Agriculture

CSE’s organic experiment: Why we should make organic inputs accessible to farmers

Farmers face difficulties in getting good quality organic inputs to keep their cultivation costs low

 
By Vineet Kumar
Published: Monday 28 November 2022
Jivaamrit was used to promote biological activity in the soil and enhance crop nutrient availability. Photo: Vineet Kumar

This article has been updated 

Chemicals in food can lead to acute poisoning or long-term diseases, such as cancer. This can have a long-lasting impact on human health and the environment in various ways. Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based think tank, has been warning about this for a long time.

The organisation recently started a capacity-building initiative to upskill the state’s agriculture extension officials on organic/natural farming in partnership with the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad. 

The non-profit found it difficult to procure organic inputs as local shops and India’s premier research institute had limited capacity to provide them.


Also read: CSE’s organic experiment: Challenge starts with procuring right seeds


After an exhaustive hunt, CSE procured organic seeds of vegetables like chilli, tomato, bitter gourd, ridge gourd, pudina (mint) and spinach from various organisations like Beej Bachao Andolan (Uttarakhand), Kheti Virasat Mission (Punjab) and Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Pusa, New Delhi.

After procuring seeds, we had to prepare the farms, test the soil, decide on the organic/natural farming practices and arrange organic and bio-inputs.

We had two adjoining farm plots — plot one with an area of 0.125 acres and plot two with 0.124 acres.

Soils from these plots were tested at CSE’s lab at the AAETI campus, Rajasthan, during August-September this year. Soil parameters— organic carbon, macronutrients, micronutrients, pH value, electrical conductivity and fungi-to-bacteria ratio — were tested.

The tests revealed that the soil organic carbon values were at 0.32 and 0.17, indicating low to very low status. Organic carbon is crucial for soil health and soils with high carbon content are more productive.

Nitrogen (N) content was found to be deficient with low values, while phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) were also observed to be deficient in both plots.


Also read: Natural option: Organic, natural farming not only profitable & sustainable but also productive


Micronutrients were mostly sufficient in both plots, except sulphur, zinc and boron deficiency in plot one. All nutrients, whether macro or micro, are important for plant growth and deficiency of any can cause problems in plant growth.

The test showed high pH values for both plots, 8.8 and 8.9, respectively, indicating the alkaline nature of the soil.

This is not a desirable value, as soil’s high or low pH value makes various nutrients inaccessible to plants. It is important to have a neutral pH value in the range of six to 7.5. Most secondary and micronutrient deficiencies are addressed by keeping the soil pH neutral.

Fungi to bacteria ratio was less in both plots, ranging between 0.1 and 0.5.

Soils with high productivity have fungal-to-bacterial biomass ratios close to 1:1, while forests have 5:1 and more. The electrical conductivity of our farm was also very low, between 0.4 to 0.8 decisiemens per metre.

Managing soil nutrients without chemicals

Chemical-free agriculture is being promoted through nomenclatures like organic, natural, bio-dynamic, agroecology, regenerative, permaculture, etc.

Some of these approaches, like natural farming, emphasise farm inputs generation, while others allow the usage of off-farm inputs purchased from the market.

We need to make our farm’s soil healthy to provide adequate nutrients to plants. Various chemical-free options are available to us. The first source of nutrients is animal manure like cattle dung, farm yard manure, poultry litter etc.

The second sources are biomass from green manure, green leaf manure, mulching and cover crops. The third sources are decomposed organic matter like vermicompost, Biodynamic compost etc.


Also read: Why India needs to bring back nature-positive farming


The fourth sources are indigenous microbial products like Jeevaamrit, Panchgavya, Amrit Jal etc.

The fifth source is bio-fertilisers. Mixed and diversified cropping systems and crop rotations also play important roles in nutrient management.

Farmers can choose any or combination of these options depending on the crops grown and the available nutrient status of the soil.  

We decided to use — manure, biomass, neem cake and bio-fertilisers like azotobacter, phosphorous solubilising bio fertilisers (PSB), Potassium solubilising bio-fertilisers (KSB), Zinc solubiliser and trichoderma — as the soils were deficient in nutrients and organic carbon.

Azotobacter fixes atmospheric nitrogen, PSB solubilises phosphorous and makes it available to plants and KSB solubilises potassium.

Jivaamrit was used to promote biological activity in the soil and enhance crop nutrient availability. Jeevamrit is a natural liquid fertiliser made using water, dung and urine from cows.

The dose recommended by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, was 1.2 tonnes of manure, 50 kilograms of neem cake and 250 millilitres of bio fertilisers like azotobacter, PSB, KSB, ZnSB and trichoderma and pseudomonas. 

An initial vermicompost treatment of 5 kg per 4 feet was required. A non-pesticide approach, using botanical formulations and various traps, was adopted for pest management.

Challenges

We had to procure farm yard manure, cow urines and other inputs from outside as our campus does not have any cattle. Arranging good quality organic inputs was a challenge.

We were aware of the poor quality of organic and bio fertilisers available in the market. CSE report on the State of Biofertilizers and Organic Fertilizers in India, 2022, elaborately dealt with the same.

Finding shops where we could get all the needed organic inputs was difficult. We approached farmers from a nearby village and got some good-quality manure from them. But all of them had not prepared adequately decomposed compost.

Further, even getting inputs like cow urine needed for Jivaamrit preparation was challenging. Local farmers told us that they have to put lots of effort into collecting cow urine, as they had no arrangements like cattle shed lining.

Collecting it required a person to be near the cow whenever it urinates. A nearby gaushala (cowshed), with hundreds of cows, also said about the difficulty of collecting it, as there were no arrangements in place.

Finally, we could find a dairy where they were collecting cow urine. But they were selling it at a high price.

We were able to locate a nearby manufacturer of vermicompost about 25 kilometres from our campus. We purchased some quantity from the dealer and realised that the compost was of substandard quality.

The search for good quality vermicompost forced us to look for well-known manufacturers. We had to travel more than 100 km to procure good quality vermicompost from a relatively renowned manufacturer, costing us extra for transportation.

This made us realise that farmers have no choice except to prepare their own inputs to keep their cultivation costs low.

We approached the Indian Agricultural Research Institute’s bio fertiliser manufacturing unit based in Pusa, New Delhi, due to the lack of trust in the quality of bio fertilisers available in the market.

But only limited bio fertilisers like KSB, PSB, azotobacter, and Zn solubiliser were available with them. We had to further approach online and offline markets for remaining inputs like pseudomonas, neem cake, and trichoderma.

We struggled to get traps such as — sticky, pheromone, light and fruit fly traps — from the local market. These were not available anywhere in our locality. We couldn’t even find them in Delhi and NCR regions.

Thankfully, a variety of plants are available at our campus. So we could easily get the inputs like neem leaves, vitex leaves and biomass.

It is unfortunate that farmers will have to make so much effort to get these inputs and pay extra travel and transportation costs.

There is an immediate and urgent need to provide all the necessary training and support to farmers so that they can prepare the required organic inputs in their own locality. 

This is the second in a series of stories documenting CSE’s experiment with natural / organic farming

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