(Excerpts from Chapter 2, ‘The Vision of Natural Farming’ by Bharat Mansata)
The Principles of Farming in Harmony with Nature
“Present-day farmers labour under basic misconceptions,” declares Bhaskar Save. “It is thus helpful to understand what plants actually need, … how much, where, when; and how these needs are best satisfied.” With such simple, down-to-earth concepts, Save proceeds to explain with zest – whether he is addressing one or many – the principles of farming in harmony with nature.
What and How Much?
Touching upon a common misunderstanding, Bhaskarbhai clarifies that the organic matter added to the soil is not the ‘food’ of a plant, at least in any direct sense. Rather, it is food for the innumerable soil-dwelling creatures and micro-organisms, which function ceaselessly to maintain the fertility of the land. And there are more micro-organisms in half a cup of good soil than there are humans on earth!
Through the digestive processes of the soil dwelling creatures, including earthworms, the organic matter added to the soil gets decomposed into a progressively more inorganic or mineral form. The nutrient-rich excreta of these creatures must then dissolve in moisture, before it can be absorbed by the roots of plants.
More fundamental yet is the misconception about how much of the mineral nutrients is needed. Bhaskar Save never tires to emphasise that plants are actually mitahari, or very small feeders of the minerals in the soil. Sunlight and air are what plants need in abundance, while the moisture requirement of most plants – barring aquatic and semi-aquatic species, like mangroves and rice – is best met when the soil is just damp rather than soaked.
Since India has no lack of sunlight, it is the porous, humus-covered soils that absorb and hold more air and moisture, which are the most productive in giving a sustained high yield of biomass. This is ancient knowledge, though less understood these days.
“Clamp your nostrils, shut your mouth, and time yourself”, suggests Bhaskarbhai. This is a good way to remember that air, which we take for granted, is the most vital requirement of the human body. Similarly, the roots of most plants – and the aerobic organisms that live around these roots – require non-stop aeration in the soil. This is ensured in nature by the movement of the soil-dwelling creatures – the earthworms, ants, micro-organisms, etc. – whose ‘tilling activity’ keeps the earth porous and well ventilated.
There is a convincing way to verify that most of the weight of a plant is drawn from air and water, rather than the soil. In ‘The Web of Life’, John Storer writes: “A Flemish physician, who lived in the 17th century, grew a willow sprout in a pre-weighed tub of earth. For five years, nothing was added except rainwater, and the willow plant grew into a small tree. At the end of the five years, the tree was (separately) weighed. It had gained more than 164 pounds (from when it was just a sprout), while the soil in the tub had lost only two ounces. Actually, the soil weight must by now have included millions of microscopic root hairs from the tree, but the figures are accurate enough to show that those 164 pounds must have come from somewhere outside the soil.”
Bhaskar Save relates a similar experiment he performed over three decades ago, in 1972. He collected some soil from where his cattle sit, and weighed it. This – nine kg of soil – he filled in a container, and planted a seed of water melon. The vine that emerged bore in 90 days two water melons, which were harvested. One weighed 3 kg, the other 5 kg. The remaining plant, along with roots, was carefully extracted and found to weigh 600 grams. The total biomass yield thus came to 8.6 kg. The soil was then removed, dried in the sun and reweighed. There was no loss!
Scientific analysis confirms that approximately 88% of the weight of a plant – or any organic matter – consists of just carbon and oxygen, with roughly equal contributions of about 44% each. Much of these two elements is drawn by the plant from atmospheric carbon dioxide, absorbed through minute pores or stomata in the underside of leaves. Hydrogen, drawn from moisture, is third in the list and contributes about 6% of the plant’s weight. The moisture also provides some of the oxygen.
These three main elements – carbon, oxygen & hydrogen – obtained from air and moisture, together form about 94% of the entire weight of a plant! They are combined together into living matter in the presence of sunlight by a process called photo-synthesis.
GREEN CREATION :
Chlorophyll, the Sun and the Carbon Cycle.
Chlorophyll, the green pigment found in the leaves of plants, is the primary agent of photosynthesis by which life is created. This humble, mysterious substance blends the energy obtained from the sun together with elements taken from the air, water and soil, and builds these materials into more complex living form.
