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Miles to go before we sleep



After turning my back on the corporate world and making a conscious choice to get into farming, our journey began with the purchase of a scenic coffee farm in Chickmagalur, Karnataka in 2007. But a series of unforeseen challenges forced us to abandon that effort after a couple of years. Thereafter, following a long and often frustrating search, we finally zeroed in on a small coffee farm in a remote area of Sakleshpura in the western ghats in Karnataka in 2012.

Destiny plays its role

As the saying goes, with land you always get only what is destined for you. Just as events had almost conspired to make us abandon the Chickmagalur farm, here it was exactly the opposite. From day one, it was as if the Gods and nature were conspiring to help us succeed. Whenever a problem/challenge emerged, even appearing insurmountable at times, solutions would present themselves out of the blue. Ofcourse the fact that we had stayed focused on the path and had greater experience and maturity in dealing with the issues in this realm did help.

Why coffee?

Having been born in coffee land in Chickmagalur and having my best childhood memories running around in the serene surrounding of natural streams, water bodies, mountains and forests – it has always been a love affair with these surroundings. So, when I decided to hang my boots and get into farming, coffee land was an obvious choice. The legal framework pertaining to purchase of agricultural land in our state also favoured such a move.

Why organic?

When we decided to take up farming, no-chemicals organic farming was an obvious choice from day one. Having been aware of the harmful effects of chemical food as a consumer and being a health and environmentally conscious family, there was never any doubt on that count. If we eat organic, we grow organic. The only issue was how to go about it. There frankly we had no experience. So, while we never used chemicals on either the 1st or the 2nd farm and made a 100% switch to organic from day one, the process of learning the ropes with organic farming was a slow, grinding and at times frustrating one, with lots of trial and error and significant drop in yields.

The gurus who inspired us

Firstly, here we owe my gratitude to 3 gurus who have inspired me and guided my efforts through their insights and teachings

  1. Masanobu Fukuoka. His ‘One Straw Revolution’ was very insightful and a real inspiration, which gave a sound foundation to my approach

  2. Dr. Khader from Mysore. His model of Kadu Krishi was the one that guided me to look at the model of creating a forest like eco-system in my farm.

  3. Subhash Palekar. His model of natural farming gave a set of simple, low cost, easy to implement techniques and practices like Jevamrutha, bejamrutha, mulching, etc. to practice at the farm.

Besides the above, I also learnt a lot from several fellow organic/natural farmers I have visited and interacted with over the years and methods like Bio-Dynamic farming (of which I attended a full 1-week residential training program).

The turning point:

But a crucial breakthrough came when I met Prakash Rao Manchale an organic farmer from Sirsi, based on an article in Krushi Bharath, a monthly Kannada magazine focusing on broader agrarian issues and policies. Prakash Rao has been practicing and actively propagating the multi-tier, multi-crop farming model and it was a visit to his farm, followed by his visit to my farm and his guidance that put me on the current path around 2016.

Couple of years before that I had bought an uncultivated piece of barren land adjacent to my older block, where I was struggling unsuccessfully to grow coffee along with some jungle trees for shade. What Prakash Rao suggested was to leave the coffee and existing plants as is and take up intense planting of a variety of fruit, spice, medicinal and commercial plants and trees in between, in that block.

Mimicking the forest eco-system

The rationale of the model really appealed to me and was in sync with the basic concept of natural farming, as I had understood. The logic was simple

  • Mimic a forest like eco-system in a farm with a multi-tier, bio-diverse planting model combining root crops, shrubs, plants and trees, and creepers; dicots and monocots and leguminous and non-leguminous plants; – to create a mutually beneficial eco-system in the farm leading to better plant growth and healthier soil, thus creating self-sustaining soil fertility and soil health in the long run.

  • Diversify sources of income to provide better protection against price fluctuations

  • Have a mix of crops to generate short term income as well as medium-long term perennial income

  • Have different kind of crops to spread out the income generation all through the year

We embraced this model wholeheartedly in our new block and to the extent possible in the already developed old block, which we are terming ‘Bio-diverse Natural Farming’.

