Neem, Garlic And Green Chillies Recipe For A Bumper Crop
Veera Narayana was once a desperate farmer in drought-hit Andhra Pradesh, spending Rs010,000 in chemical inputs per acre of watermelon crop. Today, he is the guru of organic farming in Singanamala block, his watermelon harvests healthy and his input costs a fraction of what they were.
“The atmosphere’s heat trapping burden (has come) not just through emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel… but also from another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide. More than four-fifths of these emissions are from agriculture, from the use of chemical fertilisers.”
— State of the World Population 2009. Facing a Changing World: Women Population and Climate
Today, organic farming is not just the ‘in thing’, it’s also paying. Ask Veera Narayana who has farmed both the ‘chemical way’ and the ‘organic way’. Till 2004, Narayana (41) and his two brothers did what every farmer was doing on their nine acres of irrigated land in Korivipalli village — feeding the crops tonnes of di-ammonium phosphate (DAP). “We spent around Rs 10,000 on an acre of watermelon,” he says. And it worked initially — returns were nearly double the input.
Narayana’s village in Singanamala mandal (mandals are administrative blocks) of Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh belongs to the rain-shadow Rayalaseema region that is arid, treeless and made up of poor red soil. It boasts an annual average rainfall of just 553 mm.
Even as farmers began to rely more and more on chemical farm additives, the frequency of drought increased from every alternate year to an annual crisis. In eight out of the 10 years from 1997-98 to 2007-08, all 63 mandals were declared drought-affected (government of Andhra Pradesh’s Handbook of Statistics 2007-08, Anantapur district).
Farmers borrowed from private moneylenders at monthly interest rates ranging between two and five per cent to buy fertiliser and pesticides, and to drill deep borewells to water their fields. With crops failing year after year, the region began reporting farmer suicides as early as the 1970s.
In July 2000, Narayana applied DAP to his watermelon creepers that were just opening into three leaves. Days passed and still there was no rain; the plants wilted. A desperate Narayana would carry water in a 16 kg tin container from an open well and ration a mug for each plant, hoping against hope that the rains would come and save his plants. But there was no rain for three weeks. July ran into August and still the sun bore down relentlessly. That year, Narayana and his brothers incurred heavy losses.
The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) — the United Nations body responsible for
stemming the spread of deserts— says that about 6 million hectares of productive land around the world have been lost every year since 1990, as land becomes degraded and less fertile. An estimated 135 million people are presently at risk of being driven from their lands because of continuing desertification that can reduce productivity in some regions by as much as half. The UN estimates that, over time, more than 1 billion people and one-third of the earth’s surface will be threatened by mostly creeping desertification. The Convention now has 191 signatories; India is one of them.
“Something had to give, or we have to give in somewhere… this cannot go on,” said a worried Narayana. In 2004, the 13-NGO network Anantha Paryavarana Parirakshana Samithi (APPS) staged a street play in his village on the ill-effects of chemical fertiliser and pesticides, and that home-made alternatives could be the answer in low rain areas. The APPS calls it non-pesticide management (NPM). The farmers enjoyed the play but went home laughing at its message. “If the most toxic of chemical pesticides, Monoprotophos (a phosphate-based insecticide), was not able to kill the stubborn red-haired caterpillar, the worst enemy of the groundnut farmer in this region, how could a home-made concoction of neem (Azadirachta indica), garlic and green chillies kill it?!”
But Narayana decided to give it a try. His brothers admonished him: “Has your brain taken leave of your head? Do it if you insist, on your portion of the land.”
“If it does not work then it won’t be the first time I’ll lose my crop,” Narayana replied. “But it will be less investment down the drain.” He started organic farming on one acre, following the instructions of APPS organic farming co-coordinator Hanumantha Reddy word for word.
“A world that takes seriously the need to rid the atmosphere of carbon dioxide however is likely to rediscover the value of farmers who work directly with their soil and crop on land they can own and can keep. The world’s farmers will have to transform themselves from net emitters of greenhouse gases to net absorbers of carbon dioxide to slow and reverse the rise of concentration in the atmosphere. The process will require different agricultural production systems based on boosting the carbon content of soils while reducing the need for chemical fertilisers. Women as well as men who own and improve their own land and food production as climate changes can become the models of resilience humanity needs. This can be one part of the broader social transition towards health and equality and the environmental transition towards sustainable use of resources and balance with the global atmosphere and climate” — State Of the World Population 2009. Facing a Changing World: Women, Population and Climate
Narayana ploughed his field thoroughly in order to expose the eggs and larvae of pests to the hot rays of the sun thereby eliminating as many as possible. He then lighted fires in the furrows; the ash too acted as a pesticide. As the saplings opened into tender leaves, Narayana sprinkled the juice of neem seeds to kill the remaining red worm pests. Then he sprayed a thin paste of green chillies soaked in water and garlic soaked in kerosene on to the plants.
Watermelon faces repeated pest attacks. Eighty ml of chemical pesticide concentrate costs Rs 1,800; a single spaying per acre worked out to Rs 1,000. With the everyday neem, garlic and chillies, the cost was not even a tenth of what they incurred earlier. Neem seeds could be gathered from the nearby forests; a farmer pays Rs 500 for a 50 kg bag of powdered neem pesticide.
