Becoming an organic farmer? Should you?

We are increasingly approached by folks who are interested in the idea of having or running their own organic farm and want to learn how they can achieve this – ASAP of course 🙂

We’re also sometimes approached by people who would like to invest into the agricultural “sector” – because of the future potential that they anticipate. They’re usually wary because they know that it’s easy to get burnt.

farming_dreams

With the goal of providing both useful and sensible advice, this is what we think:

1) Anyone can grow food BUT farming isn’t for everyone

While this may seem self-evident, a lot of people from urban backgrounds seek a simpler life and harbour overly-romantic illusions about themselves as gentle-men/woman farmers. While we love the idea (the more the merrier), the reality is that a large number who try will end up with failure and disappointment.

We believe that this is largely because they…

  • underestimate how much they will need to learn/change and how complex it is
  • outsource ownership of goals to a professional and achieve success quick
  • have a lack of patience and persistence (both) as they are accustomed to a faster pace
  • don’t view this as a profession demanding complete attention, but as a hobby to indulge in
  • don’t realise that it requires several years to set up a good farming operation

Our Advice: You may be better off with a small-to-medium kitchen garden for a few years before you decide whether it’s really right for you to take the leap. This isn’t something that you can do well unless you’re really in love with it (or don’t have a choice).

2) People want to hire a farm expert, not become an expert (doesn’t work)

Our experience is that hiring a typical farm manager as an alternative to your involvement is likely to end in failure – because the most skillful farmers aren’t looking beyond their own farms. Hence the quality of guidance you can expect is limited. Most new farm owners also don’t appreciate the difference between a growing specialist and a farm manager – and how few people are actually good at both. The supply-demand mismatch in the agricultural sector means that to get someone who is really good at both will cost much more than you can imagine/afford.

Agricultural graduates and agriculture consultants rarely make practical sense – because their understanding of the market is non-existent and of growing is usually limited to certain things. Often we find that their fixed-mindset and oversimplified/industrial approach makes them a liability instead of an asset.

Our advice: You may be able to access knowledge on growing certain things from other farmers that are good at it – but deciding what to grow and managing your farm is something that you need to do yourself. Experience is the most reliable tutor you can find, though its best to apprentice or get a coach when you are learning the basics of growing.

3) Don’t fund capital expenses like a prince and operational expenses like a pauper

Most inexperienced new farmer will take great pride in investments especially in farm infrastructure which are quickly visible – and not in the places where it pays off in the long term. Most farms do a poor job of managing labour, with hires that are based on a sense of security instead of farming competence.

Our advice: Its much better to focus on the seemingly intangible farming investments that really pay off – fencing, systematic soil improvement, planting for mulch and shade, earthworks, water management and distribution, adding livestock and composting.

4) It’s probably best to “try before you buy”?

Economic prosperity has created a surfeit of people who have the means to buy farmland, and the desire for the idyllic existence that they imagine farming to be. As a result they usually begin by buying land – despite not having any idea about what they plan to grow, which type of land their intended crop requires and where their market is likely to be.

No sensible project should proceed without this understanding and without some time taken to immerse yourself in an environment that allows you to understand the factors that go into becoming a successful farmer – both at growing and at achieving profits.

Our advice: Find a successful farm of the kind that you aspire to have (ideally in the same climatic zone) and spend several weeks experiencing what it takes and learning what skills you need to acquire. Especially important is to understand the business model of the farm, and a few farms have apprenticeships or workshops that are really worth the time and money spent.

5) Keep in mind that Food is the New agricultural “cash crop”

Too many farmers buy into the idea of cash crops being the only way for farming to be profitable – which is a compelling idea until it fails spectacularly. Cash crops that become successes (and not all do), immediately attract everyone seeking a “surefire formula for success”.

Unfortunately, in a supply-demand driven market, one season’s cash crop becomes the next season’s disaster. The solution is to grow things that retain their market value with less volatility – and for the most part food crops (fruits, pulses and vegetables especially) now make great financial sense for farms near cities or towns.

Our advice: Diversify your farm produce to include food crops if you are closer to the city and have access to local customers rather than outstation markets. Else, look to grow things that can be value-added in some way, perhaps processed into food products (jams, jellies etc.), along with some cash crops you may want to try.

6) In today’s scenario, going solo is a major struggle

Many of us believe in the myth of self-made success. But in a world where the ecosystem of services and products that support farmers are broken, collaboration with other farmers has become critical.

Working together can bring economies of scale to various aspects of farming – access to farm machinery, purchase/exchange of manure, sharing of seeds, combining produce, sharing labour, gaining access to city markets and increasing efficiency of logistics.

Our advice: Try and find locations where other farmers are serious about growing, or work hard to create some synergy with neighbouring farmers. Without this, the process of farming can pretty lonely, cost inefficient and frustrating.

7) Don’t do it to save the world, at best you might save yourself

While we are strong believers in the idea that as citizens we have a responsibility to our environment and to our community, we do not believe that just an altruistic approach towards farming can be sustained. Its best to look at the personal benefits – both real and psychic – that one can gain from this route to a simpler, healthier and slower pace of life.

