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Small farms can be very profitable

Intelligent farming…..shows the way
Copyright: Arun Shrivastava CMC
1. Introduction

Whilst growing food has occupied the minds of Ag-bureaucracy in India since 1966, the year we Indians were refused wheat shipment by the US government following three consecutive years of collapse of agriculture, a basic question remains unanswered even today: What is the maximum sustainable production threshold that a farmer can achieve from his land? And since we eat to nourish our body and mind, the second obvious question is: Are we growing nutrition or merely junk food? The second question also remains largely unanswered.

In my quest for low-cost, low-risk solution to the above two questions, I sought answers from sublime Gurus all over the world and found none convincing enough. May be I posed the question to the wrong people! Rather than solving the problems of India’s farmers, I found that they were more enamored with their pet theories. And then I stumbled into Soil and Health Library, owned and managed by Steve Solomon [Image 1], an American who now lives in Tasmania, Australia. I strongly recommend anyone seriously interested in farming and gardening for health and personal freedom to download all the books and read them; may be read them twice, even thrice. The url is Steve’s philosophy is: Health begins in the soil; Healing begins with hygiene; Liberty begins with freedom. Actually I am now convinced that one’s personal liberty is directly proportional to the amount of food one can grow.

2. A small farm in Tasmania

Steve invited me to spend a few weeks with him last October and promptly I flew down to Tasmania. Every morning we would walk up to his garden, about 600 square metres in all out of his 7.5 acre thickly forested plot of land, de-weed the raised beds, dig and turn grassy patches upside down, adjust drip-irrigation lines, collect salad leaves and head home. Sometimes we would have salad-only dinner and I must confess I have never eaten tastier salad in my life. I learnt many things from Steve about growing food but most importantly three things: [a] one can grow food anywhere provided one understands soil and root systems; [b] Taste is the indicator of nutritive content of food; a tasteless food is “junk food” no matter how “beautiful” it may look; and [c] esoteric theories don’t work; one has to learn by doing things by hand. And, yes, it pays to lean on one’s hoe and meditate, even sing a bhajan to the plants. Whilst Steve is thoughtfully organic, he is not squeamish about occasionally using N, P, or K; he relies more on guano, minerals in elemental form, sea weed, etc. The last lesson I learnt was that a thoughtless organic farmer is as dangerous as “industrial farmer” who relies on GM seeds, heavy dose of fertilizers, and frequent use of pesticides. What impressed me most is the use of simple hand tools, own seeds, simple method of recycling ag-waste into compost to maintain soil nutrient and moisture balance and the land produces heaps and heaps of nutritious veggies all year round.

3. Learning the lost art of growing nutritious food

Farmers all over the world are learning the lost art of growing nutritious food and, in the process, re-discovering the power of Nature which, incidentally, comes free of cost. Indian farmers are not far behind; many are far ahead of their western counterparts. Trapped in the vicious downward spiral of static or falling output from land, increasing cost of inputs [seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and diesel], falling water table, and crashing ex-farm price, they have no choice but to seek sustainable options and intelligent solutions. Learning the lost art of intelligent farming is now a compulsion because industrial farming methods have destroyed our farmlands, destroyed the bio-diversity, destroyed the nutrition in the food nature gave us, poisoned our water and soil and given us poor health and diseases. Unfortunately, there is no standard formula for intelligent farming. Let us look at an example of intelligent farming and gardening right here in Himachal Pradesh.

3.1 A small garden in Banjar, Kullu district, Himachal Pradesh

Like Steve, Guman Singh is also a friend. Guman is an economist by training, a well-known environmental activist and a hobby-farmer. About six years ago he purchased 2.5 bigha of land near the bus-station of Banjar town. The sectional view of the plot is shown in Figure 1. The slope was steep, the flat part, about 500 square metres, was barely sufficient to construct a house. The problem was to stabilize the slope at lowest cost and leave as much land to grow food and flowers. Since the slope faces north and there is a high hill to the south, the plot gets barely four hours of sunlight during winter.

