Saturday, 28 January 2017

Learning from farmers

Last month I went back to Champa.   Champa is a town on the main railroad line between Mumbai and Kolkatta.  It is in the state of Chhattisgarh, and is the place where I first met Sheba when she was freshly posted at Champa Christian Hospital, a mission hospital which had been founded by American Mennonite missionaries almost a century ago.

I can still remember my giddy happiness when I found out that our hospital was holding its annual regional meeting at Champa just over a month after I paid my first visit to Champa.   By the time we met for the third time it was time to define the relationship – and after a night of prayer and reading Psalms, I had my answer.  After church that Sunday I proposed… and she accepted!

So Champa always will remain special to me.  But my recent visit was not to do a nostaligic walk back through our courtship – I was there with 15 farmers from our villages that we are working with in the Bar block of Lalitpur.

We had taken a 14 hour train ride in the cold of the last days of 2016 in order to learn about farming.  

Namely about how to farm organically and that too from farmer-practitioners themselves.

The Champa Christian Hospital is one of our sister-hospitals in the Emmanuel Hospital Association and like HBM Hospital, it runs a community health and development programme.  The Champa CHDP was the programme that Sheba was leading when I first met her.  At that time it was best known for working with village women who raised and wove silk cocoons into beautiful saris.  Today, under the leadership of the undefatiguable Baswaraj, the focus is on helping local communities best use their God-given natural resources – and one of these is looking to see how farming practices can become less dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides – and use more of what is naturally available to the farmer.

Here are some learnings from our visit.

Learning No. 1: Matter matters

The base of organic farming is using what the farmer has in his or her hands.  Soil. Biomass. Cattle.  Using these God-given resources so much can be done.   Cattle are key.  There are some outlandish ideas about the value of cattle these days, but by using their dung and urine a lot can be given back to the soil.  The foundations of organic farming is making compost and biofertilisers.  The farmers we met, like Bhagwat Prasad, have set up vermiculture compost pits – where worms help speed up process the making of rich compost.

Bhagwat Prasad showing us his backyard - full of organic farming innovations... 
Bhagwat shared about how the Champa Christian Hospital team had taken him to Dehra Dun three years earlier and how he had learned basic organic farming practices there – and then put them into practice on his land.  Today he is a farmer scientist, with the small area behind his house is a dense thicket of plants as every bit of land is used for growing something, or trying out something new.
The most basic task is to make compost.  Using cow-dung and biowaste to make a rich fertile soil.  Bhagwat and other farmers use humble worms to get their compost faster. 

Rich compost made with the help of worms
The compost made is then put back into the fields, adding organic material and nutrition for the crops and increasing the moisture retaining capacity.

Along with the compost, the farmers also treat the soil with a bio-fertiliser made from cow dung, urine, molasses, chick pea flour.   There are pests to be dealt with as well.  But instead of dousing the plants with pesticides (the normal practice – we eat an appalling amount of pesticide with our food), the farmers here make their own bio-pesticide.  The key is using plant leaves which have compounds that are unappealing or toxic to insects.  The leaves of the neem tree are standard, but the farmers found out that virtually any plant whose leaves goats don’t eat can be used.  The leaves are gathered and fermented and the solution is then sprayed onto the fields.

A bottle of liquid bio fertiliser (left) and neem-sar - a bio pesticide (right) which the farmers use - along with planting marigolds on the margins of their fields...   plus some organically grown ginger!

Further farmer innovation includes planting marigolds on the borders of fields to act as a deterrent for pests, and the used of ingenious moth capturing devices.  One farmer-scientist that we met showed us light-traps that he had developed.  The idea is to have a small light held between two funnels, and as the moths are drawn to the light, the hit it and die, and their bodies then fall into the funnel and into a plastic bag attached to the bottom of it.  Other lures that he showed included complex ones that used pheromones (!) to attract female moths and then trap them – and simple ones which were small bright yellow plastic banners smeared with a sticky substance (old engine oil can be used).  Insects seem to be attracted to the colour yellow – they get stuck and die.

A farmer scientist shows us the moth traps he has developed -
 and couldn't resist talking about using the stalks of a plant to spin fibres... ideas can keep flowing!

The take-home message in all of this is straight-forward.  Lots can be done with the things that farmers have in their hands – but it takes work.  Lots of work.  Nothing comes for free.
Going organic takes a lot of hard work, especially if the farmer has been using lots of chemical inputs.  Some of the groups were 100% organic in their farming, while others were transitioning towards this. 

While there is ‘more work’ – at least initially – in switching over to organic farming, the benefits are commensurate.  The basic thought that the Champa CHDP has helped their farmers grasp is that they want their own children to eat healthy.  The first goal for the organic farmer is for his own family to have good food to eat.  Food that he or she knows is not contaminated with pesticides.  Any extra can then be sold – but feeding the family well comes first.

