Inspired by examples of farmers earning ample returns through various techniques of chemical-free farming, a farmers’ produce company in Rajkot is writing a new chapter on sustainable agriculture in arid and semi-arid zones. Hiren Kumar Bose explores the revolution wrought by Future Farms.
Neetu Patel, an agri-entrepreneur, has strong opinions about the kind of farming she endorses. She says, “Farmers who are forced to sell tomatoes for ₹1 for a kilo, or onions for 50 p, and end up destitute have become the norm. That’s not the kind of farming we believe in. We are into growing medicinal plants, and even crops like wheat, castor, sesame, moong, arhar, etc., by strictly following organic farming.”
The feisty director of Future Farms—which counts Patanjali Ayurved, Himalaya Drug Company, and Zandu Pharmaceuticals as clients—was speaking at her organic food store in a residential neighbourhood in Rajkot. The shop stores a range of products, from alfalfa capsules to organically grown lentils. In 2016, it supplied 750 tons of castors grown in Kutch’s Bhachau region to Gandhidham-based Castor Products Company for pressing into oil, which was exported to Wala Heilmittel GMBH in Germany. With 100 acres adding up every other month, the farmers’ produce company is writing a new chapter on sustainable farming in the country’s arid and semi-arid zones.
A recent study, titled Development of Optimal Crop Plans (OCPs) for sustainable groundwater management practices in Saurashtra region, and conducted by agricultural scientists of Junagadh Agricultural University (JAU) in two villages each of Jamkandorna taluka of Rajkot and Wankaner taluka of Morbi, both in Gujarat, revealed that farmers cultivate water-intensive groundnut and cotton because of high gross returns compared with other crops that consumed less water.
The study suggested that in order to improve crop diversification and lessen farmers’ dependency on high water intensity crops, suitable crops be suggested after duly considering their income generating capacity.
The good news is that scores of farmers have already taken up the initiative as suggested by the researchers, and Neetu Patel’s Future Farms is one of them, holding 8,000-odd acres in Gujarat’s Saurashtra and Kutch regions, and benefitting around 3,500 small and marginal farmers.
While most land holdings in Saurashtra’s Surendra Nagar, Bhavnagar, Junagadh, Rajkot, Morbi, Wankaner, and Jamnagar districts are within the range of 3-5 acres, the landholdings are bigger in Kutch due to its sandy soil and less rainfall.
A sort of disruptive farming is being witnessed, as scores of kheduts (farmers) abandon chemical-based farming and adopt organic farming. They use drip irrigation techniques, moving away from farming which relies heavily on over-exploitation of ground water and increased dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These farmers feed the nascent market for organically grown crops, like wheat and lentils, besides fuelling the demand for herbal and medicinal crops, which go into making wellness products.
Future Farms has been reaching out to small and marginal farmers, organizing workshops commending the virtues of cow bio-waste-based organic farming, and giving demonstrations on making compost, organic fertilizers, and pesticides. “Each month, we get two to three requests from farmers for organizing workshops,” K. E. Chandravaidya, Associate Professor at Mangrol-based BRC College, who has held workshops on behalf of the farm produce company in villages of Rajkot, Junagadh, and Mangrol, told VillageSquare.in. “Those who have followed our advice have found that the land which had lost its fertility has regained it, and lessened their dependence on chemical inputs.”
In fact, ever since Subhash Palekar, the originator of Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), was awarded the Padma Shri, his day-long workshops held in villages of Saurashtra have been attracting huge participation. “Though we have been popularizing organic farming through our extension programme within our university campus and through Kisan Vikas Kendras spread in the 10 districts of Saurashtra, it has been Palekar’s workshops which have helped change the mindset of farmers,” Amrutlal M. Parakhia, Director, Extension Education, Junagadh Agricultural University, told VillageSquare.in.
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Farmers are slowly realizing that soils rich in organic matter produce more nutritious food with higher levels of antioxidants, flavonoids, vitamins, and minerals. An increase in soil organic matter leads to greater biological diversity, thus controlling the spread of plant diseases and pests.
Saurashtra’s soil has a lower percentage of humus content, low nitrogen availability, medium potassium levels, and high phosphorous levels. From the point of fertility, the land is poorly supplied with plant nutrients. To get a reasonable yield each year, the farmer is forced to increase his dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. With the government withdrawing subsidy on fertilizers except urea, farmers have realized the futility of chemical-based farming.
From initiating the process of enriching the soil to post-harvest sale, Future Farms handholds the farmer for three years. It offers a fixed price to its associates (the farmers) decided at the beginning of the season.
“We begin harvesting the tender leaves once the moringa plant is four months old. Repeating the cycle every 45 days, we do not allow them to flower or bear fruits. We dry the leaves on our solar drier channel for two days, readying them for sale,” says Neetu. She is at a 160-acre farm in Vinaygadh village in Than taluka of Morbi, 55 km. from Rajkot town. The farm has rows upon rows of aloe vera, rose plants, and shoulder-high moringa, all irrigated by drip. The drip alternately provides water and a fermented concoction of cow urine, dung, jaggery, and powdered lentils.
Soon, Future Farms plans to host free residential workshops at its Vinaygadh farm. These will target farmers willing to take up natural and ecosystem-based (NatuEco) farming method. “We make around ₹1 lakh per acre from sargawah (moringa) and aloe vera,” associate Narbheram Vermoda told VillageSquare.in. “Our wheat fetches around ₹800 per quintal, which is ₹200 more than those grown with chemical fertilizer inputs.”
Deepak Suchde’s NatuEco works on the premise that one can create a micro-climate for self-sufficiency. It follows the principles of ecosystem networking of nature in our farming systems. NatuEco emphasizes harvesting through a critical application of scientific inquiries and experiments using neighbourhood resources. It depends on developing a thorough understanding of plant physiology, plant geometry of growth, plant fertility, and plant biochemistry.
Most farmers fence their farms with medicinal herbs like kakaj, senna, prickly pear, jaljamini, shatavri, neem, akado, guggul, gliricidia, etc. Besides creating a micro-climate of sorts, these fences prevent the ingress of pests. They also bring in additional income to the farmers through the sale of their leaves and fruits.
“Prickly pear, from the cactus family, grows in the arid zones of the US and Mexico, as well as India. Through our research, we have been to establish what Ayurveda literature has long claimed. The fruit is good for anaemic patients,” says Sanjay Chauhan, Associate Professor of Pharmacy at Nadiad’s Dharamsee Desai University. “This makes our product unique.”
Gujarat has become the ninth state in India to declare a policy for organic farming. The government has made a promise to offer a subsidy to those pursuing organic agriculture. Thus, it’s likely that more and more farmers will take to sustainable farming in the near future.
(The author is a journalist based in Thane, Maharashtra. He doubles up as a weekend farmer.)