An Introduction to Bhaskar Save’s Farm, Kalpavruksha
(Adapted extracts from Chapter 1 of ‘The Vision of Natural Farming’, forthcoming publication, Bharat Mansata, Earthcare Books)
ANNAPURNA: NATURAL ABUNDANCE
(On Nature’s way and her silent workers – the soil-dwelling creatures, earthworms, weeds – at Kalpavruksha.)
“Natural farming is blessed by Annapurna, the mother goddess of abundant food for all that lives.” Bhaskar Save, 84 year-old man of the earth, speaks with quiet conviction, grown from long experience. He has lovingly nurtured a magnificent natural orchard and farm near the coastal village Dehri, a few kilometers north of the Gujarat-Maharashtra border.
“Thousands of useful plant species, indigenous or long-adapted to local conditions, grow in this country. Thus graced with Nature’s generosity, why should our people ever have to suffer lack of food or any basic want?” asks Bhaskar Save.
At the gate of Save’s verdant 14 acre orchard-farm, Kalpavruksha, a bright blue sign in white lettering reads “Su-Swagatam”, the traditional Indian greeting of an auspicious welcome. About twenty steps from the gate is a sign that says: “Co-operation is the fundamental Law of Nature.” – A simple and concise introduction to the philosophy and practice of natural farming!
Further inside the farm are numerous other signs that attract attention with brief, thought-provoking sutras or aphorisms. These pithy sayings contain all the distilled wisdom on nature, farming, health, culture and spirituality, that Bhaskarbhai has gathered over the years, apart from his extraordinary harvest of food!
If you ask this warm, humble farmer where he learnt his way of natural farming, he might tell you, “my university is my farm.” His farm has now become a sacred university for many, as every Saturday afternoon (Visitors’ Day) brings numerous people. Included in such weekly entourage have been farmers from all over India, as also agricultural scientists, students, city folk, senior government officials, ‘V.I.P.s’, and occasional travellers from distant lands, who have read or heard of Bhaskar Save’s work.
Kalpavruksha compels attention, for its high yield easily out-performs any modern farm using chemicals. This is readily visible at all times! The number of coconuts per tree are among the highest in the country. Some of the palms yield over 400 coconuts each year, while the average exceeds 350. The crop of chikoo (sapota) – planted over forty years ago – is similarly abundant, providing an average of 300 kg of delicious fruit per tree each year.
Also growing in the orchard are banana, papaya, and a few trees of date-palm, drumstick, areca-nut, mango, jackfruit, toddy palm, custard apple, jambul, guava, pomegranate, lime, pomelo, mahua, tamarind, neem, audumber, … apart from some bamboo and various under-storey shrubs like kadipatta (curry leaves), crotons; and vines like pepper, betel leaf, passion-fruit, etc.
Nawabi Kolam (or Surati Kolam) – a delicious and high-yielding, native variety of rice, several kinds of pulses, winter wheat and some vegetables too are grown in seasonal rotation on about two acres of land. These provide enough for this self-sustained farmer’s immediate family (consisting of ten members, including four grand-children), and an average of two guests. In most years, there is some surplus of rice, which is gifted to relatives or friends, who appreciate its superior flavour and quality.
The diverse plants on Bhaskar Save’s farm co-exist as a mixed community of dense vegetation. Rarely can be seen even a small patch of bare soil exposed to the direct impact of the sun, wind or rain. The deeply shaded areas under the chikoo trees have a spongy carpet of leaf litter covering the soil, while various weeds spring up wherever some sunlight penetrates.
The thick ground cover is an excellent moderator of the soil’s micro-climate, which – Bhaskar Save emphasises – is of utmost importance in agriculture. “On a hot summer’s day, the shade from the plants or the mulch (leaf litter) keeps the surface of the soil cool and slightly damp. During cold winter nights, the ground cover is like a blanket conserving the warmth gained during the day. Humidity too is higher under the canopy of dense vegetation, and evaporation is greatly reduced. Consequently, irrigation needs are very low. The many little insect friends of the soil thrive under these conditions.”
Tillers and Fertility Builders at Kalpavruksha
It is not without reason that Charles Darwin declared a century ago: it may be doubted whether there are many other creatures that have played so important a part in world history as have the earthworms. Bhaskar Save confirms, “A farmer who aids the natural regeneration of the earthworms and tiny soil-dwelling organisms on his farm, is firmly back on the road to prosperity.”
