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Agroforestry – The future of family farming

Dipankar Dasgupta 

Inspite of the ever increasing challenges that farming faces, we still find several motivated and passionate individuals who are striving to make our lives on the planet, better. Some of such inspiring examples are presented here.

The Karma of AD Negi

The cold desert of Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh was stretched endlessly till the eyes could see. The place is called Thang Karma – in local dialect it means ‘the white open area’. Not a single blade of grass was visible there. The whole area was a vast expense of sandy loam soil and boulders. A man was staring at this desert with hopeful eyes. He was an official in the finance department of Himachal Pradesh Government. He was in charge of finance for a Government of India project for afforestation of this area. His name is Anand Dhwaj Negi or in short AD Negi.. From 1977, the government is trying to change the topography of this desert but all the experts were of the opinion that there is no technology to grow anything on this vast stretch of rocky and sandy land. In 1999, Negi took leave of absence from the office and took it upon himself to start planting trees in this desert. Finally, he took voluntary retirement from his service in 2003, to dedicate full time to this project. He donated his life’s savings for this project.

The Shahs Permaculture Farm

By his tireless efforts, 90 hectares of desert land became lush green with vegetation. He channelled the water from melting glacier to irrigate the fields and used contour planting to grow clover, peas, apples and other trees to turn this portion of desert into an oasis.  He is now popularly known as the ‘desert healer’. Local farmers who thought nothing could grow on this mountain, are flocking to Negi to learn the technique of desert farming to get back to farming. Negi has resisted pressure from agricultural experts to use chemical fertilizers in his farm and thinks that the compost produced at the farm from animal waste is enough to add nutrients to the soil. Negi has achieved what was once thought to be impossible. He has shown the way forward for today’s ailing earth.

Vast areas on our planet are turning into deserts. Forests are being cut down to pave way for so called development. Our world today is going through a multi pronged onslaught of erratic climate, devastating natural catastrophes, food shortage, water shortage, poverty and deteriorating health condition of the people. Farmers, who feed us are frustrated and are committing suicide. Rural economy is shattered and there is an exodus towards already over burdened cities. Communities in our villages are going hungry and are dependent on subsidized grains doled out by our governments. We seldom realize that all these problems are inter connected to each other and are a direct consequence of abuse of environment and misuse of natural resources by mankind.

A Brindavan at Ahmedabad

Vivek Shah and his wife Brinda were driving along a countryside road in San Francisco.  Both were well settled professionals at the silicon valley.  While speeding by the side of a strawberry farm, they noticed that the farm looked more like a military barrack than a growing area. All plants were lined up, one after another, and were being sprayed with pesticides by workers wearing protective suits resembling soldiers in a chemical warfare zone. If these chemicals are so dangerous that one needs protective gears while spraying them, what will happen to those consumers who actually eat these fruits? That is the thought that changed the course of life for this couple. Thus started the journey of developing their own food forest. In 2016, they left their cushy job in United States to come back to India and start a farm based on principles of Permaculture. In a short period of three years, they have gone commercial and are catering to the needs of the local community.

Truly speaking, today agriculture is treated more like an industry than a natural process of growing food, all because of a blindfolded journey, ironically called the Green Revolution. With advent of science came the trio of chemical fertilizers, HYV seeds (High Yield Variety) and chemical pesticides. These inventions boosted man’s confidence to take up agriculture as an industry. Added to this are: the mechanization of farming equipments, improvement in irrigation facilities and advancements in processing, packaging and storing food. Further, a complex marketing network due to excellent transportation facilities acted as a boost to the booming farming sector. Agriculture, which was more a part of the rural culture, changed from a family based sustainable food security system into a full fledged, modern, mechanized, production oriented factory enterprise.

Including trees in agriculture is a must to make it infinitely sustainable.

Miracle at Morni hills

At about an hour’s drive from Chandigarh, at the foot hills of Morni, there lies a food forest called Aanandaa farms. This was a barren piece of land that grew almost nothing until Manisha and her husband Agam thought of turning it into a farm using principles of permaculture. They extensively used mulch to change the nature of the soil. Slowly, the whole area transformed into a veritable food forest. Although they have not gone commercial yet, they grow enough food to support the family and the excess is distributed among friends. Life for this couple has changed for ever from an urban Mumbai lifestyle to that of an intimate relationship with nature. (See article on p…. for more details)

Often, the answer to a problem lies hidden in the problem itself. Undoubtedly, if it is the  deforestation that has created a whole set of agro ecological problems in today’s world, then the restoration of forest cover should be considered as the logical solution. It is only through the development of such sustainable family based food forests all over the world, that we may think of overcoming the present crisis. In this context, a slow reversal of the damage done, can take place only if we go back step by step, like a rewinding cinema, to those times when forests formed an integral part of life – all life, human, animals or plants. Infact, the sanskrit word for life span is “Jeevan“. “Jee” stands for life and “Van” stands for the forest.

