Jun 01, 2014 – It was 49° Celsius when I got here; a little less hot today, at 47° Celsius, as I write. This is near village Dhingawali, bordering Rajasthan, where I am meeting Surinder Pal Singh, a soft-spoken farmer, in the late afternoon. He is 53 and started to farm in 1992. What makes him exceptional is that he decided to go organic way back then, when organic was a virtually unheard of concept.

He is more patient than other farmers probably because he is more content. This, I believe, is the pre-requisite for one to successfully transform a farm from a chemical ridden one to an organic farm. On his birani land (not barren, as many would describe it but as land with little water), he began his tryst with destiny.

Destiny! because even then his adventure was the subject of heated debate in the village. With my experience of encountering sustained opposition for advocating a different paradigm for farmer prosperity, I completely understand how difficult it must have been for Surinder Pal to go against the conventional wisdom of the time. It is even more difficult in traditional societies and requires lots of courage.

Over the years he has grown blood red/sweet orange/malta (kinnow), kanak (wheat), chana (gram), ganna (sugarcane) sarson (mustard) and such others. Initially, he experienced a dip in production but it picked up, even though I found his output lagging behind conventional comparable yields. His wheat production is better than most farmers though; at 14 quintals an acre. His wheat sells for `2,800 per quintal, for which the minimum support price is `1,400. Similarly, his chana sells for `4,500 per quintal while the market price is `2,900.

The wheat varieties that he grows are C-306, RAJ-3077, RAJ-1482. That is the premium he gets for his non-perishable crops. Sadly though, he gets no premium for his organic milk, sugarcane or citrus. People have expressed an interest but marketing and delivery of small quantities remains a problem. Theoretical equations cannot solve practical problems.

After every three crops on a plot, he leaves the land fallow for one crop. He even practices inter-cropping of deep-rooted plants with shallow rooted plants and of shallow rooted plants with fibrous plants. He never repeats a crop in the subsequent year on the same piece of land. This, he insists, also helps in weed control. Growing organic is not just about not using chemicals but about intelligent every day practices.

Surinder Pal talks to me in his soft voice that I have difficulty in following. I have to strain my ears. “In 1976, wheat yields were not much different than today, after which the fertilizer use increased manifold”. He poses a counter question: “If the yields have not increased, why use fertilizer?” Of course, the scientists will tell another story backed with all their data. The farmer knows that the increase in yields is definitely tapering off.

The most exciting part of the conversation is also the most astonishing. Surinder Pal prepares his own nutrients and pest control solutions. He buys nothing from the market other than bagasse from sugar mills. It is not that he cannot do without it but it is available from Uttar Pradesh sugar mills at Re 1 per kg and it really helps. He adds that the quality of bio inputs, nutrients or pesticides being sold in the market is suspect and they lack consistency.

“Jeev amrit” is a mixture of cow urine (10 litres), besan (gram powder; 1.5 to 2 kgs), cow manure (10 kgs), gud (sugarcane jaggery; 2 kgs) or sugarcane juice. All these are mixed and left to ferment over a week. The prepared quantity is sufficient for one time use for an acre. Small crops need two to three applications while bigger plants or perennial crops like sugarcane or citrus need five to six applications.

His pest control solution is made from datura (Datura stromonium), aak (calotropics), lassan (garlic), adrak (ginger), hari mirch (green chilli), chhach (butter milk), neem ke pattey (neem leaves) that are all mixed and left for a week. Black datura is poisonous and is used in very small doses as an anesthetic even in modern medicine. This mix is then put through a sieve before use to get a natural potent insecticide.

The buttermilk also acts as a fungicide. After required quantities have been collected, he dips a tamba (copper) strip or wire in it for a week to make it more potent for pests. In urgent cases, when the crop is already under pest attack, one can substitute copper with neela thotha (copper sulphate). The final concentrated product is diluted in the ratio of 10 ml per litre of water for spraying on plants.

In summers, for breakfast I have butter milk with missi roti (Indian bread made from gram), that makes for the most perfect combination after two or three hours of work on the farm. Alternately, I could add raw onions and chutney of kachri, a small melon growing wild in dry climates for lunch. One could ferment it to make a rabri, which is the perfect light intoxicant that gets you drowsy and you can have the most beautiful afternoon nap. Even at home, one cannot store buttermilk in a copper vessel as it turns poisonous.

Butter milk and cow urine can be mixed and sprayed on the plants three to four times a year starting in December, when it is very cold, plant growth is dormant but pests have started to form.

Surinder Pal believes in the age old concept of “1 bigha, 1 cow, 1 neem (Azadirachta indica)” is good for farming. In other words, every hectare needs four cows and four neem trees. Surinder is adamant about using cow manure only and urine from pure local breeds; not from imported or hybrid animals. I find that odd but defer to his long experience.
He has 80 cows and buffaloes, which are taken to graze in the village fields every day. Livestock need space just as humans do. One cannot tie animals in enclosures for the whole day, he says. He needs 10 acres of land to grow fodder for his own cattle. At any given time only 14 to 18 animals are given milk.