Our advice: Before you attempt to save the world through organic farming, please establish without a doubt that its something that can actually help you “save yourself”. Putting the cart before the horse rarely works out well.

8) Chasing farm subsidies is like playing “saanp-seedhee” (snakes and ladders)

MANY people who approach us want to begin with an understanding of the subsidies that can help them reduce their costs. From what we have seen, only a handful of the schemes actually provide farmers what they need (especially if you are an organic farmer). Most of them involve getting you into a higher investment model or out-dated business model of farming which actually increases risks.

Remember that something that saves costs doesn’t always result in better business results. The mechanisation of farming is an example – experience shows us that many tractors/tillers given out are under-utilised and poorly maintained.

Our advice: Your farm business model needs to be built to work without any subsidies at all. Any relief that comes from a subsidy schemes should be incidental and treated like a bonus. Regular fencing schemes (not electric) and those addressing construction of wells and irrigation systems may be the only exception we recommend.

 

 

 

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Growing organic vegetables in Greenhouses

With a long wet season and a pretty hot summer, its often tempting to grow vegetables in a more insulated/protective environment – ergo a green house. But growing in such an environment is  different enough from our usual organic approaches while growing in the field to give us some pause.

For example, while its probably easier to prevent insects and other fungal/bacterial diseases from getting to your crops, other beneficial ones probably get eliminated too. Also, maintaining good air circulation within the greenhouse can present an interesting challenge in our climates. Also, there is the cost of the green-house to consider, along with the fact that it needs to fit our needs in two very different seasons – summer and monsoon.

From our visits to a few organic green-house projects (in Pune and Coimbatore), we’ve been able to observe the following:

  1. Indian greenhouses seem to be plastic+shadenet combo structures which shelter plants considerably from wet and hot weather
  2. They are very carefully insulated from any external pests, with care taken while entering and leaving the interior
  3. Most growers seem to have little use for the sprinklers and have adopted drip-irrigation for their watering needs
  4. Timely and regular sprays of neem and other preventive organic pest repellents seem critical to a pest-free environment
  5. Strangely (for us), there is less emphasis on crop diversity than we practice on our fields
  6. Certain vegetable varieties seem to be better suited to greenhouses (not sure how)
  7. Providing nutrition through the drip system seems to work well for greenhouse growers

 

Growing without fertilisers – soil building with weeds

One of the major costs on a farm tends to be fertilisers – even if you are growing organically. This is especially true if you import your manure/compost instead of producing it (like us). However this challenge seems even more severe in lands like we use – where the soil building activities are undermined by water inundation in the monsoons.

Most organic farms solve this problem by setting up composting systems or have cattle to produce their own manure. However, in smaller spaces and with limited manpower this can be a difficult or time consuming thing to do.

Our interest therefore has been to learn more about organic farming methods like green manuring, cover cropping and crop rotations as a soil building and manuring technique. The benefits of achieving this in the long run would clearly be considerable to any organic farm.

While we have seen the benefits of green manuring on our own farms, we’ve heard about more advanced practitioners who actually use indigenous weeds to do this job. Admittedly adoption of these methods have been more in agro-forestry and plantation systems – but it seems worth our while to see if we can incorporate it into our vegetable growing systems too.

Our visit to B.N. Nandish Shimoga, Karnataka provided a lot of interesting ideas for how such a system may be designed. His “Legume Logic” shows how mulching and green manuring with weeds can be incorporated into your seasonal growing practices to completely eliminate the need for manure application. The results speak for themselves and provide many interesting ideas for paddy growers in Goa.

To learn more about the methods he employs, read here (click link below)…
http://www.indiawaterportal.org/sites/indiawaterportal.org/files/Organic%20farming%20through%20green-culture_Weeds%20and%20Mulching_BN%20Nandish_Shimoga_OFAI%20SAC_2009.pdf

Steady, sustainable soil improvement

With the focus being firmly on the soil in organic farming, we’ve found that soil improvement is one of the primary challenges facing most home gardeners in Goa. Some have lateritic soil that produces less than desirable results, others lose soil fertility because of either not managing it well or because of erosion in the monsoons.

Green Manuring is a process of growing certain crops on your land or in your garden in order to improve soil fertility. It consists of growing mainly leguminous crops that are known to fix nitrogen into the soil as they grow. In addition, other seeds are also grown so that they can add bio-mass into the soil, which on decomposing also improves soil fertility and texture.

While there are many approaches to green manuring, we’d adopted the one described here as a semi-quick fix for poor soil – and had pretty good results with it. Our experience has been that there are substantial, visible improvements in organic content, nitrogen addition, soil texture and even microbial health (indirectly) as a result of just 2 cycles of this procedure over four months.

Most importantly its not too labour intensive, relatively inexpensive and if done at the right time (late-May, early June) the monsoon does most of the work for you.

Here is where you can find a detailed set of instructions (PDF)