The two chief ‘foods’ of the plant are carbon dioxide and water. These provide the 3 primary elements of organic matter – carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. The essential first step consists of building sugar out of these three elements in the presence of sunlight. In the process of binding the solar energy, some of the oxygen drawn from carbon dioxide and water is also released in a free form into the air.
The cool, moist plants give no hint of the sun’s energy stored in their framework. But dry out some grass and light a match. It will burst into a blazing flame. All that fierce heat is a release of the energy collected from the sun. If, however, a plant is not burned, but eaten, its energy is transferred into the body to sustain the spark we call life.
The plants that are eaten by humans, animals, or bacteria undergo progressive decomposition through the digestive processes of these creatures, and finally revert back to their constituent elements. By this cyclic process, the carbon dioxide drawn from the air is returned to it, so that it is again available for the next generation of plants to grow.
Trees to Check Global Warming, Ease the Energy Crisis, and Boost the Economy!
During the earth’s long history, considerable quantities of vegetation and animal tissue got buried in the ground without undergoing full decomposition. With the solar energy still locked in the carbonaceous material buried under pressure, these formed into progressively concentrated fossil fuels.
In recent decades, we have been burning up enormous quantities of these fuels formed over many geological epochs. In doing so, we have also been drawing upon free oxygen, and releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the air to cause global warming by the ‘green-house effect’.
While the wasteful burning of fossil fuels must be curbed to check global warming and atmospheric pollution, the only way to reduce the already excessive levels of carbon dioxide in the air is to grow many more trees and allow our natural forests to regenerate. This is the key to healing the carbon cycle disrupted by man. It is also the answer to our energy needs, since the photosynthesis of vegetative matter is the most efficient way of harvesting the daily renewed supply of the sun’s energy – the ultimate cosmic source sustaining all life and activity on earth.
Our fuel-hogging civilization has now begun to look on oil-rich, ‘bio-diesel’ species like the Karanj tree (Pongamia pinnata) and the shrub, Jatropha curcas (Chandrajyoti/Ratanjyot) as sources of “the fuel of the future”. But while it may be okay to integrate these species in mixed plantings on degraded wastelands, it would be irresponsible to grow them as another industrially promoted cash-crop monoculture on cultivable lands presently under food crops.
‘Carbon trading’ is fast growing in international commerce. Since the oil-guzzling industrialized countries seem unable (or unwilling) to sufficiently reduce their massive carbon (dioxide) emissions responsible for global warming, they are willing to pay for ‘carbon sink trade-offs’ that absorb the carbon they generate in excess of their quotas. If ‘free market principles’ of demand and supply actually operate in determining the price of such carbon trade-offs, we should have a classical sellers’ market with high prices, since global carbon emissions are already massive, while ‘carbon sinks’ (like forests) have become relatively scarce!
Industrialised nations (and fuel consuming industries everywhere) must soon realize that a secure future on earth is far more precious than what is paid for carbon sinks to ‘offset’ the massive destruction threatened by global warming, including the melting of polar icecaps and the consequent, impending rise in sea levels, wreaking worldwide havoc in coastal and low-lying areas.
It is important to understand that though the principal needs of plants are originally derived from air and moisture, a considerable part of these may be drawn via the soil and the root system. Hence, the physical condition and absorptive quality of the soil is far more vital than its chemical composition of minerals that is over-emphasised by modern agriculture.
Continuing with the list of the ‘building-blocks’ required by a plant, nitrogen comes a distant fourth, contributing 1 to 2 per cent of its weight. This element, abundantly present in the air, is made available in the soil through the action of billions of rhizobia — the micro-organisms that dwell in the root nodules of leguminous plants. Nitrogen is also supplied when dead organic matter is broken down in the soil, under the action of decomposer bacteria.
Less than 5 per cent of a plant’s weight originates in the mineral nutrients provided by the soil itself. These are elements like phosphorous, potassium, calcium, silicon, magnesium, … and a number of trace elements or micro-nutrients required in very minute quantities, such as iron, copper, zinc, boron, cobalt, manganese, etc.
The earthworm castings in a mixed natural farm or forest provide an abundant supply of these minerals and trace elements. Myriad other animals, birds, insects and micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi, molds etc.) add their contribution in recycling nutrients to the soil. In fact, every creature – in excretion and in death – is an integral part of the continuous fertility cycle of nature.
