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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Is Goa finally getting serious about agriculture?

Is Goa finally getting serious about agriculture?

If one were to go by what one sees in the local media, Goa’s agricultural scene seems to be going through a renaissance of sorts. Virtually every day brings a new story of agricultural success and initiative – whether it’s strawberries in Sanguem, greenhouse capsicums in Saligao, organic mangoes in Chorao, SRI rice in Salcete, the Mango Fest at Kala Academy or a Farmers’ Federation website on the internet.

Considering the perennial backdrop of bleak news that usually accompanies agriculture, and the reality of Goa’s food insecurity, this is a silver lining that undoubtedly creates a welcome bit of optimism. However, a closer look at the bigger picture reveals that there is little impact on the larger realities of our situation.

A formal agricultural vision or policy to begin with?

Common sense suggests that the ambition of Goa’s agriculture must be to create food self-sufficiency through a reliable supply of good quality – that covers taste and nutrition, by the way, – food, which is reasonably priced and of varieties preferred for local cuisine. If this goal is worthwhile, then the reality is that today, we are very, very far from achieving this aim – and have made little sustainable progress towards it.

Interestingly, Goa still lacks a clearly stated agricultural policy – which would seem like a necessary pre-requisite if a larger and more sustainable impetus is to be provided to agriculture. In the absence of this, and with a system that is only subsidy-focussed, it sometimes seems like the approach is to bribe people to continue farming.

Five years of a reasonably involved participation in Goan agriculture have given us a sense that the key problems remain – a lack of ambitious vision and goals, complacency about the current state of agriculture, poor strategic decisions and a systemic lack of execution. However, it is also equally apparent that Goa has several assets that make it capable of dramatic improvement – its locational advantages, many genuinely sincere agricultural officers, sufficient financial resources, great natural advantages and a continuing deep cultural affinity to agriculture.

Too much novelty, distracts from things that really work

However, before attempting to begin an agricultural revolution in Goa, it’s important to undertake some serious introspection into which current approaches are clearly not working – because our resources may be adequate, but are certainly not enough to permit waste. While there are several useful schemes offered by the Department of Agriculture, the ICAR and the Horticultural Corporation, there are some which clearly require re-evaluation. These are listed here.

The ‘improvement through exports’ approach: There is a perennial desire to encourage growing for export amongst agricultural departments in the hope that the premium that markets pay abroad are a way to achieve better income for farmers. This is misplaced because for anything but the large-scale, export-focussed operations, paperwork is a full-time job. There is also little evidence that Goa has the quality of produce (except for select crops), the quantity of produce or the marketing skills required to achieve this. A better approach would be to serve the local market in Goa (which we know also pays well) and treat our annual influx of tourists as an export market. This would mean that we need to start growing to deliver real quality and variety of produce that only local farms can deliver – while also serving the goal of food security that local growers provide.

The ‘improvement through technology’ approach: As a solution to the high costs and lack of availability of agricultural labour, the Department of Agriculture has been on a technology drive. Mechanisation is riding a wave in Goa, which initially seems like a boon for the ’hard-working farmer‘. Except that many of the wonderful tractors, power tillers and other equipment that taxpayers subsidise end up hardly working (through our experience in Chorao and elsewhere). In a state where farm sizes are very small, farmer-owned machinery is often hopelessly under-utilised, poorly-maintained and often of limited assistance to farmers.

Similarly, technology-oriented schemes like those that provide for electric fencing and sophisticated greenhouses are very popular (90% subsidy available), but it’s questionable if they provide good value for money in the context of Goa. At Rs 8-10 lakh per unit we already see that the growing model for greenhouses – gerbera, capsicum and cucumbers – is overly simplistic.

The ‘improvement through growing exotics’ approach: Growing strawberries and capsicums in Goa is novel and frankly pretty amazing – and we can’t pretend that we’re immune to growing them, because we have. But experimenting in a garden as a hobby and cultivating on a farm for income are two very different things. It seems unlikely that it will be the most profitable one for local farmers, because mono-crops of cash crops rarely work in the long run. Eventually the competition from cheaper sources with a climate or cost-of-labour advantage like Mahabaleshwar will probably win over. Also, the pricing of cash crops is often volatile – because of variable demand due to external factors.

Crucial problems that continue to go un-addressed

  • The state continues to have no formal farming policy – in the absence of which a cohesive strategy and clear goals seem absent. The policy is necessary given the deficit of food production which threatens long-term food quality and availability, especially as relations with Karnataka decline due to water disputes.
  • Legal issues related to use of the land itself continue to go unaddressed thus creating a great deal of insecurity that prevents land from being leased out to people actually interested in agriculture. The subsidies also continue to be tied to land ownership instead of to farming activity, creating challenges for farmers.
  • Irrigation is another key issue and there seem to be few solutions for this on the ground – despite all the rainfall we get and the considerable expenditure on dams that were intended to provide a fillip to agriculture (but may not as the water will be demanded for urban use). Larger scale activities for improving watershed and water management do not see sufficient investment and are largely neglected.
  • Farmer’s access to markets remains limited and a crucial impediment – the Farmers Market policy seems to have made little headway though it’s a great idea. Other online initiatives like the Farmers’ Federation website cannot have a widespread impact because government fundamentally lacks the skills to market.

