From the soil, to the soil

From the soil, to the soil

A rain-fed farm near Nelamangala has incorporated tree-based agriculture and successfully proved that tree-based farming, if practised in at least one patch of the land, will help farmers meet their food needs. Anitha Pailoor visits the farm and comes back impressed

I wanted to convince myself that rain-fed farms need not bear a barren look in summer,” says N R Shetty, glancing through the plain fields that surround his forest farm Nava Nandana. Since the harvest is done, finger millet fields in Marasarahalli near Nelamangala in Bangalore Rural district have become inert, echoing the mood of farmers. This farm, a few hundred metres away from the village, exhibits a contrast tendency. “We always wanted to evolve a model, which farmers can easily adapt. Since we moved here, we have been working towards it.” 

N R Shetty (71) and K V Saraswathi (66) worked as engineers with Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited. Even before they retired from office, they had a strong inclination towards agriculture. Their association with Sahaja Samruddha triggered their interest in farming. Soon after retirement, they wanted to plunge into another profession which connected them with nature. N R Shetty had a farming background. But agriculture was totally new to Saraswathi.

They bought 0.5 hectare land sans any water resources in 2004. “Our first challenge was to enhance soil fertility that had been eroded over decades. Lessons from our exposure trips proved useful,” says N R Shetty.  Before taking up agriculture, they had travelled extensively for two years across Karnataka to understand the basics of hands-on farming. Interactions with farmers like Dr Narayana Reddy, Maragondanahalli Sadashivaiah, Narasimha Reddy and Lingamadaiah helped to foster their idea. They took practical guidance of Devanahalli Ramesh during the initial days. 

“We did not follow any suggestion blindly. I had started experimenting with farming in my plot in Bangalore a couple of years before we shifted here,” recalls N R Shetty. 

Soil restoration

Fencing and construction of water harvesting models were their first priority. They dug trenches across the plot to prevent soil erosion. This also ensured water percolation. They also dug a farm pond at the lower end of the farm. All the water percolates into the soil. 

There was not even a single tree when they bought the land. Now the number has crossed 300. “Each plant is handpicked,” says Saraswathi. Their visit to several nurseries and organic farms helped them select the best plant in each variety. When N R Shetty explains each plant’s special features, he doesn’t forget to mention its source. “I want to spread useful information,” he says. 

Weeks before the arrival of monsoon, pits of two feet depth and two feet width were dug, manure was put in and the pit was loosely sealed with soil. During rainy season, saplings were planted in the pit. Horticulture plants were irrigated using mud pots for two years, till the root zone was established. 

They had to buy farmyard manure for two years. The method of ring trench biomass was followed, where biomass is filled in the shallow trench that encircles the plant. The farm has six sections with different crop combinations. Each section is spread in eight gunta. First section has about 25 fruit varieties including grapes, fig, musambi and pannerale. The second is a vegetable plot. The third one has drumstick and sapota.

Jamun and jackfruit cover the fourth segment. The fifth portion with gooseberry and seetaphal is dedicated to Masanobu Fukuoka. About 15 varieties of mango form the sixth division. About 20 varieties of plants enclose the land, forming a live fence. The outer row which is just next to the barbed wire fence has timber plants silver oak, casuarina and teak. “They provide long-term financial security,” says N R Shetty.

The process

The six feet gap between each plant is covered by fence species like jatropa, agave and adusoge (Adhatoda zeylanica). The inner row of the live fence comprises mostly of forest species including three varieties of neem, soap nut, rain tree, seemaruba, forest fire and ashoka. Medicinal plants are grown near the farm pond. 

“In the last couple of years, birds have helped us by dispersing seeds,” he says.Within two years, they were growing finger millet and pulses during monsoon. These crops meet their needs while making the soil porous. “We are practising legume culture intensively. It has helped in maintaining moisture for long,” says Saraswathi. 

Plant waste is mulched at the base of the plant. Agro waste deposited in the trenches dug at regular intervals provide nutrients to spreading roots. Shetty has tried an innovative method by keeping water in mud pots with lids closed. He feels that the moisture generated from the pot is useful for the roots while the water used is minimum. “I took a leaf out of pioneer organic farmer Bharama Gouda’s experience,” says N R Shetty.

To enhance microbial activities, he has experimented with Panchagavya and bio-digester during monsoon. Two models of bio-digester appropriate for marginal farmers is set up in the farm. “All these methods regenerate soil and enhance plant nutrition and production,” he says. 

Initially, they invested Rs 1.5 lakh for fencing, hiring an excavator, saplings and planting work. From 2006, the farm is self-sufficient in terms of inputs and also labour. “Since there is no recurring cost, whatever we get is profit. We are slowly moving towards natural farming advocated by Fukuoka. Our dependency on market is nil during monsoon. In summer, however, we buy vegetables from outside since water is more precious for us than vegetables,” says Saraswathi. “Good health and cheerful mind is the most important reward from farming,” Shetty adds.

Lifestyle changes

They have successfully faced the challenge of living entirely on rainwater. “To my greatest surprise, almost all plants have survived even during the drought season,” exclaims Shetty. They live in a single bed-room farm house. An underground tank of about 15,000 litre capacity stores rain water filtered systematically using pop-filter designed by Tata Institute. Six sintex tanks (total 5,000 litre) are also used. This water is sufficient for all their needs, throughout the year. 

“We manage it that way. Whether it is for plant or human use, we ensure that we use minimal water. Using the Gandhi toilet is one such effort,” says Saraswathi. 

The couple lives in the farm house for more than 20 days a month. Saraswathi has also formed a group of organic farmers in the area and helps them market their produce in the city. 

“Our lifestyle has brought us near to the villagers. They see a connection, share their agonies,” they say. N R Shetty is firm that tree-based farming, if practised in at least one patch of the land, will help farmers meet their food needs. 

“The concept of nutrition has disappeared in the striking red of tomato and long-lasting potato. Our objective is to set a model for marginal farmers to achieve food security as they march towards economical well-being,” they say.

N R Shetty can be contacted on 9480283199

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