Additionally, deep-rooted trees draw up fresh supplies of minerals dissolved over time from the underlying parent rock or sub-soil. Thus a farmer who is mindful of the natural, biological processes of fertility regeneration, scarcely needs to bother about the chemical analysis of his soil. The important thing is to religiously return all crop residues and bio-wastes to the earth. Any pronounced ‘nutrient deficiency’ in the topsoil – often caused by monocultural cropping – then becomes largely corrected in a few years by reverting to mixed cropping.
Unfortunately, in present times, much of our organic ‘wastes’ are literally wasted. And all the plants grown in monocultures draw the same mineral nutrients from the same level of the soil, causing an artificial depletion of these. Most problems of ‘nutrient deficiency’ in the soil today, unimaginable in most parts of the world just a hundred years ago, are a direct result of these two factors.
The Problem with Excess Water
Bhaskar Save stresses that the large majority of plants – barring wetland species like mangroves – are healthiest if the soil is just damp or moist. Among commonly consumed food crops, rice – a semi-aquatic species – is the only plant that grows well even where water accumulates. It is thus the natural choice as monsoon crop in low-lying areas that get flooded, though upland varieties also suitable in hilly regions – on terraced plots that are bunded (provided raised embankments) to arrest run-off and thereby enhance moisture retention.
In the case of most other crops, an excess of water suffocates the roots, driving out the air contained in the many little pore spaces between soil particles. Root respiration is stopped, disrupting photo-synthesis; and prolonged flooding causes root-rot, increasing the plant’s susceptibility to diseases and pests.
Just as a lactating cow that is ill, takes long to return to its normal milk yield, explains Save, so also the roots affected by water-logging need time to regain their previous efficiency of functioning. Consequently, even after the excess water in the soil has dried, the plant must first regenerate its roots before setting forth new leaves, flowers, or fruits.
Bhaskarbhai adds, “it is significant that thick forests are often found on well-drained mountain slopes. The rain on such terrain largely flows away by gravity. The soil too is subject to high erosion, particularly during heavy showers of the tropical monsoon. In many parts, the mountain slopes may have 95% rocks and stones, and barely 5% soil. Very little rain is accumulated anywhere within reach of the roots. Yet huge, old trees thrive on such land. What could be more eloquent testimony of how frugal are the needs of plants.”
During the 8 months when there is no rain, the trees on mountain slopes are able to survive very well on dew condensation, and on the moisture directly absorbed by soil humus, particularly when atmospheric humidity is high. Some of the rain soaked in the monsoon may also remain trapped in small depressions, nooks and crevices of underlying rocks, to be drawn upon later by the roots. On gentler slopes, where the soil is deeper, moisture is held in thin films on the inner walls of the pores of the soil, enabling continuity of aeration. In any case, no irrigation ever needs to be provided to the forests by man!
In contrast to the mountains, the land in low-lying river valleys and plains may have rich soil with few rocks or stones, says Bhaskarbhai. But because such regions are prone to water accumulation from the rain run-off of higher lands, the roots of the trees suffer from poor soil aeration, thereby retarding growth.
In natural forests, the large surface area of cool, green matter – provided by foliage – maximizes the daily condensation of air vapour as early morning dew. This happens too on farms with dense vegetation. Micro-climatic humidity remains high in such conditions, since the thick shade and the protection from wind reduce return losses of moisture through soil-surface evaporation or transpiration, which are pronounced in dry, windy conditions.
The dampness retained in the humid air below the tree canopies is also directly absorbed by soil humus. Thus, just a little irrigation provided occasionally can be adequate for maintaining dampness in the upper soil, combed by the `active’ root-fibres that form the upper `crown’ of the root system of plants.
Where the porosity, or internal pore space of the soil is high – as in all good, living soils characterised by a granular, ‘crumb structure’ – this enables it to hold enormous reserves of both air and moisture. Such a condition – known to local farmers as ‘waafsa’ – where dampness, air and warmth are simultaneously present in the soil, is ideal for plant growth. With too much water, the aeration component of ‘waafsa’, supplying oxygen, is lost.