Thus, growing trees and living among trees, sustaining life in a forest environment, drawing all our necessities from forest and acting as protector and promoter of forest has been in our genes for ever. One may give it any fancy name today, like Agro-forestry or Permaculture or Food Forest etc., but the basic principle remains the same, that intertwining our life with the forest ecosystem is the most natural environment for human beings. We must realise that a mass monoculture alone, in any form, devoid of diversity, devoid of natural ecosystems and devoid of self sustainability cannot be the answer to our food problems. Including trees in agriculture is a must to make it infinitely sustainable. Drawing from nature, only that much which is enough to sustain us and sustain the ecosystem is the only way forward.

The surprising story of Sohagpur

Importance of trees in our agricultural ecosystem cannot be over emphasized. Trees not only help to bring out the nutritional elements from deeper layers of earth to the surface but they also enrich the earth by adding organic matter to the top soil. They prevent soil erosion, act as wind breaks, prevent run off of nutrients from soil by rain water, preserve soil moisture and act as host to birds, animals and insects that act as pollinators and natural enemies to pests. Trees also have a profound influence on climate. Trees lower temperature of an area, they produce oxygen to purify the air, they attract rainfall and sustain our groundwater resources by acting as natural rechargers. Trees prevent unnecessary evaporation of water from the ground surface. They act as solar cells to utilize all the sunlight falling on their leaves to produce food.

Intertwining life with trees is essential for sustainability

In 2006, a young IIT-IIM alumini, Sandeep Saxena was working in the United States, entrusted with the responsibility of a survey which included study of Indian Agro Economy. As a part of his job, he travelled extensively in rural India and realised that the cutting of forests in the name of development and a fast receding ground water level was playing havoc with the lives of Indian farmers. He studied the situation for first two years and came up with the idea of developing extensive food forests as the only solution to the present agrarian crisis. He started experimenting with his own 100 acres land at Sohagpur in Madhya Pradesh. He named the project Aranyani after the name of Goddess of the forests. As the first step, he planted hardy tall trees like Banyan, Peepal and Neem  at the center, surrounded by fruit trees like Moringa and Bael, followed by trees like Papaya, Banana and Lemon and finally the outermost circle of Lentils and Legumes. Within four years, the trees created a vibrant food forest, pleasant even in the summers. Today, the products of this forest are marketed through e-platforms supported by hundreds of faithful customers. This step eliminates the role of middle men in agriculture and ensures reasonable price to the farmer.

There are about 175 varieties of trees growing side by side at Sohagpur, supporting each other and creating a layer of biomass on a land which, once upon a time, was  barren and rocky. He is also helping other farmers to replicate his model all over the country creating sustainable food forests. These forests in villages of Madhya Pradesh produce both organic and exotic products. Unprocessed turmeric and giloy are very popular products of Aranyani among many others. Simple processed products like traditional mango pickles in organically grown and hand pressed mustard oils are promoted and marketed through social media. At the background, continued research and knowledge sharing keeps the whole system active and updated.

The future of family farming
Aranyaani, the food forest with 175 trees

The potentials and possibilities of sustainable agro-forestry in today’s context is immense. But the biggest impediment in convincing farmers about the benefits of agro-forestry is of course, the present agricultural system itself. In a capacity building exercise that I was attending, a farmer rightly pointed out that even today, all our agricultural institutes are teaching us that chemical fertilizers and pesticides are almost indispensable for better yield from a given land. Even now, the multinational companies are allowed to promote their own patented brands of fertilizers, pesticides and even seeds to the farmers, promising great results. The agriculture departments are promoting hybrid seeds and recommending chemical pesticides for plant protection. They don’t tell the farmers that chemical pesticides are the greatest cause for soil degradation and the source of contamination of irrigation water. They don’t inform the farmers about the health hazards of using these highly toxic and non degradable chemicals in farming.  In such a scenario, to convince a farmer about an alternative system of farming is almost unthinkable. Only a paradigm shift in government’s policies and an active effort by all of us to promote agro-forestry through various capacity building exercises, technology sharing and adequate awareness campaign can turn the tide away from sure shot disaster. Are we too late to turn around? Are we too slow to respond? Are we too reluctant to change? These are some of the questions that will surely decide the future of mankind. At some point of time, man has to realize that going back to basics and again making forests our true lifeline, can put our lives back on track and save this world from destruction. The quicker we realise the dangers of continuing on a fallacious path,  better are the chances of our survival and of leaving a healthier planet for our children.

Dr Dipankar Dasgupta 

Nandalaya Clinic

Sarbodaya Nagar

Puri 2 – Odisha – 752002

Email: drdipankar123@gmail.com