Organic route to success

Organic route  to success

Samro Ugen Paljor,  37-year-old farmer from Heegyathang village in North Sikkim, is a happy man. He is content that his efforts are bearing fruit and he is reaping rich dividends. Paljor owns about four hectares in the hilly region and cultivates big cardamom which is a speciality of the region. 

“I have planted 4,000 cardamom plants in about one hectare and get a yield of 300 kg of the much-sought-after spice,” Paljor told Deccan Herald. But the difficult terrain had forced him to restrict his farm to one hectare. “Using tractors is impossible in terraced land. I have applied for a power tiller from the government, once I get it my income will increase,” said Paljor, who took part in the recent exhibition of organic products in Saramsa Garden near Gangtok. He is one of the beneficiaries of organic farming in the state.

 In his late fifties, Man Bahadur Subba smile hides his wrinkles as he shares his experiments with organic farming. He grows vegetables, spices and bamboo on his eight hectares in west Sikkim. In the early 1980s, Subba recalled that the government gave subsidised urea and DAP to farmers that increased farm output manifold. But it also took toll on the quality of soil. 

 However, with the shift to organic farming, Subba has been using a mix of cow urine and leaves of a local tree to produce pesticides. “These are equally effective and we have not had any problems so far,” said Subba, who had put up a stall at the exhibition.

Maya Pradhan gets fresh vegetables daily from Jaubari village in south Sikkim to the state capital Gangtok. She is part of the Manjoshree self help group (SHG) that assists farmers sell their produce in the newly opened Sikkim Organic Market in Gangtok.   There were a few customers at the market on the early mid-January morning. But, that did not dampen the spirits of the 32-year-old Pradhan. “It has been only a week and sales would definitely pick up as the word spreads,” she said.

The organic market has 18 spacious stalls where farmers can directly sell their produce to consumers. SHGs from nearby villages have been selling locally grown varieties of rice, rajma, maize, tender bamboo shoots, pickles besides fresh vegetables at the market that has been set up in the central business district of the city.       

The tiny state of Sikkim nestled in the Himalayan ranges appears to have been quick in identifying the potential of the market for organic food which came in vogue after reports of traces of pesticides and fertilisers making their way into food grains and vegetables hit the headlines at regular intervals.

From its gorgeous valleys and terraced fields, Sikkim has achieved the unique distinction of becoming the first state in the country to embrace organic farming by completely banishing chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

A few days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi handed over two commendation certificates for completing the journey towards total organic farming that Sikkim had embarked in 2003.

A government report last year had showed a two-fold increase in the number of samples having pesticides above the permitted maximum residue level in vegetables, fruits, meat and spices in the past seven years. It is not surprising that niche organic produce has already made inroads in metropolitan cities where the well-heeled families either cultivate their own veggies or are known to source it from dedicated farms nearby.

Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling has pegged the global market for organic food at USD 72 billion and eyes exports of ginger, cardamom, turmeric, buckwheat, soybean and orchids, the exotic flower of which the state alone boasts of 557 varieties.
 
Spread across 7,096 sq km between Bhutan and Nepal, Sikkim has 75,000 hectares of cultivable area that was transformed as per the policies of the National Programme for Organic Production, meant to promote organic farming. This form of agriculture typically avoids the use of pesticides, fertilisers, genetically modified crops, and other artificial inputs. Instead, farmers use natural alternatives such as green manure and compost.

But what prompted Sikkim to take the giant stride to organic farming. According to the chief minister, farmers rely on rainfall for agriculture in the hilly state, where terraced farms are ubiquitous. Faced with the bane of low productivity, the government decided to add high value to the low volume crops by going organic.

With limited cultivable land and the aim to preserve it, Sikkim embraced organic farming in 2003. Unlike chemical fertilisers and pesticides, organic farming relies of bio-fertilisers to protect crop from pest attacks and diseases. The Sikkim government has invested heavily in producing organic seed, feed and manure based on indigenous traditional knowledge.
The local traditions of using available material such as cow dung, cow urine, leaves and biomass, farm waste, vermin waste have been weaved in with the Organic Mission.

“Farmers in the hills have developed a system of integrated farming where crops are grown and animals are reared together and are interdependent on each other supplementing income,” Khorlo Bhutia, Secretary in the Food Security and Agriculture Development Department, Sikkim, told Deccan Herald.    

Bhutia said since the farmers had not given up rearing of animals for dung, milk and ploughing, use of fertiliser was as low as seven kg per hectare. “We relied more on traditional bio-manure, which helped us in our journey towards becoming 100 per cent organic,” he said.

The Sikkim government has also inaugurated a dedicated market where organic farmers can sell their produce directly to customers. However, some experts feel that organic farms could be prone to bacterial contamination from farm manure, which is usually produced from cow dung.  

 Experts also cite a 2012 study carried out by Stanford University that found little evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives.

Though India has the largest number of organic producers, its share in the global market is a fraction mainly due to the small land holdings of farmers.

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