Earthworms flourish in a dark, moist, aerated soil-habitat, protected from extremes of heat and cold, and having an abundance of biomass. These tireless workers digest organic matter like crumbling leaf litter along with the soil, while churning out in every cycle of 24 hours, one and a half times their weight of rich compost, high in all plant nutrients.
Vermi-compost – or earthworm compost – is a treasure of fertility. In relation to the surrounding parent soil, the intricately sculpted worm castings may contain twice as much magnesium, five times as much nitrogen, seven times as much phosphorous, and eleven times as much potash. Moreover, the bacterial population in such castings is nearly a hundred times more than in the surrounding soil. Save estimates that at least 6 tonnes of nutrient-rich castings are provided by the earthworms each year in every acre of his land. That is more top-grade organic fertiliser than most farmers can afford to buy!
The earthworm’s tunnelling action efficiently tills the land, imparting a porous structure to the soil. This increases its capacity to hold air and moisture, the most important requirements of plant roots. The worm castings are similarly well-aerated and absorbent, while allowing excess water to drain away. They also form stable aggregates, whose soil particles hold firmly together, and thus resist erosion.
Various other soil-dwelling creatures – ants, termites, … many species of micro-organisms – similarly aid in the physical conditioning of the soil and in the recycling of plant nutrients. And there are innumerable such helpful creatures in every square metre of a natural farm like Kalpavruksha.
Bhaskar Save, however, does not claim to have any special method for making the armies of insects toil for him. “This is Nature’s way,” he says. “The most important step is to let it happen – by not adopting short-sighted technological interventions, such as the use of chemical fertiliser or pesticide, heavy tillage or too much irrigation.”
Modern agricultural practices have proved disastrous to the organic life of the soil. Many of the burrowing creatures are crushed under the weight of heavy tractors, or killed by the toxic effect of the chemicals used. The consequent soil compaction, resulting from the death of these Nature’s cultivators, has reduced soil aeration and the earth’s capacity to absorb moisture. This is further aggravated by soil-surface salinisation, caused by excessive irrigation and poor drainage.
By ruining the natural fertility of the soil, we actually create artificial ‘needs’ for more and more external inputs and unnecessary labour for ourselves, while the results are inferior and more expensive in every way. “The living soil,” stresses Bhaskar Save, “is an organic unity, and it is this entire web of life that must be protected and nurtured. Natural Farming is the Way.”
Weeds: Wild Friends
“In nature, every humble creature and plant plays its role in the integrated functioning of the eco-system. Each is an inseparable part of the food chain. The excrement of one species is nutrition for another. In death too, every organism, withered leaf, or dry blade of grass leaves behind its contribution of fertility for bringing forth new life.” Consequently, pleads Bhaskar Save — if we truly seek to regain ecological harmony and sustainability, the very first principle we must learn to follow is, “Live and let live.”
“Since all plants are provided by Nature in her wisdom to fulfil certain functions in relation to the soil and the creatures of the soil, we need to think twice before removing what we consider undesirable weeds. In particular, violent methods like spraying chemical weedicides or herbicides, and the use of heavy tractors should be totally given up.” At Kalpavruksha, no labour is wasted even in manually rooting out weeds, though sometimes such weeds that over-shade young saplings may be cut and mulched.
The manual uprooting of weeds disturbs the organic life of the soil less than mechanical tillage, but is still usually undesirable. On the other hand, the cutting of weed growth above the land surface – without disturbing the roots – and laying it on the earth as ‘mulch’, benefits the soil in numerous ways.
With mulching, there is less erosion of soil by wind or rain, less compaction, less evaporation, and less need for irrigation. Soil aeration is higher. So is moisture absorption, and insulation from heat and cold. The mulch also supplies more food for the earthworms and micro-organisms to provide a nutrient-rich compost for the crops. Moreover, since the roots of the weeds are left in the earth, these continue to bind the soil, and aid its organic life in a similar manner as the mulch on the surface. For when the dead roots get weathered, they too serve as food for the soil-dwelling creatures.
Bhaskarbhai points out that the irrational and violent prejudice against weeds in modern tree-cropping can be traced back to our colonial past. Due to the much slower rate of decomposition of plant matter in the colder, temperate conditions (where soil bacteria are comparatively fewer and less active), most Englishmen were not conscious of the vital importance of weeds and leaf litter in maintaining soil fertility and checking soil erosion in warm, high rainfall conditions, like ours.