Excess irrigation with poor drainage, especially in arid regions, also causes soil salinisation, as a cumulative white crust of salts is left behind on the surface of the soil when the irrigation waters evaporate. Along with the accumulation of ground water near the root zone of plants, irrigation-intensive farming is steadily transforming large areas fed by big irrigation schemes into wet deserts.
It is only rainwater that is relatively pure distilled water, says Bhaskar Save. The irrigation waters from canals, tube-wells, wells, etc contain mineral salts that have dissolved in it through contact with the earth. When such water is used on the farm, some of it evaporates, leaving the salts behind on the soil surface.
Salinisation greatly reduces the soil’s capacity to absorb air and moisture, since these cannot penetrate the hard, sealed surface of the earth. The plants suffer as a result of this. Similarly, the earthworms, micro-organisms, etc. die through suffocation in the absence of oxygen, speeding up the ruination of the soil.
Bhaskarbhai relates, “I have personally seen the terrible condition of the land in the regions of Sangli and Baramati of Maharashtra, (where much sugarcane has been grown). This is a direct consequence of irrigation-intensive and chemical-intensive agriculture. One can actually taste the high saltiness of the soil.”
Salinisation is said to have insidiously destroyed more civilizations than all the mighty armies of the world. Susa and other city states that rose in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago, thrived on a sophisticated system of irrigation. The land fed 25 million people and had food left to sell. But now, the region around the Tigris and Euphrates – once famed as the Fertile Crescent – is almost completely infertile, …miles after miles of salt-encrusted barren land.
According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, half the irrigated systems around the world are seriously affected by salinity or water-logging. Some 10,000 square kilometres of land are abandoned every year because of salt encroachment! In India, it is estimated that 10 million hectares are water-logged, and another 25 million ha threatened with salinity.
Where and How?
Another common error of horticulturists, is to provide irrigation right near the tree-trunk in a sunken ‘basin’ all around it. If instead, water is provided only in a narrow strip (or ring) near the outer reaches of the upper ‘active’ roots, this reduces the dissipation, evaporation and consequent salinisation that accompany the flood irrigation of a larger surface area. More importantly, the correction enables non-stop aeration and respiration near the concentrated root crown zone surrounding the trunk, and lying close to the soil surface.
Bhaskar Save thus follows the ‘platform and trench’ system of irrigation – innovated by him – which greatly increases the efficiency of water utilisation. The trenches, which serve as irrigation channels, run on either side of each row of trees, at a distance reached by the outer roots of the trees. (By a rough rule of thumb, the lateral root-spread of a plant is about as much as its overhead canopy, or the extent of the shadow cast by a directly overhead sun.)
The trenches are about 15 inches wide, 12 inches deep, and well mulched. They presently take up barely five per cent of the area of Save’s mature orchard, where a single trench runs midway between 2 rows of trees, feeding each of them. No water needs to be provided to the remaining 95% area of the orchard, i.e. the ‘platforms’ on which the trees and shrubs grow.
The system is essentially ‘modelled’ on the natural, undulating terrain found in areas rich in tree growth. It enables excess rainfall to flow away without accumulating around the trees. Consequently, the same trenches used for irrigation serve as drainage channels in the monsoon months.
Considering that irrigation is provided to a very small surface area and sinks under the shade of the mulch, before being rapidly absorbed by the sponge-like, porous soil, it is easy to see why wasteful evaporation losses or salinisation are almost totally avoided at Kalpavruksha. In the monsoon, a good deal of the over 80 inches of rainfall is also soaked up and held by the earth.
When the upper soil becomes saturated, the rainwater percolates into the aquifer or underground water-table. And during prolonged, heavy showers, the excess water flows away through the trenches – particularly important on flat terrain – preventing water accumulation near the surface of the soil, where the ‘active roots’ need to breathe continuously.
[Note: The above system is advantageous for growing irrigated fruit trees like coconut and chikoo on relatively flat land. It is not appropriate for growing – on well-drained hilly areas – trees like mango, cashew, jambul, ber, custard- apple, etc., which in any case require very little or no irrigation at all by the farmer. (On flat terrain prone to flooding during heavy rains, trenches in un-irrigated orchard plots may still serve to drain away excess rainwater.) For trees planted on slopes, any trenches provided should be along contour lines so as to increase rainwater absorption into the earth, and to arrest any soil erosion.]
