Natural farming is naturally complex: We need to go beyond efficiency narratives
Updated: Feb 14
Wider uptake of natural farming practices needs to engage with two big issues – overcoming the knowledge and policy inertia set-up due to the Green revolution, and building skills needed to design and implement agroecological methods. Some insights from Andhra Pradesh explore how does one manage the trade-off between increased labour and healthy soil vs convenient routines at the expense of soil and nutrition?
Behind every successful farm is a woman
‘Natural farming’ involves agricultural practices that preserve the fertility and ecological health of the land. I didn’t have to understand Telegu to feel the excitement and pride in Lakshmi’s voice as she showed me the crops being grown in a model plot (a one-acre farm used to demonstrate natural farming methods to farmers). I was visiting some field sites at Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh (AP). In 2016, the Agriculture Dept., Govt of A.P initiated the programme that was called ‘A.P Zero budget natural farming’ later changed to AP community-managed natural farming (APCNF). This initiative builds on an earlier programme of the State Govt’s Rural Development Dept. Over the years, the program has mobilized many women and men who have taken a lead in convincing farmers to switch to natural farming by showing them tangible results in terms of soil health, crop productivity and better incomes. Lakshmi was one such senior Community Resource Person (CRP) guiding farmers across different villages.
Hemasundareddy, a man in his early thirties explained that he runs a shop along with his mother, Padmavati, an experienced natural farmer to sell bio-inputs and organic insect repellents to farmers. Nearly 86% of farmers in India are small and marginal landholders, and may not have the livestock to create bio-inputs. So, such village-level shops selling ghanajeevamrutam, kashayams, bio-enzymes etc can go a long way in supporting farmers and providing easy alternatives to chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Overcoming practice bottlenecks and knowledge hierarchies
Resource institutions who have partnered with APCNF explained that it is important to make natural farming practices respectful (would you dip your hand in animal dung and urine daily?), and easy to implement. For instance, Ravindra from WASSAN commented,
“It is crucial to understand the difference between effort and jhamela. It is not that natural farming practices demand a lot more effort, but that one has to be mindful of the processes involved, like stirring the Amrit-Jal thrice a day… such things become a jhamela for a farmer doing ten other things on the farm as well.”
Small innovations addressing critical bottlenecks can go a long way. For instance, an Amrit-Jal dispenser has been designed which partially automates the process of mixing dung, urine and jaggery with a daily stirring process so that farmers can simply collect bottles of it for use at the farm. Such interventions can facilitate collective actions, which create the peer support and norms for natural farming. Adding to the perspective, Ramoo from CSA commented, “Given the unique soil conditions of different agro-climatic zones, encouraging farmers to experiment with and develop suitable bio-inputs is part of a larger movement to develop decentralized knowledge systems and empower farmers to make informed choices… The question is, how does one build people’s knowledge?”
For instance, Hemasunda Reddy explained that he has a mango orchard, and he uses the overripe and damaged mangoes to make fermented bio enzyme.
According to him, farmers need to use materials from immediate surroundings to reduce costs and develop local solutions. Through the initiative, farmers are encouraged to experiment with different methods such as maintaining a 365-day crop cover through multiple cropping, pre-monsoon dry-sowing (PMDS) and so on. Padma, another CRP in the area showed a PMDS plot where a farmer was growing cattle fodder. She explained that the field had already been harvested thrice (by cutting the fodder grass) and farmers were motivated to build on the technique after observing the increase in yield and quality of the soil. To understand the significance of these grassroots initiatives one needs to understand the historical forces being challenged in the process.
Fill the belly and deprive the land?
Since the decade after Independence, there has been a dramatic shift in India’s food production. From a dependency of nearly 75% on food imports in the 1960s, the country had buffer stocks of grains approaching 100 million in 2020. However, these short-term gains were made possible due to the Green Revolution practices which relied on the intensive use of chemical inputs, fertilisers, and heavily irrigated lands, and a narrow focus on just a handful of crops (wheat, rice, sugar). As a result, India uses more groundwater than any other country in the world. Crops have become increasingly unresponsive to high doses of pesticides. Instead, pesticide poisoning is a major source of an occupational hazards for agrarian workers. The focus on just a few grains, through providing various incentives in the form of MSPs and subsidies have led to a major decline in crop diversity. The poverty of food diversity is evident in the twin problems of widespread malnutrition as well as diabetes. The adverse impact on the country’s ecological, economic and health far surpass the superficial gains of the initiative. The obvious imperative involves a paradigm shift in agricultural practices that restore the land’s fertility and provide a decent source of livelihood to the farmers.
Embracing the natural complexity of natural farming
“We get good milk from the buffaloes because they eat good fodder. We can grow good fodder because their dung makes the soil fertile. It is all connected.”
Padma, CRP, APCNF
The much-touted ‘efficiency’ of industrial agriculture rests on dangerous over-simplifications and convenient linear thinking that make only a specific kind of production possible and valued. Farmers, along with land are reduced to becoming uniform ‘units of production’. These reductive metaphors of technology exclude a biological and cultural perspective, manifested most tangibly as ‘waste’ as an end-product, and by reducing farmers to mere tools of top-down knowledge. On the contrary, natural farming is the result of intimate knowledge, attention and care of the land. It emphasizes relational and embodied knowledge that recognizes the various levels of interdependencies from soil health, livestock and biodiversity to the quality of food produced. Following Padma’s reflections, one can understand that farming based on ecological principles works in cycles that complement natural processes of decomposition, thereby eliminating the concept of waste. Many traditional practices of mixed cropping, use of livestock waste as manure, growing regionally-suited crops, seed saving embed these principles and ideas. However, persistent deskilling in agriculture and the uncoupling of livestock from farms have created significant obstacles in the uptake of natural farming practices, despite the fallouts of the Green Revolution. More crucially, rigid top-down institutional arrangements have stifled and stagnated vibrant grassroots knowledge based on continuous experience and experimentation.
Economic decisions must fall in line with ecological practices
Apart from knowledge decentralisation, the uptake of natural farming crucially depends on the subsequent marketing of the products, given that farming remains a key livelihood source. Additionally, some financial assistance when farmers decide to make the switch from chemical to natural farming can be a crucial incentive. As one of the farmers practicing in natural farming in Kurnool explained, farmers rarely have the financial buffer to withstand the temporary dip in yields when initially transitioning from chemical to natural farming, and need some guaranteed safety net. Simultaneously, subsidies for fertilizers and pesticides need to be gradually decreased to make natural farming economically viable. Additionally, incentives can be given for multi-cropping through innovative collaborations with Public Distribution Systems. Natural farming arises out a deep appreciation and understanding of natural systems. Its implementation, however, will not happen naturally. It requires active partnerships between civil society organisations and resource agencies to support and sustain such farmer-led initiatives. For real, the grass is greener on the other side.
Deborah Dutta is a senior research fellow at IRMA, and is involved in a project titled 'Living Farm Incomes'.