The coconut trees on the fringes of clean green pond sway in the cool wind. The silence is broken by the noisy ducks that wade around in the water. Right above the pond is a small hut where hens peep out.
R Thilakar, a farmer who owns the land in Nemmeli village of Sirkazhi taluk in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu, has been practising integrated organic farming for eight years. â€śGreen revolution poisoned our farm,â€ť he says, â€śWe lost our paddy, and the soil lost its richness too.â€ť
It was then that Thilakar and a few other farmers approached Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems (CIKS), which has been promoting organic farming for 17 years. Thilakar became a member of Sirkazhi Organic Farmers Association (SOFA) later.
Nemmeli, being close to the sea, faced salinity issues, and this affected rice cultivation in Thilakarâ€™s farm. â€śIn 2008, there was severe salinity in Nemmeli, Maruthankudi, Kondal villages in Sirkazhi taluk,â€ť Subhashini Sridhar, Project Director, CIKS, said. â€śAs inland salinity is increasing, seawater has entered 2.5km inside the village. During sunny hours, salt surfaces up and dries the paddy.
Thilakar says, â€śToday, if you just grow paddy, where is the income guarantee? Only if the paddy survives salinity and climate change issues like drought, storm and other weather conditions, there is income.â€ť
Addressing the salinity
Thilakar was willing to implement this farming model as his farm suffered from salinity. He had invested in a bore well, but the water was saline and unusable. Subhashini says, â€śThe groundwater was salty and if this was pumped directly to the field, paddy would have stunted growth.â€ť
A farm pond was built with a subsidy of Rs 40,000 from the agricultural engineering department, and Thilakar spent Rs 10,000 on his own. The water pumped from bore well was diverted to the farm pond. The hen droppings from a cage above the pond fell into the water, supplying nitrogen, and in a span of 12 hours, the salt settles to the bottom of the pond.
This nitrogen-enriched water enters the farm through a canal, improving the soil fertility. Subhashini says, â€śEarlier, plants like vettiver were grown where farmers were living close to the sea, but the practice faded with time. We thought of reintroducing and planting these along the tank bund to remove salinity in water.â€ť
These pond bunds planted with fodder grass served a dual purpose â€” bank stabilization and fodder production.
Dung and droppings from cows and goats were fed into a biogas plant. The slurry from the biogas plant, which was earlier taken to the fields, was let into the pond.
R. Thilakar at his farm. (Photo by Sharada Balasubramanian)
After the pond was built, other elements of integrated farming like goat rearing, tree cultivation, fish farming, poultry, vermicomposting, etc., were incorporated. The farmers were taken to exposure visits in private farms of the state.
CIKS loaned Rs 60,000 to Thilakar in 2009 under a revolving fund programme. Subhashini says, â€śWe gave technical support till 2012, and gave grant for components like poultry and vermicomposting under the project Poverty Reduction through Sustainable Agriculture in South India under DFID (Department of International Development) UK.â€ť
Since Thilakar had a pond in the farm, he started fish farming where five different types of fishes were grown. Here, fishes live in a different water levels and occupy the feeding strata in the pond accordingly without disturbing each other. Every year, he introduces 1,000 juveniles into the pond.
Itâ€™s hard not to notice the ducks in Thilakarâ€™s farm. They are called as Kuttai Kavalars (pondâ€™s watchmen). One, they ward off the snakes, and even if strangers enter, they warn by raising their voice. Two, the water in the pond is murky, and for the fishes to breathe, this has to be cleared constantly. The duck does this job instead. Thilakar explains, â€śIf we buy a rotating machine to clear mud, it will cost Rs 25,000, or I have to swim here. The duck does the same job at Rs 2500. Labor is not easily available today, so ducks replace people in this task.â€ť
Thilakar has six ducks doing this job from morning to evening. In addition, the ducks can be sold when there is a need for money. â€śAlso, these ducks are vegetarian, and will not eat the fishes in the pond,â€ť says Thilakar.
Azolla plants are a boon to such farmers. â€śThe plant prevents evapotranspiration and after few months, it will decompose and provide nitrogen to soil, improving its fertility,â€ť says Subhashini. â€śAzolla is good for eyes, especially among children and older people. I feed this plant to the chicken, fishes and cow. Consuming eggs from these chickens or drinking milk from these cows can better vision among people,â€ť says Thilakar.
Here indigenous goats called Thalachery are reared in an elevated cage. This cage ensures safety and health of the goats. The goats in the farm contribute immensely to the income of this farmer. He says, â€śIf there is an urgent need for money, I can sell the goat. This is like an ATM machine.â€ť
Thilakarâ€™s farm has a small vegetable garden where a variety of seasonal vegetables are grown. Most of them are for self-consumption, and if there is excess, it is sold.
The farm has many fruiting trees like mango, guava, moringa, coconut, goose berry, lime, etc. Other than this, there are several multi-purpose tree species like teak, gliricidia, leucaena, neem growing in the farm. â€śThese trees are like long-term saving plan. Twenty years down the line, I can sell this and earn income,â€ť says Thilakar.
Plants like calotropis, adathoda, lantana, vitex that are used for pest and disease control are also grown along the farm boundaries.
Careful selection of plant and animal species, effective utilization of space and resources, along with efficient recycling processes has not just added stability and resilience to the system, but has also helped in increasing farm income.
Subhashini says, â€śIntegrated farming is process that evolves over time, and is location-specific. This cannot be represented as a model, as everything depends on how we package it. We need to look at local demand.â€ť
Subhashini says, â€śThere are simple abandoned practices like growing ulundhu (urad dal) after harvesting rice. This fixes nitrogen in the soil, and the waste can be fed to cattle. In 60-65 days, the produce can be harvested. There is no expense other than buying seeds. Since the water is already there, the moisture is enough to grow this.â€ť
â€śIntegrated farming is the solution for existing crisis in agriculture since it provides daily income through milk, weekly income through eggs, fortnightly income through vegetable and chicken, and income once in six months through goat and paddy,â€ť says Subhashini.
For Thilakar, the input costs have been progressively declining since seeds, soil fertility management inputs, pest and disease control inputs are produced within the farm. With organic farming, there is overall improvement in the food, health, along with a secured livelihood.
The farming improves soil fertility, creates cohesiveness among different components, is safe to the environment and is an answer for eradicating poverty in rural households.
Sharada Balasubramanian is a Coimbatore-based journalist.
The article was first published on VillageSquare, a communications initiative focused on rural India.