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  • Abhishek Saxena

Champion farmers and keen stakeholders: transitioning to natural farming in the Thar

The Government seeks to promote more bioinputs and natural farming practices as is evident in the latest budget speech. farmers who are innovative and early adopters can be a great resource towards this goal. Rajasthan’s novel attempt to upscale natural farming through Gram Panchayat plans can benefit through documenting innovative practices of champion farmers.

The Natural Farming Thrust

The announcement of the Finance Minister of a scheme to enable states to transition to sustainable agriculture has received a boost through the PM-PRANAM yojana, the latest in line of the previous schemes aimed at pushing for sustainable agricultural practices such as Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) that promotes farming through Bhartiya Prakritik Krishi Paddhati Program (BPKPP). Civil Society Organisations have independently collaborated to promote agroecology-based farming. The National Coalition for Natural Farming (NCNF) is one such coalition formed in 2020-21 with five state chapters including Rajasthan. In Rajasthan NCNF partners have sought to integrate natural farming into the gram panchayat development program (GPDP). Rajasthan has 10 agroclimatic zones and correspondingly crops, farming practices, and resource availability with the farmers. A few vignettes of natural farming practices in the ‘arid western plains’ that form part of the desert region known as Thar, are presented.

Farmer to farmer learning and innovation

Jogaram of Hathi Tala village in Barmer used to work in a stone quarry. Like most people involved in stone mining and cutting he suffered from Silicosis. This is when he returned to farming. He grows pearl millet (bajra) and psyllium (isabgol) as the principal crops with vegetables such as brinjal, legumes such as green gram (mung) and moth and some locally used herbs and condiments like ber, kair and sangri. The highlight of his farm is the variety of bajra and the isabgol that he grows. Jogaram shares that he brought the seeds of bajra and isabgol from his relative and crossed them with the variety that he was growing on his field. This was few years back, when he was still using chemicals on his field and was in the process of transition. He shifted to natural farming around 2019 and uses the castor, neem and other weeds growing on his field, along with the cow urine and dung, to make bioinputs. Now, when he farms naturally, his bajra grows to a height of 12-14 feet having a 3-4 feet long grain ear! Even the yield per bigha (local unit of land measurement with 6.20 bigha being 1 ha) of land is more for this cross-pollinated variety at 7 Qt (as compared to 4 Qt for the desi bajra that farmers grow). Jogaram does not sell this bajra at the farmers’ market yard (mandi) at Barmer. Instead, he sells it at a very high premium (Rs. 800/Kg, as compared to Rs. 25-35/Kg of pearl millet sold at the mandi) to anyone who is willing to buy. It was a similar story with the psyllium, however that was sold at the farmers’ market, even as his cross-pollinated variety stood out in the field as compared to the normal variety that he had also planted. Even though Jogaram owns 10.75 ha of land and has access to irrigation, which many others in the regions are not fortunate enough to have, his experience of turning to natural farming and experimenting with seeds obtained from other farmer can be a lesson.

The significance of local support ecosystem

Ganesharam (Ganesh) is a community resource person with the RCD Social Service Society (RCD) in Aati gram panchayat, Barmer. He comes from a farming background and is knowledgeable about desi farm inputs and pesticides. The 5 bighas of land that he has is divided into vadis or bagiyas where his parents grow vegetables such as brinjal, radish, carrot etc. apart from the land where he had sown bajra and isabgol. The ‘wasteland’ that his farmland consisted of is where a treasure of trees, weeds and grasses existed. These were used in making seed treatment concoctions, pesticides etc. A few commonly known included neem, castor and milk weed. He prepares vermicompost for his own use and showed us the vermicompost unit that he had at his place established with the help of RCD.

Ganesh’s experience has led to another vermicompost unit managed by a women’s SHG. This unit was supported by NABARD. It yields close to 1 quintal of compost from a single pit. There are 12 such pits and it takes 3-4 months to convert cattle dung to compost, under conditions of 60% moisture, and optimum earthworm activity. The local ecosystem consisting of RCD and NABARD have been able to promote vermicomposting in the region to a large extent, demonstrating the significance of support ecosystems.

Engaging stakeholders through GPDP: The significance of NCNF’s interventions

NCNF’s focus on GPDP for inclusion of ‘promotion of ecologically sustainable practices’ in the plan has huge significance in the region. Interacting with GPDP can help include local knowledge and practices and come up with bioinput based farming that can be sustained using the local flora and fauna with minimum import from outside. This would require collaboration between various stakeholders. Toward this end, engaging with gram panchayats through the GPDP seems a promising step taken by NCNF. It helps to scale up the initiatives taken by individual CSOs in two ways viz. collectively researching and designing interventions to be implemented through panchayats, and utilising the resources allocated to the panchayats. Next, and more importantly, it can help leverage the strong on-ground knowledge and data that exists with the panchayat, on farmers, their landholding, popular practices, crops, livestock, other flora and fauna, and post-harvest consumption and marketing behaviour of the farmers. Research institutions and local agricultural universities can collaborate to help in the documentation of these knowledge, practices and behavioural trends to inform relevant policies and initiatives. Creating participatory forms of co-learning initiatives is important to recognize the embedded wisdom in the community and possibilities of innovation through wider interactions. This point is illustrated through the involvement of student interns (as part of the LFI internship) in collecting ground-level knowledge, such that the experiences also serve to expand their own educational horizons and aspirations. Given the nascent stage of transitions in the area, in-depth field documentations can also help raise more critical questions. Some of the most prominent questions that emerge are: how is the livelihood of farmers impacted by a shift to natural farming? Whether the changes in farming methods have led to crop diversification and has their diets been impacted by expected demand of particular crops? What is the effect of natural farming practices on the larger ecology. These are generative questions that will benefit from increased dialogues and collaborations between CSOs, educational institutions, farmers and government agencies and it is hoped that the GPDP would explore these dimensions in their plans. A few promising pilots can serve as models for similar initiatives in other districts and states too providing insights for ground level implementation of PM_PRANAM.


Abhishek Saxena is a Research Fellow in the project and also pursuing his doctoral research at IRMA.

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