The house was constructed at the top of the plot and a compost pit for toilet waste was constructed at the edge with a retaining wall of stone. The top of the toilet sump now doubles as extended terrace. The stone wall now is covered with grapevine. [Figure 2]

Over the next two years, Guman spent a small amount on labour for strengthening the retaining walls [called Korh, the upper edge and Beed, the lower edge; in between is the land that is used for growing food]. He used random rubble and planted fruit and flowering trees [Apple, apricot, pear, and two species of flowers-chrysanthemum and marigold]. While these fruit and flower trees strengthen the Beed, the two species of flowers are also known for their property as pest repellant. Hardy hedges to further strengthen the Beed were also planted.

Over the last three years, the Beed and Korh have firmed up to the extent that two days of heavy rain [4th & 5th August, 2006] had virtually no impact on the structural integrity of the terraced garden. It demonstrates that with a bit of care it is possible to create stable slopes and increase the cultivable area in the Himalayan region.

3.2 The vermi-compost “factory”

A compost heap was created in a corner where kitchen and agriculture waste is recycled by Eisenia foetida [surface feeding earthworms] into rich vermi-compost.

Managing vermi-compost factory was not easy. The experts had told him to build a horizontal pit, which posed the problem of water accumulation and aeration. The idea to build a vertical pit was Guman’s learnt by trial and error. A vertical heap has three sides exposed to aeration, water seeps down, and earthworms chew upwards leaving rich compost below. When the food is finished, they crawl on to the adjacent heap. Today, his neighbours have imitated this technique and they recycle cow-dung and all organic wastes. In about a year’s time, Guman had enough compost to revitalize his small farm. As the soil became rich weeds also flourished which were promptly removed and fed to the earthworms. Thus, once a degraded patch of land that turned into muddy slippery slope during the monsoon was turned into stable, highly fertile garden.

3.3 Growing vegetables and cereals

Since 2002 onward, Guman has grown green chilli, cabbage, broccoli, pea, bitter gourd, sweet gourd, squash, radish, carrot, spinach, potato, tomato, okra, and cucumber as per the season and today he meets his household needs for vegetables from this garden.

At the time of my visit [fifth since 2001] the garden had growing stock of five cereals: rajma, mash [a local variety], moong, soya and rongi [also a local variety] in addition to many fruits and vegetables listed above.

Over the years Guman planted parsimmon, cherry, kiwi, picanut, sweet chestnut, pomegranate, queen’s apple, ordinary apple, peach and lemon. In 2005 he got his first crop of fruits.

The vegetables, cereals and fruits are so inter-planted that confuses the pests. He has also installed low-cost traps for insects and pests but the lush growth of chrysanthemum and marigold, however, was observed to be far better pest repellant. The external lights also act as pest repellants at night.

3.4 Other plants

In addition to the above-mentioned crops, there are about 50-60 varieties of aromatic, medicinal and decorative plants, too many to be listed here, that give a feeling of walking through a highly disorganized garden but each has a purpose, each nourishes the body and the mind, or protects those plants that nourish body and mind. Brahmi, a kind of surface creeper, is used in nearly all Ayurvedic medicines. It is here, growing vigorously on a 20’ x 1’ patch. So is aloe vera, growing in a discarded water tank.

3.5 Yield

2005 was the first year when Guman got his first yield of fruits [Table 1]. The yield of veggies is given in Table 2 and that of cereals in Table 3. For the purpose of comparison, the average ex-farm price range is also given along with the prices of these produce in Delhi market [from where I purchase my supplies]. I am summarizing the yields below:

 Fruits 2,795 to 3,303 Kgs
 Veggies 3,580 to 4,640 Kgs
 Cereals About 260 kgs

Guman has given me rough figures from what his household consumes every day, which includes his family of four plus the guests who stay at his house and eat there; and they are a plenty. The above figure comes to 6,635 kgs to 8,203 kgs of food per year from about 2,000 square metres of land. He also gets about 5 MT of convertible bio-mass to enrich his soil, excluding the converted human waste.