Besides greatly conserving water, the irrigation system at Kalpavruksha is simple, labour-saving, and easy to maintain and operate, though not by ‘remote control’. Bhaskar Save, now well into his eighties, still personally attends to the entire irrigation of his 14-acre farm. As he strolls in the shade of the orchard, he occasionally unplugs or plugs a water outlet at the mouth of a trench to release or stop water supply to a particular row of trees. Sometimes, he pulls a dead, fallen branch into a trench to keep it mulched.
The irrigation trenches for young saplings should, of course, be close to the plants, as their root spread is much smaller. But as the plants grow, the trenches are progressively shifted further away. This encourages their roots to spread to their maximum natural limit to obtain the moisture they need. Such a wide-spreading root system is important for trees in two major ways. One, it provides greater stability and weight-bearing capacity, enabling it to withstand rough storms. But just as significantly, the wider reach of the roots enlarges the territory a tree can draw upon for its moisture and nutrients – a factor particularly critical during times of drought.
Hence, Bhaskarbhai cautions that a farmer should not be like an over-pampering parent who unwittingly encourages laziness. By regularly serving water and manure close to a tree, he removes the need for it to spread its roots to help itself. The dependence created then becomes a handicap in later years. The trench method – with progressive distancing – avoids this error.
The mulch or manure laid in – or near – a trench decomposes in the presence of air and moisture under the action of soil bacteria, earthworms, etc. The mineral nutrients in the rich, natural compost that is ceaselessly churned ‘in situ’ (or on site) then dissolve in irrigation water or rainwater before being absorbed by the fibre hairs of the tree roots.
“At the trenches,” says Bhaskarbhai, “we offer a buffet meal of organic wastes for all the little creatures of the soil, whose excreta is then a grand buffet of mineral nutrients for the plants that help themselves according to their needs. Thus none goes hungry or thirsty. Nor is there any wastage or problem of excessive supply causing a toxic effect on the plants, as is often the case with crops raised with agro-chemicals.”
Most important of all, there is no tillage or cultivation involved in supplying the needs of the trees. Any such tillage is futile toil that injures the organic life of the soil, and the root system of the plants. Many miles of delicate fibre hairs of roots grown over months may be lost in a single hour of tilling the soil.
Yet another advantage of the ‘platform and trench’ system on flat land is that it provides a good distribution of wet and dry habitats for the soil creatures. This is important in the monsoon, enabling the earthworms and other insects to migrate from the excessively soaked trenches to the higher ‘platforms’, as they often do, tilling the soil, and delivering their composted excreta in the process.
When to Irrigate
Bhaskar Save has gathered a wealth of experience on how much irrigation should be provided, and when. He knows that as long as the leaves of his croton ‘water meters’ appear erect and cheerful, there is adequate moisture in the soil, and hence, no need for irrigation. It is mainly in new, ‘developing’ orchard plots that delayed irrigation may cause damage. Thus, if the croton leaves begin to droop in such plots where (yet shallow-rooted) young saplings are growing, he is alerted that he should supply water soon – on the same day, or the next.
On developed plots, there is a considerable safety margin even after the croton plants have begun to droop. The big trees – with a much deeper root system – can still manage well enough by drawing on sub-soil moisture. In contrast, the crotons send their roots barely 9 inches into the ground. (Sometimes, such shallow-rooted plants shrivel at noon, and open up again in the evening. This reduces the loss of transpiration moisture as a result of the sun beating down on them.)
Based on the response of his croton `water meters’, Bhaskarbhai discovered – contrary to popular expectation – that he needed to irrigate his chikoo trees less in summer (once in 25-30 days) than in winter, (once in 15 days). This is because the air in this coastal region is more humid during the warm months than in winter. Peak day temperatures under the shade of the trees never rise too much. Late night and early morning dew condensation is high. So too is moisture absorption by soil humus in such conditions.
For those unconvinced, Bhaskar Save elaborates: “The reason our lips and skin commonly crack in winter is because the air is dry. Similarly, the washed clothes we hang up on the clothesline dry rapidly in winter because their moisture is more readily absorbed by the dry air than in humid, sultry weather.” It is also significant that many forest trees of India get a fresh mantle of leaf growth in April/May, before the monsoon sets in. This phenomenon is related to the higher atmospheric humidity during this time of the year, which the soil humus soaks in at night, and which then becomes available for the trees to draw upon.