He has observed that fruit trees nurtured on organic practices are more stress bearing, require less water and are more resistant to pest attack. His farm is certified organic. As an individual farmer, it would have been difficult to get his farm certified so a few farmers got together and obtained a group certification.

There are very few farmers practicing organic cultivation in the area and Surinder Pal talks of other good organic farmers like Vinod Jyani from Kateda. They are the main speakers at our joint seminar on organic citrus practices with the “Surinder Jakhar IFFCO Trust”. He is too passionate to focus on citrus alone but invigorates the gathering with his powerful speech, which is in absolute contrast to Surinder Pal’s soft oration.

Vinod Jyani talks of the health benefits of not using conventional fertilizers and chemical pesticides. He also explains the monumental shift to organic happening across the country. As, this shift is not evident in the adjoining villages, there is skepticism about the claims. What is certain though is that all farmers are now interested and would want to experiment with more organic practices other than using cow manure that, practically, every farmer already does.

Fear of losing yields even in the short term and possible shortfall in revenue will hold them back. Organic farmers said it took three years for a possible bounce back. In these harsh times, when one season is too long, three years seems a world away from reality. At the end of the seminar lots of farmers resolved to start going organic in some small way, like by growing vegetables for home use for a change or trying the butter milk magic potion.

There are other worries too; the changing reality of the Indian countryside and there is the questions that like the Congress grass (Parthenium hysterophorus) refuses to go away. These are question that I ask in all my farmer interactions: Surinder Pal finds people less hard working. The advent of the television and mobile phones has made people more self-centered. The panchayat elections have hurt the spirit of community development with people from the village pitted against each other. Local handicrafts have suffered; there are no cobblers or ironsmiths in the village anymore.

Have villages progressed is the next question? The answer is yes. Overall, the villages have progressed. Surinder Pal vaguely remembers wages in 1975 being `10 that now stand at `250 a day in season or during harvesting and sowing times. On the flipside there is water logging; a recent phenomenon that leaves him as helpless as it leaves me. It is a nightmare that is unravelling before our eyes; even as we stay awake.

He also remembers that diesel in 1975 cost `3 per litre that now it is `56 per litre. Production and cost of production have increased but profitability has decreased. I ask him about mechanization. He recalls that the first tractor being used in the village in 1950. He also tells me that in Australia, one tractor, operated by one man, cultivates 300 acres per day. In India, one man on a tractor cultivates 10 to 15 acres only in a day.

This reminds me that it will be very unfair to allow unhindered food imports into the country. I bear no ill will against my brethren in other parts of the world. The Indian reality is different with very small farms and unique population pressures; the terms of cultivation are entirely dissimilar.

Surinder Pal has sold some “sheesham (Dalbergia sissoo)” trees to Sharma Industries in Jodhpur, which sells it to MDM (Messon-de mont), France. The quality certification for this is done by the TFT group from Europe that has an office in India and other parts of world. He is also growing a cloned variety of sheesham DS-14 sold by the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun. The last storm uprooted two trees and Surinder Pal is worried that the cloned trees might have shallow roots.

Surinder Pal is a great believer in Arnold Howard, whom he recalls nostalgically as having joined the Pusa Institute in 1905 in Bihar (the present Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi was in Bihar before Partition). Dr Arnold resigned to pursue his interests in Indian farming system that the British did not quite like. He was then employed by the Maharaja of Baroda, when he documented and popularized the already existing technique of compost farming.

He believes that Madhya Pradesh is doing good work and providing good organic practice literature. After two hours of my probing questions, Surinder Pal is still not tired. I ask my last question: how much does it cost to grow his crop the organic way? His answer provides a good ending ‘sar dardi aur sar khapai’ (headache and persistent work) is the best translation that I can manage.•

My Home Recipe for ‘Rabri’
1. Mix 1 litre of chach (buttermilk), 450 grams of bajri (pearl millet flour) 50 grams of moth (dew bean flour) and namak (salt) to taste.
2. Later add 1.5 litres of water.
3. Leave out in sunlight from 9 am to 1 pm.
4. By now the solid matter has settled at the bottom of the vessel. Remove the liquid portion floating at the top.
5. Heat the liquid portion to boiling temperature.
6. When the liquid is boiling like tea, add the solid matter and stir for five minutes. Remove from fire and allow to cool overnight.
7. Rabri is savoured next day and gets you ready for the best afternoon nap ever.

How difficult it must have been for Surinder Pal to go against the conventional wisdom of the time

As an individual farmer, Surinder Pal would have found it difficult to get his farm certified. A few farmers got together and obtained a group certification. Pal’s farm was certified organic