Driven by a great sense of respect towards and love of nature, Harjant Singh, a 42-year-old farmer from Rai-ke-kalan village (Sangat block in Bathinda district) chose to go organic in 2002. He has 35 acres of land on which he grows cotton, wheat, cattle fodder, greengram, etc. He recalls that between 1985 and 2000, there was intensive use of chemicals on his farm. However, he found that the costs were increasing constantly while the quality of produce was decreasing, even as the pest problem could not be controlled.
Harjant Singh started appreciating the fact that while his gross income is high, his costs were increasing constantly and he was left with very little at the end of the season. He began to think seriously about ways out of the trap he had fallen into. He tried out kinnu (a fruit) nursery-raising, flower and vegetable cultivation and so on. However, he found out soon enough that he was using more pesticides than ever.
In the name of diversification, many farmers in his village shifted to soybean cultivation but that did not help either. There was no market support for them. "The vicious circle did not get broken," Harjant Singh observes. Around that time, a friend of his from Doomwali, Kuljeet Singh Sidhu brought him a newspaper clipping which mentioned that four villages in Rajasthan have gone organic, with support from the Agricultural University there. He went visited these villages. Though he found that the organic farming being done was being only on small scale, it inspired him to explore some more.
• Organic takes hold in Rajasthan
• Meet on Punjab enviro-health crisis
• Poison in their veins Harjant Singh then went to the farm of Chowdhary Krishnakumar Jhakhar in Rajasthan. Though Jhakhar was away on that day, Harjant Singh decided to wait a whole day for him to come back. He was very happy to have done so. He understood that to be organic, one of the first pre-requisites is to possess organic seed. Jhakhar himself had 19 varieties of traditional wheat and Singh bought two varieties for five thousand rupees. With this, he began his organic farming.
That year, he raised organic wheat on six acres. Towards the end of the season, the crop started becoming yellow during heavy fog. Singh panicked and ran around for some advice. Jhakhar took some time off and visited him around this time. He advised Harjant Singh to spray some cow urine and cow dung solution. It worked wonders. Harjant's conviction in this kind of farming grew.
Today, Harjant Singh grows traditional cotton on 10 acres of his land. He also grows fodder crops on 2.5 acres of land. On the remaining land, he grows a mix of green manure crops like sunhemp, greengram, blackgram etc. He has been practicing crop rotation amongst his different plots. In his cotton field, there are bird perches arranged and he finds that many birds have made their nests in his fields.
In the beginning, he found that his yields in wheat were almost half his earlier yields. The market prices were low too. He decided to advertise his produce and put out pamphlets in Bathinda and Giddarbaha newspapers, which urged consumers to eat organic and protect their health. He soon found a set of committed consumers, who buy from him on the basis of trust.
Harjant Singh uses a variety of natural products like neem oil, pongamia, ash, cow urine and cow dung, vermi-compost etc., to replace chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Many of these are being bought from dealers right now.
In the case of cotton, he has not been maintaining any accounts about his costs and returns. "It is important to allow the farm to stabilize and revive. I do not want to start calculating profits right now and would like to focus on reviving my land," he says. "There is no other way out. How much can a person run? Punjab is very tired now, with no stamina left. Organic is the only way out," he adds.
Harjant Singh hopes that he can make his farm look good for others to emulate. Earlier, his neighbours used to think he was mad. Now, they are changing and want to learn from him. "I want nature to be protected. I feel good when I eat tasty, nutritious food and when I can feed others as well," he says. Singh says his hope is that Punjabi farmers will change their agricultural practices at least when it comes to producing something for their own households.
For Harjant Singh, the message of organic agriculture comes from his religion too. "Our Gurus have always talked about preserving millions of life forms. We cannot afford to upset the natural balance, just like we cannot afford to upset our body's balance," he says. He urges that farmers need to walk on the path that Gurus have shown and revert to practicing human values instead of destructive demonic values.
Harjant Singh's wife Veerpal is fully supportive of his efforts and feels that some reduction in yields is not as important. "This is better for the health of the family and I feel that our health has really improved," she says.