[The need for irrigating less in summer than in winter would not apply in arid regions where the summers are excessively hot and dry, and where the existing tree-growth and ground cover vegetation are insufficient to retain micro-climatic humidity within the farm.]
‘Less is Better, Nothing is Best’
“It is ridiculous to continue spoon-feeding and tending mature trees like babies, instead of letting them get on with their natural role of looking after the environment, and us. As young saplings grow bigger, their shade reduces evaporation loss. The soil too is more absorbent and fertile than before. Consequently, much less irrigation is required than what one started with at the time of planting. The need to manure is similarly reduced.
“It is natural for a mother to give utmost attention to her new-born infant. At this tender age, the baby is entirely dependent on the mother’s milk and care. But once it gets its teeth, its dependence (on its mother’s milk) for food is halved. When the child starts walking and bathing on its own, the dependence is further reduced. Finally, by the time puberty is reached, the boy or girl should be fully self-reliant.
“In like manner, as a tree grows, its dependence on inputs by the farmer gradually decreases. This is because its extensive roots enable it to help itself from further and deeper regions of the soil for its moisture and nutrient needs.” By following the principles of natural farming, the health of the soil – particularly its humus content – also improves, removing any cause for worry.
“We should draw inspiration from the natural forests untended by man,” says Bhaskar Save. “Still, if we feel that we must attend to our mature fruit trees, we may supply 5 to 10% of the inputs we provided when they were young saplings. This is a common-sense principle of horticulture: Young trees need more care, give less yield. Older trees need little care, give more yield. (Of course, a farmer still needs to be mindful of the health of the soil as a whole.) Unfortunately, many farmers increase their inputs, thinking that a bigger plant needs more to yield more. This is mindless oppression spurred by greed. The enhanced inputs, particularly irrigation, are wasteful and counter-productive.
Humus & the Fallacy of Chemical Input:
Humus is the preferred choice of ‘food’, vigorously sought by plant roots. This is well illustrated by a simple experiment. Take a jar full of humus (with its mouth open and facing upward) and bury it in a biologically active pasture, about four inches below the surface. Six weeks later, the brown spongy substance will have completely disappeared and the jar will be densely packed with white hair roots – as clean as if they had been thoroughly washed – every last particle of soil absorbed and transformed into plant matter by the invading roots.
In the sixties, when the use of chemical fertiliser was being promoted in a big way, agricultural scientists justified this by claiming that they were only helping the plants through providing them nutrients in the inorganic form that they needed. It was overlooked that the natural processes of humus formation in the soil are far more efficient in recycling plant nutrients from organic matter into inorganic mineral form, as witnessed in our rich forests and traditional mixed farms, whose fertility has remained undiminished over millennia.
As the process of decomposition of organic matter into mineral form continues in nature, so does the replenishment of organic matter on the surface through leaf fall and the drying of grasses and shrubs. Thus is humus constantly regenerated, adding greater depth of nutrient-rich topsoil to the earth. (The minerals for the increase in topsoil are drawn up by deep roots from the underlying sub-soil.)
In Nature’s wheel of life, the processes of decay and re-growth are finely balanced. But the use of agrochemicals signals the beginning of the end of natural regeneration. Nitrogenous fertiliser, having its origin in the weapons industry of the West, constitutes a brutal attack on humus, hastening the oxidation of soil organic matter. The absorbent structure collapses into tiny dust-like particles that are easily eroded and swept off by wind or rain. The capacity of the soil to hold air and moisture is lost.
Earthworms, ants, termites and other burrowing creatures and micro-organisms – that ever renewed the fertility of the soil – die by the toxic effect of agrochemicals, and by the lack of oxygen. This is compounded by deep tillage and excessive irrigation. A vicious cycle of dependence is set up, requiring more inputs, and additional energy expenditure by the farmer.
