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ISIS Report 24/02/14

Bhaskar Save, the Gandhi of Natural Farming

Sage of a minimalist farming system based on non-violence and all of nature’s biodiversity that produces in abundance with no chemical input Bharat Mansata

Editor’s note: We featured Bhaskar Save’s work in 2006 [1] (Stem Farmers’ Suicides with Organic Farming, SiS 32), reprinted in [2] (Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free , ISIS/TWN report). Bharat Mansata is an environmental activist and writer, and active founder member of Vanvadi, a twenty year old collective that has regenerated 64 acres of bio-diverse natural forest in the foothills of the Sahyadris in Maharashtra, India. The present article is from his recent book, 'The Vision of Natural Farming' [3], which shows how important Save’s work is for the survival of people and plant.

Bhaskar Save, acclaimed ‘Gandhi of Natural Farming’, turned 92 on 27 January 2014, having inspired and mentored 3 generations of organic farmers. Masanobu Fukuoka, the legendary Japanese natural farmer, visited Save’s farm in 1996, and described it as “the best in the world”, ahead of his own farm. In 2010, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) honoured Save with the ‘One World Award for Lifetime Achievement’.

Indeed, Save’s farm is a veritable food forest; a net supplier of water, energy and fertility to the local eco-system, instead of a net consumer. His way of farming and teachings are rooted in a deep understanding of the symbiotic relationships in nature, which he is ever happy to explain in simple, down-to-earth idioms to anyone interested.

Save’s 14 acre orchard-farm Kalpavruksha is located on the Coastal Highway near village Dehri, District Valsad, in southernmost coastal Gujarat, a few km north of the Maharashtra-Gujarat border. The nearest railway station is Umergam on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route.

Some 10 acres of the farm are a mixed natural orchard of mainly coconut and chikoo (Manilkara zapota, an evergreen fruit tree) with fewer numbers of other tree species. About 2 acres are under seasonal field crops cultivated organically in traditional rotation. Another 2 acres is a nursery for raising coconut saplings that are in great demand.

The farm yield is superior to any farm using chemicals. This is true in all aspects of total quantity, nutritional quality, taste, biological diversity, ecological sustainability, water conservation, energy efficiency, and economic profitability. The costs (mainly labour for harvesting) are minimal, and external inputs almost zero.

A residential learning centre on natural farming is about to start in a few months at the farm.

Natural farming and its fruit

Natural farming is holistic and bio-diverse organic farming in harmony with nature. It is low-intervention, ecological and sustainable. In its purest advanced form, it is a ‘do-nothing’ way of farming where nature does everything, or almost everything, so very little needs to be done by the farmer. This can best be achieved in a progressive manner with tree crops. As Save explains, “When a tree sapling planted by a farmer is still young and tender, it needs some attention. But as it matures, it can look after itself, and then it looks after the farmer.”

With annual or seasonal field crops, more continuing attention is needed, but even here, the work and input needed progressively diminishes as the soil regains its health and symbiotic biodiversity re-integrated.

Who planted the great, ancient forests?” asks Save. “Who tilled the land? Who provided seed, manure, irrigation, or protection from pests? … In our forests, untended by humans, the food trees – like ber, jambul, mahua, mango, wild fig, wild sapota, tamarind, etc. – yield so abundantly in their season, that the branches sag with the weight of the fruit. The annual yield per tree is commonly over a tonne, year after year, carried away by forest dwellers, including humans. But the earth around each tree remains whole and undiminished. There is no gaping hole in the ground! If anything, the soil is richer.

“From where do these forest trees – including those on rocky mountains – get their water, their nitrogen, phosphorous, potash? Though stationary, Nature provides their needs right where they stand. But arrogant modern technology, with its blinkered, meddling itch, is blind to this.

