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Creating a healthy living soil to feed millions with safe food

By using an innovative compost called Amrut Mitti, many farmers are bringing life back to their soils. By enriching their agricultural fields with soil organic matter without external chemical inputs, these farmers are producing highly diverse nutrient rich food by harnessing local and natural resources.

Soil is a huge storehouse of all the plant nutrients (at least 30) needed for balanced growth of a plant. But much of their concentration is in bound form and only a small fraction is in available or water soluble form that gets taken away by the plants. Human-edible parts are removed for consumption and we further give away other plant parts to animals as fodder or burn it after harvesting, if it is not edible. But if the same inedible plant residues are fed back to the soil, and the soil humus is built and maintained, the soil can rejuvenate itself to take care of her millions of micro organisms, macrofauna and other life forms (‘Soil Life’ or Jeev-Tatva).

The added plant biomass is the food for the Jeev-Tatva which works day-in day-out and converts bound form of nutrients to plant available form. A mug (used widely in India for taking bath) of undisturbed healthy forest soil may contain 2000 crore bacteria, 20 crore protozoa, 1 lakh meter fungi, 1 lakh nematodes and 50 thousands arthropods (centipedes, milipedes, insects and spiders). It is believed that the humus in the form of moisture retained by the healthy soil, is the second big reservoir of natural water after the oceans. If quantity of this humus is reduced, the soil then needs all the external inputs, including water for plant growth and thus, the sustainability cycle of farming starts breaking down.

Box 1: Natueco method

The Natueco Science was conceived by late Prof. Sripad A. Dabholkar and the word “Natueco” is born from a combination of two words: “Natural” and “Ecological”! Natueco method of farming is in fact a culture of farming based on observing, understanding and collaborating with Nature through critical scientific methods, to strengthen the produce and the ecology of a farm. It addresses typical issues in farming like how to work in synergy with Nature without burdening it, how to reduce dependency on external inputs to a farm, how to work scientifically and within the local resources available in the surroundings of a farm, how to farm without harming its ecology and, at the same time, gain the highest benefits from it. The features of Natueco culture distinguish it from other forms of “Organic Farming”.

Natueco farming

Natueco farming is a method of holistic farming to meet the needs of farming and food today. Its goal is to maximize carbon or biomass and not necessarily maximize economic gain in the narrow sense. It is also about maximizing output with minimum input in energy terms.

The fundamental belief system in Natueco concept is that it is a science of life and life is all about energy. Natueco is not about farming and definitely not about farming for production and distribution. It is a lifestyle (See Box 1).

Amrut Mitti is the key ingredient of the Natueco farming. Also called as ‘Nursery’ Soil, ‘Masala Mitti’ or ‘Living Soil’, Amrut Mitti is a form of compost which forms the basis of the Natueco process of building fertile soil. While Nature takes centuries to produce fertile soil, a farmer can create this soil in his own farm in the form of Amrut Mitti in less than five months (See Box2). It is the process of accelerating the creation of top soil in nature, through positive human involvement to reduce nature’s time cycles. Amrut Mitti has all the qualities of a typical fertile soil – presence of living organisms, adequate moisture and aeration.

Box 2: Preparation of Amrut Mitti

The key characteristics of this ‘Natueco Farming’ technology of growing crops are (a) plants are grown on small ‘heaps of Amrut Mitti’ covered with mulch, hence no ploughing, (b) the heaps are always kept moist (watering with rose cans at the rate of 1000L water per day per 10 Gunta), (c) needbased sowing and harvesting of crops – overall it looks like a ‘constructed forest’, (d) does not need any external input in terms of the agro-chemicals like fertilisers, insecticides, pesticides etc.(e) weeds are allowed to grow until flowering and are seen as a resource, (f) high diversity on a small piece of land- over 125 crop species with a mix of annuals and perennials on 10 Gunta, (g) trenches around the farm for rain water harvesting and (h) live fencing around each farm created for multiple purposes.

Box 3: Some notable examples of Natueco farming

Farmer/Farm Crop yields
Arunachalam, Coimbatore, Tamilnadu Rice (40 q/acre, without flooding the field!)

Banana (45 kg/plant)

Deepak Suchde, Bajwada, MP Wheat (30 q/acre),

Tomato (120 tons/acre)

Potatoes (40 tons/acre)

Dr. Katariya, Jamnagar, Gujarat Ground nut (24 q/acre)
Suresh Desai, Bedkihal, Karnataka Sugar cane (100 tons/acre)
Bhaskarbhai Save, Umbergaon, Gujarat Coconut (400 fruits/tree/yr on maturity)
Vasudev Kathe, Nasik, Maharashtra Grape (16 tons /acre)
Jitubhai Kutmutiya, Malegaon, Maharashtra Papaya (180kg/tree/annum)

The trial and the spread

In 2005, the ten Guntha (one acre is 40 Guntha) experiment was carried out on two farms – Yusuf Meherally Centre (YMC) in Panvel district of Maharashtra, and in Krushi Teerth farm in village Bajwada, Dewas district in Madhya Pradesh from 2006 onwards. It was strongly believed that by using Natueco farming methods, 10 Guntha land is enough for not only feeding a family of four, but also providing other items of livelihood through selling the excess produce.