Interestingly the value addition of organic farming is already being recognized locally.  You can actually taste the difference.  We asked about the price of tomatoes in the local market.  In Lalitpur tomatoes were being sold for Rs. 5 per kilo when we left (partly because of the much vaunted ‘demonetisation’ that the central govt. had rolled out which has gutted much of the local economies).  We asked what the going rate in Champa was.  The farmers told us that most tomatoes were selling at Rs. 10 for 2.5 kgs – but their organically grown tomatoes were selling at Rs. 10 per kg.
I plucked a tomato and ate it off the vine.  It was delicious!

Learning No. 2: Working Together
The second lesson that came up again and again was the value of working together.  The farmers we learned from were individuals, but almost all of them were linked up with others.  The Champa Christian Hospital Community Health and Development programme has helped them form farmers clubs and self-help groups.  Each one of these groups had an admirable level of organization.  We were able to look and learn from their documentation:  each one had a basic membership register which showed who were the members of the group (along with their pictures) and had their basic articles of association.  Then there were registers for the decisions the group had taken, for money that was collected for savings, for inputs and expenditures for the common actions taken by the group.  We also found that each group had a guest book where visitors (like us) were asked to write our names and addresses – and make comments on what we saw.

We met women’s groups that had started kitchen gardens together.  Though they did not have an easy access to water for irrigation, they worked together and built up their gardens.  Another group of women decided to farm cooperatively.  We talked to them and they said that not only are they earning more, but the sheer joy of working together kept them going.   

A lady farmer showing us kitchen gardens farmed organically with the help of Self-Help Group members

In another village we met a man with 2.5 acres of land, who has brought others from the village to form a cooperative to farm it.  The whole land is organically farmed, and the group has meticulous records of the inputs and outputs. 

Everyone knows that working together has so many benefits, but we also know how hard it is to put into practice.  We asked the main man about what the group did when there were shirkers.  He was pragmatic.  “If we find that one person is not working his share, we ask him 2 or 3 times to do what he needs to do.  If he doesn’t, then we remove him from our group.”  Did the group have to do this?  “Yes, but all the 10 members we have now are working together.”

Though all the members have to work, the group also realised that different ones have different abilities - among them was a man who is not able to walk without crutches - but is included into the group and helps out as he can.

Learning No. 3: Diversify, diversify
On one hand, as mentioned before, we learned that organic farming is not just the matter of making compost.  It is a way of life, a constant learning how to better practice integrated farming which uses local resources to make the soil more fertile and moisture retaining, and at the same time protecting the crops from pests.

A common thread that we saw from all the field visits we made was that the farmers all seemed to have their fingers in a number of pies.  Besides the basic crops or vegetables that they were growing with various levels of organic input, they were also not only growing one set of crops.  Most of the farmers were also looking after livestock along with their cropping, which also helps with organic matter through the recycling of their manure.

At almost every farm we saw enthusiastic use of mushroom cultivation.  The preferred method is to take straw and layer it in plastic bags, seeding three layers with the mushroom spores.  The bags are hung up in damp rooms / sheds and the fungus harvested regularly – with each bag giving three harvests.  They sell the mushrooms to the project at Rs. 100 per kg and get a profit of about 20% on their inputs.  The project in turn sells it onward for Rs. 120.

At one of the places we met we had mushroom pakoras!  Delicious. The mushrooms can also be dried and stored – or ground into a powder for later sale.

Another income generating activity that some of the women’s groups are doing is the production and selling of sanitary napkins.  We are proud to see how the programme is able to help promote menstrual hygiene and build up the capacity of its members as entrepreneurs.

The other area of diversity is looking to see what other crops can be grown. 

Not only rice.  The common crop in Champa.  But seeing whether other seeds can also be sown.  And seeing if some of the traditional grains can be saved.  One of the farmers we met had started a seed bank of different local varieties.  Further insurance against failure.

Different kinds of local seeds being collected by a farmer scientist

One of EHA’s ideas for seeing community change is to build resilience.  We know that challenges happen.  Things fall apart.  But having back-ups helps tremendously.  If one area doesn’t work, there is something else to fall back on.   Each activity may not support the family fully, but every bit helps.  Diversifying  income sources hedges against hard times. 

In Lalitpur, we see how many of our farmers are only in the village for a few months of the year.  When their single crop is over, they migrate to the cities looking for work.  So many end up making bricks or working in small sweat shops.   Sometimes whole families migrate. They are at considerable risk from labour contractors.  And worse.  Across our nation, so many women and children are abused and trafficked.   But stepping away from the extremes, the absence of people due to stress migration hurts families.  Having parents – or children – away from the village means that families are separated and children’s educations are disrupted. Families that are not together are not going to prosper and flourish.

