This write up is a part-study, part-blog, attempting to encapsulate my learnings from the field working with farmers towards a transition to organic farming methods. It is based on a series of interviews that I conducted in the Kangra district in Himachal Pradesh alongside Heloise Bellenot, intern at Jagori, as well as data gathered from 600 farming households associated with the project.
Soil is a key component in defining the wealth of a society as it determines the nature and extent of food production. However, the soil is also a finite source of energy and minerals, and its slow but certain decline can mount to a threat to communities across the world. Under unfavourable circumstances that have been generated by industrial farming practices through the employment of non-indigenous crops and chemical inputs, this decline is an increasing reality today. In a world threatened by global warming and climate change, industrial practices also contribute to the destruction of climate resistance in agricultural practices. “All progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility”- it is interesting to look at the long-term impacts of the green revolution in light of this statement from Karl Marx.
Even though a finite source of energy, it remains within possibility to replenish the soil through experimented techniques in agroecology. There are methods and practices in organic/natural farming that have been experimented with and are proven by leading institutes and agriculturalists. Although slow and minor, the impact of Indian government’s push towards organic farming is visible on the ground in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, often through intervention of agencies collaborating with the state government such as ATMA (Agricultural Technology Management Agency) and JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) as well other non-governmental organizations.
Working at Jagori Rural Charitable Trust on the SAFAL (Sustainable Agriculture Forest and Land) project, I found that familiarity becomes an important factor in adopting a new practice- something the project attempts to address through awareness programs, workshops and demonstrations. I spoke with farmers of Kangra regarding their practices, motivating factors and challenges and the data provides an insight into various trends in organic and conventional farming in the community.
Features in farm holding
We spoke in detail with 15 farmers to gain a qualitative insight into organic farming practices in the area. Quantitative data focusing on landholding under conventional and organic agriculture, crops grown and pesticides used was gathered from 583 farmers- the population was almost equally distributed over the Kangra, Rait and Nagrota blocks of Kangra district.
The farmers surveyed are small farmers, most of whom have marginal land holdings. Of the 583 farmers, more than 95% own less than 1 hectare of land and the remaining farmers are in the 1–2-hectare bracket. The majority of farmers in Kangra and Rait blocks do not sell their produce because the land size is not significant enough for surplus. The situation is slightly different in the Nagrota block where the land is extremely suitable for potatoes. Farmers in Nagrota cultivate and sell their produce. The ‘Pathiar potatoes’ of Nagrota are also famous for their usage in potato chips production. The other major crops in Kangra are rice, wheat and vegetables. When the numbers were examined, it was noted that 97.7% of farmers from Nagrota sold at least one crop from their farm. This was a major contrast from the Rait and Kangra blocks where only 4% and 18.44% of farmers sold any of their crops in the market. Rait especially had a significant percentage of subsistence farmers given the low land holding. Almost 61% of farmers surveyed owned less than 5 kanals of land (0.253 hectares).
Trends in organic farming
Through the effort of the government as well as other non-governmental organizations, the population has a certain level of awareness regarding the harmful effects of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the health of the body and soil. They tend to link the various lifestyle diseases that are common today to the changes brought in by modern agriculture.
“The chemicals are such a huge problem for our health. Everyone seems to be having some problem or the other- somebody is having heart problems… someone else’s nervous system is failing… recently one person in our community died due to heart failure. It is a big problem for us, and we have to change”- said Rajkumar Sehni from Kotkawala panchayat of Kangra block. Rajkumar had begun his transition to organic farming a couple of years ago with good results. He said there is not enough awareness among the population and that we need to address this gap.
Health concerns are the most visible motivating factors among farmers. Despite a fall in the harvest in the initial years of utilizing organic methods, some farmers stuck to their efforts. This was primarily due to their insistence on transitioning to organic farming for household consumption. When there is a dependence on agriculture for household income, there is more reluctance to transition as there is a fear of income loss. Farmers find it easier to transition their vegetables to organic, unlike grain crops like rice and wheat, or potatoes. Most families cultivate vegetables for household consumption, and this smaller sector, between 0.5 kanals and 2 kanals (approximately 0.025 hectares to 0.1 hectares), often becomes the first piece of land that is transitioned. Of the households surveyed, 67% of families are currently employing organic methods on their farm, and at least some share of their land is completely organic. In terms of land area among these 583 households, 13.86 hectares of land out of a total of 158.19 hectares is under organic farming- nearly 8.7%. Two conclusions can be drawn from this data. One, that there is a reluctance among farmers in experimenting with organic farming in larger portions of their farm as they consider it a major risk to their harvest. Two, most farmers are in the initial stages of their transition to organic farming and are having doubts about transitioning more land.
“If we convert our whole land to organic all together, there is the risk that harvest will be low, and it could be difficult for us. Hence, we had to do it step by step. (…) after I slowly started getting better harvest in those small areas, I brought in more land under organic farming. And now it’s almost half of my total land area. Now we don’t really want to rely on urea or NPK.”- said Praveen Kumari of Abdullapur village in Kangra district.
