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Participatory soil health restoration

At a time when agricultural extension services are not reaching millions of farmers, and while the cutting edge technologies are not affordable, working on a participatory mechanism using local knowledge and resources is a must for the development of farmers’ lives and livelihoods. A sustainable agriculture practice through regeneration of soil health is the need of the hour.

Use of neem spray as pest repellent helped reduce 75% use of chemicals in crop fields.

With the ideology of developing the rain-fed agriculture system of Deoghar district in Jharkhand, Pravah, a non-profit development organization has been working with the farmers in the region promoting sustainable agriculture practices.

Supported by Welf Hunger Hilfe of Germany, Pravah implemented the SIFS programme, an initiative to promote sustainable agriculture practices through regenerating the soil health by promoting Integrated Organic Nutrient Management (IONM). The idea was to enhance microbial population in the soil, improve the availability of plant nutrients, and enhance the crop productivity.

The SIFS initiative

Initially, around 25 young farmers from 10 villages were intensively trained in low cost organic crop production using eco-friendly systems approach. They were further trained in the preparation of liquid organic manure, botanical pesticides, NADEP compost, vermi compost, mixed cropping, line sowing, scientific live fencing with agroforestry model, multi-tier horticulture, etc. These trained farmers, along with Pravah staff, co-facilitated organizing the farmers in each village into groups like the NABARD’s farmers’ club. Later, around 300 farmers got trained in integrated organic nutrient management, cultivation using sustainable agricultural practices, for almost an year.

Participatory processes were adopted. A large number of farmers, men and women participated, assessed the soil situation and explored opportunities for future growth with existing local resources and organic practices. Initially, farmers learnt to prepare 5 types of liquid organic manure in their backyards. They gradually increased the use of biodigesters for preparing organic manure. As an entry point, farmers were supported to produce more organic manure by constructing low cost bio-digesters like Nadep compost pit, bio-gas chambers, vermicospost bed, Azolla bed, etc.

Nandlal Singh, a 46-year-old marginal farmer from the Janjhi village was facing losses from farming since ten years. Until 2011, he used to grow traditional paddy and maize during Kharif and wheat in Rabi season.

With project intervention, Nandlal divided his 2.5 acres into two parts-homestead and main field. He prepared two compost pits, one vermi and another NADEP. Nandlal cultivated local paddy in 50 decimal lands and got 16 quintals which matched the yield of a conventional HYV Paddy. Moreover, he followed the mixed cropping technique and cultivated maize and redgram with cowpea as outer line live fencing. The additional yields from other crops were – 4 q maize, 5 q redgram and 1.75 q cowpea. He also kept a traditional cereal of the region named Madua (Ragi millet) in his 15 decimals of relatively low fertile land and harvested 1 quintal production. In Rabi 2012, he cultivated SWI wheat in 40 decimal lands and produced 3.5 quintal wheat.

In his 30 decimals of homestead land, he cultivated vegetables like- cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, coriander and beetroot. He realized the importance of using aerial space and established Multitier horticulture structure in his nutrition garden on one decimal of land. His vegetable production was 1.5 times better in the homestead due to interventions like mulching, multi-tier horticulture structures, pitcher irrigation, organic liquid manure application, botanical pesticide application.

Nandlal has been increasing the crop diversity on his main land and kitchen garden too, harvesting improved yields. This helped him to increase his annual income by 30%. He also realized that the soil was retaining more moisture than before. The vegetable intake by the family has improved considerably providing good nutritional support.

Changes on the field

Farmers made a lot of changes in their production practices. They started growing 3-4 crops – some as intercrops and some as border crops, replacing the monocultures of paddy. Moreover, cow dung and crop residues were recycled as organic manure, which met the demand of plant nutrients.

Liquid manure was used as a growth promoter for plants in main farm and also in the homestead. For instance, use of neem spray as pest repellent helped reduce 75% use of chemicals in crop fields. Further, seed preservation technique helped farmers reduce dependency on external seed materials.

Setting up nutrition gardens

Around 300 farmers established organic vegetable gardens following the integrated process, e.g.- preparation of seed bed with organic manures like vermi compost and cow dung cake, broadcasting azolla and applying green manure before the commencement of cultivation in the main field, and basal dose application after 15 days after sowing with the combination of FYM and vermi compost.

For vegetable cultivation with little available water, mulching method was introduced along with pitcher irrigation and multi-tier horticulture structures. Multi-tier horticulture was used mainly for two reasons. One, bamboos are plentiful in the region and two, it also uses the aerial space of the land and produces more vegetables from the same piece of land.

After the initial enthusiasm in cultivating organic, farmers were faced with water shortages during critical periods of cultivation. Vegetable growing was also highly dependent on rainfall and the failure of monsoons affected crop cultivation. Nevertheless, to sustain the initiatives, low cost water harvesting structures were constructed to ensure continuous availability of water for vegetable gardens.

Initial results and impacts

Farmers by adopting sustainable agricultural practices like mixed farming, use of organic manure, mulching etc., are reaping rich harvests from their small plots of land. Farmers are also happy that now their soils retain moisture much better.

By using the homestead areas for producing vegetables, farmers had continous supply of nutritious and safe vegetables all round the year. In a month, each family could harvest 25-30 kg Madua (Ragi); 7-9 kgs of ribbed gourd; 10-14 kgs of brinjal; 4-6 kgs of bitter gourd in their organic fields. Little surpluses were shared with the neighbours and also sold in the local markets. Around 40% of this was sold by which they received an additional income of Rs.1800- 2000. With the growing access to vegetables on a daily basis, these families stopped buying vegetables from the market, particularly in the dry season, helping them save around Rs.2600 every month.

With increased use of organic manures and enhancing the crop diversity on the farm, these farmers started harvesting better yields, resulting in better food security, better incomes and nutrition as well. The farming area served the production of food, fodder, fruits and fuel. Seeing these farmers, many other farmers in the villages, started adopting IONM with systematic approach. Nandalal Singh has not only done input substitution and reduced his market dependency, but also generated profits from selling considerable amount of produce after meeting the necessities of his family. The practice of integrated organic farming has given his family food security and reduced his dependence on the market.

Anirudhha Das and Purnabha Dasgupta

Anirudhha Das
Programme Coordinator, Pravah, Bompass Town, Devsangh Post Deoghar, Jharkhand – 814114
E-mail: aniruddha.rkmvu@gmail.com

Purnabha Dasgupta
PhD Scholar, Integrated Rural Development and Management Faculty Centre, Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama, Narendrapur, Kolkata 700103
E-mail: purnabha.irdm@gmail.com