A hectare is 10,000 square metres. The above data implies that Guman is producing 33 to 41 metric tonnes of food equivalent per hectare, from land that was five years ago a degraded patch. Whilst the fruit production may double or triple as the trees mature, the production of veggies and cereals may remain the same. There is no need to further enhance yield by doing anything outlandish like the use of chemical fertilizers or GM seeds, or high tech knowledge. The basics are all there in the heads of traditional farmers and Mother Nature is always ready, willing and able to help the land return heaps of highly nutritious food.

3.6 Maintaining soil fertility

This sort of soil fertility needs regular importation of nutrients. It is important to remember that Guman’s vermicomposting pit uses “imported cow-dung” as a key ingredient and all ag-wastes like weeds, discarded roots, stems and leaves and kitchen waste are fed to the earthworms. 5 MT of biomass and 1.5 MT of cow-dung processed by earthworms into rich vermi-compost go back into the soil every year. That 1.5 MT of cow-dung is the “import” into the system.

It should be remembered that in our traditional farming system, cow-dung [and animal manure] was put back into the soil. Today, farmers can do better than that: they can recycle all ag-waste into rich vermi-compost and add about 40-50 friendly bacteria that are produced in the gizzard of the earthworm that further enrich the soil.

4. Basic questions still remain unanswered

Strictly speaking, Guman’s garden is not a “closed-system.” Ideally, a small farm/garden must not bring into its system any importation while the farm continues to give high yield, whereas Guman brings in seeds and cow dung. So, strictly speaking this garden has yet to be tested for sustainability: can it go on and on with its high yield without any importation of external input? At present I can’t answer this question.

The second question is, “Is the garden producing the maximum achievable nutrition per unit of food crop?” Even this question can’t be answered until we have analyzed the nutritive content over 12 months of all his food crops. Having said that, I hasten to add that there are researches that prove that naturally grown foods restore the naturally occurring nutrition in food crops while industrially grown foods cause substantial decline.

Putting the truth another way, there are conclusive evidences that prove that industrially grown foods are nutrient deficient although they may look very attractive, while naturally grown foods are richer in nutrients because they have rich taste. Given below are some evidences from US and European researchers, which I quote not because I am enamoured with them but the firms from these regions, who have the penchant for misleading our farmers, should also quote these before they sell their poisons to us, poor Indians, and also, the US and European farmers need to note these facts.

[i] The vitamins and minerals drain

The National Academy of Sciences [USA] has issued an alert that it takes twice as many vegetables to get the daily requirement of vitamin A as previously thought. Carrots and pumpkin are exempt from the caveat. Despite the apparent increase of vitamin A in carrots, most vegetables are losing their vitamins and minerals. Nearly half the calcium and vitamin A in broccoli, for example, have disappeared. [Table 1]

Table 1 Major losses in vitamins and minerals of four vegetables
Common vegetables Vitamin C Vitamin A Calcium Potassium Magnesium
Spinach -45% -17% +6.45% +18.72% -10%
Corn -41% -29% -33% -3.5% -22%
Beets -50% +90% No change -10% -8%
Collard greens -61% -41% -28% -51% -84%
Source: Life Extension Magazine, 2001, cover story; Researched by Alex Jack and findings discussed with USDA subsequently.

“Collards are not the greens they used to be. If one seeks minerals and vitamin A from them, the caveat is that the vitamin A content has fallen from 6500 IUs to 3800 IUs. Their potassium has dropped from 400 mg to 170 mg. Magnesium has fallen sharply-57 mg to 9. Cauliflower has lost almost half its vitamin C, along with its thiamin and riboflavin. Most of the calcium in pineapple is gone-from 17 mg (per 100 grams raw) to 7.”