Some alternative guidelines for agricultural development

While it’s pretty simple to criticise what is happening to agriculture in Goa, we believe that this can be constructive only when it is accompanied by reasonable alternatives – and not just ideas that can never be implemented.

If there is an agreement that Goan agriculture should aim to achieve a significant degree of food self-sufficiency (say 50% to begin with) over the next couple of decades, then it’s important to set some broader guidelines to enable this to happen.

Set the focus on urban agriculture to bring quality to food production – the fields around the cities of Goa (for example, in Taleigao) must be preserved and aggressively developed for agriculture. This reduces the costs and logistics required for growing and also dramatically improves the quality and freshness of the produce applicable to its citizens (as well as farmers’ access to markets). A special policy that encourages and supports market gardens for growing vegetables and fruits is the key to this, along with setting up spaces for farmers’ markets. Models like development-supported agriculture provide several useful ideas for this.

Agriculture in Goa needs to focus on diversity and quality

Agriculture in Goa needs to focus on diversity and quality

Invest in the software and not just in the hardware: In developing economies like ours, too much investment is made in hardware (technology and products) and not in the software (the local knowledge, skills and experience) that is critical for achieving the results. In this area Goa has failed considerably, with local traditional knowledge fading and not documented in a meaningful way, a lack of effectiveness of skill development initiatives for key skills related to agriculture and the absence of a broadly accepted, professional knowledge forum like an agricultural university.

Invest in building a new model of agriculture for the youth: The revival of agriculture across the globe is visible from the thriving organic farming movements – which are driven not by the old and experienced, but by a youthful new generation of wannabe farmers. Goa needs to similarly create an ecosystem that encourages farm entrepreneurship amongst a younger generation and to develop schemes, spaces and education to engage them with farming.

Invest in special agricultural zones in rural areas: Small city farms cannot produce enough of everything needed for the state, but farms in rural areas need to have simplified access to logistics, processing and supporting agricultural services. A system of several decentralised special agricultural zones (in areas where farming activity is strong) can create sufficient economies of scale without becoming unwieldy and will enable more efficient use of mechanisation that the present situation suggests.

Innovation to differentiating Goa’s agricultural produce: When it comes to markets of any kind, differentiation is critical to achieving success. Goa has the opportunity to really differentiate itself in a meaningful way by becoming a hub for organic farming in India – by producing organic fruits and processed food products. There exists a local affinity for organic produce in our state, a tourist market that appreciates it, and reasonable proximity to urban centres that value it (Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai) too.

Yogita Mehra and Karan Manral have been working across different areas related to agriculture since 2009. This includes working with the Chorao Island Farmers Club to conduct several marketing experiments and to create support and infrastructure for farmers on the island of Chorao. They have also been working on different community initiatives to re-connect consumers with local produce and farming – through workshops (via Green Essentials), farm visits, agricultural events like the Konkan Fruit Fest, and most recently through their own Yogi Farms and Goa’s first organic market for vegetables.

Why use raised beds?

Raised beds are a common feature across all our vegetable gardens and farms, and we often have full time farmers question the wisdom of creating these beds for various reasons.

Sometimes, in sandy soil, they feel that this results in excessive water requirements because the water settles at the bottoms of the beds. In other cases, we’ve had it pointed out that the effort that it takes to make them is not worthwhile when planting at ground level works as well.

Freshly made 6-8″ raised beds of 3′ width with 1′ walking paths

Our reasons for sticking with raised beds are both functional and aesthetic.

  1. Primarily we do this because our fields are the low-lying variety, and are inundated through the monsoon. This results in the presence of water till quite late and we’re worried that the excessive presence of water in the young plants will result in disease. By raising our beds we are insuring ourselves against this and allowing our planting to begin a little earlier.
  2. The visual order that these beds bring to our farms appeals to customers and clients who visit, partly because it appeals to their urban sensibilities and also because it becomes easier for them to figure out where not to step.
  3. It also allows for a little extra depth of loosened soil for our root vegetables which we have found results in better growth and less work in terms of having to pile up soil for carrots or radish that pop out of the soil.

The height of our raised beds varies according to the nature of the soil in the fields in question. In soft sandy soils we start out with beds raised about 5-6″ and these settle to about 4″ after some time. In more loamy soils we would have beds raised to 6-8″ levels and if the field is particularly low lying (ie. the water table is really close to the surface), we will raise it as much as 10-12″ high.