As the fruit began to appear, Narayana sprayed a decoction of neem powder fermented in cow urine — original urea and available abundantly for free. Fermented buttermilk is another option, although its usage depends on availability.
As watermelons grow in size and sweeten inside, insects find them irresistible. It’s now time for a cowdung and jaggery (which acts as a sticky trap, immobilising the insects) spray fermented for four whole days. Ugh! So much easier to pop open a can of chemical pesticide, mix water in the correct proportions, and spray the crop!
But organic insecticide has no toxic side effects on the consumer’s health. And it does not destroy earthworms and other plant-friendly insects, keeping the soil surface soft and absorbent which is not the case with chemical fertiliser and pesticides. Best of all, the truck-load of watermelons Narayana harvested and took to Bangalore stayed fresh and sold at a premium price for an entire week. Narayana was smiling all the way to the bank with a thick wad of Rs 49,000 in his pocket. His input costs? Only Rs 6,000, including labour costs.
Korivipalli, 37 km from Anantapur town, is a hamlet of 272 families, half of them belonging to backward communities. Today, five years on, 87 farmers have converted to organic farming; one-third of a total of 1,392 acres of arable land is under organic farming. Narayana is a guru here, and not just amongst the farmers. He also trains new converts in villages across Singanamala block, moving around on the red motorbike he bought after the last harvest.
In Chinnajalalapuram village, Nagamanamma (31) has taken two acres of temple land on lease. As her family could not make ends meet at her marital village, she
returned to her native village. But here too farming was depleting the family’s scarce resources. Nagamanamma opted for organic farming for one reason only — it involved family labour, not the kind of investment chemical farming demands.
With all the scepticism, Nagamanamma herself was surprised at the dramatic results she got. She harvested 15 bags (42 kg each) of groundnut per acre instead of the usual seven to eight bags, and with an expenditure of Rs 600 against Rs 2,000. In fact, she and Narayana received a rush of visitors curious to see the 126 groundnut pods on each plant, against the normal 20-35 pods.
These green farmers are getting more and more innovative every season. Narayana found ghaneru (Nerium oleander, whose bark, fruit and flowers contain toxins called neriine and oleandrin), a strong bio-degradable
pesticide, very useful for treating pests. He also uses Pongamia pinnata, called pongam or karanj, one of the few nitrogen-fixing trees whose dried leaves are used as an insect repellent for stored grain. The seeds, which are 30-40 per cent oil, are used for bio-fuel. Applying oil cakes (after the oil has been extracted) to the soil is particularly effective against nematodes and helps improve soil fertility. The root, bark, leaf, sap, and flowers of the tree also contain medicinal properties. In order to keep pests away, organic farmers resort to border-cropping and inter-cropping with sunflowers whose leaves attract pests, keeping them away from the main crop.
There is plenty room for ingenuity too. Instead of mixing cowdung cakes directly into the soil, Narayana puts them under the water drips, near the roots of the plant, thereby reducing fertiliser wastage and ensuring that the right amount of organic nutrient goes in the right place, and lasts longer. Home-made fertiliser cakes are a mix of powdered pulses, anthill soil (which is rich in micro-bacteria), cowdung, cow urine and jaggery. After the watermelon crop is harvested in summer, the vines and leaves are left to decay into the soil providing biomass, nutrients, nitrogen and good bacteria. These help the soil retain moisture for the next crop, which is groundnut.
For Ramadevi (37), Narayana’s wife, low investment is the biggest advantage of organic farming despite labour inputs being continuous and backbreaking. For both Lingamma (35) and Katamayya (38) of Chinnajalalapuram who went organic in 2006, low financial input remains their main motivation although they now know from the many awareness sessions conducted by Oxfam India, through APPS, that organic produce is healthier as well. With one cow and one buffalo each, and less than four acres of land, they get 30 bags of groundnut during a good year, whereas with chemical fertilisers the returns were at best 10-15 bags which they sold for Rs 800-900 against the asking price of Rs 1,400 for their organic produce. Indeed, buyers have started flocking here from further afield because, they say, the nuts are larger and tastier. The farmers are now hoping to receive organic certification that will allow them to export.
Awareness about the benefits of organic farming is spreading. A group of dalit forest-gatherers, women and men farmers, and women’s self-help groups from 10 surrounding villages have set up a unique cooperative — the Singanamala Producers’ Cooperative — working out of Chinnajalalapuram village to produce organic pesticide. What is today a 260-member collective with a share capital of Rs 52,000 started as a counter to exploitative shopkeepers who depressed the price of neem seeds and cheated buyers on the weight of the produce.
Earlier, the women would sell the neem fruit the very day they gathered it; small quantities against which they bought their daily groceries. The village shopkeeper would offer them groceries on credit because he bought the neem seeds at 75 paise and sold them at Rs 4 a kg. The women decided to get together to dry and store the seeds and sell them at the weekly market. There was only one problem — the shopkeeper refused them credit for their groceries. The women went ahead and set up a cooperative, each putting in an amount taken as a loan from the Rural Integrated Development Society, a local APPS NGO that also gave them a seed-pulverising machine.
“At least 50 per cent of farmers are slowly getting attracted to organic farming though all have not yet taken the leap,” concludes a satisfied Veera Narayana.
By Manipadma Jena