“Our ancient sages understood Nature’s ways far better than most modern day technologists,” He quotes the Upanishads:

“Om Purnamadaha
Purnamidam Purnat Purnamudachyate
Purnasya Purnamadaya Purnamewa Vashishyate”

(This creation is whole and complete.
From the whole emerge creations, each whole and complete.
Take the whole from the wholerespectfully, as many times as you need;
the whole yet remains, undiminished, complete)

“Gandhi believed in gram swaraj (or village self-governance),” says Save. “Central to his vision was complete self-reliance at the village level in all the basics needed for a healthy life. He had confidence in the strength of organic farming in this country. Similarly, as Vinoba Bhave (Indian teacher of nonviolence and human rights, 1895-1982) pointed out, industries merely transform ‘raw materials’ sourced from Nature. They empty one bag to fill another, but cannot create anew. Only Nature is truly creative and self-regenerating – through synergy with the fresh daily inflow of the sun’s energy.

“There is on earth, a constant inter-play of the six paribals (key factors) of Nature, interacting with sunlight. Three are: air, water and soil. Working in tandem with these, are the three orders of life:  vanaspati srushti, the world of plants; jeev srushti, the realm of insects and micro-organisms; and prani srushti, the animal kingdom. These six paribals maintain a dynamic balance, harmonising Nature’s grand symphony!

“The human species has no right to disrupt any of the paribals of Nature. But modern technology, wedded to commerce – rather than compassion – has proved disastrous at all levels. We have despoiled and polluted the soil, water and air. We have wiped out our forests and killed its creatures. And relentlessly, modern farmers spray deadly poisons on their fields, massacring Nature’s jeev srushti, or micro-organisms and insects the unpretentious, but tireless little fertility workers that maintain the vital, ventilated quality of the soil, recycling all life-ebbed biomass into nourishment for plants. The noxious chemicals also inevitably poison the water, and Nature’s prani srushti or animal kingdom, including humans.

“Gandhi declared, ‘Where there is soshan, or oppression, there can be no poshan, or nurture!’ Vinoba Bhave added, ‘Science wedded to compassion can bring about a paradise on earth. But divorced from ahimsa, or non-violence, it can only cause a massive conflagration that swallows us in its flames.’

“Trying to increase Nature’s ‘productivity,’ is the fundamental blunder that highlights the arrogant ignorance of agricultural scientists.  Nature, unspoiled by man, is already most abundant in her yield. When a grain of rice can reproduce a thousand-fold within months, where is the need to increase its productivity! What is required at most is to help ensure the necessary natural conditions for optimal, wholesome yield.

“In all the years a student spends for an M. Sc. or Ph.D. in agriculture, the only goal is short-term – and narrowly perceived – economic (rather than nutritional) ‘productivity’. For this, the farmer is urged to buy and do a hundred things, greatly increasing his costs. But not a thought is spared to what a farmer must never do so that the land remains unharmed for future generations and other creatures.”

A quarter century ago, ‘Poison in your Food’ – a well-researched lead feature in ‘India Today’, 15th June, 1989 – starkly exposed that “Indians are daily eating food laced with some of the highest amounts of toxic pesticide residues found in the world. In the process, they are exposed to the risk of heart diseases; brain, kidney and liver damage; and cancer”. More recently, even the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, Union Ministry of Agriculture, reported last year that the toxic pesticides and chemicals contained in the foods we commonly buy are hugely in excess of permissible limits, exposing consumers to unacceptable risk of myriad diseases. Such poisons are even more dangerous for pregnant women, the babies they bear, and young children, as well as the ill and diseased.

The differences between chemical farming and organic farming

Save lists 18 major differences between chemical farming and organic farming in harmony with nature:

  1. Chemical farming fragments the web of life; organic farming nurtures its wholeness.
  2. Chemical farming depends on fossil oil; organic farming on living soil.
  3. Chemical farmers see their land as a dead medium; organic farmers know theirs is teeming with life.
  4. Chemical farming pollutes the air, water and soil; organic farming purifies and renews them.
  5. Chemical farming uses large quantities of water and depletes aquifers; organic farming requires much less irrigation, and recharges groundwater.
  6. Chemical farming is mono-cultural and destroys diversity; organic farming is poly-cultural and nurtures diversity.
  7. Chemical farming produces poisoned food; organic farming yields nourishing, poison-free food.
  8. Chemical farming has a short history and threatens a dim future; organic farming has a long history and promises a bright future.
  9. Chemical farming is an alien, imported technology; organic farming has evolved indigenously.
  10. Chemical farming is propagated through schooled, institutional misinformation; organic farming learns from Nature and farmers’ experience.
  11. Chemical farming benefits traders and industrialists; organic farming benefits the farmer, the environment and society as a whole.
  12. Chemical farming robs the self-reliance (and self-respect) of farmers and villages; organic farming restores and strengthens it.
  13. Chemical farming progressively leads to bankruptcy and misery; organic farming liberates people from debt and woe.
  14. Chemical farming is violent and entropic; organic farming is non-violent and synergistic.
  15. Chemical farming is a hollow ‘green revolution’; organic farming is the true green revolution.
  16. Chemical farming is crudely materialistic, with no ideological mooring; organic farming is rooted in spirituality and abiding truth.
  17. Chemical farming is suicidal, moving from life to death; organic farming is the road to regeneration.
  18. Chemical farming is the vehicle of commerce and oppression; organic farming is the path of culture and co-evolution.

Save’s plea for India’s agro-ecological resurgence

On 29th July, 2006, Bhaskar Save addressed a detailed 8 page Open Letter (along with six annexes) to M.S. Swaminathan, then chairman of the National Commission on Farmers. This was at a time of an unrelenting wave of farmer suicides in various parts of India, particularly Vidarbha and Andhra Pradesh, but also Punjab, the frontline state of India’s ‘green revolution’, now turned black.

Save’s Open Letter – widely circulated and translated all over the world – presented a devastating critique of the government’s agricultural policies favouring chemical farming, while making an eloquent plea for urgent and fundamental reorientation. Save states, “I say with conviction that only by mixed organic farming in harmony with Nature, can India sustainably provide abundant wholesome food and meet every basic need of all – to live in health, dignity and peace.” 

Swaminathan wrote back to Save, “I have long admired your work and am grateful to you for the detailed suggestions… valuable comments and recommendations. We shall take them into consideration in our final report.”

A further independent Open Letter from Bhaskar Save, dated 1st November, 2006, was sent to the Prime Minister. Save asks in his letter, “In this vast nation, does any government agricultural department or university have a single farm run on modern methods, which is a net supplier of water, energy and fertility to the local eco-system, rather than a net consumer? But where there is undisturbed synergy of Nature, this is a reality! By all criteria of ecological audit, my farm has only a positive contribution to the health of the environment. Economically too, I get a manifold higher income than ‘modern’ farmers.”

The success demonstrated by Save in decreasing and eliminating external fertility inputs while achieving high productivity, is thus a model for promoting food security; and his method of tree-cropping – integrating short lifespan, medium lifespan and long lifespan species – has been hailed as potentially revolutionary for wasteland regeneration, while also offering sustainable and rewarding livelihoods to large numbers of people.

Natural Abundance at Kalpavruksha

About twenty steps inside the gate of Save’s farm is a sign that says: “Co-operation is the fundamental Law of Nature.” – A simple and concise introduction to the philosophy and practice of natural farming. Further inside the farm are numerous other signs that attract attention with brief, thought-provoking sutras or aphorisms. These pithy sayings contain all the distilled wisdom on nature, farming, health, culture and spirituality, that Save has gathered over the years, apart from his extraordinary harvest of food!

If you ask this farmer where he learnt his way of natural farming, he might tell you – quite humbly -- “my university is my farm.” His farm has now become a sacred university for many, as every Saturday (Visitors’ Day) brings numerous people from all over India, and occasional travellers from distant lands. 

