Ground-up transformations: The journey of reviving the soil
Soil health forms the literal bedrock of sustainable farming, but industrial agricultural practices have led to depletion of soil quality to alarming levels. There are promising exceptions to this trend. Farmers such as Sarvadaman Patel have shown how agriculture can increase soil fertility through practices such as biodynamic farming.
In the 1970s, while many youth were migrating to the West in search of opportunities, Mr Sarvadaman Patel took an unorthodox decision of returning to India pursue farming, after completing a Master’s degree in Agronomy from the University of Wisconsin Madison, USA. He had gathered valuable experience as an intern at different dairy farms across the US, and was keen to implement his learnings in India. He began farming on 40 acres of land provided to him by his father in 1975 near Anand, Gujarat. He named it ‘BhaiKaka Krishi Kendra’ after his grandfather, who had been a prominent figure in the area. However, slowly he began to observe the adverse effects of chemical agriculture on his land, and began to search for alternative practices in earnest. By 2001, he completely transitioned from chemical to organic farming. His fateful meeting with Peter Proctor, considered the father of biodynamic farming proved to be a turning point for him. Peter visited his farm a couple of times and stayed with for nearly a year in 2005, helping Sarvadaman Patel to farm his land according to biodynamic principles.
Linking soil fertility and abundant harvest
Biodynamic farming aims to treat the farm as a living system which interacts with the environment to build healthy living soil, and to produce food that nourishes all living beings. The carbon content in soil, also known as Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) is a good measure of soil health. Soil Organic Carbon is a major component of Soil Organic Matter, giving soil its water retention capacity, structure, and fertility. However, India’s Soil Organic Carbon content has fallen from 1% to 0.3% in the last 70 years, resulting in decreased yields, and increased dependence on fertilisers. In contrast, the testimony to improvement in the soil fertility on his farm is evident from the marked increase in Soil Organic Carbon. In 2001, when he just started doing biodynamic farming, the Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) was 0.52 and after doing biodynamic farming for over two decades when he measured SOC again, it was 1.42.
Ever since the transition, ‘the soil quality has improved and the produce stays fresh longer’, commented Sarvadamanji walking past rows of cluster beans he had planted last week as green mulch. He does not leave the farm vacant, instead uses it to grow green manure crops such as alpha-alpha, cluster beans, sorghum grass, etc in between main crops. These crops have multiple uses- first, they act as a protective cover for soil and prevent soil carbon from going back into the atmosphere. Second, when the time is ripe for the sowing of the new crop, the green manure is plowed back into the soil to provide manure for the next crop.
Another activity that Sarvadamanji has undertaken to improve his SOC is making his own nursery bed using leaf mold and ditching the cocopeat that he used to buy from the market. He prepares the leaf mold by collecting fallen leaves from his farm or purchased from various sources. He has also been looking into a cost-effective manner of collecting fallen leaves by collecting them from the nearby campuses through collaboration. Leaf mold compost can increase the survival of a beneficial microbial inoculant in the soil thereby increasing SOC.
Sarvadamanji has also set up a biogas plant on his farm. The majority of his energy requirements come from the biogas plant. He jokingly mentioned how his wife does not like to use LPG and has warned him that there will be no food on the table in case the biogas plant breaks down. Waste of biogas called bioslurry can be consumed from anaerobic digestion as an organic fertilizer and has great potential to increase carbon sequestration by supplying organic matter to the soil. Pointing to the ground, Sarvadamanji explains that an easy way to gauge the fertility of the soil is to observe the number of earthworms in one cubic foot of soil. He smiles and says, “6-7 is a good number.”
The farm as a living classroom
Since 2001, Sarvadamanji has held training sessions and workshops for thousands of farmers, and encourages interested people to engage in various activities on the farm. He has a small, but dedicated group of consumers who enjoy buying the fresh and distinctly delicious harvests. Through his efforts, he has successfully challenged the preconception that improving SOC needs large-scale investments and technology. He has shown that it can be achieved through cost-effective techniques and traditional methods as well. He succinctly captures his practices, by commenting that, “Every farmer should go and walk on his farm every day”. We realised that close observation is the first step towards responsible relationship with the land.
The visit to Sarvadamanji’s farm was an inspiring and refreshing experience for us, while offering us with literal food for thought. His dynamic stewardship along with lucid vision has created a pathway for other small and marginal farmers to follow, and we hope that his teachings manifest in many farms across India.
Aishwarya Joshi and Yukta Doshi are students at IRMA, currently interning with Living Farm Incomes project.