Maati Maange More: Can 3M bio-input resource centres (BRCs) meet farmers’ needs?
Sustainable agriculture is critically dependent on soil health, but often ignored in comparison to the focus on inputs and yields. Recent efforts in building and managing bio-input resource centres through farmer participation offer promising ways of building land stewardship and scaling agroecological practices.
In his 2020 world food prize acceptance speech, Prof Rattan Lal explained that agriculture must prioritise soil health to face the twin challenges of climate change and food security. According to his studies, fertile soil, which is decomposed plant matter teeming with microbes, can sequester or store nearly 180 gigatons of carbon from the air. To put that in perspective, the total fossil fuel emissions each of the last few years have been ten gigatons. However, the combined pressure of soil erosion and heavy use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides have depleted the soil cover to the extent that Rattan Lal describes as a peak soil threshold. Without concerted efforts to rebuild soil health, we are effectively losing the chance to mitigate climate change and secure sustainable food production systems for the entire planet.
Recognising the significance of soil
Most interventions today are geared towards markets and crop productivity, and soil health is often discussed as an afterthought. Farmers have an intuitive sense of the interdependence of soil fertility on the overall farm ecosystem but are unable to find relevant support. GREEN Foundation’s campaign, 'Matti Mange More (3M)' is aimed at restoring living soils by promoting a soil farm card participatory assessment. The participatory approach would allow farmers to categorise their farms based on organic carbon content present in the soil and work with a network of civil society organisations to improve the quality of their farm soil. While working on the campaign, GREEN Foundation realised that farmers need support to develop natural inputs for the soil, as well as access to quality materials to change their behaviour of excessive reliance on market-based chemical inputs. To address the knowledge-practice gap, they collaborated with the National Coalition for Natural Farming (NCNF) to develop bio-input resource centres.
Creating multiple paths for transition
Currently, the foundation is working on natural farming with nearly 625 farmers spread across three blocks (Bankhedi, Pandhurna, Sausar) in Madhya Pradesh, and garnering an enthusiastic response from the agrarian community. They have focused on three types of farmers, to begin with:
a) Those who don't have the finances to buy chemical fertilisers,
b) Those who have grown tired of using chemical inputs and are looking for alternatives, and
c) Those who have already begun experimenting with alternative forms of input.
In terms of impact on the land, the foundation is working at three levels:
a) Supporting farmers to create inputs for personal consumption with coverage of ~5 acres,
b) Providing technical and infrastructure support to farmers interested in selling bio-inputs at a small scale, thus covering an area of roughly 50 acres, and
c) Collaborating with Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) to help create larger clusters and markets to sell bio-inputs, thus covering an area of nearly 500 acres.
Using multiple approaches is helping them reach out to the marginalised as well as rich farmers, as behaviour shifts amongst the latter category can also enable change in social perceptions. This involved process seems to garner better response from farmers’ in terms of working towards improvement of their farm lands, as compared to the government issued soil health cards that are not equipped to provide any support beyond basic information of their soil quality. Creating bridges from information to motivation is often a challenge, and is one that GREEN foundation has been able to engage with heads on.
From transition to transformation – farmers share their stories
Mohan Singh from Keshala village depends on his 3 acres of agricultural land for his livelihood. He had been finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet with the rising cost of urea and DAP on the one hand and decreasing soil fertility on the other. With loans piling up, he was looking for alternatives and contacted GREEN foundation staff. With their help, he developed the skills to prepare Jeevamrut, waste decomposer (developed by a KVK) and vermi-compost. With regular use, he found his soil becoming softer and more cultivable. According to him, his wheat crop looks more beautiful and attractive. His cost of cultivation has come down from Rs 14230 to 8300, with the added benefits of growing chemical-free food. His experience has motivated farmers in nearby areas to switch to bio-inputs too.
Similar reasons had prompted Marhesh Manmode in Raybasa village, Pandhurna block, to start natural farming on 1.25 acres of his six acres land nearly two years ago. Following the training support provided by the GREEN foundation, he was able to witness a significant increase in fruiting and flowering of crops and has enhanced his income by nearly Rs 18000. The promising results have motivated him to take up natural farming practices over the entire land gradually.
Some small farmers like Purshottam Kushwaha of Bankhedi village in the Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh have been able to establish bio-input resource centres on their farms and combine them with other practices of seed-saving. Purshottam's interest grew rapidly after he attended a seven-day training on Bio-Resource Inputs Center (BRC) at the Krishi Vigyan Kendra(KVK) at Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh organised by the National Coalition of Natural farming (NCNF). He saw the methods as offering him a solution to improve the soil quality on four-acre land that had become nearly uncultivable after years of application of chemical fertilisers. So now he is making bio-inputs such as Jeevamrut, Das parniastra, Neemastra, Ghana jeevaamrit, etc. and applying the same in his field regularly. He also opened a local seed bank, so nearby farmers are able to contact him and learn more about regenerative agricultural practices.
A persistent concern regarding an uncritical promotion of bio-inputs has been its impact on women, fearing that they would bear the brunt of such labour-intensive processes. However, these can also become remunerative options for self-help groups interested in running bio-input centres. Moreover, women are also keenly aware of the immediate health benefits experienced by the farmers, as they stop using chemical inputs and have been vocal in their support for natural-farming practices. Engaging with women to promote equitable production and consumption of bio-inputs thus seems a promising path to follow.
BRCs managed by champion farmers level
Such narratives signal the potential of a systemic change in farming practices, led by farmers and grounded within the rural community. The initiatives by GREEN Foundation can provide the much-needed nudge in the direction of sustainable transitions and create the base for local economies focussed on the effective use of bio-inputs, thus supporting the Centre’s push for natural farming practices across the country.
Pramel Kumar Gupta is the director of Regenerative Agriculture at GREEN Foundation
Deborah Dutta is a Senior Research Fellow in the Living Farm Incomes project, IRMA.