The second important study quoted here is by Paul Bergner and findings were presented in his book, “The Healing Power of Minerals, Special Nutrients and Trace Elements” 1997, Prima Publishing, Rocklin. Table 2 summarizes his key findings. It shows that on average calcium loss is about 29%, Iron 32%, magnesium 21%, phosphorus 11% and potassium 6.4%. It essentially implies that one would have to eat substantially more vegetables to achieve the recommended daily average dosage than is normally recommended in nutritionists’ textbooks.

The third major study being quoted here is by Anne Marie-Meyer, 2003. Anne’s results are summarized in Table 3.

Table 3 Average ratio of mineral content and dry matter (new/old)
for vegetables and 20 fruits*
Ca Mg Fe Cu Na K P M.
Vegetable ratio 0.81* 0.65* 0.78 0.19* 0.57* 0.86 0.94 0.97
Fruit ratio 1.00 0.89* 0.68* 0.64* 0.90 0.80* 0.99 0.91

Her findings show a consistent decline of critical nutrients ranging from 19% to 97% in 20 popular fruits and vegetables. The study was conducted at Columbia University, USA.

Three longitudinal studies are going on in Denmark, the US and Britain and the results are due later this year to independently corroborate the above three findings. However, about 300-350 studies conducted in the last six years all consistently demonstrate loss of critical nutrients. Dr. Dr Donald Davis, et al, [Bio-communications Research Institute, Wichita, Kansas, The University of Texas, Austin, Texas] have made a serious, replicable analysis of
“Changes in USDA Food Composition data for 43 garden crops, 1950-1999” and their findings are most illuminating: we are actually eating junk food…food that is deficient in critical minerals and nutrients.

No such study has been commissioned in India as yet and it is time that India’s Agricultural scientists, instead of selling spurious products and technology of trans-national corporations, work diligently to assess the nutritive content of natural produce versus industrially produced foods. We grow food to nourish our body and mind, not merely to fill our belly as the bureaucrats believe. The root causes of poverty, hunger and malnutrition unfortunately are not the focus of Agriculture extension programme; they seek to brain-wash farmers into producing more, sell to the market, and earn cash to buy food for themselves. This is mass-annihilation strategy because even now 70% of our population depends on agriculture.

[ii] Alternative farming methods do work

However, it is worth pointing out that natural, traditional, farming has consistently shown higher nutritive content of foods grown. [Table 4]

Table 4. Average difference in nutrient levels
*Biodynamic, non-biodynamic and all organic crops compared to similar conventional crops
Biodynamic Other organic All organic
Nutrient % difference % difference % difference
Vitamin C +47.6% +11.9% +22.7%
Iron +33.9% +15.6% +17.2%
Calcium +07.4% +38.4% +30.8%
Phosphorus +06.6% +14.3% +12.5%
Sodium +20.3% +19.3% +19.6%
Potassium +07.9% +16.2% +14.1%
Magnesium +13.2% +28.3% +24.4%
Beta-carotene +14.0% -09.2% -00.3%
Nitrates -49.8% -30.9% -33.9%
Source: Virginia Worthington; “Nutrition and Biodynamics: Evidence for the Nutritional Superiority of Organic Crops; Biodynamics v.224, Jul/Aug 1999.

Dr Worthington compared the nutritive content of foods grown under conventional, organic and biodynamic management and found that the enhanced nutrition is significant. How soon farmers, especially rural household can transit to sustainable farming is, therefore, a moot question. But the transition has to occur. It is a compulsion; there is no choice now.

5. Taste is the simplest test of nutrition

Guman’s chillies can make you sweat, just as his cucumbers can bring fresh smell where they are sliced. The tomatoes are tangy, the spinach are tasty [from bitter to sweet], the bitter gourd awfully bitter. The grapes are sweet as grapes should be. The okra is soft, deep green and tasty as it should be. The squash so tasty that they reminded me of the squash that I used to eat in the 1960s. When you chop the onions they make your eyes water…painful. The garlic is potent, full of their inherent qualities; strong, full flavoured, and pungent. The cauliflower is rich in juice and tasty; the broccoli rich green and tasty. The lemon and other citrus fruits are so tangy that one can barely eat one-half. One can make paranthas wherein the flour is actually kneaded with spinach, cauli and broccoli. This is what we need: rich, highly nutritious food.

