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Going Organic: Farming for the Bigger Picture

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June 12, 2015 at 1:21 PM  •  Posted in Grains, Flours & Rice, Lentils by  •  0 Comments

The air is cool and pleasant just after sunrise in central Uttar Pradesh. It’s an hour or two before the sun actually breaks the tree line and starts beating down unbearably on the dry, pre-monsoon earth, but the organic farm is already awake and noisy. The cows start the symphony, and are joined by the dogs; flocks of wild peacocks who wander the orchards and fields in beautiful packs, sounding a bit like distressed cats, joining in for a three part harmony. Later, there’s bird song from the innumerable smaller birds that make their home on the farm, and beneath it the buzzing of insects barely audible above the din of larger animals. This place provides a home to so many animals, and their noise bears a message—that this is a healthy place, and what’s grown in a healthy place is good for you.

Ravikant Pathak started his organic farm on 30 acres of family land reduced to dry infertility by erosion into the nearby Betwa River. As a professor at the University of Gothenberg, in Sweden, where he’s been researching different aspects of air pollution, Ravikant had traveled a long way from home. But several years ago he developed an interest in Gandhian thought, and especially in the South African “Tolstoy Farm” where Gandhi developed important ideas about how communal living could play a part in transforming rural life. Ravikant wanted to create his own farm which could provide economic support to his ideas of social justice in rural India, and so in 2007, with only a few thousand U.S. dollars in savings, he returned to his family’s land and began farming.

The farm was started with orchards of guava, citrus and amla trees, which began to heal the soil and provided the foundation for economic viability. They created bunds, by planting grass and trees between rows of crops to prevent erosion and diversify the landscape. Today, the trees in the orchard are tall and peacocks run skittishly beneath the heavy branches. Reviving the land was a “two-way process” of working with local knowledge about the land and crops while also bringing in modern processes, like drip irrigation, that could reduce the amount of work needed to water the field and avoid unnecessarily wasting the precious resource.

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Preparing organic vermicompost for the fields.

When I Say Organic visited the farm in Hamirpur, the farm manager, B.S. Sharma, demonstrated this two-way process. Sharma studied the natural environment around Hamirpur, and had the idea to plant poplar trees from his native Uttrakhand as a means of “renewable, replaceable cycle of biomass generation.” While their roots strengthened the soil, their leaves would fall to the fields and provide naturally fertilizing biomass. They could be harvested every few years to sell their wood and, because they grow quickly, new saplings would soon grow to replace them.

Organic farming, according to Ravikant, can be a way to both economic and social sustainability. In the area around the farm most farmers are dependent on the rain, which is more tenuous than irrigated farming on the richer “black cotton” soil but is also organic by default. Ravikant brought these farmers together, offering advice on new techniques and convincing them to join together to earn a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) certification, which uses trust and group verification to ensure organic quality. The farms were certified organic in 2012, and shortly after the farmer group began working with I Say Organic. Today, a group of 11 farmers are managing 90 acres and growing over 20 different varieties of 100% organic crops.

On Ravikant’s farm itself there are between 10 and 25 people are working at any given time, tending the fields, cooking food, or handmilling wheat and dal, and earning a sustainable living in the process. The profits from the farm go towards a charitable trust to promote education, work towards women’s empowerment, and encourage positive change in deeply entrenched practices of the caste system and the practice of giving away costly dowries.

Ravikant is proud of his all-organic crops, especially the desi varieties that are uniquely suited to grow in the dry, difficult soil. Their kathiya wheat is high in fiber, while the hand milled dals retain much of the nutrition that would otherwise be polished away by more industrial machines. The cows at the organic farm are allowed to roam free, and while calves munch on weeds in the summer fields, the older cows and bulls roam the nearby forest. These free-range, grass-fed cows produce milk for ghee that’s higher in nutrients than from grain-fed cows. They cold press their oils, which preserves the nutrients better than more industrial, heat based methods of processing.

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Organic, hand-milled dal at the organic farm

For all the focus on local knowledge, Ravikant is also willing to experiment with new crops and new ways to support the other farmers in the certification group. He is starting a community-farming program to share infrastructure like tractors, cultivators, and other mechanized tools with other farmers who go organic. He’s planning to start growing more crops to promote diversity and create a market for organic but non-traditional crops, like sunflower, sugarcane, and banana to the region.

Ravikant always felt organic farming was the way to go. Conventional farming, he says, is built on the “half-knowledge” that healthy farms only need a few basic nutrients instead of the whole range of microorganisms living in fertile soil, or that we can simple kill the weeds and insects that afflict our crops. This sort of farming replaces nutrients in our foods with harmful chemicals and pesticides, and harms our health and environment. The farm is meant to be economically sustainable, to encourage organic farming as a way to a better life, but it’s also meant to go beyond profitability. Ravikant is trying to build a place that measures benefit by a change in social stigmas, in cleaner, pesticide-free air, in the creation of fertile soil in an infertile place. Judging by the life on the farm, the trees and the birds, the cows and the dogs, and the people who bring it to life, he is on the right track.

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