Dryland Mixed Cropping for Diverse, Continuing Yield in Low Rainfall Areas
(Extracts from Chapter 6 of ‘The Vision of Natural Farming’,
by Bharat Mansata, Earthcare Books)
Bhaskar Save relates: “In some of the driest districts like Surendranagar, Sabarkantha, and Banaskantha in Gujarat, and Sholapur, Pandharipur in Maharashtra – receiving barely 10 to 20 inches of rain in an entire year – farmers following traditional mixed cropping systems were able to get good continuing yield round the year from a variety of crops to meet their needs. This they managed year after year for generations, without any decline in yield. And without any external inputs or irrigation whatsoever, using just their own seed saved from the previous year’s crops.
“I remember visiting one such farmer over five decades ago, in 1952, in Surendranagar District of Gujarat. I was fascinated by his field. There were 6 different crops that had been sowed together: (i) cotton, a 330-350 day variety, (ii) tuvar (pigeon pea), a 320-330 day variety, (iii) jowar (sorghum), a 150-160 day variety, (iv) gavar (cluster-bean), a 130-145 day variety, (v) bajri (pearl-millet), a 120-125 day variety, and (vi) moong (green gram) a 65-70 day crop.
“Every alternate row of crops in this poly-culture is a legume that provides nitrogen in the soil, helping the growth of the adjoining crops on either side. Complete ground cover of vegetation is established within a few weeks of the rains, which then continues round the year till the farmer replants for the next monsoon.”
The Practical Steps
“Make plots not exceeding 1 or 1.25 acres in size. Plough the entire land at the start of the rains. Around the edge or perimeter of each plot, keep a strip of 3 to 4 feet width unplanted for self-seeded, uncultivated plants that appear naturally on their own. Let all such plants (local ‘weeds’) grow without uprooting them. These serve as a habitat for predator species that feed on crop-damaging insects. They also help to moderate the micro-climate of the plot, protecting it from excess heat, cold or strong winds.
“In the central ploughed area, first plant alternate lines of cotton and tuvar, with a gap of 6 ft between the two, thus covering the entire plot. The intervening space of 6 ft between the cotton and tuvar should then be planted in the following manner:
(i) At a gap of 9 inches from the lines of cotton and the lines of tuvar, plant lines of moong on either side. (Thus for each line of cotton and tuvar, there will be two lines of moong, one on each side.)
(ii) At a gap of 9 inches from every line of moong, plant a line of bajri.
(iii) At a gap of 9 inches from every line of bajri, plant a line of guvar.
(iv) At a gap of 9 inches from every line of guvar, plant a line of jowar
(See following illustration)
[Note: To the right of the row of Tuvar, the continuing sequence of crops is again the same as with cotton, ie Moong (M), Bajra (B), Gawar (G), Jowar/Sorghum (J), Gawar (G), Bajra (B), Moong (M), and again Cotton (C), all at 9 inch gaps, so that the second row of cotton is 6 ft to the right of the row of Tuvar. Illustration by Atreyee.]
“Apart from the seeds of the above crops, and of course, the farmer’s labour – for ploughing, sowing, harvesting and mulching – nothing else whatsoever is needed. No watering, no manuring, no weeding; nothing at all.
“The above gap of 6 ft between the lines of cotton and tuvar (recommended for medium soils) may be increased to 7 ft or even 8 ft if your land is quite fertile. But if it is degraded, the gap may be reduced to 5 ft. Thus, you should sow less seed on fertile land, more seed on degraded land. The underlying principle is quite simple: shade the entire land with vegetation as rapidly as possible. This will regenerate the organic life of the soil, providing a high output of self-generated biomass for mulching to improve the fertility of the soil, while simultaneously providing the farmer yield from even ‘poor’ soils receiving little rain.
“Once the sowing is completed at the start of the rains, it takes just 18 to 22 days for the entire land to be completely shaded with vegetative growth, when the leaves of alternate crops touch each other. Once this happens, no sunlight falls on the soil. Consequently, evaporation loss of moisture is greatly reduced, and even 10 to 15 inches of rainfall maintains the dampness of the soil, providing fair yield. With the entire land rapidly shaded, there is hardly any weed growth. If some weeds do spring up in the first 2 weeks, these may be cut and mulched, where they grow. Under such conditions, the regeneration of humus in the soil enables it to absorb atmospheric humidity (directly, or via dew condensation). But not if chemicals are added, thereby desiccating the humus being formed, and consequently diminishing the soil’s capacity to absorb atmospheric moisture.”
“In 65 to 70 days, the pods of moong are ready to harvest. Once these pods are collected, the remaining vegetative growth of the moong plant should be pressed down and mulched right there – where it grew. Meanwhile, in these two months, the adjoining crop lines of cotton, tuvar and bajri grow and spread their canopy, to shade the soil covered till now by the moong plants. Abundant nitrogen (drawn from the atmosphere) is already provided to the soil by the ‘nitrogen-fixing’ bacteria dwelling in the root nodules of the leguminous moong plants.
“Then, in 120 to 125 days of sowing, the bajri is ready to harvest. Post-harvest, the balance vegetative growth of this plant too should be pressed down and mulched on the soil. Meanwhile, the cotton and tuvar plants have further spread their canopy to shade the ground occupied by the bajri.
“In 130 to 140 days (from sowing), the leguminous guvar would now be ready to harvest, after providing its share of nitrogen to the soil. And then, in 150 to 160 days (early November), the jowar can be harvested, providing further space to the remaining lines of cotton and tuvar, which continue to mature till they too are ready to harvest.
“By end November or early December, you can start harvesting the pods of tuvar, and continue this for a full 2-3 months. By January or February, the cotton is ready to start harvesting, continuing its yield till April-May. In this manner, the farmer has continuity of yield round the year, with a big fallback safety margin if one or two of the six crops happen to do poorly for some reason. And since no external inputs are required, there is no danger of incurring any loss.
“All this is not a new, untested, experimental idea, but something that has been traditionally practised for generations. I have seen it work with my own eyes. Tragically, all such old, elaborately planned systems followed by our people were destroyed by our agricultural scientists! Now, with the spread of modern farming, it is monocultural, chemical-intensive cropping everywhere, greatly increasing the expense, vulnerability and anxiety of the farmer. We are digging our own graves. And the farmers must share some blame.”
[Note: Bhaskar Save adds that the above-described crop-combination is suitable for dry, low rainfall areas, not in the humid, high rainfall Konkan belt, since cotton would not grow here. In such wet regions, one would need another appropriate long duration crop of 330 to 350 days, and suitable inter-crops.]