Sarvadaman Patel, 69, forayed into organic farming 17 years ago, and his greatest achievement has been to show the farming community that it is possible to get good yields by adopting good farming practices. A passionate farmer, Patel is also a gifted story teller, who has chronicled amusing tales and delightful anecdotes from his farm into a book Chased by A Bull and Other Cock and Bull Stories. He spoke to Anuradha Dhareshwar about his successful journey as a farmer.
What made you take to farming?
I loved to be amidst trees and even as I studied in school, at age 12, I was a good gardener. By the time I was 18, I had decided that I wanted to be a farmer. After doing my Bachelors in Agriculture and Animal Husbandry from Pant University, I left for the US to do my Masters in Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. After working for a year and a half in three different dairy farms in America, I returned to India with the dream of having my own farm. For a few years, I worked on a number of projects in dairy and forestry for clients on turnkey basis, and in the year 1975 started my own farming enterprise, the Bhaikaka Krishi Kendra on our 40-acre farm, named after my paternal grandfather, who had always encouraged me to follow my dream.
You started off as a conventional farmer, practicing inorganic farming. What made you completely switch over to organic farming?
My initial attempts at organic farming in the mid-90s were not successful. Three things that happened on this farm made me foray into organic farming. First was the gradual depletion of yields inspite of using fertilisers, and the diminishing health of the soil and animals. The second was when a farm worker got poisoned (luckily, he survived to tell his tale), when spraying a pesticide. The third was when pesticide residue on the fodder caused illness in a large number of cows. Taking these as signals from the heavens, I started reading a lot about organic farming, and in the year 2000, took a whole hearted plunge into organic farming.
During that time, I also met Peter Proctor, considered as the father of modern Biodynamics, and was hugely inspired by him. Peter visited my farm a few times and saw my passion for organic farming. In 2005, he offered to stay at my farm for almost a year and helped turn it biodynamic. He was a tough task master and I learned a lot about biodynamic farming from him.
Can you please explain the term biodynamic farming?
It is a method of farming that aims to treat the farm as a living system which interacts with the environment to build healthy living soil, and to produce food that nourishes, vitalises and helps to develop humanity.
What do you grow on your farm? How many farm hands work on it?
We grow over 40 different vegetables mostly in the winter months, and also a variety of fruits like chikoo, mango, custard apple, litchi, papaya, sweet lime, lime, etc. A variety of cereals and pulses like oats, bajra, barley, wheat too are grown on the farm in addition to wood for timber. Fodder for the animal makes up 30 per cent of my farm, which employs about 20 regular workers and more on need basis when there are spikes of tasks.
How many small and marginal farmers train on your farm each year? What do they get to learn?
Annually, about 250 farmers are trained at the farm. We have been doing this since 2001. There is a December workshop – five days of biodynamic training and four days of vegetable training, every year. There are many resource people from different parts of India who come down for the workshop and it is more hands on, practical training. The trainees are asked to plant eight different kinds of seeds and transplant eight. They are trained on how to raise a nursery and manage it. They get to learn cropping pattern in different seasons, understand soil fertility and are trained to pick vegetables, maintain quality and hygiene. We also guide the trainees to market their produce.
You also run a Gurukul for those who want to learn organic farming?
Yes. Ravi Koushik, an IITian, who is a close friend and associate, and practices biodynamic farming in Bengaluru, suggested that I should start a Gurukul at the Bhaikaka Krishi Kendra for sharing my practical knowledge on organic/biodynamic farming with fellow farmers from all over India and also farming enthusiasts who want to seriously take up organic farming. So we started the Bhaikaka Krishi Gurukul at the Krishi Kendra in 2011. It is a one-of-its kind institute in India which offers short term (3 months) and long term (6 months) apprenticeship programmes, where particpants get hands-on experience in organic farming.
Are Indian farmers convinced that productivity need not be compromised by switching over to organic farming?