Hartej Singh of Mehtagaon in Bathinda district is emphatic that organic farming on cotton is definitely more profitable than conventional chemical farming. He has been farming for 45 years now and has always felt a great attraction towards agriculture. On his 12 acres of land, he grows various crops like cotton, wheat, mustard and vegetables. For the past four years, he has given up the use of chemicals on 4 acres of his land where he grows cotton. He chose to go organic on it because it has a road on two sides and does not get contaminated with the chemicals used by his neighbours. But this year, he had left 2 more acres of his land fallow because he wants to try out organic wheat for the first time in the rabi season.
In 2002 Kharif, Hartej Singh decided to grow his cotton without fertilizers and pesticides. "Even with a lot of pesticides, there were no yields on cotton. I used to read in the newspapers that cotton can be grown without pesticides and that there are many farmers trying it out across the country," he says. He adds that in 1986, he got very fed up with pesticides and wanted to become an organic farmer. However, he was not successful in that attempt as he was not very equipped with knowledge about alternatives. "Now, it is different," he says.
All the reports that he used to read about pesticides ending up in our food, milk, the environment, in our land and air and even in mother's breast milk made Hartej Singh decide that he has to give up chemicals in his farming. He decided to first transform his cotton farm. His yields during the years of chemical pesticide use were completely cancelled out given his investment on pesticides. In the first year that he turned organic, he got 2 ½ quintals per acre with a desi variety [F1378]. In the second year, it grew to 4 quintals. Last year, the yield went up to 5 quintals. His investments, meanwhile, are coming down drastically. He used to build up annual debts of around 12000 to 16000 rupees in the chemical farming days, he remembers. "Now I am free of debt and pesticides," he says, smiling. He had developed slowly a system which has internalised all the inputs. His seed for the next season is farm-saved. Just on not spending on pesticides, he estimates a savings of around Rs 6000 per acre.
He points out that there is no technical support available for his kind of farming. He took advice mostly from a newspaper whenever they ran articles on organic farming. He has made a file of these clippings and keeps referring to these as and when needed. "I did not ask for advice from any agriculture expert because I was afraid that they would definitely suggest one or two pesticide sprays for any problem!" quips the farmer.
Hartej Singh says that he would now like to tell other farmers that they will not be able to solve their economic problems with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. "The only economic solution that farmers can ever find - since Punjabi farmers are very interested in profits from their agriculture - is that you have to cut down your cost of cultivation drastically. That is possible only if you go organic," he points out. He advises fellow farmers to take it one step forward at a time as his own incremental but definite progress demonstrates.
In village Aspala of Muktsar district, Pritpal Singh and his brother Tejinder Singh have turned organic two years ago. Their 107 acres farm called "Giani Farm" has been converted into an organic farm that grows rice, cotton, wheat, medicinal herbs and so on. However, with lack of support during the transition period and for markets for their produce, they are already ready to give up. "We were able to withstand the losses only because we are big farmers. There is no support available from the government either with regard to technical advice or for markets for our produce. We have not been able to find many consumers for our produce though everybody vouches for the better taste of our products."
While in the case of pesticides they found that organic farming is cheaper, when it comes to replacing chemical weedicides with manual labour, costs have shot up. Reviving the fertility of their land through organic means is also proving to be a slower process than they had anticipated. Dealers like Pardeep Garg of Gidderbaha have huge vermi-compost production units from where they supply to farmers. Garg's shop stocks several organic products, including imported products, for farmers.
In the end, Giani farms found that the cost of production is increasing even with a shift to organic (some capital investments have also been made on compost sheds and so on), while the better quality of their produce is not being rewarded by appropriate markets. "There is no doubt that organic is better in many ways. The food tastes better. Even the fuel consumed to cook some organic produce is lower and the food lasts longer without getting spoilt," says Tejinder Singh. However, consumers should learn to appreciate these aspects of organic foods, he feels.
Their experience shows what is well-established elsewhere - that yields might decrease initially, but as soil fertility is restored, they start increasing. In the case of wheat for instance, the normal yields from chemical cultivation are around 18-22 quintals. In the case of Giani Farms, in the first year of organic cultivation, yields fell down to 8-9 quintals per acre. In the second year, they increased to 13 quintals per acre. In the third year, they touched an average of 16 quintals per acre.
