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Madhya Pradesh small farmers adopt natural farming sustainably, 'improve' savings

Water conservation effort in Bahera village
By Bharat Dogra* 
Phoola Devi and Devidayal work hard on their small plot of less than two acres of farmland in Larvari village, in Niwari district of Madhya Pradesh. Despite their best efforts, things had been becoming quite difficult, but then some important changes they initiated in recent times have given them new hope.
Firstly, they have given up using chemical fertilizers and pesticides purchased at ever increasing price from market. Instead they now use scientific methods to produce organic fertilizer right in their own backyard, using cow dung, cow urine as the basic ingredients with a little gram flour and jaggery added. Hence they were able to retain their earlier productivity while at the same time reducing their expenses to a significant extent.
Secondly, they are now using a part of their farmland to grow a multi-layer garden, mainly of vegetables. Here at various layers creepers, small plants and vegetables growing under the soil can together contribute to harvesting a richer and more diverse yield from even a very small plot of land.
Thirdly, they are now in the process of devoting some land to planting many fruit trees, mainly guavas and to a lesser extent lemons, the species being selected on the basis of soil testing and the suitability of local conditions. The natural farming approach is being followed in the case of vegetables and fruits as well, keeping costs low.
Munni Devi and Lalaram are another couple who have followed these three phases to a more promising future. Munni Devi related that migrant workers who go from this work to far-away places to seek work are sometimes cheated quite badly and so she believes in improving her farming as much as possible.
Can these changes you have initiated bring enough earnings so that you can meet your needs within your village? Yes, we have high hopes, she replies as the other three nod in agreement. These changes, which are still in an early stage, could be possible because of the wider efforts initiated by a social organization Srijan.
As our group discussion leads to the nitty gritty of how much earnings can increase, villagers emphasize that it is earnings minus costs ie the net savings which are important, and this is where natural farming is a winner. 
Another factor they bring out is the big improvement in family nutrition due to the plentiful availability of diverse vegetables now, an important improvement that can be missed out if only cash earnings are considered. When cultivated using natural methods, the nutrition and health benefits of these vegetable are much better, and so is the taste.
Farmers of Larwari village
Another village in the same district Bahera brings out some of these aspects more vividly. Surendra Kumar, a farmer with a keen interest in natural farming, says that on account of avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides a saving of about Rs. 3,500 per acre has been achieved on the basis of the prevailing average level of agro-chemical use in this village in the context of small farmers. While several farmers who are taking up natural farming prepare their own organic fertilizer, those who are unable to do so can buy this at a low cost from a natural farming centre.
This is being managed by Vandana, a woman with a very keen interest in natural farming. She and her husband Surendra are together playing an important role in initiating several such changes.
However, several gains achieved by this village in recent times would not have been possible but for the prior initiation of important steps of water conservation. A check dam had been constructed on a stream flowing in this village earlier but there was no gate. Srijan helped in the construction of a gate and then also took up the digging of about 21 ‘doha’ pits at various places in the stream with the aim of conserving more rainwater, in consultation with villagers.
While more water was conserved now for a longer period, this also contributed to recharging wells and the water level in them rose. All this helped farmers in the village to provide better irrigation to their fields. In fact, several of them who were unable to cultivate the rabi crop earlier and grew only the kharif crop were now able to cultivate the rabi crop as well.
In the course of the last two years of the efforts of Srijan, about 30 farmer households have fully adopted natural farming while about 20 others have adopted natural farming practices on a part of their fields. Work relating to multi-layer vegetable garden and guava fruit trees is also spreading.
Farmers in this village are in the middle of important changes and they often compare the fields of natural farming with other fields. The discussion generally turns in favor of natural farming, but some others feel that they may not be able to give the kind of care that natural farming involves. In fact some farmers of neighbouring villages also come here to see the progress of natural farming.
Farmers of Bahera village
Ajay and Janki from nearby Nimchauni village said that several farmers in their village are now ready to adopt natural farming after seeing the progress and the results here.
Here as in Larvari discussion also turns to health benefits. As Ram Kumari says, the food we get from natural farming is certainly healthier and ultimately this will help to save the costs we incur in treating illness. Soil also gets healthier with natural farming, farmers say we can already see earthworms returning. Hence sustainability of good yields will be achieved by soil and water conservation.
Efforts of Srijan, in turn supported by funds from IndusInd Bank, have raised high hopes among many farmers of these and nearby villages and the experiences so far indicate that these are likely to be realized to a large extent. There may be dampeners like adverse weather, but the model being promoted here also helps in increasing resilience in times of bad weather.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Planet in Peril', ‘Man over Machine' and ‘India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food'

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