Till a few decades ago, most people in India grew vegetables and fruits in their own gardens. Then something changed. We shifted from 'farming for food' to 'farming for money'. The start of the ‘green revolution’ meant that production increased but so did the farmer's dependency on chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides. This shift in farming - from lifestyle to livelihood - also resulted in women keeping away from most farming decisions even though they were involved in the various tasks of sowing, reaping, harvesting and filling up the granaries. They aren't called ‘farmers’ and they don't benefit from training on farming concepts and schemes but some women in villages in Alipurduar, West Bengal have managed to change this for themselves.
Bimala Barman from Paschim Borochowki village is an enthusiastic member of the Annapurna women’s self-help group. She looks after the group’s rice bank that is set up in her house. This 14-member group is futuristic to say the least. They collect surplus rice from each of their members’ rice produce and save it in their rice bank. They give this to people in the village, including their members, during the lean season when people don’t have enough to eat. The same is returned after the harvest. The Annapurna self-help group grows a range of vegetables together using self-prepared vermi-compost. Well aware of its benefits, the members show strong aversion towards chemicals. They are confident that their faith in the natural ways of keeping the soil healthy and fertile will pay off.
Bimala's neighbour Kalpana Sutradhar has a farm, which mirrors a natural/forest ecosystem - where there is enough food for both man and animals. She grows multiple crops that complement each other so she has food year-round. On a small plot of land, she has placed several pots of water buried under the ground, which supply constant regulated moisture to the soil. The rest of the farm is irrigated with rainwater, which she catches in a pond that is also home to many kinds of fish. She also prepares compost using special earthworms (vermi), called vermicompost. All this and more has contributed to her confidence - she has managed to feed her family wholesome healthy food without having to depend much on the market.
This confidence is backed by sound knowledge too. With whatever little resources they have, these women are making sure that their efforts are sustainable. They grow fruits and vegetables following the principles of ecological or sustainable agriculture. At the heart of ecological agriculture is the economic, cultural and environmental wellbeing of all involved. It looks at the relationship of living beings with each other and with their habitat – ‘Vastu Tantra’ or ecology – and creates a system where they can mutually benefit. For example, paddy needs water, nutrition (fertilizer), weed control and manure. If you have 1-2 ducks in your paddy field, they would eat the weeds in the water and prevent them from forming again due to their constant paddling. Their excrete can be the food for the paddy. That reduces your labour and increases yield and the best part is that all this is achieved without using chemicals!
You can also grow your own healthy food by following the principles below.
Diversify your crops like you see in nature
- Grow two or more crops that help each other
- Plant crops that grow in the shade under the ones that demand sunlight. Similarly, mix crops of different water or fertilizer demand or root depth.
- Rotate your crops; this kind of cropping system replenishes the soil of what it has lost in the previous crop. For example, after a heavy feeding crop such as maize, you can plant legumes like beans, which would fix the nitrogen in the soil and build it back up again. Creating a cropping sequence and combination like this can help the soil’s fertility and also yield better produce.
- Relay-cropping, which is when a second crop is planted or sown before the first crop is harvested, is another variation of this. For example, you can grow lentils in a rice field just around a month before the rice harvest. At that time the residual water in the rice field is sufficient to help the lentil grow. So two crops can be harvested using the same resources of water and soil.
- Integrate - combine perennial and seasonal crops with animals and insects. This will ensure food availability at all times and the innate behaviour of the animals/insects in the farm can be used, too. Suppose, you have a fruit orchard, you could introduce a few hens. They will, by design or default, clear up weeds and pests for you. Their droppings would fertilize the soil as well.
- Create a multistoried arrangement by growing layers of crops in notches. For example, you can use big fruit or arecanut trees as poles to create a platform (machaan) using bamboo sticks. Some creepers like pumpkin, gourds or beans can grow on this platform. Climbers can be planted to grow on the tree trunks itself. Below the platform, herbs such as coriander or mint or such plants that need shade can be grown. This will use all the space and sunlight well and yield multiple crops.
Increase use of renewable resources
Plant waste can feed birds or animals while their excreta can be used to make biogas. Further, the slurry, a by-product of bio-gas, can feed the earthworms or animals. Recycling helps in increasing energy efficiency in your production system.
Also, you can create a place for birds in your farm. A lot of birds feed on insects and not on fruits. Having a bamboo stick standing in the rice field where the birds could sit can help matters and you would not need to use chemicals to drive away the pests.
Conserve soil and water
- Use rains to water your plants. You can have a small reservoir to collect rainwater.
- Try pot irrigation by sealing a pot under the soil in your field after making a small hole at the bottom. You can also fix a little cotton on the hole to prevent water from leaking heavily. Now fill this pot once a week depending on your weather conditions and keep it covered. One such pot can easily irrigate 3x5 foot patch of land.
- Use compost/vermi-compost pits or heaps for manure
- Reduce the use of synthetic input
Use limited bio-resources several times
You can have your duck farm over your pond. The duck excrete will fall on the pond and become food for the fishe or the cow dung can be used to produce biogas for your kitchen. The slurry that it produces can become food for your fish, worms for vermin-compost, mushrooms or ducks. Nothing goes to waste at all!
Don’t spread poison/pollution
Keep your soil healthy. You can do that without chemicals by using natural, renewable methods instead. Those are healthy and also free!
Grow multipurpose and local plants
Trees such as pigeon pea or bamboo enrich the soil by their high nutrient content and serve as fodder for livestock. These may also be used as firewood. Local plants are naturally suited for the existing conditions of an area and grow without much external support. Using local varieties of plants also is easy on the pocket.
Use volunteer plants
Use volunteer plants, which are plants that grown on their own and those which are un/under-utilized. For example water hyacinth can be used to grow oyster mushrooms or to grow a short-duration vegetable on a pile made of water hyacinth and soil. The attached manual 'Integrated farming system - concept and farm design' contains more information about the concept of ecological agriculture, its features, principles and farm designs.
Using such methods reduces our dependency over time and helps with social and economic welfare. Ardhendu Chatterjee, Executive Director of Development Research Communication and Services Centre in West Bengal, an organisation that focuses on ecological agriculture, is a dedicated ecological scientist. He says, “The more chemical farming is used, the more dependent we become. That’s why it is not just an environmental issue but a development issue”.
I came across a quote - “Growing your own food is like printing your own money”. By practicing self-sufficient farming, the women in these villages have done just that.