Kalpavruksha compels attention for its high yield, easily out-performing any modern farm using chemicals. This is readily visible at all times. The number of coconuts per tree is perhaps the highest in the country. A few of the palms yield over 400 coconuts each year, while the average is closer to 350. The crop of chikoo (sapota) – largely planted more than forty-five years ago – is similarly abundant, providing about 300 kg of delicious fruit per tree each year.

Also growing in the orchard are numerous bananas, papayas, areca-nuts, and a few trees of date-palm, drumstick, mango, jackfruit, toddy palm, custard apple, jambul, guava, pomegranate, lime, pomelo, mahua, tamarind, neem, audumber; apart from some bamboo and various under-storey shrubs like kadipatta (curry leaves), crotons, tulsi, and vines like pepper, betel leaf, passion-fruit, etc.

Nawabi Kolam, a tall, delicious and high-yielding native variety of rice, several kinds of pulses, winter wheat and some vegetables and tubers too are grown in seasonal rotation on about two acres of land. These provide enough for this self-sustained farmer’s immediate family and occasional guests. In most years, there is some surplus of rice, which is gifted to relatives or friends, who appreciate its superior flavour and quality.

Excluding another two acres under coconut nursery, the remaining ten acres of orchard have consistently produced an average food yield of over 15 000 kg per acre per annum. (This has declined somewhat in the past 15-20 years following pollution from progressive industrialization of the area.) In nutritional value, this is many times superior to an equivalent weight of food grown with intensive use of toxic chemicals, as in Punjab, Haryana and many other parts of India.

The diverse plants in Save’s farm co-exist as a mixed, harmonious community of dense vegetation. Rarely can one spot even a small patch of bare soil exposed to the direct impact of the sun, wind or rain. The deeply shaded areas under the chikoo trees have a spongy carpet of leaf litter covering the soil, while various weeds spring up wherever some sunlight penetrates.

The thick ground cover is an excellent moderator of the soil’s micro-climate, which –Save emphasizes – is of utmost importance in agriculture. “On a hot summer day, the shade from the plants or the mulch (leaf litter) keeps the surface of the soil cool and slightly damp. During cold winter nights, the ground cover is like a blanket conserving the warmth gained during the day. Humidity too is higher under the canopy of dense vegetation, and evaporation is greatly reduced. Consequently, irrigation needs are very low. The many little insect friends and micro-organisms of the soil thrive under these conditions.

Nature’s Tillers and Fertility Builders

Save states, “A farmer who aids the natural regeneration of the earthworms and soil-dwelling organisms on his farm, is firmly back on the road to prosperity.”

Earthworms flourish in a dark, moist, aerated soil-habitat, protected from extremes of heat and cold, and having an abundance of biomass. These tireless workers digest organic matter like crumbling leaf litter along with the soil, while churning out in every cycle of 24 hours, one and a half times their weight of rich compost, high in all plant nutrients, and with a bacterial population that is nearly a hundred times more than in the surrounding soil.  

The earthworm’s burrowing action efficiently tills the land, imparting a porous structure to the soil. This increases its capacity to hold air and moisture, the most important requirements of plant roots. The worm castings too are well aerated and absorbent, while allowing excess water to drain away. They form stable aggregates, whose soil particles hold firmly together, resisting erosion.

Various other soil-dwelling creatures – ants, termites, many species of micro-organisms – similarly aid in the physical conditioning of the soil and in recycling plant nutrients; and there are innumerable such helpful creatures in every square foot of a natural farm like Kalpavruksha.

In stark contrast, modern agricultural practices have proved disastrous to the organic life of the soil. Many of the burrowing creatures are killed by the toxic chemicals used, or crushed under the weight of heavy tractors. The consequent soil compaction, resulting from their death, has reduced soil aeration and the earth's capacity to absorb moisture.

By ruining the natural fertility of the soil, we actually create artificial ‘needs’ for more and more external inputs, more expenses, and unnecessary labour, while the results are inferior in every way. “The living soil,” stresses Save, “is an organic unity, and it is this entire web of life that must be protected and nurtured. Natural Farming is the Way.”