Farmers are convinced only by what they see. Lectures don’t mean much to them. In my farm each part of the field is meticulously planned. Companion crops which help each other both in productivity and pest management are planted. Farmers get to learn a lot on cropping patterns, ethical farming and can see the yields without using pesticides and chemicals. Hence a lot of impetus is given to practically showing the productivity.
Is there a way we can prevent farmer suicides in our country?
The Green Revolution in India has not really helped. There is a big gap between the agricultural extension services and farmer. Generally small farmers take the extreme step of ending their life mainly under the pressure of debt, thanks to investments made in purchasing chemicals and pesticides. Crop failure adds to this misery. The government is also not helping much. When a farmer commits suicide the government gives compensation to the family, which also becomes a motivation. I feel saddened about this. If organic practices are followed, a farmer becomes self-reliant and we could avoid farmer suicides.
Agriculture has been in a state of crisis since long. Is it wrong policies that are responsible for the crisis or it the unpredictability of nature? Are we doing anything to set it right?
Unpredictability of nature has been there for centuries, but nature is benevolent and if we adopt the right practices, it could still give us good yields. It is the infertility of the soil which is causing problems. Soil has become so infertile that it does not respond when a calamity occurs. It is wrong farming practices coupled with lack of education that add to the problems. Agricultural universities should take the lead in educating farmers. Their extension services are not effective. This must change. Organic farming forms a small part of the agriculture policy. In 2015, the Gujarat government formulated a detailed organic policy and had taken help from me and Mr. Kapil Shah from Jatan (an NGO in Vadodara empowering farmers to take up organic farming), to draft the policy. It was planning to develop 5 to 6 model farms. But nothing much has moved forward on this front.
GM mustard is considered unsafe and yet it will soon be allowed to be cultivated in our country despite protests from activists. What is your view regarding GM (Genetically Modified) crops?
The diversity of any crop is immense in India. This will be lost once the GM crop comes in. As of today a lot of seeds are saved by the farmer which can be used again and again, and there is a selection which is done by the farmer himself. GM is transgenic, which means it will transfer its genes by itself. There are cases in Canada where companies have gone behind farmers claiming copyright violations. Most important, the diversity of the whole mustard will be lost. It will be more like cloning one type of seed. We will lose the whole gene diversity. There must be 50 different kinds of mustard as of today, but with GM we will have one standard type across. These mustards are for different regions. To have one seed for the entire region may not be something good. It is not going be easy though. There is a moratorium on it. The organic lobby should make the government understand that GM is very harmful. Repeatedly it has been shown that native seeds that have been grown are as productive as any, and even the pest attacks are minimal.
Who are the people that enroll for your workshop? Do women and students attend? Do they have an agricultural background?
Many young enthusiasts enroll. Less of farmers and more farming enthusiasts.They are people planning either to get into farming themselves or manage their land. Some want to learn more about organic farming. Yes, women make a good part of the group. Students not many. A majority do not have a background of agriculture. About 20 to 25 percent of those who attend the workshop take to farming after the course.
Can you narrate a couple of success stories?
There are many success stories which keep us motivated to do the workshop regularly. In Bangalore, a participant Girish Krishnamurthy with a corporate background has taken up serious vegetable farming. He is growing and marketing his produce by direct marketing. In Uttarakhand, in the Corbett Park area, another serious participant Ram Gopalan is growing all crops including vegetables, cereals, pulses and is managing a dairy with Sahiwal cows, a breed native to India for a Closed User Community. He has created a model for training the worker class and deploying them at various farms to manage them using IT platform with remote management tools. He has been successful in implementing the practices followed by us at a couple of places in a very short span of time. He has also created a demo model farm and designed a farm tour concept which is unique.
Jaideep Solanki a young farmer from Kuch, Gujarat has adopted these techniques in his fields and has improved his soil. Varun Sharma, a hotelier from Gandhidham has attended the course along with his family and workers, and is now growing many vegetables for consumption in his restaurant. He has started a dairy with Indian breed Gir cows and has dedicated a large parcel of land for fodder research. Arifa from Hyderabad has successfully converted her mango orchard into Biodynamic, and is reaping the fruits of change.