Bio-diverse natural farming – a snapshot

The core principles and practices we have implemented based on the above model in our farm are:

1. The Planting Model – Bio-diversity vs monoculture

We have planted a mix of over 100 varieties of plants spread across 9 categories i.e.

  • Native and exotic fruits of over 50 varieties – avocado, egg fruit, jack fruit (multiple varieties both local and exotic), jamun, longan berry, mango (both pickle and eating varieties), mangostien, musumbi, noni, orange, papaya, pannerale, passion fruit, pineapple, pomello, pulasan, rambutan, renja, sampige hanu, sapota, sour sop, velvet apple, wood apple, among others

  • Spices 15+ varieties- all-spice, cardamom, cinnamon, kokum, ing, jarige, mango ginger, nutmeg, pepper, turmeric, vate hulli, juman kai, etc

  • Medicinal 20+ varieties like amla, arjuna, ashoka, bilwa, eka nayaka, gulimavu, kakke, konana kodu, lakki (kari & bili), putranjiva, rampatre, saletia, tulsi, and so on

  • Aromatics – grasses like citronella & lemon grass

  • Tree vegetables – banana, bread fruit, citron, drumstick, hog plum (amte kai), lemon etc.

  • Root crops – ginger, galanga (thai ginger), kasturi turmeric, mango ginger, shatavari and turmeric

  • Nuts & others – areca, coco, coffee, coconut, soap nut

  • Commercial trees – agar, amoora, hone, kiral bhogi, mahogany, red sanders, rose wood, silver, sura hone, teak and so so

  • Native jungle trees – athi, avalanda, basavana pada, bolpale, doopa, hole dasavala, kadamba, nandi, patanga, sampige, surage, shanti, shivane, tapasi, among others

An intense planting mix of 5’ vertical x 5’ horizontal rows –with shrubs coming at a spacing of 5’, small plants at 10’, medium trees at 20’ and large trees at 40’ with root crops and grasses coming in between and very large trees along the boundary.

2. Soil Health:

Our focus has been on nurturing soil health. We believe that increasing organic carbon and humus in the soil is essential to achieve this; because – humus is both created by as well as home to a rich variety of microorganisms, earth worms and other beneficial soil creatures; and a soil like this, rich in humus and teeming with micro and macro organisms, in a bio-diverse eco-system, has a self-sustaining fertility and imparts excellent immunity and disease resistance to its plants.

Apart from creating the bio-diversity, what else are we doing to help accelerate this natural process?

Mulching

  • We use leaf droppings and bio-mass from slash weeding as mulch in the farm

  • Where needed, we do additional dry mulching, especially in case of new planting

  • We have extensively planted gliricidia and daduff to provide quick shade, nitrogen fixing and natural manure through their leaf droppings.

Manuring

  • We prepare our own compost using farm yard manure, dry and green plant matter, wood ash, cow dung slurry, cocopeat and other ingredients using bacterial culture consortiums.

  • We regularly prepare and apply Jevamrutha to the entire farm using dung-urine of our own native malnad gidda cows, jungle soil and jaggery to quickly multiply microorganisms in the soil.

  • In addition, we also prepare other liquid manures made from wood ash, EMs and so on with the same objective.

Trenching

  • We have done extensive trenching on all the slopes to prevent top soil runoff, improve moisture through rain water retention

3. No chemicals pledge.

We are firmly committed not to use any chemicals at any stage of lifecycle of growing, harvesting and/or processing our crops. So, all chemical fertilisers, pesticides, weedicides, fungicides, colours, polish, preservatives, additives, etc. are strictly banned in our farm.

The results

  • The short terms crops like bananas, papayas, various root crops and aromatic grasses have already started yielding and generating some income.

  • The weed growth has started reducing. Shade cover is increasing in the newer open land.