Weeds as friends

“In nature, every humble creature and plant plays its role in the functioning of the eco-system. Each is an inseparable part of the food chain. The excrement of one species is nutrition for another. In death too, every organism, withered leaf, or dry blade of grass leaves behind its contribution of fertility for bringing forth new life.” Consequently, pleads Save, if we truly seek to regain ecological harmony, the very first principle we must learn to follow is, ‘Live and let live’.

In a country like India, a variety of weeds rapidly cover bare ground with the first showers of the rainy season. When torrential downpours follow as the monsoon progresses, the weeds buffer the hammering force of the raindrops, while their roots bind the soil against erosion. Such soil erosion could otherwise be severe in our tropical conditions, particularly on sloping terrain. Save thus observes: it is our foolish ignorance that we fail to understand how great a blessing the weeds are.

The roots of the weeds also improve aeration in the passages they make in the soil. Moisture absorption and retention are higher. By shading the ground, the weeds moderate the temperature of the earth, reducing evaporation and maintaining suitable conditions for soil organisms. And when the weeds die, the earthworms, ants and decomposer-bacteria that feed on their dead leaves and roots, return their mineral nutrients to the soil to help the next generation of plants, and the long life-span trees.

Weeds may additionally perform a variety of specialised functions. As soil conditions change, there is a natural progression of different kinds of weeds that inhabit the earth. Some are excellent pioneers that steadily work to improve the soil where little else yet grows. Some are leguminous, and provide nitrogen. Yet others may function as reproduction inhibitors of the little insects that sit on them, thereby checking the plant damage that some of these creatures might cause.

When weed control is needed and how

While weeds, in general, are friends of a farmer, in certain unnatural conditions, some species may become stubbornly rampant. Such weeds may then be a nuisance if they rapidly overgrow the crops planted by the farmer, blocking off sunlight. However, here too, the weeds help check and heal a more fundamental problem – that of soil erosion or impoverishment. They persistently signal to the farmer that s/he is planting a wrong crop in the given circumstances, or growing it in a wrong way, hurting the earth and her creatures.

The only sensible and lasting ‘root-cure’ to weed rampancy among field crops is to adopt mixed planting and crop rotation, while discontinuing chemicals and deep tillage. The problematic weeds will only phase out gradually as the soil regains its health, so they may still tend to over-shade the food crops in the interim. The way to manage this is to periodically cut the weeds (before they flower), and mulch them at least 3-4 inches thick on the soil under the crops. Without any sunlight falling on the weed seeds buried in the soil, their fresh germination is effectively checked.

There may thus be some competition between crops and weeds for sunlight, though not for soil nutrients. If the crops emerge taller, says Save, their shade will suppress the weeds, which will then be unable to cause any problem. This happens naturally in healthy, living, non-acidic soils. Our ancestors have been farming for many generations. But because their soil was healthy, they never faced any serious problem from weeds, even as recently as a few decades ago.

There is thus a rule of thumb for seed spacing while planting your crops. If your soil is poor/weak, increase the quantum of seeds you plant. In other words, plant closer. The crops thereby cast shade on the ground more rapidly, retarding the weeds. If your soil is fairly healthy, plant fewer seeds, that is, keep a larger gap between them.

When farmers shift back to organic farming, their soil steadily improves in health each year. Correspondingly, crop growth gets better, while weed growth declines. In just 2-3 years, there should be no need for any weeding at all. Until then, the farmer is better advised to cut and mulch the weeds.

Mulching with cut weed

The cutting of weed growth above the land surface – without disturbing the roots – and laying it on the earth as ‘mulch,’ benefits the soil in numerous ways. With mulching, there is less erosion of soil by wind or rain, less compaction, less evaporation, and less need for irrigation. Soil aeration is higher. So is moisture absorption, and insulation from heat and cold. The mulch also supplies food for the earthworms and micro-organisms to provide nutrient-rich compost for the crops. Moreover, as the roots of the weeds are left in the earth, these continue to bind the soil, and aid its organic life in a similar manner as the mulch on the surface. And when the dead roots get weathered, they too serve as food for the soil-dwelling creatures.

