt methods and identified eco-friendly alternatives to chemical fertilisers.
“Using harmful pesticides and exploiting water tables is like an addiction in our region and many farmers want to come out of this vicious cycle but no one wants to take risks. All of us are aware of the damage it is causing to the lands. So, when I got an opportunity and assurance from a farmer’s community that switching to organic is possible, I grabbed it,” Harbant tells The Better India.
After attending the workshop, the 60-year-old decided to keep aside his years of experience and knowledge for the sake of a larger good and started growing dragon fruit, lemon and sandalwood.
Explaining the reason behind choosing these unusual plantations, Satnam says “Of the eight acres, we have dedicated 1.55 acres for chemical-free farming. Both dragon fruits and sandalwood use 90 per cent less water as compared to traditional crops like wheat or rice. They also need less maintenance and input cost but they give high returns.”
Haresh Thacker, a dragon fruit farming expert from Kutch, agrees with Satnam and says, “The dragon fruit is a tropical plant that is low on calorie content and contains antioxidants. It does not require much water to grow and can thrive in arid areas.”
Even though the water requirements and agricultural inputs are minimal, dragon fruit farming can have phenomenal results in terms of yield if maintained properly.
For instance, one acre of dragon fruit trees gives the Singh family 40 quintals (4000 kilos) every year and a kilo fetch up to Rs 200.
“We have 2500 trees of dragon fruits that annually gives us approximately Rs 8,00,000 per acre. As for sandalwood, the trees will bear results after 15 years and every tree can fetch up to Rs 3,00,000. We have close to 200 sandalwood trees,” he adds.
Vietnam Method to Grow Dragon Fruit
In the last decade, Gujarat’s water-scarce Kutch district has witnessed an organic dragon fruit revolution where hundreds of farmers are growing the Hylocereus undatus, which is pink on the outside and has a white pulp, peppered with black seeds, on the inside.
Satnam happened to visit Vishal Doda, a friend from Kutch who is doing dragon fruit farming in 15 acres. Impressed by the Vietnam technique to grow the fruit, Satnam learnt it and purchased 500 seedlings from his nursery.
He taught his father and invested Rs 4 Lakh (per acre) in cement poles, irrigation facilities, labour costs and seeds to set up the process. He recovered the cost within two years.
Here’s the method:
- Dig a 2-feet deep trench in the soil to accommodate a 7×12 feet cement pole vertically.
- Enclose the pole with a hollow cement ring.
- Maintain a distance of one foot between each pole so that it can receive sunlight
- Four dragon fruit trees, which is a climbing plant, can thrive on one pole
- Fill the inside of the pole with soil and jeevamrut (a mix of cow dung and urine) to provide nutrition to the plants.
- Use drip irrigation technique to water the roots directly. Harbant adds liquid organic fertiliser in the water pipe to keep insects at bay.
Harbant has planted 500 poles on 1.25 acre, “In the first year, per pole will give around 4-5 kilos fruit which will then increase to 20 kilos in the fifth year.”
Sandalwood & Lemon Plantations
Being a parasitic plant, roots of sandalwood called ‘haustoria’ derive their nutrition from other host plants and in return supply nutrients to their hosts according to a study published in journal Current Science.
So, Harbant purchased the Santalum album variety from Bengaluru and planted 200 trees on half an acre. Between each tree, there is a distance of 12 feet where he is cultivating lemons.
“Apart from its high commercial value, sandalwood cultivation has many benefits. It requires moderate water in the first five years post which it grows on its own and it takes 15 years for sandalwood to be ready for harvesting. Sandalwood plant gives seeds after four years and every kilo can fetch up to Rs 1000. While there is no legal ban on planting sandalwood trees in Punjab, a farmer has to seek permission from the government during its cutting,” explains Satnam.
3 Lessons for Every Beginner
The Better India spoke Umendra Dutt, founder member and executive director of KVM to understand certain concepts that a beginner must keep in mind.
“Monoculture of single cropping reduces the soil fertility forcing farmers to use chemical fertilisers to enhance the yield. This, in turn, disrupts the natural plantation cycle. It is advisable to grow as many seasonal crops or vegetables as possible which also reduces insect attacks.”
Umendra further underlines that killing every pest is not necessary as some beneficial ones promote soil activity that is crucial for roots. And finally, the farmer must replicate the natural cycle of plants. In other words, the farm should mimic nature and minimize the use of external inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides.
“Keep animals like cows and hens on your farm as they help in soil preparation. Their residue acts as nutrient-rich manure. Instead of discarding agro-waste such as leaves use them to mulch the soil. Invite birds to thrive on the farm as they feed on insects that can leave your crop damaged. The answer to every farming problem lies in nature, one has to only look for it,” adds Umendra.
Get in touch with Harbant Singh here
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)