The basic idea that we took away from our visit to Champa was a reaffirmation that God has given the land to be used.  And used well.  Having farmers live on the land, and live off its God-given and human-husbanded bounty is something very positive.  While we don’t want to prohibit people from moving to cities, we want farmers to be able to experience the basic prosperity of being able to live on the land year-round and see their families grow into the God-given potential they have.

Learning No. 4: Getting the word out
Our farmer friends are no wilting petunias.  They share what they know and let others know as well.  One way is to tell newspapers about what they are doing.  It helped that one of them was a journalist himself.  We found multiple newspaper clippings featuring the organic farming endeavours that the farmers were involved with.  Our own visit to one of the villages was already announced on the day we arrived.  There was a small inaccuracy in the headline - stating that a group of farmers from Uttar Pradesh and Kerala had come to learn about organic farming.   We were definitely from UP but not a soul of us was from God’s own country – at least in this group.  But be that as it may, the word was getting out.

We also saw that a number of the farmers had received awards.  Some were district level awards.  Some were state-level gongs from the agricultural department.  A few had even received national level recognition. 
some of the prizes won by local farmers in Champa... and proudly displayed!

These awards are not just self-promotion.  They feed into a positive feedback loop.  The farmers that the Champa CHDP is working with are building an identity.  The government folks have been taking notice.  Which leads us to the final learning for this blog…

Learning No. 5:  Working with the Government
The national and state governments have a number of farmer-focussed programmes.  Each state has an agricultural department, and each district has a number of officials whose whole work is to help farmers be better farmers.  The Champa CHDP work has dove-tailed well into the desire of the government to promote organic farming as well.  The local officials have targets to meet.  It is no accident that they are thrilled with the work that the Champa CHDP is doing and the farmers groups being formed.   Likewise, the Krishi Vigyan Kendra – that agricultural extension programme – is tasked with bringing about new and improved agricultural techniques.  They too are pleased to see progressive farmers.

We had the privilege of going to both the district KVK and the district agricultural officer.  In both places our group of 15 farmers was ushered into the conference room.  We all sat behind our designated microphone and were addressed by the head of the KVK in one place and the District Agricultural Officer in the other. 
The district agricultural department officer meeting with our group

Now, we know that the agronomy of the Champa district is radically different from that of Lalitpur.  The district Agricultural Officer told us that over 95% of the farms in Champa are irrigated.  Many of them farm not only 2 crops per year, but 3!  What a contrast to the single cropping that most of our farmers face. 

But the learning was in the dialogue.  Here we were.  Fifteen farmer leaders from a far-off place – being given a meeting with the head of district agricultural department.  Having our farmers ask questions to an officer who otherwise would hardly be met.  Our task is not to replicate the kind of agriculture that is practiced in Champa – but to see a similar trust relationship build up.  One where when the agriculture department wants to start something new, they will ring us up first and ask if the farmers groups we are working with can take up something new…

Like when this year the Champa District Authorities sanctioned 10 sheds for mushroom cultivation.  It was the groups linked with the Champa CHDP which got the lion’s share of these.  The women’s Self-Help Groups had started mushroom cultivation on a small scale, and proved their capacity.  Now the district authorities are giving them grants of Rs. 5 lakhs each to build sheds.

Mushroom cultivation
Dedicated sheds are coming up to for mushroom cultivation like the one practiced by this farmers group.

The other novel experience was having multiple government officials meet us in the field.  We were visiting a progressive farmer – one who had one multiple awards.  And along with other scientist farmers we were also addressed by the animal husbandry extension officer, the agricultural extension officer, and the local agricultural department officer.   Young men, moving up in their careers.  They made sure to have someone take a photo of themselves addressing the farmer team that had come from Uttar Pradesh (that’s us).  At the end of the day, our government officers also want to progress in life.  Can we make it easier for them by helping their schemes to be more successful?

Receiving a kilo of organically grown rice.

So we are now back in Lalitpur, having learned a lot from our visit to Champa.  We are very grateful for the welcome all of us received from Mr. Baswaraj and the Champa CHDP team, as well as the Champa Christian Hospital leadership of Mrs. Manjula Deenam and her team.  Special thanks to our main partner TEARFund UK who have continued to encourage us to learn.  

Now to put what we know into practice.

This weekend we are getting an opportunity to do just that.  We have a reverse visit.  Two staff from Champa and two farmers have arrived in Lalitpur to help our farmers put what they learned about organic farming into practice and start out with some organic demonstration plots of our own.
Watch this space.  We trust that something will grow soon!

Organically grown Egg plants (Aubergenes or Brinjal as we call it locally) ripening in a field in Champa district

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