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Lessons from a 74-year-old farmer who switched to organic sugarcane farming

Fearing floods and intermittent rains, farmers in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur District are increasing the use of chemical fertilisers in the hope of a quicker harvest. Indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers, however, has led to a rapid increase in soil salinity. Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that globally there are more than 8.33 million square km of salt-affected soil, which makes up 8.7 per cent of the planet. Farmers Narayan and Kusum Gaikwad from Kolhapur’s Jambhali Village are addressing the ill-effects of chemical farming by cultivating sugarcane organically

Narayan Gaikwad, 74, never thought he would have to rethink farming — an occupation he has been practising for over six decades. But the rise in the price of chemical fertilisers along with depleting soil nutrients nudged Gaikwad to shift to organic farming, for the June 2020 farming cycle. Gaikwad knew how to cultivate over 30 crops without chemical fertilisers. However, he had never experimented with cultivating sugarcane without chemical fertilisers – considered a risky proposition for the crop. His lack of experimentation also had to do with the changing environment and with intermittent spells of rain, followed by rising heat and cold. “I’ve experienced this only in the last four years,” says Gaikwad, a resident of Jambhali Village in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur District, about the changing weather patterns.

Since 2019, Kolhapur has been witnessing intermittent spells of rain. Then, suddenly, there was a rise in the temperature between these spells, which affected the crops. In the winter season, the temperature dropped rapidly, an uncommon phenomenon in Kolhapur’s Shirol Taluka. Farmers assumed that using more chemical fertilisers would lead to better yields and help the sugarcane crop cope with the changing weather patterns. However, with the increased use of chemical fertilisers, Gaikwad observed the soil turning saline in neighbouring farms. He was worried. And an existing debt meant he had to save every rupee. “For an acre of land, we require chemical fertilisers worth Rs 20000, and I didn’t have any rupee,” he says.

It was his grandson, Varad, 9, who helped him find a solution.  One day, Varad, who loves watching tractor videos on YouTube, used the voice command feature to search for shendriya khat (organic fertiliser). Immediately, several videos on organic farming and fertilisers popped up. Gaikwad spent a week browsing them. Making mental notes, Gaikwad first collected 190 litres of water in a discarded barrel. He then added ten kilograms of desi (indigenous) cow’s dung, 10 litres of cow urine, a kilogram of chickpea (gram) flour, and jaggery. Next, he shielded this concoction from sunlight for the next five days and would stir this every day for five minutes. On the sixth day, he released this organic concoction with the water supply in the field.

Over 2020-21, Gaikwad repeated this process every 20 days, roughly 18 times in a year on his 1.5-acre field. In the end, he harvested 77 tonnes of the Co 86032 and Co 8021 sugarcane varieties through this method.  “Had I used chemicals, the produce would have been close to 100 tonnes,” he says, talking of the trade-off. However, Gaikwad is still proud of his efforts.

Meanwhile, twelve km away from his field, in Kurundawad Village, farmer Basvant Naik (name changed on request) cultivated sugarcane using chemical fertilisers. Naik, who lost 240 tonnes of sugarcane to the August 2019 floods, thought increasing chemical fertilisers might fix his problem. “I doubled the use of chemicals and used over 1000 kilograms of synthetic fertilisers per acre,” he says. In the first year of increased chemical fertilisers, Naik reported a bumper harvest, 30 tonnes more than the previous yield. However, it didn’t go well when he repeated the same process in 2021. “The floods yet again destroyed my sugarcane. I lost everything cultivated on my four-acre farm this time.” After the floodwater receded, he was shocked to see soil turning saline. After consulting senior farmers, Naik had no option but to abandon sugarcane. “What if it floods again? Also, my soil does not have enough nutrients.”

Naik’s story is becoming rapidly common as the global consumption of agricultural fertilisers crossed 190 million metric tons in 2019, from 46.3 million tons in 1965. Looking at the rapidly rising incidences of soil salinity, Narayan Gaikwad and his wife, Kusum, 67, feel organic farming is the way out. “The production is less, but once your soil completely turns saline, you won’t get a single crop,” says Kusum. In addition, farmers in Kolhapur’s Shirol region have reported rising instances of wilt where the crown sugarcane leaves turn brownish-yellow.

“Look at our sugarcane; you won’t find any tambira (wilt),” she says. In the second year of organic farming, they’ve increased the organic cultivation to two acres of the 3.25 acres they own. “By next year, we’ll make sure even our sons shift to organic farming completely,” says Gaikwad. While the Gaikwads saved a considerable sum, their working hours have increased to almost 10-11 hours daily, in part due to the switch from chemical fertiliser to organic inputs.

“If you only use your cattle for milk, then it’s unaffordable. People call it dirty to collect dung, but cattle are poor people’s fertiliser factory,” Gaikwad says. Collecting cow dung and cow-urine takes time. Since Gaikwad doesn’t use weedicides, he has to manually remove the weeds and unwanted grass using a sickle which takes a lot of time. Hiring agricultural labourers is not affordable for many. Hence, most farmers prefer increasing the use of weedicides which saves them the cost of manual labour.

Gaikwad says, an influential village politician, introduced chemical fertilisers in the early 1960s in Jambhali with the production of corn and pearl millets. “Finally, I stopped using chemicals in 2020,” he says with a wide grin. Over a dozen farmers reached out to Gaikwad, asking about his experience with organic farming. However, he says that none of them have picked up organic farming.

Soil chemist Ravindra Herwade from Shirol’s Datta Sugar factory says, “Organic farming is viable, but not many farmers are doing it fearing lower produce. But, if the salinity keeps increasing, the overall average production turns out lower over the years.” Herwade has observed a rise in the salinity with “several farmlands turning barren in Shirol taluka.” Talking about the impact of organic farming on soil health, he says, “A few farmers are trying out organic farming, and the results look good. They are reporting sugarcane produce of better quality, and even the soil nutrients have improved.”

(Courtesy: Mongabay India)

October 2022