India File

ZBNF spells 'amogh' benefits for this farmer

N Madhavan | Updated on October 18, 2019 Published on October 17, 2019

Amog Gurave says he expects to earn ₹10 lakh this year from his five-acre farm. Two years ago, he earned practically nothing PICS: N MADHAVAN

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But Amog Gurave’s experience shows that wider adoption requires measured steps, not a rapid govt push

Amog Gurave (35) is an accidental farmer. A native of Rahata, a town near the holy city of Shirdi in Maharashtra, he was living his dream of being an entrepreneur. A sheet metal parts manufacturing unit he had started in Pune along with his cousin in 2006 was doing well, with revenues growing 100 per cent each year.

“Life was good for me, my wife and our one-year-old son,” he recalls. He never imagined a career change — leave alone becoming a farmer, though his family did own a five-acre farm at Pimplas village near Rahata.

Fate had in store other plans for him. His father fell seriously ill in 2014 and Amog, being the eldest son, had little choice but to give up everything and rush to Rahata. Apart from nursing his father back to health, he had to manage the family’s hardware shop too. The new challenges that he grappled with kept him busy for the initial few months and his attention shifted to the farm only after doctors advised chemical-free food for his father.

“I tried sourcing such food but it was not available anywhere nearby,” he says. It soon dawned on him that the only way to give quality chemical-free food to his father was by cultivating it himself on the farm.

But the state of the farm, which had over 500 guava and a few mango trees, stunned him. His father had ignored the farm for a while and had given it away on annual contract which, most years, earned the family practically nothing. Guava yield had declined substantially over the years to just 50 kg/tree from 200 kg levels 15 years ago.

More than the falling yield, what worried him the most was that the 40-year-old guava trees were on the verge of dying. Replacing them would mean no proper yield for the next seven years and a large-scale investment, something his family — which had spent large sums on medical bills — was not in a position to do. He realised that he had to do something but did not know what to do and where to start.

Five days that changed his life

Cut to 2019. The farm resembles a forest. Amog is certain of earning ₹10 lakh (₹2 lakh per acre) this year both from the main crop guava and other inter-crops that he had planted, such as maize, drumstick, turmeric, curry leaves, ginger, custard apple and tamarind. Guava yield has risen to 125 kg/tree from the earlier 50 kg. Mango trees whose yield, at best, satisfied his family’s domestic consumption earlier now deliver as many as 700 fruits/tree.

Amog has grown in confidence and plans to expand his farming activity. “Next year, I will bid for 70 acres of land from Government of Maharashtra on a long lease for cultivation,” he says. In five years, the accidental farmer has become a passionate farmer.

A chance conversation with a friend, in December 2015, sowed the seeds of this transformation. He had told Amog about Subhash Palekar and his Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) now renamed Subhash Palekar Natural Farming. After watching YouTube videos on the subject, he called Palekar. The agriculturist asked him to attend his workshop on ZBNF scheduled in Nashik a few months later.

“Those were the unforgettable five days,” says Amog, about the workshop. He planned to return in a day but ended up staying on for all the five days. “What guruji (Palekar) said was a revelation,” he recalls. Palekar’s idea of natural farming struck a chord. Not spraying fertilisers and pesticides (he was then spending ₹20,000 per acre on them), inter-cropping, five-layer model (growing five crops of various heights for best use of not just length and breadth of the farm but also the height) and the four pillars of ZBNF (see box) excited him. A visit to a farm that was practising ZBNF convinced him that what Palekar was talking about is indeed possible. “The idea of growing poison-free food in a manner that is sustainable and intellectually stimulating was compelling,” he adds.

Total involvement needed

Implementing what he learnt in the workshop was not easy. Amog, like other farmers, made his share of mistakes. In the first year, he sprayed Jeevamrut and followed inter-cropping but did not resort to mulching — an important element of ZBNF. “Mulching helps in creation of humus that provides rich nutrients to the soil,” he says. That year, the guava yield remained at 50 kg/tree but he was surprised to receive higher realisation for the fruits. In the second year, he ensured mulching but failed to plant the leguminous plants as part of inter-cropping. This is essential to fix nitrogen into the soil. He also found it difficult to follow the Jeevamrut spraying schedule. “I was not able to give 100 per cent focus and follow the entire process diligently,” he acknowledges.

It is soon clear that ZBNF, unlike the farming that is practised now, requires total involvement of the farmers for best results. Jeevamrut needs to be sprayed correctly both on the ground and on the plant. Local seeds have to be treated with Bijamrut as per the specification before sowing and mulching (either with straw or naturally by growing plants) is critical. “I began to see best results only after I got involved closely,” Amog says, adding, “it is the poor yield of farmers practising ZBNF without proper care that critics use to pan this method.” Many scientists are warning of dramatic yield fall in the first year based on these experiences. “I did not see any drop in yield,” he says.

As ZBNF is intensive, Amog underscores the need to educate farmers about it before they take the plunge. For instance, rearing a local variety of cow — important as cow urine and dung are critical ingredients of Jeevamrut and Bijamrut — is a challenge as not all farmers are used to it. Also, they need to accept the fact that the local variety of cow has low milk yield. Besides, thanks to inter-cropping, a farmer needs to have knowledge of multiple crops and issues associated with each of them, he points out. In this context, the government’s attempts to push ZBNF in a hurry could become counter-productive.

Guruji says it is possible to earn ₹12 lakh per acre through ZBNF. I am at just ₹2 lakh per acre now,” he says. Next year, he expects his guava yield to touch 200 kg/tree and is looking at an income of ₹15 lakh (₹3 lakh/acre). But Amog is increasingly realising that just on-the-farm improvement alone cannot fetch him the best returns from ZBNF. He needs to develop a proper market access.

That is his next focus area. His fruits have the potential to earn higher realisation by virtue of being free of chemicals. But there is no market for them in his town. “I will get double the price for guava and mango if I sell them in Pune or Mumbai,” he says.

But the challenge for him is reaching it there. “I am trying to get other farmers in the area to start ZBNF so that we can pool our resources and sell in markets which value chemical-free products,” he explains.

But this is not easy. He is finding it difficult to convince the farmers in his area to embrace ZBNF. They are worried about losing whatever little they are earning. The fact that the scientific community has come out against ZBNF is not helping. Scientists call it a ‘half-baked concept’ and are demanding a nation-wide study across agroclimatic zones and soil type before its adoption. Such statements only add to the doubts in the minds of the farmers. It is clear that if the government is serious about ZBNF, it needs to take the scientific community along. Otherwise, the adoption will be slow as in the case of Nahata where, seeing Amog’s early success, just one farmer has come forward to try ZBNF.

That is not holding back Amog. Going forward, he wants to brand his produce to fetch maximum realisation. He has just visited Sona Farms in Aurangabad which has seen its realisation increase sharply thanks to branding. The idea of taking land on lease will give him the scale to do that. “Next year I will have enough money to bid for the lease,” he says. Another wish he has is to bring his guruji to the farm one day and get his validation for the work he has done. He is confident of getting Palekar’s appreciation. What gives him that confidence? “I periodically look at my farm on Google Earth. It looks like a forest. That means I am doing things right,” he says.

 

Published on October 17, 2019
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