We don’t need tasteless tomato, cucumber, cauli, potato, chillies, etc. They may look beautiful in superstores but they don’t contain much nutrition. Industrially produced vegetables and fruits are as good as beautifully packaged wheat flour of multi-national corporations that are convenient to purchase but give us solid constipation and eventually all sorts of diseases, facts that have been kept away from consumers under wraps.

We need nutritious food. Until such time as we have independently corroborated evidence that naturally grown foods are more nutritious, let us just rely on time-tested validation that tasty foods are more nutritious. If your veggies do not taste good, simply pay less for them. Better still: do not buy tasteless vegetables no matter how beautiful they look.

Most importantly, as Guman shows, we have yet to discover the maximum sustainable threshold of yield and nutrition. In his innocuous way he has resolved a basic problem and raised serious questions on the dubious claims of the agriculture scientists, especially those who still ritually genuflect to MS Swaminathan, the spurious God of Green Revolution.

Arun Shrivastava is a management consultant.
He can be contacted at

Table 1 Status of fruit plants, yield, ex-farm price and cash equivalent if sold
Fruits Stock Average Yield Price [Range] Revenue Potential
Growing Producing Per tree [in Kg] Ex-farm [in Rs. Per kg] 2006 2010
Pears 20 15 100 to 125 15 to 20 22,500 52,500
Parsimmon 5 1 40 to 50 5 to 10 200 1,200
Apricot 0 4 10 to 12 10 to 12 400 400
Cherry 7 1 40 to 50 20 to 25 800 6,400
Kiwi 0 3 15 to 20 20 to 25 900 900
Grapes 7 2 70 to 80 10 to 15 1,400 6,300
Picanut 3 0 About 70 100 to 200 0 21,000
Sweet Chestnut 1 0 NA NA NA NA
Pomegranate 8 0 About 50 10 to 20 0 4,000
Queen's Apple 1 0 NA 30 to 40 NA NA
Apple 0 8 About 100 10 to 15 8,000 8,000
Peach 0 2 70 to 100 10 to 15 1,400 1,400
Lemon 3 2 25 to 30 2 to 3 100 250
Total 2795 to 3303 35,700 102,350
Table 2 Veggies cultivated, yield, ex-farm price and cash equivalent if sold
Vegetables Stock Average Yield Price [Range] Revenue Potential
Growing Producing Per season [in Kg] Ex-farm [in Rs. Per kg] 2006 2010
Green chilli 50 to 60 50 to 70 2,500 2,500
Cabbage 1500 to 2000 1 to 2 1,500 1,500
Broccoli 20 to 30 5 to 7 100 100
Pea 200 to 300 5 to 7 1,000 1,000
Bitter gourd 20 to 30 5 to 7 100 100
Sweet gourd 500 to 700 1 to 2 500 500
Squash About 50 2 to 3 100 100
Radish About 200 About 1 200 200
Carrot 40 to 50 3 to 4 120 120
Spinach all year round 200 to 250 2 to 3 400 400
Potato 200 to 250 2 to 3 400 400
Tomato 300 to 400 3 to 5 900 900
Okra 100 to 120 About 5 500 500
Cucumber About 200 3 to 5 600 600
Total 3580-4640 8,920 8,920
Table 3 Cultivation of cereals, yield, ex-farm price and cash equivalent if sold
Cereals Average Yield Price [Range] Revenue Potential
Per season [in Kg] Ex-farm [in Rs.] 2006 2010
Rajma About 100 20 to 25 2,000 2,000
Mash About 50 20 to 25 1,000 1,000
Moong About 30 20 to 25 600 600
Soya About 30 20 to 25 600 600
Rongi About 50 20 to 25 1,000 1,000
Total About 260 5,200 5,200

Note: All 2010 prices on the assumption that yield and prices remain constant

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