The width of the beds is usually 2.5′ wide so that you can reach across for weeding, sowing in watering instead of having to walk around to the other side. The walking paths are typically a foot wide, to allow for squatting comfortably especially when you are weeding or harvesting. However, if efficient use of the land area is required you can make beds of upto 4′ width so that the area lost to the walking paths in between is minimised.

A good tip we’ve learned to increase the watering efficiency is to create a raised border on the beds to keep the water in, so it doesn’t spill over the edge into the walking paths. This needs to be reinforced from time to time as it gets eroded. Covering empty space with straw mulch is another way to be more water efficient.

The length of our raised beds is usually 25-30 feet, but we’ve gone as long as 27 metres in a larger field.

You can of course choose to avoid raised beds, if you feel that it isn’t affected by the problems we have described above.

 

 

 

Growing Lettuce in Warmer Conditions

Heat is the primary concern for growing lettuce, and can affect your efforts from the germination stage through the harvest. Ideally, temperatures of about 18-22˚C is when lettuce grows well in the western coast of India, but with a little care you can compensate for conditions of approximately 25-30˚C which are predominant in the winter along India’s western coast.

Growing lettuce in cool temperate conditions is pretty easy, but when you are in warm humid conditions like Goa, this king of salad leaves needs some extra care

salad-bowl-lettuce

Figure 1: Lettuce can grow very well in Goa

 

CHOOSE THE RIGHT VARIETIES
First, select the right varieties of lettuce to grow – heading lettuces like iceberg are a very long shot. Instead focus your attention on the leaf lettuces and romaine lettuces. Some varieties are more heat tolerant than others and you will need to check that their seeds are easily available in India too.

We’ve found the following varieties more productive in Goa’s conditions and seeds possible to source too (check with Annadana Seed Savers, Bangalore)…

  1. Salad bowl (green)
  2. Red salad bowl
  3. Grenoble red (Rouge grenoblaise)
  4. Deer tongue
  5. Marvel of 4 seasons

To begin with, you should germinate your lettuce in semi shade conditions, so that germination is not badly affected by the hot sunlight. The optimum temperature for lettuce is less than 20˚C, so you should expect germination to be in the 60% range if you are planting early at about 25˚C (before the cooler weather occurs).

CAREFUL WITH YOUR NURSERIES
You need to take care that the soil in your nursery beds or pots is really well prepared – soft loamy soil, well drained by using sand or coco soil and old compost that is well decomposed should be used. Do not cover with too much soil, just 2-3mm is fine and do not over water. A fine layer of moss on the soil means that over watering is occurring, and cracks in the soil surface mean that it’s probably too clayey.

Usually the lettuce seeds take 3-5 days to germinate and will have light green leaves. Once the germination happens, the lettuce saplings need more sunlight for at least 3-4 hours in the morning. If they don’t get this, they will tend to become lanky and will tend to be weaker and susceptible to excessive shock while transplanting. Evening sunlight is usually harsher so try and plant in a way that your beds are protected then.

Regulate the sunlight availability for the saplings by either moving your pot nursery or by removing the shade net from beds (making your shade net flaps easily removable is a great idea. Purchase the 50% variant of shade net for use your lettuce bed nurseries and for when the final transplanting will happen in beds.

Figure 2: Lettuce saplings ready for transplant

 

PREPARE SAPLINGS FOR TRANSPLANT
Prepare the saplings for transplanting by reducing the watering by 20% from day 15 onwards, and then don’t water for 48 hours before the transplant. Just 30 minutes before you pull them out; water them very well so that they can stock up on water.

Transplanting should always be done about 21-25 days from sowing, at the 4-5 leaf stage and when the sun is low in the evenings (after 4 PM). This substantially increases the chances of the lettuce surviving the heat of the day without going limp. It’s a good idea to mulch your well manured raised beds with dry straw before transplanting, but make sure that you create a gap in the straw to prevent contact with the transplanted sapling.

Scoop out a shallow basin of soil in the beds, and put in a handful of manure before you transplant the sapling in. This allows water to be soaked in better into the roots without soaking the leaves excessively.

Provide shade with a shade net for the first 5-6 days until the transplanted saplings have recovered from the shock (leaves aren’t looking limp anymore and the plant is looking healthy). The kind of structure that you choose to use will depend on the direction of the sun.

Figure 3: Shade net can help protect newly transplanted saplings from heat

Once this stage has been passed the lettuce plants will usually grow well unless it gets unusually warm.

In case you have a problem with caterpillars or grasshoppers you can spray either a neem oil or cow urine spray (5% diluted solution in water). Make sure that this is done at least a week before you are harvesting.

To download this as a printable PDF, click here

(c) Prepared for Growing Vegetables Organically 2013 Edition by Miguel Braganza and Green Essentials.