Sep 1, 2012 – I arrive in Gillankhera, a village in Haryana, in the middle of a swelteringly hot and humid afternoon. The rains are delayed but expected to arrive. I find Jitendra Singh resting under the shade of a neem tree. A few buckets of water have been sprinkled on the ground around the charpoy and it does seem cooler. Shade is the only respite for farmers in a countryside where the sundrenched sky is the roof.
Now Jitendra is not conventional in any sense. In circumstances where 90 per cent people would quit farming given a choice, Jitendra, after having enrolled
himself as advocate at the Delhi bar council, had the courage to chuck it all up to return home and pursue his dream: to become an organic entrepreneur.
We begin asking questions as we sip strong sweet tea in steel glasses. We can actually satiate our thirst by drinking tea, unlike by just drinking water.
On his return from Delhi, Jitendra travelled widely across the region feeling the pulse of the people. He was disappointed to see the despair in conventional farmers, who were continuing with the rice-wheat cropping system, which was degrading the natural resource of water and the soil. Not only was the food unhealthy but it posed a health risk.
Jitendra sought counsel from the ever-obliging Grewal brothers: S. Richpal Grewal and S. Harpal Grewal, who had already gone organic. Jitendra also started reading; something he loved. Amongst the articles that came his way was “Banned there, used here” that he read in the Tribune. That was when he realized that such pesticides as DDT and Fenvalrate, which were banned in the USA in early 1990, were being used in abundance in India till late 1990.
To start an organic enterprise, he needed to get his land certified as organic. The certification method was and still is pretty expensive and cumbersome. The certifying agency takes into account the history of such farm practices as crop pattern, how much pesticides and chemical fertilizers have been used in the past and many more.
Jitendra first got his soil and water tested and was also given a list of dos and don’ts. He made elaborate records of everything on the farm and after three years his farm was certified as organic. The certification needs to be renewed every few years. His farm products sell by simple word of mouth. For example, his dairy products are not certified but people buy them on his reputation alone. The organic certification is required to export or sell to people that one does not know. Today, there are many certifying agencies in India like Indocert in Ernakulum.
Jitendra’s experience was interesting. The first realization was that the production would be going down when he converted from conventional to organic farming. It took about five to six years to make operations sustainable. The organic manure works slowly in comparison to chemical fertilizers. In the first year, the wheat yield dropped by between 60 per cent and 70 per cent compared to what it would have under conventional farming. Fortified by all his reading on the subject, Jitendra went on without batting an eyelid.
Today, even the cropping system at his farm has changed from rice-wheat to a mixed farming system, featuring dairying, horticulture, vegetable, fishery and agro forestry. Jitendra considers his dairy milk production unit as the ‘core unit’, which will provide regular income and employment. Milk is sold and the dung is used for composting and biogas generated used for cooking. Graded wheat is sold to the consumers after it is processed, while the left over grain and straw is used as feed for farm animals.
We walk through the patch of land where Jitendra has also planted trees to make the organic farming viable and sustainable. Diversification was needed because there was no certainty of premium on organic produce. Many fellow organic farmers have had to revert to conventional method of farming but Jitendra persisted with his commitment to organic. He planted poplar, eucalyptus, Burma dek on his farm and, to make the agro forestry project viable, started to breed the Sahiwal, an indigenous cattle. In the first two years, the land under forestry was used for growing green fodder but now it is used as grazing ground for farm animals. He says: “Agro forestry is like fixed deposit in a bank”. The initial waiting period is at least seven years. The first commercial wood harvest on his farm is expected in October 2013. Gradually the benefits of going organic started accruing to this conscientious farmer. Organic farming requires less water in comparison to conventional farming because the organic carbon is high in organic farms on account of crop rotation, green manuring and mulching. Also, the soil’s organic matter is restored through addition of these manures, compost, mulches and cover crops. Even the recommended varieties of wheat and paddy for organic farming require less water. For instance, C-306, 147 variety of wheat requires less water than PBW-343 mainly used by conventional farmers. Basmati require less water when compared to PR-14 variety of paddy.
The main problems faced by organic farmers are unavailability of quality organic seeds, the fact that the farms are labour intensive and weed control is a menace. Besides, there are packing and storage problems. The biggest challenge faced by them is, of course, marketing of organic produce. There is no price support from the government. Many a time Jitendra is forced to sell his produce without any premium. He sells his organic produce directly to consumers in the nearby towns of Sirsa and Fatehabad.
Jitendra tells me that a comparative study between conventional farming and organic farming of rice-wheat cropping system showed a 20 per cent to 30 per cent drop in productivity in the latter. However, the net returns of organic farming can be about 20 per cent higher as compared to conventional farming provided there is at least a 50 per cent premium available on organic produce. This apart, there is a significant increase in soil fertility parameters under organic. It is another matter that both conventional and organic farmers are facing the problem of sustainability and profitability. Agriculture as a profession is not viable and profitable, as the average land holding continues to shrink.
After 14 years of being on the field practically everyday, Jitendra is a walking and talking encyclopaedia on organic farming practices and issues. Most importantly, he has no regrets at all. Having wandered for two hours from field to field and met numerous fellow farmers, I feel the sun relenting and finally starting to set. Jitendra’s day too draws to an end.
Is he a completely satisfied man?
“I cannot say that I am completely satisfied farming organically but I definitely enjoy what I do”. That is more than a great many farmers in India will tell you.