Partap C Aggarwal is well-known in organic farming circles in India despite keeping a low profile. His role in bringing Masanobu Fukuoka’s “One Straw Revolution” to India is well-known. Partap worked at the Friends Rural Centre in Rasulia, Madhya Pradesh where he engineered a switch to organic farming. In this article taken from ‘The Illustrated Weekly of India’, he talks about the reasons he switched over and the results of his work.
For nearly eight years, from 1979 to 1987, my family and I lived and worked in a community of about 15 households near a small village called Rasulia, in Madhya Pradesh. The community we lived in, known as ‘The Friends Rural Centre’, was founded a century ago as a training centre for destitute children. Over the decades the nature of its work has changed with new workers and a changing socio-economic environment.
Currently, the centre has three major concerns : the rapid deterioration of our soil and natural environment; the continuing impoverishment of our rural population; and the apathy of our small, privileged upper classes. We believed all three to be interlinked, and rooted in the urban-industrial lifestyle which has engulfed our country with hurricane-like force in recent years.
Our community felt that this thoughtless drift must be halted, and our strengths devoted towards realising a healthy, revitalising alternative. In response to these concerns the community at Rasulia decided to change its own life-style, in order to experience at first hand what such an alternative might entail.
Our concern for soil health and the small farmer led us to make drastic changes in our own farming practices. Slowly, bit by bit, we found ourselves close to what is called ‘natural farming’, pioneered in Japan by Masanobu Fukuoka. At Rasulia we called it ‘rishi kheti’ (agriculture of the sages). Natural farming is ideally a quest for realising the underlying unity of soil, plants and animals, including ourselves.
Our urban rich have an unhealthy fascination for foreign ideas and goods, but our villagers are usually sceptical of them. It was necessary to assure our rural brothers that ‘natural farming’ was not another Japanese import. And that similar ideas have been widely practiced in our own culture over thousands of years.
The rishis looked upon the soil as a ‘mother’. Ploughing was forbidden, for many of them believed that the plough would damage the soil and turn it into sand.
The rishis considered fruit, tubers and milk the most appropriate diet for humans. Rice, barley and millet were grown in small quantities, and used as offerings tot he sacrificial fire. Leftovers were considered consecrated food – prasad – and eaten as such.
When there was a choice, uncultivated and wild grain and vegetables were preferred to the cultivated ones. Cows were raised with great care and love, and extensive grazing lands were provided to them by strictly and deliberately limiting cultivated areas.
As a first step of rishi kheti at Rasulia, we stopped using chemical fertilisers and poisons. Some plants protested mildly, but then accepted the change. Mexican hybrid wheat tried, but was not able to do without chemicals. This, we found, was true of all highly engineered seeds. When we tried to look for hardy local varieties of wheat we found that most of them had already become extinct. Luckily, we found some suitable wheat seeds in Gujarat which felt quite at home in Rasulia.
Rice, on the other hand, was much more adaptive. Even the hybrid rice called Ratna adapted quickly to the Rasulia regimen of organic manure and minimum tillage. The reason, we found, was that central India is the original home of rice, and this crop feels perfectly at home here.
We were able to find many other suitable varieties of rice. This too was not surprising; for had Dr Richharia, the noted agricultural scientist, not collected and catalogued 20,000 different varieties of rice in this region alone?
Our next step was to sell the tractor. Everyone in the community was apprehensive, but we never really missed the tractor. All digging and ploughing was of course not stopped in one go, but we reduced it drastically and used only bullocks.
Soon we learned that some hardy plants such as clover, soyabeans and rice would grow easily on uncultivated land. Not only that, we further observed that plants such as clover could be used to eliminate other less useful ones known as ‘weeds’. In fact, we began to use clover to clear our fields instead of digging them up.
After gaining some confidence in natural farming we devoted three-and-a-half acres of our least productive land to absolutely no-till treatment. To our utter amazement, it began to recover its health from the very first year. Two years later, we extended our no-till area to six acres.
We did suffer minor difficulties such as birds picking the seeds, poor germination, tough weeds, all sorts of diseases and pests and unfavourable weather. But these problems are normal in any kind of agriculture. In most cases, we were able to make suitable amends in our practices, and our experiments proved to be very successful in both technical and economic terms.
Some of our salient achievements are : yields of up to 20 quintals of paddy per acre; highly respectable yields of all other food crops except wheat; higher total production than under the previous, chemical-assisted system; a six to eightfold increase in net profits, and most important of all, vast improvements in the health and fertility of our soil.
The fields we devoted to no-till experiments had become almost barren due to soil ‘exhaustion’. Four years latter they were healthy and productive. In fact, all our land improved; and this could easily be judged from the lush, green health of the crops; the type of natural vegetation co-existing with it; the return of earth-worms; and the spongy texture of the topsoil due to accumulation of humus. Even kans, considered the most persistent of weeds in our area, bid as farewell.
The reason turned out to be quite simple. Wherever we succeeded in checking erosion, the weeds felt redundant and left us. It became clear to us that the main function of weeds is to check erosion. By letting some weeds stay as ground cover, by leaving roots of the harvested plants in place and by returning available stalks and straw to the soil we were both feeding it and providing work and sustenance to the insects and micro-organisms that build natural fertility into soil.
Another farmer in our vicinity started natural farming in 1985 and achieved even more spectacular results in a shorter time. His land was badly eroded and infested with kans. He sold his bullocks and stopped tilling completely. His grain production fell, but his land began to improve, which he thought was a bargain.
His first crop under the new regimen was not much; but by 1986 he was able to feed his family from the produce of his fields. This was a big improvement, because earlier he had been losing money every year.
In addition to its ecological merits, rishi kheti appears highly appropriate for the social situation prevailing in India today. We still have millions of small farmers owning less than 10 acres of land in the country. Due to relentless pressure from government and industry they have begun to use engineered seeds and large quantities of chemical fertilisers and poisons.
Often, these dangerous chemicals are used without adequate knowledge and care. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers and monocropping have made nearly 80% of the soil in Punjab deficient in micronutrients – which, in plain language, means sick.
Furthermore, small farmers have already begun to realise that a disproportionate rise in the prices of these inputs is making them economically unviable. In fact, many of them would go out of business tomorrow were government subsidies to be withdrawn. This situation will become worse as the soil continues to lose its natural vitality.
We realise that farmers are caught in a vicious circle of artificial agriculture, high debts and consumerism. Powerful commercial interests, including our own government, are prompting these trends. They have enormous resources at their command. Many farmers are confused by these new trends, others are helpless. A convincing alternative is bound to appeal to them.
Our farmers cannot read books, but two things they can judge are good soil and healthy crops. They can also make basic economic calculations. Most of them have generations of association with the land. Once the farmer accepts rishi kheti nature takes over as teacher.
The adoption of rishi kheti will inevitably bring far-reaching consequences for centralised industry and government. By refusing to buy chemicals, farmers will not only improve their own lives by their own efforts, but they will also help in changing society at large.
Luckily, our people have not completely lost the valuable skills necessary to produce the basic necessities of life. Nor have they lost their traditional village communities. As a matter of fact, it is still possible to tap the centuries of experience of such small, self-reliant communities, where people not only produced basic necessities for themselves but also enjoyed a large measure of political autonomy.