If, however, a farmer aids humus formation, its effect on the crop is profound, says Albert Howard. “The key to a fertile soil and a prosperous agriculture is humus… The leaves acquire the glow of health, the flowers develop depth of colour, root development is profuse… The vegetables and fruit are always superior in quality, taste and keeping power. Less food is needed … Resistance to insects and fungous disease is similarly higher.” [Quoted from ‘An Agricultural Testament’ by Albert Howard, pp 28-30]
In tropical regions, the rate of decomposition of organic matter is much faster than in temperate climates. The hot, humid conditions cause high bacterial activity in breaking down the bio-residues that come in contact with the soil. Thus, abundant mineral nutrients are recurrently available for the plants. However, during tropical monsoons, the newly recycled nutrients near the surface of the topsoil are also prone to rapid erosion and leaching under strong rain or wind. This makes it all the more imperative to have a protective ground cover of vegetation, and to constantly replenish the organic matter (leaf litter, crop residues, etc.) in the soil to bind it together under a carpet of humus.
In contrast, the problems caused by agro-chemicals are less severe and show up more slowly in the temperate conditions of Europe or USA. Not only are there fewer decomposer bacteria in the soil, but snowfall in winter conserves organic material underneath, further retarding its break-down into inorganic minerals. This is why the organic matter status of soils in temperate countries is much higher. Because of this extra cushion of carbonaceous material, the soils have a larger capacity to absorb artificial nitrogen.
While chemical inputs hasten the decomposition process in temperate lands as well, they do not deplete the soil of its organic content as rapidly as they do in the tropics and sub-tropics, where the natural rate of decomposition is already high. Nor are there torrential monsoon downpours, as in many parts of India. Consequently, both the eroding and polluting effects of chemical fertilisers are much slower and less visible in temperate climates.
India, unfortunately, seems determined to march with renewed pace towards the total destruction of her soils. Bhaskar Save reminds us: “Oil might last till 2050. Our soils will not!”
Once farming became a business of producing for cash income rather than self-consumption, the farmer began to concentrate on increasing the yield of a few marketable crops, forgetting all else. This is the root of the monoculture mentality of commercial agriculture promoted by central planners, whose over-riding aim was not rural self-reliance, but to support the expansion of a modern urban-industrial economy, notwithstanding its parasitical nature. In contrast, the natural way of farming is conscious of a mysterious, unfailing intelligence that governs all natural processes. Its golden rule is: ‘Avoid unnecessary interference.’
“Billions of micro-organisms miraculously appear when a seed germinates,” observes Bhaskar Save. “The soil around it comes alive. The first pair of leaves that emerge look like tiny palms clasped in prayer, as though beseeching, ‘Please let us be!’ It is for this reason that any tillage or disturbance to the soil after planting is taboo in natural farming. Thus, not only are the soil microbes safe from injury, but the root fibres as well.
“If even a small part of the roots is damaged by tilling – or gets flooded with water – the efficiency of photo-synthesis drops significantly. Much of the solar energy gathered gets used up in regenerating the roots, leaving little for the development of leaves and fruits. Moreover, where tillage is regularly done to supply inputs around a tree, a strong, well-spread root system cannot develop. A significant increase in weight through setting forth much fruit, then becomes a hazard to the stability of the tree with its weak and stunted roots. The ‘innate mind’, directing growth, thus shuns or limits such fruit-bearing – for good reason!
While the physical work on a natural farm is much less than in a modern farm, regular mindful attention is a must. Hence the saying: “The footsteps of a farmer are the best fertiliser to his plants!” In the case of trees, this is especially important in the first few years. But as they become self-reliant, the work of the farmer is reduced – till ultimately, nothing needs to be done, except harvesting.
For the field crops like rice, pulses, vegetables, etc. some seasonal attention year after year is unavoidable. (This is why Bhaskarbhai terms his method of growing field crops as organic farming, while a fairly pure form of ‘do-nothing natural farming’ is only attained in a mature, tree crop system.) However, even with field crops, any intervention by the farmer should be kept to the bare minimum, respecting the superior wisdom of nature, and minimizing violence.
The Five Concerns of Farming
Bhaskar Save summarises the key practical aspects of his approach to natural farming with reference to the five major areas of activity that are commonly a pre-occupation of farmers all over the world. These are tillage, fertility inputs, weeding, irrigation, and crop protection.
Tillage in the case of tree-crops is only permissible as a one-time intervention to loosen the soil before planting the saplings or seeds. Thereafter, the work of maintaining the porosity and aeration of the soil should be left entirely to the organisms and plant roots in the earth.