Mulching is effective in checking the rapid re-emergence of the cut weeds, only if the mulch layer is thick enough to block off sunlight. For example, the weeds cut from a plot of 100 sq. feet will never provide a thick enough layer to fully cover the entire 100 sq. feet. It may be adequate for 25 sq. ft., or perhaps just 10 sq. ft., depending on the density of weed growth. If sunlight penetrates through a layer of mulch that is too thin (less than 3 inches), the weeds may grow back vigorously again.

Thus, if 10 sq. feet is the area that can be adequately mulched, at least 3 to 4 inches thick, with the weeds cut from 100 sq. ft., that is what the farmer should stick to, unless additional biomass can be obtained from an external source. The fresh weed growth from the unmulched land would again need to be cut and mulched in the selected area.  In this manner, the mulch method of shading out weeds can be successful in 4 or 5 stages.  The decomposition of the weeds may take several months, but the compost formed will be very helpful to the crop. What was viewed as an enemy, will now serve as friend.

It is also important that the cutting and mulching operation should be done before the weeds have flowered and become pollinated, otherwise a new generation of the same weeds will re-emerge strongly in the mulched areas.

Shading out weeds with tall plants

The Dabhro weed is considered a menace by most farmers. To control it, one needs to plant crops that thickly shade the ground, says Save. No matter how often you remove it, the dabhro comes up again from its deep reaching roots. You should plant an over-shading crop like banana at 4 ft by 4 ft, or 5 ft by 5 ft. When these have grown a little, provide them a good quantity of dung manure. The leaves that emerge will span out such that the canopies of adjacent plants will touch, thickly shading the ground and thereby suppressing the dabhdo, and gradually destroying it.

Multi-storey, multi-function weed control

Above the ground cover of weeds that constitute the lowest storey of vegetation in the orchard area (where any sunlight penetrates to the ground), there are numerous shrubs like the ‘kadipatta’ (or curry leaf, Murraya koenigii) and the homely croton that line the pathways through the orchard. The latter plant, of various spotted and striped varieties, is relatively shallow rooted. It serves as a ‘water meter’, indicating by the drooping of its leaves that the moisture level of the soil is falling.

The shrubs of curry leaf contribute to moderating the population of several species of crop-feeding insects, while also providing an important edible herb widely used in Indian cooking. From this minor crop alone, Save earns an income of at least Rs 2 500/ month, at zero cost. (Even the harvesting and bundling is done by the purchaser.)

Here and there, one might see climbers like the pepper vine or betel leaf in a spiral garland around a supari (arecanut) palm, or perhaps a passion fruit vine arching across a clearing. These provide additional bonus yield.

The Principles of Farming in Harmony with Nature

 “The four fundamental principles of natural farming are quite simple!” declares Bhaskar Save. “The first is, ‘all living creatures have an equal right to live’. To respect such right, farming must be non-violent. The second principle recognizes that ‘everything in Nature is useful and serves a purpose in the web of life’.

“The third principle is: farming is a dharma, a sacred path of serving Nature and fellow creatures; it must not degenerate into a pure dhandha or money-oriented business. Short-sighted greed to earn more – ignoring Nature’s laws – is the root of the ever-mounting problems we face.

“Fourth is the principle of perennial fertility regeneration. It observes that we humans have a right only to the fruits and seeds of the crops we grow. These constitute 5 to 15 % of the plants’ biomass yield. The balance 85 to 95 % of the biomass, the crop residue, must go back to the soil to renew its fertility, either directly as mulch, or as the manure of farm animals. If this is religiously followed, nothing is needed from outside; the fertility of the land will not decline.”

Plant needs – what, and how much

Dispelling a common misunderstanding, Save clarifies that the organic matter we add to the soil is not the ‘food’ of a plant, at least in any direct sense. Rather, it is food for the innumerable soil-dwelling creatures and micro-organisms, which work ceaselessly to maintain the fertility of the land. And there are more micro-organisms in half a cup of good soil than there are humans on earth.