However, the two brothers are already impatient with this slow transition. They also regret the decision to switch their entire farm to organic cultivation in one go and feel that they should have done it incrementally. They say that they decided to go organic in the first instance because several people in Delhi promised them that they would pay twice the price we usually get. "However, they did not meet the promise," lament the brothers. "We were promised of export markets too. While smaller organic farmers can sell their products here and there, for big farmers like us, finding stable markets is an important issue," they say, pointing out another dimension. The brothers say they they have given chemical-free samples to many buyers but the prices that they have been offered are very low.
There are still other farmers to learn from - including the legislator from Gidderbaha, Manpreet Badal, who reports only profits from his kinnu plantations. He has a dedicated crew of workers and a truck whose only work all around the year is to locate organic compost points, procure such compost and apply it to the farm. Over the years, Badal had slowly been trying to replace chemical fertilizers in this manner and he has reached a stage where he has almost completely eliminated their use.
Current enviro-health crisis
The experiences of some of Punjab's farmers are leading edge of the push for change, even as the state is facing a pesticides linked environmental health crisis of great magnitude. I met these farmers and dealers after the environmental health workshop in Badal village in September this year.
Alarming reports have been emerging of pesticides-related cancers and other problems from different parts in the Malwa belt of the state, known for its large cotton cultivation. Manpreet Badal (the MLA) in Muktsar district reports that he has met more than 400 cancer cases in the past one year in his constituency alone. As part of reaching out to his constituency members, he routinely attends funeral functions and of late, he had begun noting down the cancer deaths that he is coming across and is astounded by the fact that every third or fourth funeral that he attends seems to be a cancer death. Adesh Cancer Hospital in Muktsar town has similar staggering numbers to report - 1400 cases of cancer that have come to them for treatment in the last one year.
Whether it is reproductive health problems or cancers, women seem to be the worst affected. A drive around the cotton belt of Punjab also shows something else unusual - the number of infertility treatment clinics and hospitals strikes you immediately. Informal discussions with women in some villages reveal that there are many spontaneous abortions that young women are experiencing. The magnitude of the problem is not clear and the concerned government departments do not appear to be paying any attention.
The reasons for shifting to organic agriculture seem to be varied between different farmers -- concern for nature, religious underpinnings, frustration with chemical agriculture, improved economic prospects in terms of net income and so on. On the one hand, there is the crisis of cancers and other environmental health problems and on the other, organic farmers are trying to convince the Punjab Agriculture University scientists that their experiences are worth validating and being supported. But given the enterprising and ready-to-learn nature of Punjabi farmers, these scattered successes hold a great ray of hope for others.
From an analysis of these farmers' experiences, the following points emerge:
1. The transition to organic agriculture for farmers in Punjab might take a couple of years more than what it would in other states. This is especially so where the land has been overloaded with chemical fertilizers in certain belts of Punjab.
2. It is very important that farmers in general, and Punjabi farmers in particular, have to learn to calculate in terms of net incomes and not just in terms of yields (which was a Green Revolution philosophy). A large component of increasing net incomes comes from reducing the cost of cultivation.
3. When it comes to most large farmers of the state, even an incremental shift to organic cultivation, with one crop at a time, or one plot at a time would also be a welcome move.
4. Farmers networking together in an association would go a long way in farmer-to-farmer extension support. This would not only help them draw inspiration from each other, but disseminate individual knowledge to many others, without each farmer having to re-invent the wheel. The NGO Kheti Virasat Mission is in the process of locating organic farmers and bringing them into a loose network.
5. Punjab's farmers must look into Participatory Group Guarantee Systems and farmer-consumer cooperatives. This will save the farmers from being burdened by expensive certification systems and external control with standards for organic farming. There are lessons to be learnt from other states such as Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamilnadu.
6. In a state which has numerous reports of many pesticide-related health problems, building consumer awareness on safe food would be a win-win situation for both consumers and farmers.