One of India’s first organic farmers, Bhaskar Save, believes co-operation is the fundamental law of Nature
Masanobu Fukuoka, renowned natural farmer, made several visits to India, a country which inspired more hope in him than his own Japan. On his last visit here, he spent a day at the farm of another remarkable octogenarian, Bhaskar Save, in southernmost coastal Gujarat. Halfway through his bullock cart tour of the place, Fukuoka declared – “I have seen many farms all over the world. This is the best; it is even better than my own farm!”
Hailed as ‘the living Gandhi of natural farming’, Bhaskar Save has inspired a whole generation of organic farmers all over India. His magnificent 14-acre orchard farm, Kalpavruksha – described as a ‘food forest’ – is a net supplier of water, energy and fertility to the eco-system of its region, rather than a net consumer! It also yields a manifold higher economic return than modern farms.“The most important step is to let Nature happen – by not adopting short-sighted technological interventions, such as the use of chemical fertiliser or pesticide, heavy tillage or too much irrigation.”
On entering Save’s farm, one encounters a bright sign that reads “Co-operation is the fundamental Law of Nature” – a simple and concise introduction to Save’s philosophy and practice of natural farming! If you ask this warm, humble farmer where he learnt his methods, he might tell you, “My University is my farm.” His farm has now become a sacred university for many, as every Saturday afternoon (Visitors’ Day) brings numerous people. Included in such weekly entourages have been farmers from all over India, as also agricultural scientists, students, city folk, senior government officials, ‘V.I.P.s’, and occasional travellers from distant lands, who have read or heard of Bhaskar Save’s work.
Kalpavruksha compels attention, for its high yield easily out-performs any farm using chemicals. This is readily visible at all times! The number of coconuts per tree is among the highest in the country. The crop of chikoo (sapota) is similarly abundant. Also growing in the orchard are banana, papaya, areca-nut, and fewer numbers of date-palm, drumstick, mango, jackfruit, toddy palm, custard apple, jambul, guava, pomegranate, lime, pomelo, mahua, neem, bamboo. Nawabi Kolam (or Surati Kolam) – a delicious and high-yielding, native variety of rice, several kinds of pulses, winter wheat and some vegetables too are grown in seasonal rotation on about two acres of land.
The diverse plants on Bhaskar Save’s farm co-exist as a mixed community of dense vegetation. Rarely can be seen 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 – Bhaskar Save emphasises – is of utmost importance in agriculture. “On a hot summer’s 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 of the soil thrive under these conditions.”
Tillers and Fertility Builders at Kalpavruksha
It is not without reason that Charles Darwin declared a century ago: it may be doubted whether there are many other creatures that have played so important a part in world history as have the earthworms. Bhaskar Save confirms, “A farmer who aids the natural in situ regeneration of the earthworms and soil-dwelling micro-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. The earthworm’s tunneling 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 are similarly well aerated and absorbent, while allowing excess water to drain away. They also form stable aggregates, whose soil particles hold firmly together, and thus resist erosion.
Various other creatures dwelling in the soil – ants, termites, many species of microorganisms – similarly aid in the physical conditioning of the soil and in the recycling of plant nutrients. And there are innumerable such helpful creatures in every square metre of a natural farm like Kalpavruksha.
Bhaskar Save, however, does not claim to have any special method for making the armies of insects toil for him. “This is Nature’s way,” he says. “The most important step is to let it happen – by not adopting short-sighted technological interventions, such as the use of chemical fertiliser or pesticide, heavy tillage or too much irrigation.”
Modern agricultural practices have proved disastrous to the organic life of the soil. Many of the burrowing creatures are crushed under the weight of heavy tractors, or killed by the toxic effect of the chemicals used. The consequent soil compaction, resulting from the death of these ‘Nature’s cultivators’, has reduced soil aeration and the earth’s capacity to absorb moisture. This is further aggravated by soil-surface salinisation, caused by excessive irrigation and poor drainage.
By ruining the natural fertility of the soil, we actually create artificial ‘needs’ for more and more external inputs and unnecessary labour, while the results are inferior and more expensive in every way. “The living soil,” stresses Bhaskar 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: Wild Friends
“In nature, every humble creature and plant plays its role in the integrated functioning of the ecosystem. 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 Bhaskar Save - if we truly seek to regain ecological harmony, the very first principle we must learn to follow is, “Live and let live.”
