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

Hardening saplings for transplanting

For most farmers and gardeners, there is only one thing more discouraging than the failure of seeds to germinate — and that’s the failure of transplanted saplings to survive the process.Young saplings tend to be badly hit, especially when the weather is on the hotter side, and just wilt to death in a couple of days after transplanting.

But this is entirely avoidable if we accept a few basic principles:

  1. The problem is caused primarily because the plant is unable to adapt to a new situation
  2. We need to use the instinct of self preservation (present in almost any living thing) to assist us
  3. We may need to ‘protect’ the sapling in its early days after the transplanting

Our experience is that plants that are systematically hardened before transplanting consistently achieve over 90% survival rates. The trick is to plan your dates of transplanting, and not just do a transplant when time permits. All transplanting on our farms is done in the late afternoons, so that the plants have time to recover overnight without excessive loss of moisture. But the preparation of the saplings actually begins about a week earlier (ideally).

Here is how it (ideally) goes:

  1. A week before we begin reducing the amount water provided to the saplings (drop by 25% on D-7 and again by 25% on D-5)
  2. Water the saplings on D-2 which is about 48 hours before transplanting (about half of what was being provided before D-7) and don’t water again till its almost transplanting time
  3. Just 30 minutes before transplanting, you should water the saplings very well. Ensure that the roots are not damaged by pulling them out gently
  4. If the weather is really warm, its a good idea to set up a shade net (50%) to protect saplings till they have recovered

Hardening_Transplants

NOTE: If you can retain the soil around the roots, it helps. Put in a fist-full of compost in the pit where you will transplant. Transplanting is also a good time to treat the saplings with panchagavya* (growth promoter) and trichoderma** (protection against fungal disease).

Lastly, be a little patient and wait for a week before giving up on shocked saplings. Often they will recover even though they look extremely poor for the first few days. Put some dry mulch or leaves around every sapling so leaves don’t touch the soil directly. This prevents leaves from rotting and at the same time the roots are protected from direct sun and loss of moisture.

* Treating with Panchagavya: Dip sapling roots in 3% panchagavya for about 3 minutes just before the transplant

** Treating with trichoderma virde: Dip sapling roots in trichoderma solution prepared by putting 1tbsp of the powder in a litre of water. Remember to mulch the beds to protect the beneficial trichoderma fungus from direct sunlight

 

What is food quality?

Defining quality for fresh food is not a simple task – because there are many perspectives to this.

For many the organic label has come to signify quality, but we’ve come to see this as a uni-dimensional viewpoint. There seems to be a lot more to quality, and its probably best measured at the point of our plates.

Variety is quality. The types of a vegetable that you to choose to grow determines quality – because not all tomatoes varieties were created equal taste-wise. Some are just better than others.

Freshness is quality. And the difference in freshness plays a major role in quality, especially for leafy vegetables and herbs. Loss of moisture over time accelerates the drop in quality. Other vegetables like brinjals, gourds, beans, tomatoes retain moisture much better.

Distance is quality. The less distance travelled by your vegetables, the fresher they are and the less chances there are for exposure to pollutants and other materials that aren’t very healthy.

Organic is quality. Food grown without the use of pesticides is definitely healthier, but growing organically is not the only measure of quality.

 

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.