Mumbai Workshop: Reviving Family Farms (12th February, 2017)

People with a new interest in organic farming (either because they inherited a family farm, or recently acquired one), often struggle with making them self-sustaining and profitable. The reasons for problems can be varied — limitations of time, constraints of capital, inability to find the right market, lack of knowledge or reliable manpower, high costs of inputs — and while solutions are achievable it takes time and experience to address them.

Through this (full-day) interactive workshop we help participants understand what they need to do to make their Family Farms sustainable and productive. This is NOT a session for kitchen gardeners, but for folks with a serious and active interest in running their own farms.

Note: Only 10 participants can be accommodated in this workshop.

The workshop will cover the following broad areas:
1. Farm management processes
2. Farm Design and Technical Growing Topics
3. Farm Business planning and marketing

Topics covered will also include:
– Biggest (and most expensive) mistakes new farmers make – poor farm management
– Organic farm case studies
– Soil improvement strategies and practices
– Planning of succession crops

Sign Up – http://imojo.in/6kkpt9

Pre-registration is compulsory for this session

Registration Fee is Rs. 4,000.00 per head (includes lunch and tea)
Call/SMS Yogita: +919960643245 OR
Email: yogitamehra@gmail.com to pre-register
When: Sunday, 12th February, 2017 from 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Where: At Beard Design, Mumbai Studio, Prabhadevi, Mumbai (contact for directions)

NOTE: Due to limited seats, NO REFUNDS on registration fee will be offered in case of cancellations for this session. 

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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.

 

 

 

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

Towards greener pastures (by Bharati Pawaskar)

By Bharati Pawaskar / The Goan

Hanish Khan, Chandu Rathod and Vipul Karanjawkar may not be the sons of this soil but they toil in the Goan farms to produce organic vegetables, fruits and crops that have an increasing demand in the local market.

“My father polishes marble in Goa for 18 years but after my 12th exam I chose to opt for organic farming,” says Hanish, 23 whose family owns ‘dhai beegha jameen’ at Mainpuri in UP which he wishes to revive making it a way of life.

Labour is not scarce as farmers from neighbouring states willingly move to Goa in search of farm jobs, whenever monsoons fail them. “I grow onions, cotton, kidney beans, ground nuts, moong, toor, sunflower, chilies and jowar in my farm and am now offering my labour to Goans. All I need is monthly salary and farm food,” says Chandu, a born farmer from Karnataka.

And young enthusiastic graduates like Vipul who have understood that organic is the mantra of the future, physical labour in the farm is equal to doing an expensive MBA course. Vipul plans to spend five years working in Goan farms. “My father is a goldsmith in Maharashtra but I chose to be in Goa to experiment in organic farming,” he shares.

Hanish and Vipul handwater saplings early in the morning

Hanish and Vipul handwater saplings early in the morning

For Christabel Pinto, the abandoned family farm at Taleigao turned out to be a boon since the time she revived it with the help of a catalyst couple – Yogita Mehra and Karan Manral who has been dedicatedly helping out those who wish to do organic farming in its various forms – paddy crops, fruits, vegetables, kitchen gardens, terrace gardens, herbal and spice plantations.

“Though the returns are not immediate and one has to keep pumping money in for the initial period till the soil condition is restored, but once the soil regains its original richness, we can expect golden harvest,” admits Christabel, an IT professional who is determined to give a new lease of life to the 200-year-old ancestral farmland of her in-laws.

“I have open budget for my farm,” affirms green messenger Vito Gomes who flies back every month to his ancestral farm at Taleigaon from whichever corner of the globe he is and this for the past 10 years.

People in Goa have been restoring their fallow farms by ‘green manuring’, a process of growing certain crops on land/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 improves soil texture.

Cattle are scarce and so is cow dung in urban areas. Hence composting and green manuring are easier and cheaper ways of improving soil. “Remember, if you are growing organically then use more compost for productive and healthy plants,” advises Yogita while Karan offers valuable tips on composting, “Use garden waste (mix green and brown materials with panchagavya (cow dung slurry) in alternating layers or kitchen waste. Regularly manage the moisture and provide aeration by turning the pile over to avoid a bad smell. It can attract rodents, especially if there is non-veg waste.”

“The Goan soil is very receptive. It takes less time to turn fertile and gives good yield, ” agrees Yogita and Karan who began experiments with the Goan soil two years ago in Albertina Almeida’s ancestral farm at Taleigaon. This farm has remained as a base for their experimentation where Deer’s Tongue, Salad Bowl, Lettuce, Chinese Cabbage, Greeshma, Cluster Beans, Round Red Radish, Tomatoes, Brinjal, Carrots, Palak, Methi, Tambdi Bhaji, Radish etc are grown. The couple has been instrumental in initiating a successful organic movement in the state like Chorao Farmer’s Club and share free healthy tips with agro-growers for easy marketing.

By Bharati Pawaskar / The Goan

How Global Food and Market Trends are Creating Closer Relationships between Organic Farmers and Consumers

Agriculture in Goa seems to be having a difficult time recently, with farmers finding their traditional farming activity unsustainable due to increasing costs, difficulties related to farm labour and lack of direct access to markets for their produce. However, our recent trip with OFAI (Organic Farmers Association of India) members to the 17th IFOAM Organic World Congress 2011 at Yangpyeong, Korea revealed that our situation here is not at all unique.

Small and medium scale organic farmers from all over the world (from developed nations like USA, France and Australia to the developing ones like Nigeria, Malaysia and India) reported very similar challenges in each of their countries. The same factors that have made agriculture the last choice of occupation for younger people here in India, led to exclusion of the current generation from agriculture in the more developed countries over the last couple of decades.

However, as food quality is declining (and that seems to be the feeling everywhere) and costs are increasing (again a global trend), there is a growing awareness that farmers provide a critical service to the community, and that the community can help themselves and their farmers by assisting in making local farms more sustainable. The interactions with organic farmers from all over the globe at the Korea conference, provides us with some very interesting ideas for Goa, where agricultural traditions are still present in the older generation even if the younger ones have already opted out.

A partnership between Consumers and Farmers
The most interesting of the ideas to help sustainable organic farming actually comes from the most developed nations (in Europe and the Americas). There the pressure on small and medium farmers and the awareness about declining food quality amongst consumers has driven models for Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA) that have matured considerably and are working very well. These systems allow the creation of an alternative market where consumers have access to high-quality, fresh and organic vegetables directly from farmers that are growing it in their localities, usually less than 100 miles away.

In this system families “subscribe” to the CSA service which gives them access to a weekly supply of fresh vegetables. They choose the quantities they need every week and mention specific vegetables that they don’t want. They are then supplied a basket of fresh produce which they collect from a nearby pick-up point on a fixed day (say every Saturday). But the consumers also play another critical role in the system. By allowing the use of their homes for drop-off and pick-up points for weekly produce, they help with promoting the service and in collections of payments from new subscribers. This allows the farmers to focus on the core task of growing fresh and delicious produce.

The CSA system originated over two decades ago but has progressed into an extremely mature, organised and successful system. Consumers seem to love it too, largely because it provides them with much fresher, better tasting and chemical-free vegetables, something the trader and retailer driven markets do not offer.

This article by Yogita originally appeared in Mind & Body, Heart & Soul

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)