The magician farmer

How a farmer from Bihar used magic tricks to convert others in his village to organic farming

Published: Saturday 15 June 2013

Kushwaha at home with his magician's wares; the farmer keeps his trainees entertained with magic tricks while teaching them vermicomposting and organic farming (photos by Alok Gupta)

Shrikant Kushwaha, aged about 50, is a farmer in the nondescript village of Govindpur in Vaishali district of Bihar. Illiterate and barely able to write his name in Hindi, Kushwaha converted almost his entire village to organic farming. All by virtue of his talent for magic.

Kushwaha’s interest in the art of magic was sparked 10 years ago. Enchanted by the performance of a magician at a village fair, he decided to learn the art, and mastered it in 15 months flat. “That was my first brush with magic,” he says. His skill at the art helped convince his fellow farmers to switch from using synthetic fertilisers to organic compost.
In 2003, he attended government training sessions on making organic fertiliser from cow dung through vermicomposting, and pesticides using cow urine. Enthused by the training, he began to feed his cattle double the quantity of feed every day to collect the large quantity of cow dung needed for the purpose. “Magic would happen when I sprinkled organic fertiliser and pesticide in my two acre field. I saved Rs 20,000 and got a bumper crop of vegetables in just six months,” he says. His earnings bought him a television set and a stock of magic equipment.

At an agriculture fair in 2005, Kushwaha was dismayed at the lack of interest of farmers at the government training session on organic farming. He ran home, and brought back two empty boxes, a fistful of seeds and a few small plants. On stage, he announced one box had seed with organic fertiliser, and the other box had seed with synthetic fertiliser. “I put a lid over both the boxes and announced, ‘let’s see which seed grows faster’,”. When the lid was lifted, the seeds treated with organic fertiliser had seemingly grown into small plants faster than those treated with synthetic fertiliser. After the applause for his act died down, Kushwaha began to explain the science and economics of organic farming. It’s all about science; magic is science and farming is science, too, he says.

His simple explanation of organic farming impressed those at the training and all the farmers of the village agreed to attempt using organic pesticides and fertilisers. Kushwaha went on to conduct 20 training sessions in his village, teaching farmers how to make fertilisers through vermicomposing. He would keep them entertained with magic tricks all the while, making a little ball vanish into thin air, or pulling a pigeon out of a hat.

The magician’s spell worked. In 2005, 85 out of a total of 105 farmers had taken to organic farming. The number rose to 92 by the end of the year. The government of Bihar declared the village of Govindpur an Organic Village in 2006.

Rain breaks spell

Unfortunately, inadequate rain unravelled the good Kushwaha’s magic tricks and training sessions had done. Poor rainfall in 2006 and 2007 forced several young farmers to migrate to other states in search of jobs. “Nearly 60 per cent of the youth migrated. Poor rainfall also raised the cost of cattle feed,” says U K  Sharma, chairperson of non-profit Vaishali Area Small Farmer’s Association (VASFA) that provides training to farmers.

Kushwaha at his vermicompost pits; vermicomposting requires cattle dung in large quantities. With the number of livestock in the village dwindling,farmers have gone back to using chemical fertilisers

“Our sons used to graze and feed the cattle. When our sons migrated to the cities, most of us decided to sell our cattle,” says farmer Debnarayan Bhagat, who now owns only one buffalo. Cattle rearing is very labour intensive, he says.

With cattle being sold off and the number of cows and buffaloes having dwindled from 180 to just 20, there was a shortage of cattle dung for vermicomposting, and the village started slowly shifting back to using chemical fertilisers. Only 18 farmers in Govindpur are engaged in organic farming today.
Sharma says his organisation tried to market the organic produce of Govindpur, but failed to find a good market linkage. “Farmers like Kushwaha have cast their magic spell but all in vain because of government apathy,” he says.

Alarmed at these developments, Kushwaha tried to meet agriculture department officials for help in reversing the trend, but to no avail. He attributes the failure of organic farming in the village to improperly thought through government schemes. “First they promoted vermicomposting, but then forgot that it needs cattle dung. Their plans are far from reality,” he says.
Despondent, he locked himself in his home, he says. “But one day, I stopped grieving and came out of my home, thinking that in the world of science, there is always a new trick,” says the magician.

Kushwaha  went to the VASFA office to learn new methods of organic farming, and continues to teach farmers in neighbouring villages about vermicomposting. He is still unhappy about the scale of the initiative. “I know vermicomposting is not possible if there are not enough cows,” he says. He still hopes that the cows will come back to make the village prosperous again.

Tricks and his trade
Shrikant Kushwaha on the relationship between magic and farming

Why did you decide to learn magic that too at the age of 40?

I always had a curious mind. The magic show in the village fair made me wonder that there might be some reasoning behind it. I wanted to learn it because I needed an answer. I learnt magic tricks in nights after completing my work in the farm.

Do you think magic and farming have a relationship?

Yes, they have a very deep relationship. Farming is a scientific process of growing food using one’s hands. Magic is also science that uses sleight of hand. Both farming and magic are science. Farmers’ refusal to learn new tricks in farming has made the profession obsolete. At the same time if a magician does not come up with a new trick he will also become obsolete.

Why do you say organic farming is magic?

I used to call it magic but now I call it a lost form of magic. Ask any farmer if they can have a bumper crop without chemical fertiliser; the farmers will laugh at you. They think chemical fertilisers can do magic but organic fertilizers cannot do the same. Organic farming saves money and it is more scientific; it uses local resources like cow dung or waste vegetable peel.

Your own village that saw a spurt in organic farming is now witnessing a decline. Why is that so?

It is because of the half-baked plans of the government. First they promoted vermicomposting but forgot that it needs cattle dung. Their plans were so far away from reality. It is nearly killing organic farming in Govindpur that is officially an organic village, according to government records.

How have cows spoiled organic farming?

Our village had nearly 120 cows and buffaloes around five years ago. Cattle dung is a must requirement for vermicompost fertilisers and pesticide. Due to poor rainfall over two consecutive years, 2006 and 2007, crops failed and village youth migrated. There was no one to do the hard work of feeding and grazing cattle in the village. It forced villagers to sell their cattle. The farming output of this village has declined due to migration and poor availability of cow dung.

What are your future plans?

I am looking to learn new methods of organic farming that use local resources. Maybe one day I will find it. I am also focusing on villages that have large cattle stock and giving them training for vermicomposting. The government pays me some money for training and I also earn through my farming and magic shows.

Feature: Status of organic farming in India 

Feature: Biodiversity thrives on organic farms

Report: Guidelines on national project on organic farming

Report: Economics and efficiency of organic farming vis--vis conventional farming in India


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