“The food we grow doesn’t kill anything. Not even pests. It is not poison.” Bagappa’s statement is a powerful one indeed. Sure, certain and coming from a personal experience.
Bagappa’s energy and enthusiasm is the first thing you notice about him. 45 years old and a father of two daughters and a son, he owns 11 acres of land of which 5 are irrigated and 6 are rainfed. His brother owns a similar acreage and the two families cultivate these lands jointly. His wife Gangavatamma is a member of Mahilasakthi, the Women’s Cooperative in Ramagiri Mandal and he is a member of the Dharani FaM Coop Ltd.
He narrates his experience, insights and learnings.
“There was a time when we ate preparations made from Navadanya (9 types of cereals, pulses and beans, and oilseeds) and vegetables for Sankranti festival. This was during my father’s time. We had a number of livestock – 4-5 buffaloes, 20-25 cows and bulls. Fields were fertilized with manure from the cattle. During those times there were special designated spaces for livestock. They were kept in the house. People walked through the manure and through to the house. This brought and distributed all the healthy properties and benefits of the manure. Unlike in current times, where manure is not even touched or is felt to be yucky or unhealthy, it was treated differently. Our attitude towards manure itself was quite different. It was part of our life.
I myself used to look after the cattle after school. I used to take them grazing, bathe them, clean their living spaces etc. I also went to the fields with my father and helped him in agriculture. Much of my knowledge of agriculture comes from what I learnt during that time I spent with him. Now, after my father’s demise, I have taken over cultivating the land along with my brother.
My father was still alive and it was during his time itself when the government began to introduce chemical farming. There was much advertising and farmers were urged by the government as well as the companies to move to using chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The first time we used Super Phosphate along with a few pesticides. By and by we began to use a variety of pesticides like Polydol, Gamaxin etc. We were never really warned of the impacts of using it. We used it pretty blindly, without using masks, with bare hands etc. The companies did inform about the usage methods and dosages to the agents and dealers… but the dealers and retailers did not pass this information to us. It is only now we realize that we were actually dealing with, touching, inhaling and perhaps ingesting poisonous stuff.
It is true that using chemical pesticides and non-organic fertilizers increased the yields tremendously initially. The plants grew like never before and we all felt very excited. But this was only in the first couple of years, after which we had to use more and more to get the same yields. The productivity of the land tapered off and our expenditures on chemicals increased steadily and drastically. For eg. in one season I spent Rs. 75,000 on a variety of non-organic fertilizers and chemicals just on an acre of musk melons!
We also more or less shifted to cultivating groundnuts. We were caught in a peculiar situation. Groundnuts were being bought left and right by the traders. We had to cultivate that as we could not find a market for our other produce. Besides, groundnut cultivation in the beginning years brought huge amounts of cash, cash in amounts we had never seen before. We were getting hundreds of thousands of rupees! It also had a dark side. It also brought huge losses. If the monsoon failed or the market fluctuated, the losses were unbearable. With depleting soil health, increasingly resistant pests, increasing farming inputs, a very uncertain weather and fluctuating markets we were getting squeezed from all sides and no way finding ourselves a way out. I myself lost lakhs twice… and was indebted to the tune of Rs. 400,000 at one point of time. Small farmers like us really can’t cope with such losses and debts, you know.
My journey away from chemical farming started ironically with the government’s NPM (Non-pesticide Management) programme. Government officials came to our villages and held talks and trainings on this kind of farming. At that time I had planted 1,200 papaya plants, but didn’t really feel confident about going wholly NPM and lost my nerve. So I tried their method with just 50 plants. It worked, rather it didn’t fail.
During this time Timbaktu Collective people started talking with us about organic farming. We were very skeptical about it. How could cattle manure, some leaves and home-made products do what even chemical blasts couldn’t? It seemed very unlikely. But then Akulappa and his team are dogged fellows. They just wouldn’t give up! They talked to us again and again, explaining, showing, and proving. Finally, a few of us decided to give it a try. What was there to lose?
I started with sowing chillies in 1 acres 20 cents plot. I got the seedlings from friends and relatives for free and bought some from the nursery and planted them in my field. I did all what the Timbaktu Collective team suggested. I collected cow manure, made different kashayams from manure, jaggery and different leaves that prevented illness and vitalized the plants, made solutions of chillies and garlic for pest control, and prepared jeevamrutham, a solution of fermented manure and jaggery. I judiciously used them as taught by the team. It felt strange doing all the things which my father did but which I had forgotten over the years. Well, the chilli plants didn’t respond much initially, somehow seemed to be bent on proving our skepticism. The team encouraged us to wait, hold on, not give up and continue with periodic watering and using the different solutions. And we really didn’t have to wait too long. The chilli plants seemed to take off. You won’t believe it, but they grew to almost 6 feet in height. I too couldn’t believe it, neither could my friends, relatives and other farmers. We harvested these plants 30 times! Some of these chillies we sold in the open market and some we sold to Dharani. In all my sales were to the tune of Rs. 237,522 with labour and transport expenses to the tune of Rs. 27,500. I hadn’t spent a penny on fertilizers or pesticides! This was really unheard of.
This kind of experience is not just mine. Other farmers in the sangham too had similar experiences. Yes, we are now convinced that there is another better and inexpensive method that not only brings about good yields but also improves the condition of the soil.
This is only one part of the story. The second part is the role Dharani plays in procuring what we produce.
The market is an uncertain mistress and we are highly dependent on it and vulnerable to its fluctuations. Can you imagine having spent months, toiling under the hot sun and rain, caring for these plants like our own children, very often leaving our own children untended..? And then at the end of it harvesting a decent produce, cleaned, prepared and bagged all ready to be sold..? Our hopes high perhaps of getting a decent return on all our effort? And then the middle-man, the trader who buys our produce comes and says that the market is down and we will get half of what we would normally get? Or that the transport people are on strike and we can’t take your harvest? We are desperate then… desperate to get the harvest off our hands. With no storage facilities we simply can’t afford to keep the harvest or wait. It will rot on us or just get spoilt. Once I had a ready harvest of watermelons and there was a strike of transporters. The trader was refusing to buy my harvest. What to do?! These melons would just rot in a few days. I was desperate to sell it off at whatever price I could get. I ended up telling him, “take it… take it at whatever price and go..” At such times we just want to break even and at least recover the money we have already sunk into it.
The traders also cheat us, you know, often taking off anywhere between 5-10 kilos per bag of produce. Even if we are very diligent they somehow manage to give us far less than what actually is. These are times when I feel like crying… when my heart breaks. All that hard work, all that back-breaking effort of digging, hoeing, weeding, cutting, hefting… all we want to see is a decent return.
What Dharani provides us is a fixed market. A market that isn’t volatile or whimsical. The price for the crops (except groundnut) is fixed during the crop-planning stage. So we know what we will get, and how much we will get. We know that at the end of the harvest, the Dharani team will come, weigh our produce in front of us, pay us per kg. and not per lot, will not cheat, and will pay us within a week. It takes a load off our minds and hearts. Besides this, we also get a bonus on the profits Dharani makes selling value-added products. So, yes it has been good for us.
Now other farmers vie to sell to Dharani. More and more farmers, especially small farmers, want to join the sangham. But Dharani has said clearly – ‘they can buy it ONLY if it is organically produced, if no chemicals have been used’. So, slowly more and more farmers are willing to shift to organic methods.
If today my family is happy, it is because of this Co-operative.”