The seeds of traditional wisdom

A farmer in northern India has adopted agricultural practices that are attuned -- and not disruptive -- to the rural environment. Moreover, he has successfully reaped profits

By Tirtho Banerjee
Published: Sunday 15 February 1998

The seeds of traditional wisdom

Singh does not reconmmend the< (Credit: Bhalu Mondhe)he has abandoned all that is seen as modern and progressive in farming. He uses no chemicals, fertilisers, prepared compost or pesticides. Forget tractors, he does not plough the soil. He does no weeding. Notwithstanding, he procures a yield that is quality-wise the best, and quantitatively more than enough. He has really taken an about-turn from scientific farming methods and strongly believes that farming should not interfere with ecological balance.

Shoor Vir Singh is a 41-year-old-farmer from village Mohanpur in district Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh. His methods of farming are as natural as they are innovative. Singh believes that by preserving the ecology and practising farming methods that are in keeping with nature, humans as well as the soil will remain healthy. Singh argues that modern technological methods of farming just give short-term benefits, and that "if the land is left to itself", it becomes alive, increasing fertility.

But this realisation did not dawn upon Singh overnight. It came through years of experience and close observation. It was a result of constant trials and errors. Singh completed his graduation in 1977, and was selected for a microbiology course in a prestigious medical college. But before he could join the course, he received a telegram informing him that his younger brother had died. Singh went back to Mohanpur and decided to join his father in farming. He became a teacher, teaching science to eighth standard students at a local school. In 1981, he set up a fair-price shop with the purpose of establishing cooperation between the village folk and the government.

He could never come to terms with the application of chemicals and fertilisers in his fields. He knew something was going wrong. He observed that modern technologies adopted a confrontational and hostile attitude towards nature. Besides, he could feel the tang and life missing in the food. This led Singh to devise methods that could prevent the breakdown of the ecology. He began reading books on agriculture that documented the impact of various pests, animals and weeds on the crops. He persuaded his father to combine all family holdings that were scattered. The holdings of 11 acres became one unit.

In 1982, while spraying pesticide on his crop, Singh noticed that the chemical was not only killing the pest - known as gidar - but other insects that were beneficial for the crop as well. Singh was nauseated by the spraying. He realised that the chemicals, while seeping deep into the soil, were destroying the microorganisms. While irrigating his fields, he discovered that the groundwater was getting polluted, and its level was receding. He was now forced to go all out in his hunt for an alternative.

The very next year, he sowed a mixture of wheat, paddy, and bajra (sorghum) seeds in his farmland. His field became home to a host of birds and insects, and animals such as snakes, rats, bees and rabbits. He also sowed sarson (mustard) and methi (fenugreek). To protect the crop from a pest known as mahaau , he fed the pest with gur (jaggery). For protection against mice, he did not spray zinc sulphate. Instead, he let them eat their share of the crop. "I realised that a farmer should not consider anything useless. Weeds, earthworms, and even termites play a positive role in balancing the cycle of the biological community. Termites do not feed on living things and feed only on cut straw, converting them into useful, soft soil, while leaving the crop-bearing plants unharmed," says Singh.

Though Singh was labelled "crazy" and had to face stiff opposition within his community, he took this as a challenge. Around this time, he came across a book titled One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukoika, a Japanese researcher and farmer. The book affirmed his convictions. Singh acquired a spiritual insight. His relationship with his farmland developed into something more than a commercial one. He started treating the soil as a living, dynamic entity. The sensible approach to disease resistance and pest control was to grow sturdy crops in a healthy environment, he learned. He decided to drift along with nature, rather than battling against it.

Yashpal Satya, Singh's elder brother who was working with the Centre for Energy Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, was also impressed. He inspired his brother to carry on with his ideas, extending all his support. Rajinder Singh, a farmer from the same region, accompanied by some local farmers, also joined. Singh argued that the soil cultivates itself "naturally" by the penetration of planet roots and the activity of microorganisms, small animals and earthworms, and that left alone, nature remains in perfect harmony.

In the rabi season of 1985-86, Singh planted matar (peas) and sarson . Following his newly-adopted farming practices, Singh reaped a harvest of 140 kg of matar and 25 kg of sarson. The matar output was much higher than that of neighbouring farmers. Singh did not use the remnants of the harvested crops and straw for fodder, neither did he burn them. On the contrary, he put them back on the land to act as mulch. The straw got converted into soil. Other farmers thought Singh's ideas were foolish. They were convinced that Singh's land would turn barren. But Singh was very positive that his land would become rich and fertile. Singh was right. The masoor (a pulse) and sarson crop in the following season was much better. Singh cultivated paddy without resorting to tilling. The bajra harvest was also plentiful.

"You see, in this type of farming a mix of several seeds is sown. This mixture needs to be selected carefully," Singh explains. "I started understanding that some combinations of seeds work fantastically because they support each other. Masoor goes well with sarson , but not with wheat. I am still learning the interaction of seeds and their biological balance," he adds.

Singh's successful experiment first came to light in 1987, when T S Ananthu, research fellow at the Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, came to know about his work. Singh was then invited to New Delhi. Many environmental and agricultural institutes and organisations were quick to recognise the true potential of his achievement. He was offered funds, but the farmer had his own reasons to decline. "If I accept money that is required to develop my technique, I may not be able to work independently," remarks Singh.

"The only problem I face is that I am unable to share my experiences with other farmers because I do not have anybody to look after my fields. If I get such a person, I will pass on whatever I have learnt. I am unable to visit other villages because I don't have sufficient money for that," he says. However, with a philosophical touch, he adds: "I know everything takes its natural course. So be it. I shall never lose the hope of sharing."

Faced with a galloping population, the world is countered with a great surge in the demand for food production. Hunger, malnutrition and starvation are prevalent. There are alarming trends appearing on the agricultural front. Although input costs have escalated, pests are developing resistance to the very latest of pesticides. Soil erosion poses the threat of increased desertification, even as the quality of food is deteriorating. Agricultural run-off is contaminating rivers and human health is at risk. Natural farming provides a respite from most of these problem.

"Human life span is decreasing constantly due to consumption of substandard food that is loaded with chemicals. We are trying to use unnatural means to sustain ourselves. The best way to live long is to be in consonance with nature" Singh comments. "It is ironic that the farmer, who is closest to nature, should become violent. This is because of modern methods of agriculture. Though I am yet to reach a conclusion, one thing is sure: the future of the planet depends on how sustainably we make use of the resources," he adds.

Natural farming has opened new vistas in the world of agriculture. No doubt Singh's work would go a long way in bringing about sweeping changes in farming practices. Yet, Singh's ultimate dream is to grow a garden that can bear fruits in all seasons. Singh believes that the human constitution is such that it is meant for consuming fruits only. Even the worst of his critics will have a word of appreciation for his work. Shoor Vir Singh, take a bow.

Tirtho Banerjee is a freelance journalist based in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

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