Farm like the rishis!

Raju and Shalini Titus have been engaged in no-till farming for over 23 years. Contrary to pop wisdom, their net income has gone up because of increased yields and a reduction in input costs.
Results of no till farming; Image: Titus
Results of no till farming; Image: Titus

It all started in the eighties when Friends Rural Centre, a group of Gandhian Quakers in Rasuliya village, near Hoshanagabad, Madhya Pradesh came in contact with Masanobu Fukuoka. Fukuoka was a Japanese man who had authored the book 'The One-Straw Revolution' and who was promoting  natural farming. The book's basic premise is to inspire people to be with nature and not master it. It argues that humans should watch nature and synchronise their farming accordingly. The method also rejects processes such as weeding, tilling and application of fertilizers and pesticides.

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The group, which was already trying out sustainable agriculture, was greatly inspired by Fukuoka. They were convinced that the form of western development and urban industrial lifetsyle was not ideal and were looking for alternatives. 

Why was Friends Rural Centre formed?

Partap Aggarwal who was leading the group at that time notes that the community "was founded a century ago as a training centre for destitute children. Over the decades the nature of its work had changed. Its concerns in the eighties was the rapid deterioration of our soil and natural environment and the continuing impoverishment of the rural population." [1]

Raju Titus was one of the members of this group of over twenty people. He gave up his job in 1985 and along with his wife Shalini, began his no-till journey in their 13-acre farm. The farm on the bank of Narmada is located on the Hoshangabad National Highway. The Titus family had already given up modern chemical-based agriculture and had, following some initial setbacks in yields, managed to steady their practice. They had diversified the crops and begun using simple crop protection measures such as use of natural repellents like neem, onion, garlic etc.

What is natural farming?

Raju Titus on his farm; Image: Baba MayaramNatural farming meant not using machines and chemicals. It also meant not tilling the soil. Modern tillage techniques have done much damage. Farmers have tilled the soil through ages to eradicate weeds but have in the process compacted the soil and degraded it, which has accelerated soil erosion. Tilling has also led to unintended outcomes like the destruction of soil microbes and other organisms like earthworms. The no-tillage approach is known to liven up the soil through the increase of soil organic matter and moisture. Such a remoulding of agriculture was no mean task. 

Titus tried mulching with straw and seeding in unprepared soil. Tilling was not done away with completely in the first few seasons but was reduced. The shallow blade implement called the bakhar was replaced with the mould board plough. No-till experiments began from then on. This made the soil healthy, soft and high on soil moisture. Soon enough Titus realized how the soil favoured hardy local seeds.

Rishi Kheti

No-till farming has existed in various parts of the world through time. "No-till agriculture has been historically practiced by some in India", says Titus. On the occasion of the Rishi Panchmi festival, women consumed wild foods gathered from uncultivated soil. This festival dates back to ancient times when rishis (sages) grew their entire food without tilling. Friends Rural Centre called it Rishi Kheti. It was not just a farming approach but also a way of life – one that was in harmony with the environment, others and oneself. Fukuoka visited Rasulia in 1987 and this gave a boost to Rishi Kheti in the area.

Wheat is a major crop in the area where the Titus’s live. Soyabean is also grown but has shown a rapid decline in productivity according to the farmers. At the time I visited, most of the Titus farm was devoted to orchards and some acreage to vegetables. Shalini does the seeding using small hand tools while labour is engaged for weeding purposes.

"Eliminating fertilizer, pesticides and insecticides was easier than the shift to no till", the Titus family recalls of the farm that has been unploughed for over 23 years. “When the land is tilled, the rainwater instead of getting absorbed by the soil, quickly runs off washing of the soils as well as its organic content. This causes a lot of damage to the soil", says Titus. The unshredded straw is spread across the farm as mulch to improve the organic content. “The soils do indeed fluff because of the increase in organic content, and tilling as an operation is not needed for that. It is always better to mimic natural conditions under which soils have formed while farming”, says Shalini.

The economics of running the farm

Titus says, “the net income after doing no-till has increased both because of increase in yields and reduction in input costs.” Local varieties of wheat, ragi, soyabean, lentils and rice were grown in the farm. Organic manure such as raw cow dung slurry was used. Without going into the details of the material and financial costs, Titus recalls that his farm under this “do-nothing” farming was at one point producing as much as 20 quintals of rice per acre, the highest yield in the area. So, weeds were no longer the enemies.

The Titus family lives here on the bank of Narmada; Image: Raju Titus

The Titus family shuns modern conveniences. This means they own very few modern devices like a television or refrigerator that most others take for granted. They produce much of what they need by simple old-fashioned resourcefulness and have managed to live this way for many years. They have even decided to keep their grandson away from formal education as they feel that this will help the child develop the sensibilities necessary to take up Rishi Kheti. The child spends time feeding the chickens and minding the bee hives. The family depends on wild plants and the tangle of grasses and weeds for medicines. They have given up big animals like cows for milk and have taken up goat keeping as an enterprise.

The irony is that, while the Titus farm has been receiving a lot of encouragement from visitors there are hardly any people from nearby farms who have taken up natural farming. 

Even though Rishi Kheti became briefly famous when Fukuoka visited, no one around there practices it. The strong-stemmed and better rooted plants in the farm are appreciated by people around but they do very little in terms of embracing the basic principles of natural farming. Titus says that this is because it involves taking a risk and also requires people to devise a lot of approaches on their own.

The rishis did it...why can't the state at least encourage it?  

References

(1) Natural farming suceeds in Indian village, Partap Aggarwal, Illustrated Weekly of India

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