Numerous farmers maintained that they are gradually decreasing the usage of fertilizers such as urea and NPK, and also limiting the usage of pesticides significantly. The dependency on pesticides is generally low as pest related issues tend to be low in high altitude areas. As compared to grains, vegetables are not very vulnerable to pests. There is also awareness through state-sponsored campaigns regarding popular organic fertilizers available in the market. A few farmers have extended organic farming to land under other major crops including potatoes, rice and wheat. Very few potato farmers are prepared to make such a transition as it could significantly affect their harvest on which they are financially dependent on. Potatoes are more vulnerable to issues such as blights. Surender Singh of Pathiar in Nagrota said that organic potatoes can be smaller in size. The lack of access to indigenous crop varieties of rice and wheat is another major factor hindering the transition among households that are prepared to experiment with organic methods.
Vermicomposting is a common practice among the farmers here. The usage of composted cow dung in farms is a practice that is being followed for generations and the government initiative to introduce red worms into the compost pits has been well-received over the last 10-12 years. Such vermi compost pits have become a common sight. The awareness regarding its efficiency has motivated farmers to reduce the application of chemical fertilizers including urea. “The use of chemicals like urea was a lot higher in our farms. But these days we are increasing the amount of compost manure and decreasing usage of chemicals like NPK. It’s good for the soil”, said Rajkumar Sehni.
The subsidy that was provided earlier by the government to build concrete compost pits at home has had mixed impact. While many utilize these pits well, a number of pits were found empty or unused, or even at times used to keep fodder for the cattle. Farmers had multiple reasons for not using these concrete pits. Some were not impressed by the output and complained that it gets too dry. Others made the mistake of building the pits too close to their houses and away from their farms. This adds a burden of carrying the manure- instead they found it easier to dig another pit closer to the fields. Purchasing composted manure from within the community in exchange of cattle fodder was a common practice, especially since cattle ownership has become increasingly uncommon among farmers. Of the households surveyed, only around 27% maintained structured pits in their fields even though the usage of compost is almost universal. Even while following conventional farming methods, every farmer ensures that the land is nurtured with compost manure.
Agencies such as ATMA in the past and Jagori currently support these farmers in preparing farm-made pesticides through workshops and demonstrations. Some of these preparations including Jeevamrita, Agniastra, Darekastra or even easier preparations such as Khatti Lassi popularized by Subhash Palekar Natural Farming (SPNF), have been well-received by a number of farmers. Around 41% of the farmers surveyed maintained that they are currently utilizing these bio-pesticides on their crops.
There are a number of farmers who found a lot of success in organic farming. Many have been able to achieve harvest on par with what they were able to achieve earlier with conventional farming. A farmer from Kangra block said that apart from being able to achieve a good harvest, her crops have become more resistant to changing weather as well as insects. “In organic farming, the crops can survive with less water… also there are fewer pests. The pests are attracted to shiny things. And the shining in the crops come from usage of urea.” The usage of traditional crops and organic methods open up the possibility of better adaptability against changes brought in by climate change.
What needs to be addressed?
In promoting organic farming, there needs to be an acknowledgment of the challenges faced by farmers while transitioning to organic farming. Despite the constant encouragement and the conversation surrounding the adverse impacts of chemical-based conventional farming, the fear of a possible loss in harvest and income prevents farmers from making a major transition. “Who will put food on our table if we suffer a major crop loss?” is a common question raised by farmers. The belief that conventional farming ensures a minimum guarantee in terms of harvest is entrenched deeply in the minds of farmers. This belief is not entirely without basis- it is based on their experiences and success in conventional farming. For a significant transition to organic, there needs to be stronger initiatives from the side of the government and other agencies.
The lack of access to traditional seeds is another major challenge. Even while large scale campaigns exist at the state and national levels, the farmer in the field is at loss as to who they must approach for a good supply of traditional seed crops. There is also limited knowledge regarding the health benefits and climate reliability of millet seeds, even as India and the world celebrate the International Year of Millets in 2023. The growing market for organic products is also limited to certain urban spheres. Without ensuring proper outreach, campaigning and logistical connectivity, the farmers who attempt a transition are unlikely to receive the market benefits of organic farming.
Above all, thought must be put into the extra amount of labour that organic farming will demand. The additional burden of agricultural labour tends to fall on the women in the household. When such a campaign with a long-term vision and long-ranging impacts is introduced, the gender aspects of it deserve attention. The policy changes introduced should not be allowed to further the gender divide in an extremely patriarchal society like ours.
There is a huge knowledge gap with regards to the impact of chemical usage in conventional farming and this gap is wider than what non-state agencies and non-profit organizations can address. The campaigns must be expanded through governmental and non-governmental agencies. In the absence of strong financial incentives- through seed supply, support prices, subsidized supply of organic pesticides and separate market access for organic products, it is naïve to expect farmers to make significant transitions, especially when they are dependent on agriculture for their livelihood and survival.
The state must also be wary of stories such as that of Sri Lanka, where a rushed transition to organic farming without proper risk analysis, contributed to food shortage and eventually the recent economic crisis. India’s vision must be comprehensive and rational, and the steps should be taken one at a time, backed by proper scientific research as well as the experiences of farmers. It should be understood not as a choice but as an eventuality on an Earth increasingly threatened by climate change and global warming, as organic farming is expected to become an indispensable aspect of climate resilience in tomorrow’s world.
- Monthly Review | The Emergence of Marx’s Critique of Modern Agriculture
- Sri Lanka’s organic farming disaster, explained – Vox
- Vermicompost, the story of organic gold: A review (scirp.org)