The high productivity of crops on these farms, though on a small piece of land inspired many farmers across the country to adopt Natueco methods. Natueco farming is being followed by many farmers with diverse backgrounds in various parts of India (See Box 3). Interested farmers learn the Natueco Method by participating in trainings and workshops, which are regularly conducted at Krushi Teerth in Bajwada, from time to time.

It may be noted that this method does not require any cultivation (no tractor, no bullock-drawn implements and therefore is most relevant to small-holder farmers. Also, application of Amrut Mitti is a once in life-time operation for a given field, provided good agricultural practices such as surface mulch, recycling of crop residues, multi-tier farming involving trees are followed. Productivity over time has been noted to improve and not reduce.

Some results, some impacts

Amrut Mitti contains number of micro and macro fauna. Its use for high productivity without agrochemicals should be viewed as use of starter for making curd from milk. Its use along with surface mulch creates conducive environment for regeneration of ‘soil life’ indicated above. And together, functioning as a ‘soil food web’ results in a slow release system of all the different nutrients needed for plant growth. Amrut Mitti has been analysed in many laboratories and the results were surprising. For example, the tests done at ICRISAT (O.P. Rupela unpublished) revealed that the Organic Carbon (OC) in the soil below the planted heaps of this farm was 2.61%, at least 3 times more than the reference soil (from uncultivated neighbouring plot).

For the presence of micronutrients in the available form, in Natueco soil the following was noticed: Boron 8 times, Sulphur 2.64 times, Iron 1.5 times and Zn 7.3 times more than the reference soil. In addition to these elements, Microbial biomass C, Microbial biomass N and Dehydrogenase were present in much more quantities indicating the presence of lot of microorganisms in the Natueco soil. Some samples of this compost had up to 100 million (10 crore) plant-growth promoting bacteria (siderophore producers) in every gram of the compost – highest ever measured in the ICRISAT lab, in any compost. The study also indicated that by using Amrut Mitti in heap method, bound form of nutrients were converted into soluble form plausibly due to the soil life.

The productivity of crops per unit area is also high where Amrut Mitti is being used. (See Box 3). High yields are generally noted from the very first year of operation, unlike in other forms of organic farming where people generally report yield reduction in year 1 and then increase after 3 years. It has been successfully shown for several years that productivity using Amrut Mitti is high.

The vegetables grown on Amrut Mitti have high nutritional value. When analysed, it was found that bottle gourd from a Natueco farm had 5 times more protein and 20% more calcium as compared to market sample, besides the presence of Magnesium and Iron. Surprisingly the analysis revealed the presence of Vitamin B12, which is normally manufactured by animals and microorganisms in soil and not by vegetables/ trees. Presence of this vitamin in bottle gourd is perhaps due to its absorption from a healthy soil. This is in stark contrast with the reducing nutrition levels in conventionally grown vegetables. According to a report, “The Healing Power of Minerals” by Paul Bergner, the amount of Iron present in spinach in 1914 was 64mg/100 gm which reduced drastically to 2.70mg/100gm in 1992.

Plants after 21 days of germination
Plants after 21 days of germination

Conclusion

To address the issues of food security, nutrition and poverty, there is a need to increase food production without causing harm to health of consumers and that of the environment. Designing agro-ecosystems mimicking the structure and functioning of natural ecosystems is necessary to have sustainable high yields. Amrut Mitti is one of the ways to achieve this goal while providing a dignified life to the farmer.

Amrut Mitti and Natueco farming have an untapped potential to elevate the present economic and social status of our farmers, particularly of the small-holder farmers. It also has an immense and untapped potential for the scientific community to study, assimilate and evaluate the agroecosystem based farming systems such as Natueco system. Policies that support farmers who shift from conventional farming to ecological farming will go a long way in food security of millions and improving the health of the nation.

Deepak Suchde and Om P. Rupela

Deepak Suchde
Natueco life style farmer
Malpani Trust, Village Bajwada, Post. Nemawar 455339 Khategaon, District Dewas, Madhya Pradesh
E-mail: deepaksuchde@gmail.com

Om P Rupela
Former Scientist, ICRISAT
120, Phase I, Saket, Kapra, PO: ECIL Hyderabad, 500062, India
E-mail: oprupela@gmail.com