Of Humus and Humility – An earthy journey at the Bhaikaka farm
Bhaikaka Krishi Kendra, located in Ravipura, Gujarat is an organic farm and outreach centre. Here, Mr Sarvadaman Patel has been farming 40 acres of land using biodynamic principles for the past 20 years. His love for the land is only matched in his enthusiasm to teach others, as evident in his larger vision for the space as a vibrant community hub for farming using biodynamic principles.
70 going on 30 – the youthful spirit of Sarvadaman Patel
“I'll be at the back side of the farm doing some work, please join me there directly”
These were the first words we heard when asking for directions to his farm. Sure enough, we found him bent over, examining the ground. His cheerful voice and stamina belie his age, as he immediately began showing us around the place, patiently answering our volley of questions.
Shahzad, an intern working with him for the past three months, accompanied us as we began walking in the farm, explaining Mr Patel's painstaking and careful efforts to rejuvenate the land. Mr Patel, affectionately known as Mota Bhai began by showing us a shaded semi-circular sitting area, where a lot of workshops and talks take place. “These benches are made from the branches of a tree more than 100 years old, and are made of hardwood... Peter took many classes right here.” He was fondly referring to Peter Proctor, widely considered as the father of modern biodynamic farming. He stayed on the farm for almost a year in 2005 and helped it align with biodynamic principles along with other experts such as Rachel Pomeroy. Mota Bhai has conducted a number of training programs since 2006 for a variety of audiences ranging from officials of different institutions, national and international individuals, as well as tribals from remote areas. Till date, over a 1000 individuals have been trained in organic and biodynamic farming as a result of his steady efforts.
A ground-up transition – building soil organic matter
Highly qualified in the prevailing knowledge forms of the time, Mota Bhai did his Bachelors from G B Pant Agricultural University followed by a Masters in Agronomy at University of Wisconsin Madison, USA.
Eager to put his knowledge into practice, he bought 32 acres of land at Ravipura with the help of his father, started farming on the land using chemical methods in the late 1970s. However, by the late 1990s he realized that the farm yields were falling despite increased use of pesticides and fertilisers. He intuitively knew that he had to change his methods. He had grown elephant yams in a small patch of neglected land, and had got a good harvest. So, he thought of simply expanding the area under elephant yam with minimal input but failed to get a decent harvest. Similar experiments of trying to grow vegetables on a larger patch of land using organic methods also didn't pan out well, so he decided to undergo formal training and began reading about various organic practices seriously. Slowly he began seeing results and has been constantly building on his learnings and experiences at the farm, eventually increasing the land size to 40 acres. Drawing our attention towards the soil he commented,
“The organic Carbon content, or Soil Organic Matter (SOM) in the soil has fallen below .5 per cent in many areas in India, with it being as low as .3 per cent in Punjab. After several years of following ground cropping techniques, and mulching the soil the SOM here is about 1.42 percent. Every .5 percent rise corresponds to approximately 4 times increase in water absorption. Increasing water holding capacity and microbial content in the soil marks the beginning of a healthy farm.”
Dr Rattan Lal, who recently received the prestigious World Food Prize commented on the fact that we are entering a 'Peak Soil' moment, where it may be impossible to revive soil fertility unless concerted efforts are made to increase organic matter in soil. In recent years, methods of land management to increase SOM have been argued to be one of the most effective ways to store atmospheric carbon. 40 acres of diverse vegetation, and rich soil stand testimony to Mota Bhai's intimate understanding of these interconnections. Apart from farming, Mota Bhai has also overseen the plantation of over five Lakh native trees across Gujarat and Rajasthan to prevent soil erosion.
Tending the land is a full-time occupation
He showed us the variety of cover crops (Sunhemp, Clusterbeans, Sorghum, Cowpea amongst others) grown throughout the year, to help in nitrogen fixing, and add biomass to the soil in the form of mulch when these crops are cut at different stages. Each patch of land seemed to have a unique microclimate depending on the arrangement of crops growing in the area. Despite a number of unwanted visitors on the farm in the form of raiding groups of monkeys, wild pigs and even neighbouring farmers looking for fodder, Mota-Bhai has devised ways of growing some crop on almost every inch of the land, using even the borders and trenches. This work is labour-intensive and requires close attention to the varying soil conditions on the land.
While the full-time staff of 12-15 people (mostly tribals from Madhya Pradesh) are quite satisfied with the fair working and living conditions, finding labour has been a constant challenge for him, “Over the years, a lot of helpers left the farm in search of better opportunities. We also had to shut down a small shop we had opened on the main road to sell our produce... So, I have opted for more woodlands, fruit orchards rather than having too much area under vegetables and grains...”. Mota-Bhai also has 30-35 cattle and he grows nutritious fodder for them on the farm itself. He hasn't bothered to certify the farm as organic, but has developed a loyal clientèle over the years who are quite satisfied with the produce and the milk quality.
Many followers but uncertainty of a successor
Mota-Bhai's vision has been to eventually convert the entire farm into a Gurukul. According to Ashish Gupta, co-founder (and student of BKK), of Gram Disha Trust,"A lot of us owe our entire perspective of farming systems to him. It is not just about techniques. He teaches you about the culture in agriculture."
Senior apprentice Mr Ravi Kaushik has been instrumental in enabling short and long-term internships at the farm and helping establish the Gurukul system. Organisations such as IFOAM-Asia conferred the “Lifetime Achievement” award to Mota-Bhai in 2016 in recognition of his sustained efforts to create a new generation of farmers practicing regenerative agriculture. Yet, it remains uncertain if anyone would be able to continue the mentoring role of Mota-Bhai.
"We are concerned about how to keep this wonderful and important space active... Mota-Bhai created one of the best examples of a farm ecosystem in India, or even globally. We need to figure out how to build on his work from this point on." says Ashish.
Despite the looming uncertainty - exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mota-Bhai is intent on carrying on for as long as he can. Ever willing to teach, he generously welcomed us to return to the farm as weekend volunteers, and we can't wait to get our hands dirty. Hearing of the vast alumni and network of learners further his teachings in different ways, I am reminded of Andy Dufresne's immortal words, "hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." We hope Mota Bhai's farm remains a fertile ground for ecological ideas and practices for all time to come.
A version of this article was published at Village Square