While a lot of research has strengthened the case for spreading natural farming, a practical factor which has hindered its spread in India is that several farmers find it difficult to take up production of organic manures and pest-repellants for self-use, even though all the raw materials are available right within their home or close to them. In the most commonly used natural farming practices in India, organic soil nutrients (solid and liquid) are made using cow dung and cow urine with some jaggery and gram flour thrown in, these being mixed and stored for a certain number of days while organic soil-repellants are generally prepared in the form of concentrated sprays based on leaves of certain plants which are known to keep away pests. Ideally a natural farmer would be preparing this for self-use, but many find this difficult and so this becomes an inhibiting factor.

One way of overcoming this is for some farmers within the village to assume the role of ‘natural farming entrepreneurs’ by taking up production of organic nutrients and pest-repellants on a scale much higher than their own requirements so that this can be sold to other farmers of this village who need this in ready-made form.

An effort to spread natural farming based in Tikamgarh district (MP) which is fast spreading to several other districts of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh and some other places as well has placed a lot of faith in several such natural farming entrepreneurs who are known for their deep commitment to natural farming. This effort, which involves Self-Reliant Initiatives through Joint Action (SRIJAN) and Bundelkhand Initiative for Water, Agriculture and Livelihoods ( BIWAL), has set up Bio-Resource Centers with the help of such natural farming entrepreneurs ( more commonly called Prakriti Shiksha Kendra or natural farming center by villagers) in several villages.

Recently I visited one such center in Lidhaura Tal village which is managed by a very remarkable natural farming entrepreneur named Balchand Aharwal. Near the entrance there is a cow shed where the urine flows in such a way that it gets collected in a tank. On the other side there are several farming tools like power tillers and sprayers which can be hired on daily basis. Then the various forms of organic nutrients made are displayed along with a rate list. A quick calculation reveals that even after considering that a higher quantity of organic nutrients may be required by a farmer for per acre use compared to chemical fertilizers, the cost of the organic nutrient works out to about one-third. In the case of the organic pest-repellant the cost is much, much lesser compared to various chemical pesticides in use. This includes a reasonable return for the entrepreneur. Thus the farmers who opt for organic soil nutrients save a lot of money, get sustainable benefits, protect environment, and what is more, whatever little money they spend on this remains within his village. Although this is new work, Balchand has sold Rs. 60,000 worth of these organic soil nutrients and organic pest-repellants already. What is more, if the government subsidizes these much more useful organic nutrients to the same or greater extent than chemical fertilizers, then of course both farmers and farming entrepreneurs can benefit significantly from this, and this work can progress even more.

Further ahead traditional seeds of diverse varieties collected from in and around the village are stored. Then there is a newly constructed room for conducting training in natural farming. Beyond this there are fields of natural farming of food grains and legumes, as well as vegetable garden and orchard.

Such a center can thus become a central point for learning about natural farming as well as for getting the necessary inputs for this. An additional point made by a senior activist was that as the number of abandoned cattle roaming around is very high in Bundelkhand region, it should be easy to get some of them for this purpose of getting soil-nutrients, whether by an individual farmer or a center, while also taking care of them.

In this entire effort the lead role has been given to women farmers and special attention is given to ensure adequate representation to those from weaker sections. Women farmers have been found to be quite receptive to natural farming as they find these to be a means of reducing costs and increasing self-reliance. At a time when people are emerging from such difficult times as those of COVID and lockdowns, there is likely to be even more inclination for efforts to reduce costs.

These efforts are being strengthened at the level of farmer producer organizations as well as by more articulate rural  women like Varsha Patel, who has emerged as the CEO of the Ken-Betwa farmer producer organization. She says—Awareness of health related and other benefits of natural farming is increasing and hence there is increased acceptability of natural farming among women. The fact that here the entire effort including FPO and self-help groups is largely a woman-led effort makes it all the more relevant as a significant force of social change as well.

Another factor which makes these efforts more valuable for present times is that these contribute in important ways to climate change adaptation as well as mitigation, apart from contributing to reducing the economic crisis as well as indebtedness of farmers in more obvious ways.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food, Man over Machine and Planet in Peril.

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