  • The fertility of the land is improving. Top soil is better protected

  • In a year or two the medium-term crops like coffee, cardamom, pepper and some of the fruits should start yielding and as these are perennial crops the yields will only be on an upward trajectory thereafter.

  • Long term crops should start yielding in another 3-5 years and as these too are perennial crops, will provide some income stability going forward.

  • The yields of crops in the old block which saw a huge drop, have started recovering

  • In both our old and new blocks, the pest attacks and diseases have been greatly under control and so far, we have not had a need to use even natural herbicides in our farm. In occasional cases while a plant gets sick, it either recovers by itself or in some cases dies, but without the disease spreading across the farm, as is it happens in mono culture chemical farms in our neighbourhood.

  • Earth worm population is on the rise.

Moisture retention is certainly better.

4. Sustainability

We have adopted sustainability as a core principle in everything we do at Savera Naturals. As such, our focus and effort has been to ensure sustainability in every aspect of our farm life. Ultimately, we would like Savera Farm to move as close as possible to becoming a fully self-reliant, sustainable farm. While we know we are certainly not there yet, we are moving steadily in that direction. Some of the steps we have taken towards this goal are

  • The bio-diverse natural farming model explained above and our focus on soil health is targeted at creating a long-term self-sustaining soil health – both fertility as well as immunity

  • We generate our own electricity through solar and wind power; we make bio-gas from cow dung; water heating through solar – all aimed at creating energy self sufficiency

  • We are focused on minimising plastic usage at every possible stage. Some of the examples are – using coconut shells and used tender coconuts instead of plastic bags, and areca nut leaf instead of plastic tray in our nursery; providing reusable cloth bags to our staff for their weekly santhe purchases; using gunny bags instead of nylon bags for bulk packing our coffee and pepper; using only glass bottles or cloth/paper bags (with a strict no plastic bag/bottle policy) for all retail packaging of our produce and/or its derivatives; and so on.

  • All our organic waste is recycled in a closed loop cycle within the farm through composting and mulching; we reuse, whatever that cannot be recycled by ourselves, through innovative improvisations, to the maximum possible extent

  • We strive to minimise water usage through several measures to retain soil moisture and recharge ground water through both trenching, ponds as well as direct recharge.

Our guiding philosophy

Let me conclude by giving a brief overview of our guiding philosophy which can be summed up in 3 core principles.

  • We firmly believe that nature and everything in it are extremely complex, highly interconnected, reciprocally interacting and constantly evolving living-fluid-dynamic living reality and not static-linear-independent entities; and we are an integral part of nature and not separate from it

  • Hence, our interactions with nature cannot be based on the notion of ‘conquer’ ‘tame’ or ‘exploit’ it. But must be firmly rooted in deep respect and humility and driven by a constant yearning to learn from mother nature and live-act in cohesive harmony with it. Further as these natural systems are themselves constantly changing, our understanding of them also cannot be static and dogmatic.

  • Diversity, along with change, is a fundamental law of nature and any mechanical approach that tries to create uniformity and homogeneity is bound to fail.

We believe that true sustainability is possible only when we grasp and apply these basic principles in our lives.

The path ahead

Ours is an honest and committed attempt to understand and practice the art of natural farming, within the broader context of natural living.

Our journey along the path has certainly been a very challenging and exciting one thus far; were several learnings have come the hard way through failures, outright wrong decisions (with hindsight) and disappointments. But our journey continues, and we have a long way to go. Thus, we are always open to learning and improving, ready to accept criticism and feedback from our fellow travellers, accept failures in our stride and learn from them, and ready to adapt to a constantly unfolding reality without any dogmas, while never losing focus on the path.

In the days ahead, we will be sharing with you several specific stories from our journey so far and the perspectives we have gained along the way. We look forward to your thoughts, feedback and inputs that will certainly help us improve. It is through such sharing of experiences and perspectives that we can enrich each other and make our mutual journey much more exciting, enjoyable and enriching.


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