“Since all plants are provided by Nature in her wisdom to fulfill certain functions in relation to the soil and the creatures of the soil, we need to think twice before removing what we consider undesirable weeds. In particular, violent methods like spraying chemical herbicides, and the use of heavy tractors should be totally given up.” At Kalpavruksha, no labour is wasted even in manually rooting out weeds, though sometimes such weeds that over-shade young saplings may be cut and mulched.
The manual uprooting of weeds disturbs the organic life of the soil less than mechanical tillage, but is still usually undesirable. But 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 more food for the earthworms and microorganisms to provide nutrient-rich compost for the crops. Moreover, since the weed roots are left in the earth, these continue to bind the soil, and aid its organic life like the mulch on the surface. For when the dead roots get weathered, they too serve as food for the soil-dwelling creatures.
Bhaskarbhai points out that the irrational and violent prejudice against weeds in modern tree-cropping can be traced back to our colonial past. Due to the much slower decomposition of biomass in the colder, temperate conditions (where soil bacteria are fewer and less active), most Englishmen were not conscious of the vital importance of weeds in maintaining soil fertility and checking soil erosion in warm, high rainfall conditions, like ours.
Some of the weeds found in Kalpavruksha, are leguminous. Along with other leguminous shrubs and trees, these are nature’s agents for supplying nitrogen. In their root nodules dwell billions of specialised rhizobium bacteria that ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen in the soil. For this reason, traditional crop rotation systems usually included a leguminous crop of ‘nitrogen supplying’ pulses between two crops of ‘nitrogen consuming’ cereals.”In Save’s words, “A young tree sapling is like a child that needs some initial care. But soon it looks after itself, and then it looks after us!”
“Even if some weeds threaten to become rampant and over-shadow crops,” says Bhaskar Save, “the modern methods of weed control are sheer madness. After all, we do not tear out the hair on our head when it grows too long. Nor do we spray poison on it! And so with weeds, the saner way is to moderate their growth, where needed, by cutting.
Above the ground cover of weeds – the lowest storey of vegetation in the orchard – are numerous shrubs like the 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 inhibit the reproduction of several species of crop-feeding insects (as do plants like tulsi and marigold), thus moderating their population, while also providing an important herb widely used in Indian cooking. Here and there, one may see climbers like the pepper vine or betel leaf in a spiral garland around a supari (arecanut) palm. These provide additional bonus yield on the side.
Excluding the two acres under coconut nursery, and another two acres of paddy field, the average food yield from the 10 acres of orchard is over 15,000 kg per acre per annum! In nutritional worth, this is many times superior to an equivalent weight of food grown with toxic chemicals, as in Punjab, Haryana and elsewhere.
‘Do Nothing’ Path to Abundance
“A young tree sapling,” says Save, “is like a child that needs some initial care. But soon it looks after itself, and then it looks after us!” Save’s mature orchard has, since many years, reached the stage of almost pure, ‘do-nothing natural farming’. The labour needed is mainly in harvesting. The occasional irrigation in dry months (about once in 2 or 3 weeks for every row of trees) is still attended to entirely by Bhaskar Save, despite his advanced age.
The field crops at Kalpavruksha, however – rice, wheat, pulses, etc. – are ‘organic’, rather than ‘natural’ in the no-till way of Fukuoka. Here,significantly more seasonal labour is required in ploughing, transplanting and harvesting.
Apart from the sale of fruit, considerable income is obtained through selling coconut saplings, which are always in high demand. Even from distant Kerala – ‘God’s Own’ coconut country – farmers visit almost every year, and carry back some saplings, apart from valuable insights! Most sales though are within a radius of 150 km.
Thus, Bhaskar Save comfortably makes a net income of several hundred thousand rupees every year, apart from being self-sufficient in most food needs. And this, without succumbing to the temptation of exporting his produce to ready buyers of organic food in Europe, offering a much higher price.
Save’s Kalpavruksha – described as a ‘food forest’ – is a net supplier of water, energy and fertility to the eco-system of its region, rather than a net consumer! It also yields a manifold higher economic return than modern farms.