Save our soil

| Updated on: Apr 28, 2011
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Travelling on the NH8 from Mumbai to Umbergoan, located on the southernmost tip of coastal Gujarat close to the Maharashtra border, we wondered what new things the octogenarian Bhaskar Save, one of the country's oldest practitioners of natural farming, would have on offer for us at his farm.

Natural farming has been around for long. Despite all the modernisation in farming techniques, even today there are farmers — especially the poor, backward and the adivasis — who follow this age-old method of cultivation.

“That is why you never hear of any adivasi farmer, or even those who are far removed from the fertiliser-insecticide type of farming committing suicide,” Save tells a group of people gathered at his lush green coconut-banana-mango-chikoo farm, aptly named Kalpavruksha, spread over 14 acres at Dehri village.

Even in the scorching summer heat of Gujarat, every tree here has a healthy green look. It has been nearly five decades since Save and his family began practising natural farming, as also advocating it to farmers in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and even Punjab. Every Saturday visitors arrive at the farm from far-flung areas to seek advice.

Save is convinced that farmers who adopt natural methods, use natural fertilisers, proper irrigation methods and avoid use of chemicals will never face financial problems. “The entire problem of farmer suicide began because of declining profit margins. Human greed makes the farmer use chemical fertilisers without taking into consideration the adverse effect on soil, crop and his own resources,” says the recipient of the 2010 IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) One World Lifetime Achievement award.

He explains that chemical fertilisers and pesticides initially fetch the farmer a good crop, but down the years the soil loses its fertility. The farmer is then forced to use more and more chemicals, thereby increasing his expenses. The more he spends, the less is his profit margin, and in such a scenario even if one crop fails his life is destroyed.

Save himself learned this the hard way. Way back in the 1950s, he used to follow the so-called Modern Method of Farming (MMF). Incurring heavy losses after a couple of years, he realised that nature believes in the ‘Live and Let Live' philosophy.

“This was also the time I came across Mahatma Gandhi's preaching of living naturally without exploiting nature. I was greatly impressed and decided to follow his principles,” he says in his staccato Marathi to the assembly comprising farmers, students and wannabe-farmers.

In the early 1960s, Save returned to the roots of farming and simultaneously began experimenting with new methods. He also faced a daunting problem of water scarcity after the monsoon. Though the coastal village of Umbergoan receives adequate rain during the monsoon, in summer the temperature crosses 42 degrees Celsius, which results in rapid depletion of groundwater.

Today, looking at Save's verdant farm, there certainly seems to be no sign of any water scarcity. Each coconut tree was laden with over 100 coconuts, the chikoo trees were weighted down by big, luscious fruits and the healthy looking banana trees each had a large cluster of bananas dangling from them. Besides completely avoiding fertilisers and pesticides, Save also does not weed or till the land unnecessarily, allowing nature to take its own course, similar to what happens in the forests.

“The mistake most people make is overwatering the crops and clogging the roots of the trees. Besides, it is a myth that over-usage of manure yields more fruits,” he says. “Plants don't need water, they need moisture.”

At Kalpavruksha, the coconut, chikoo and banana trees are watered once a week or sometimes even once a fortnight. “Only when the crotons planted on the edges of the field begin to droop do we water,” explains Save's eldest son, Naresh, now in his sixties, as he takes us around the farm.

“The colourful leaves of the crotons are the first to wilt as the water content in the soil reduces. The other trees feel the lack of moisture only 48 to 72 hours later,” he adds.

Businessman Ashok Sanghavi, who is a staunch disciple of Save and the owner of the adjacent Sanghavi Farm, stresses the importance of correct watering. “Never water near the trunk of a tree! Water in trenches and keep the trenches at least 12 ft from the tree trunk. This reduces water usage by nearly 70-80 per cent,” he explains, pointing to the trenches around the chikoo trees at his farm.

Interestingly, about three decades ago Sanghavi had been duped into buying 24 acres of barren land and it was Save who converted it into the green oasis that is Sanghvi Farm today. “It's unbelievable, but I have profits ranging around 400 per cent of my investment,” says Sanghavi.

When developing a new orchard plot, Save advises inter-planting of short life-span species (all vegetables), medium life-span (such as banana, papaya, custard apple) and long life-span species (mango, coconut, chikoo and so on), thereby rapidly shading all the exposed soil.

“In a year one can easily have 2-3 such crops. Besides, in between the coconut and mango saplings, plant madhya jeevi trees such as papaya. They fruit within a year, so by the time the long life-span species mature you're likely to enjoy substantial profits,” says Save.

Elaborating further he says, “As the plants grow together, evaporation losses are greatly reduced, thanks to dense shade which in turn leads to rapid regeneration of the organic life of the soil. The result: all-round healthy and fruitful growth.”

Published on May 09, 2011

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