Through the digestive processes of the soil dwelling creatures, including earthworms, the organic matter added to the soil gets decomposed into a progressively more inorganic or mineral form. The mineral rich excreta of these creatures must then dissolve in moisture before being absorbed by the roots of plants.

More serious yet is the misconception about how much of the minerals or water is needed. Save never tires to stress that plants are actually mitahari, or very small consumers of the nutrients in the soil. Sunlight and air are what they need in abundance, while the moisture requirement of most plants – barring aquatic and semi-aquatic species like mangroves and rice – is best met when the soil is just damp rather than soaked. As India has no lack of sunlight, it is the porous, humus-covered soils that absorb and hold more air and moisture, and are the most productive in giving a sustained, high yield of biomass. This is ancient knowledge, though less understood these days.

Scientific analysis confirms that approximately 88 % of the weight of a plant – or any organic matter – consists of just carbon and oxygen, with roughly equal contributions of about 44 % each. Much of these two elements is drawn by the plant from atmospheric carbon dioxide, absorbed through minute pores or stomata in the underside of leaves. 

Hydrogen, drawn from moisture, is third in the list and contributes about 6 % of the plant's weight. The moisture also provides some of the oxygen, as does the air contained in the pores of the soil.  

Continuing with the list of the ‘building-blocks’ required by a plant, nitrogen comes a distant fourth, contributing between 1 to 2 per cent of its weight. This element, abundant in the air, is made available in the soil through the action of billions of rhizobia -- the micro-organisms that dwell in the root nodules of leguminous plants. Nitrogen is also supplied when dead organic matter is broken down in the soil, under the action of even larger numbers of decomposer bacteria. 

Less than 5 % of the weight of a plant originates in the various other mineral nutrients provided by the soil itself. These are elements like phosphorous, potassium, calcium, silicon, magnesium; and a number of trace elements or micronutrients required in very minute quantities, such as iron, copper, zinc, boron, cobalt, manganese, etc.

The earthworm castings in a mixed natural farm or forest provide an abundant supply of these minerals and trace elements. Myriad other animals, birds, insects and micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi, molds etc.) add their contribution in recycling nutrients to the soil. In fact, every creature – in excretion and in death – is an integral part of the continuous fertility cycle of nature.

In addition, deep-rooted trees draw up fresh supplies of minerals dissolved over time from the underlying parent rock or sub-soil. Thus a farmer, who is mindful of the natural, biological processes of fertility regeneration, scarcely needs to bother about the chemical analysis of his soil. The important thing is to religiously return all crop residues and bio-wastes to the earth. Any pronounced ‘nutrient deficiency’ in the topsoil – often caused by cash-cropping monocultures – then becomes largely corrected in a few years by reverting to mixed cropping. Of course, checking soil erosion and shunning agro-chemicals is also essential.

Do nothing?

While the physical work on a natural farm is much less than in a modern farm, regular mindful attention is a must. Hence the saying: “The footsteps of a farmer are the best fertilizer to his plants!” In the case of trees, this is especially important in the first few years. Gradually, as they become self-reliant, the work of the farmer is reduced – till ultimately, nothing needs to be done, except harvesting. In the case of coconuts, Save has even dispensed with harvesting. He waits for the coconuts to ripen and fall on their own, and merely collects those fallen on the ground.

In growing field crops like rice, wheat, pulses, vegetables, etc., some seasonal attention, year after year, is unavoidable. This is why Save calls his method organic farming, while a fairly pure form of ‘do-nothing natural farming’ is only attained in a mature, tree crop system. However, even with field crops, any intervention by the farmer should be kept to the bare minimum, respecting the superior wisdom of nature, and minimizing violence.

The five concerns of farming

Save summarizes the key practical aspects of his approach to natural farming in five major areas of activity shared by farmers all over the world: tillage, fertility inputs, weeding, irrigation, and crop protection.

