Following the second wave of Covid-19, the demand for safe (with no pesticide residues), nutritious and immunity boosting food has increased. There is also an increasing belief that food grown in a natural way is more nutritious than those using agro-chemicals. There is acceptance that yield levels may not be the same to begin with.

These apart, fertiliser subsidies are burdening our fisc.

In such a situation, many farming methods are being practised — regenerative, organic, bio-dynamic, agro-ecological, natural, etc. One can safely assume that they are all variants of natural farming, which is environment-friendly and sustainable.

Let us take the case of Satish Gadde, a farmer in East Godavari district. He and his forefathers have been practising cattle-based natural farming on their 30-acre farm for over 100 years. Now, they have coconuts on 18 acres, rabi maize on 10 acres (yielding 38 quintals per acre), and perennial grasses on two acres. They have 37 free grazing buffaloes (35 female and 2 male), with two wallowing ponds to relax!

The buffaloes are not milked and the calves drink mother’s milk almost till they reach their reproductive age. Elsewhere, she-calves reach reproductive age at about 24 months, but on this farm it is 18 months. Every 3-4 years, the farm’s two male buffaloes are replaced for maintaining genetic vigour of the herd and the females are culled after three calvings and sold for meat (at ₹1 lakh each). Legumes (Phaseolus and Stylo) are sown after maize to fix atmospheric nitrogen and also for fodder.

The farm is fertilised in an interesting way. Ropes are laid on the ground parallel to each other and iron pegs are fixed. At night, a buffalo is tied to one peg. Urine smothers weeds and dung slowly decomposes, improving the microbial and earthworm activity and, thereby, soil fertility. The farm soaks almost all the rain it receives because of the earthworm/microbial activity.

A similar penning is also done around the coconut trees. In the surrounding area, coconut trees give about 170 nuts, but this farm harvests about 270 nuts. Unlike other farms, there is no flower and fruit fall, because sap sucking insects are minimal. Gadde says this is because of soil fertility. While there are no tender coconuts elsewhere in the vicinity, this farm harvested and sold at ₹25 apiece during the visit. The farm has three permanent workers, two bore wells with pumps, and oilseed cake, maize and legume seeds are the only items purchased. The operating cost a year is about ₹7 lakh, and income, ₹30 lakh.

Another such farmer is the late Narayan Reddy of Doddaballapur , who on his profitable 4-acre farm grew about 1,500 species of plants, shrubs, trees, and raised poultry and cattle, which are interdependent on each other.

These are unsung farmers who have been silently contributing to the knowledge body of natural farming. These farmers do speak about their experiences on formal fora but our scientific community shies away from getting to the science behind such practices. Going ahead, region-specific farm models with climate resilient crops and tree-based natural farming appear to be a good option. But there is an opposing idea to this thought process. India became food secure after considerable efforts and that must not be sacrificed with unscientific hypotheses.

Food security largely comes from irrigated and input-intensive agriculture. With nutrition security also becoming important, the best way forward is to initiate natural farming in rain-fed and hilly regions without disturbing our food security.

Of India’s geographical area of 329 million hectares, nearly 140 million ha are net sown and, of this, 70 million ha are rain-fed. Rain-fed areas produce nearly 90 per cent of millets, 80 per cent of oilseeds and pulses, and support nearly 40 per cent of our population and 60 per cent of our livestock.

Natural farming will give a fillip not only to our ecosystems but also to our nutrition security.

The writer is Deputy Managing Director, NABARD