The recycling of all crop residues and biomass on the farm is an imperative for ensuring its continued fertility. Where farm-derived biomass is scarce, initial external provision of organic inputs is helpful. However, no chemical fertiliser whatsoever should be used.
Weeding too should be avoided. It is only if the weeds tend to overgrow the crops, blocking off sunlight, that they may be controlled by cutting and mulching, rather than by uprooting for ‘clean cultivation’. Weedicides or herbicides, of course, should never be used.
Irrigation should be conservative, no more than what is required for maintaining the dampness of the soil. Ground cover vegetation (preferably multi-storied), and mulching greatly reduce water needs.
Crop protection may be left entirely to natural processes and the biological control of naturally occurring predators. Poly-cultures of healthy, organically grown crops have a high resistance to pest attack. Any damage is usually minimal, and self-limiting. At most, some non-chemical measures like the use of neem, diluted desi cow urine, etc may be resorted to. But this too is ultimately unnecessary.
By thus returning to nature many of the tasks that were originally hers to mind, a weighty burden slips off the back of the half-broken, modern day farmer. And the land begins to regenerate once more.
THE VISION OF NATURAL FARMING ____________________________________________
Growing Wholesome Food and Healing the Earth
Prologue : Om Purnamadaha… Magical Wholeness
Meeting Bhaskar Save; train encounter with Masanobu Fukuoka; reflections on the journey in search of a vision; the Gujarat Organic Farming Yatra; a Preface and overview.
1) Annapurna : Natural Abundance
An introduction to Bhaskar Save’s farm, Kalpavruksha and its silent workers – the soil- dwelling creatures, earthworms, weeds, …
2) Mitahari: Plant Needs Are Frugal!
The basic principles of farming in harmony with Nature, as explained by Bhaskar Save: the “what, how much, where, when, and how” of meeting plant needs.
3) Smriti: Remembrance
The life and times of Bhaskar Save; his experiences and views spanning seven decades and four agricultural systems – traditional, chemical, organic, … evolving into natural.
4) Jeevan Chakra: The Wheel of Fertility
Regenerating soil vitality, checking the drain of organic matter, and healing the cycle of fertility; the relative merits of various bio-inputs; also mulching, composting, vermi-composting, soil layering, and soil conservation.
6) Paramparik Kheti: Field Crops by Traditional Rotation
Tips on growing important crops – rice, millets, pulses and vegetables – drawing on Bhaskar Save’s experience in the coastal Konkan region; importance of mixed cropping and rotation; Save’s 1952 farm encounter with an old traditional farmer — example of six-crop integral system for low rainfall, un-irrigated farming.
7) Sajeev Mitra: Insects, Not Pests
On insects as friends; and on how to avoid or check rampancy of crop-feeding ‘pests’.
8) Jal Amrit: Water, the Elixir
Water-vegetation-soil linkage; water conservation; decentralised water harvesting; the problems with big dams and Bhaskar Save’s letter regarding the Sardar Sarovar.
9) Jeevan Vruksha: The Tree of Life
On the vital importance and multiple functions of trees; intensive orchard development by the ingenious pioneering system of Bhaskar Save, including conservative trench-irrigation, dense multi-tiered ground cover (combination of short, medium and long life-span species) with examples; various fruit/nut trees and specific tips for growing some of these; also scanning the biodiversity of other useful tree species in India, and criteria for selecting appropriate species.
10) Sarvamangalam… A Cry for Vision!
The path ahead: community challenges for integrating self-reliance with ecological, cultural & spiritual regeneration; narrative extracts from times and travels with Bhaskar Save. A peek into Part 2 – on forest regeneration, biodiversity, food and natural health, renewable energy and indigenous technologies, non-formal education, sane bio-regional ‘oiko-nomies’, … and on ‘growing’ land-linked communities that reintegrate learning, livelihoods, and life-culture with the core longing for harmony with nature and fellow humans.
(i)More on Weeds among Crops and Controlling Rampancy
(ii)Vermi-composting of Urban Domestic Bio-wastes
(iii)Integrated Home Garden Design for Composting and Kitchen-gardening
(iv)Panchagavya: Bhaskar Save’s Recipe for Crop Protection
Species index (with local and botanical names)
Visitors’ comments: including Fukuoka’s and some others’ (spill-over from back cover into inside front page.)