Most of the ‘nutrients’ of weeds – indeed all plants – are derived from elements present in the air and moisture. The minerals drawn from the soil constitute barely 5% of their total weight. The problem of competition for these does not arise, for nature is never so foolish as to select such weed species, whose mineral needs are less than adequately catered in the soil where they are chosen to grow. And since weeds are shorter, have comparatively shallow roots and brief life-spans, they do not hinder the taller, deeper-rooted, long-life trees in any way at all.
Some of the so-called weeds found in Kalpavruksha, like the koucha, dhaincha, and ikkad, are leguminous. (The latter two belong to the Sesbania family of plant species.) Along with other leguminous shrubs and trees, these are nature’s agents for supplying nitrogen. In their root nodules dwell billions of specialised rhizobium bacteria that ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen in the soil. For this reason, traditional rotation systems of field-cropping almost always included a leguminous crop of ‘nitrogen supplying’ pulses between two crops of ‘nitrogen consuming’ cereal/s.
“Even if some weeds threaten to become rampant and over-shade crops,” says Bhaskar Save, “the modern methods of weed control are sheer madness. After all, we do not tear out the hair on our head when it grows too long. Nor do we spray poison on it! And so with weeds, the saner way is to moderate their growth, where needed, by cutting.”
“The only lasting ‘root-cure’ to situations of weed rampancy among field crops is to restore the health of the soil by adopting mixed planting and crop rotation, while discontinuing chemicals and deep tillage. Since the problematic weeds will only phase out gradually as the soil regains its health, a farmer may still find the weed-growth tending to over-shade her/his food crops in the interim period of recovery. The way to manage this is to periodically cut the weeds (before they flower), and mulch them at least 3-4 inches thick on the soil under the crops. Without any sunlight falling on the weed seeds buried in the soil, their fresh germination is effectively checked.
Above the ground cover of weeds that constitute the lowest storey of vegetation in the orchard, are numerous shrubs like the ‘kadipatta’ (or curry leaf, Murraya koenigii) and the homely croton that line the pathways through the orchard. The latter plant, of various spotted and striped varieties, is relatively shallow rooted. It serves as a ‘water meter’, indicating by the drooping of its leaves that the moisture level of the soil is falling!
The shrubs of curry leaf inhibit the reproduction of several species of crop-feeding insects, thus moderating their population, while also providing an important edible herb widely used in Indian cooking. From this minor crop alone, Bhaskar Save earns an income of at least Rs 2,500/- each month, at zero cost. (Even the harvesting is done by the purchaser.)
Here and there, one may see climbers like the pepper vine or betel leaf in a spiral garland around a supari (arecanut) palm, or perhaps a passion fruit vine arching across a sunlit clearing. These provide additional bonus yield on the side.
Excluding the two acres under coconut nursery, and another two acres of paddy field, the average food yield from the 10 acres of orchard is over 15,000 kg per acre per annum! In nutritional worth, this is many times superior to an equivalent weight of food grown with the intensive use of toxic chemicals, as in Punjab, Haryana and many other parts of India.
(Abridged from the original)
Bhaskar Save says: “A young tree sapling is like a child that needs some initial care. But soon it looks after itself, and then it looks after us!”
Shri Save’s mature orchard has, since many years, reached the stage of almost pure, ‘do-nothing natural farming’. [See also Annexure 6] The labour needed is mainly in harvesting. The occasional irrigation in dry months (about once in 2 or 3 weeks for every row of trees) is still attended to entirely by Bhaskar Save, despite his advanced age.
The field crops at Kalpavruksha, however – rice, wheat, various pulse legumes, vegetables, onions, etc. – are ‘organic’, rather than ‘natural’ in the no-till way of the well-known Japanese natural farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka. Here, significantly more seasonal labour is required in ploughing, transplanting and harvesting.
Apart from the sale of fruit, considerable income is obtained from the sale of coconut saplings, which are always in high demand. Even from distant Kerala – coconut country – farmers visit almost every year, and carry back some saplings, apart from valuable insights! Most sales though are within a radius of 150 km.
Thus, Bhaskar Save comfortably makes a net income of several hundred thousand rupees every year, apart from being self-sufficient in most food needs. And this, without succumbing to the temptation of exporting his produce to ready buyers of organic food in Europe, offering a much higher price.