Tillage in the case of tree-crops is only permissible as a one-time intervention to loosen the soil before planting the saplings or seeds. Post planting, the work of maintaining the porosity and aeration of the soil should be left entirely to the organisms, soil-dwelling creatures and plant roots in the earth.

With regard to fertility inputs, the recycling of all crop residues and biomass on the farm is an imperative for ensuring its continued fertility. Where farm-derived biomass is scarce, initial external provision of organic inputs is helpful. However, no chemical fertilizer whatsoever should be used.

Weeding should be avoided. It is only if the weeds tend to overgrow the crops, blocking off sunlight, that they may be controlled by cutting and mulching, rather than by uprooting for ‘clean cultivation’. Herbicides, of course, should never be used.

Irrigation should be conservative, no more than is required for maintaining the dampness of the soil. Complete vegetative cover – preferably multi-storied – and mulching greatly reduce water needs.

Crop protection may be left entirely to the natural processes of biological control by naturally occurring predators. Poly-cultures of healthy, organically grown crops in healthy soil have a high resistance to pest attack. Any damage is usually minimal, and self-limiting. At most, some non-chemical measures like the use of neem, diluted desi cow urine, etc. may be resorted to. But this too is ultimately unnecessary.

By thus returning to Nature many of the tasks that were originally hers, a weighty burden slips off the back of the half-broken, modern day farmer. And the land begins to regenerate once more.

Wendell Berry, a perceptive thinker, organic farmer and writer states: “When we change the way we grow our food, we change our food, our values, our society.  … Natural farming is about healing our relationships.”  

Bhaskar Save says, “Children have a birth-right to suckle the sweet wholesome milk from their mother’s bosom. But tragically, our modern rapacious way of farming, rampant industrialism and consumerist culture draw on Mother Earth’s life-blood and flesh. How then can we hope to receive her continuing nourishment?”

 “Non-violence, the essential mark of cultural and spiritual evolution, is only possible through natural farming.”

References

1. Burcher S. Stem farmers’ suicides with organic farming. Science in Society 32, 42-43, 2006.

2. Ho MW, Burchers S, Lim LC et al. Food Futures Now *Organic*Sustainable*Fossil-Fuel Free, ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2008. http://www.i-sis.org.uk/foodFutures.php

3. Mansata B. Vision of Natural Farming, Earthcare Books, Kolkata, India, 2012. http://thankindia.org/knowledge/vision-of-natural-farming/

There are 5 comments on this article so far. Add your comment
James Cooley Comment left 24th February 2014 17:05:10
Very inspirational post. I have instituted some of these practices on my farm intuitively, but now have a better understanding of the rational and plan to redouble my efforts to implement more of them.
Linda Tanner Comment left 25th February 2014 08:08:03
Excellent information. For years I have been moving in this direction but it is so slow when one is working on depleted, degraded soil, and without machinery other than hand tools such as hoe, shovel and rake. However it is all enjoyable, particularly the harvest of 100% pure foods grown with the idea of living within Nature and not trying to control it with noxious poisons. Again, excellent!
Don Ross Comment left 26th February 2014 13:01:52
Incredibly inspiring......
Kees Stigter Comment left 25th February 2014 08:08:40
Splendid examples of how the agroclimatology of "non-forest trees" works and how much such "natural farmers" empirically know about this. I will refer to it in a Chapter "Agroforestry and (Micro)Climate Change" I am presently writing for the Second Edition pf "Tree-Crop Interfaces" (CABI, 2014). Thanks, Kees Stigter
Pat Kozowyk Comment left 26th February 2014 15:03:45
Thank you. Different growing conditions and plants - same results, insights and observations on our farm. Nature is constantly teaching me - as long as I take the time to observe - take the time to listen - stay close to the ground and off big machines. Thank you for the affirmation that I have been on the right track. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to take wonderful quotes of great wisdom to carry with me whenever I feel fatigued and discouraged in the face of contrary values.

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