What is the role of an agriculturist in society? Why is this occupation looked at with scorn and contempt? That's the question haunting Mr. Thilagar. He was narrating an incident that happened years ago, an incident that left a lasting impression. Reading a notice pasted at the entrance to a bank about loans being disbursed to the villagers for purchase of two-wheelers, he walked in to meet the manager of the bank to get specific details. He was absolutely shocked when the bank manager told him that this scheme may not be appropriate for him because he was only a farmer !!. He walked out of the bank without arguing or further discussion.
The only thought that kept coming back to him was if farmers decide not to give their produce to bankers, would the bankers survive eating the currency notes and all their piled up files and folders!! Even though his profession is treated with scant respect he is very proud to be a farmer. Mr.Thilagar says, I respect my profession because I know its true worth, and to me that's what matters. The food that I produce keeps people healthy and there is nothing nobler than being able to satiate a persons hunger.
Mr.Thilagar is a practising organic farmer in Nemmeli village of Sirkazhi Taluk in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu. Agriculture is his family occupation and also the primary source of income for his family. He owns nine acres of land in the village and cultivates paddy, black gram and green gram. He has always been proud to call himself a farmer and now, he is even more proud to call himself an organic farmer.
The urge to experiment with alternate/sustainable methods of food production started as early as 2002, and from then on, gradually, he started to reduce the use of chemical inputs in his farm. In the absence of any continuous guidance or mentoring to shift to organic agriculture practices, he could not muster enough courage to completely stop the use of chemicals because agriculture was the only source of income for the family.
The actual transition from chemical agriculture to organic agriculture started in 2006 when he joined the farmers' group working with CIKS. Since then he has been an ardent supporter of the organic farming movement and actively participates in all the training programs and meetings.
Mr.Thilagar does not use chemicals on his entire farm but only seven acres is included in the organic certification program. The remaining two acres though managed organically can not be included for certification due to problems of seepage and drift - it is low lying and surrounded by conventionally managed fields.
That Mr.Thilagar is an ardent lover of plants, animals and nature is clearly evident as one walks with him through his fields. There are several components in the farm, and he is filled with a sense of achievement and pride as he explains the workings of each component and how they compliment one another. His farm is a typical example of an integrated farm.
It is interesting to know how he diversified and included the different components in the farm. All the paddy fields irrigated with water from a newly dug bore well completely died out. On testing the water, it was found to be brackish. Having invested so much in the bore well and not being able to use it seemed such a waste. That's when the idea of digging a pond and storing the water there for a few days before irrigating the fields came up. Through a subsidy from the agriculture department, a pond 40'X60'X6' was dug and filled with water from the bore well. After a few days the water was pumped out to the paddy fields and the improvisation worked.
Having a water body within the farm seemed an ideal situation to rear fish and that's how pisciculture started. He now rears 5 different kinds of fish based on feeding habits and the feeding strata they occupy and gets a decent income from this activity. True spirit of resilience and the determination to turn every block/setback into an opportunity is the hallmark of this farmer.
There are native breeds of cows and goats in the farm, the dung and droppings of which are fed into a biogas plant. The slurry from the biogas plant which was earlier taken to the fields is now being let into the pond, which not only enriches the water but also provides nourishment for the fish growing there. He is in the process of integrating poultry into this system. By creating self replicating cycles within the system there is efficient use of resources as well as time and energy.
The farm also has a small vegetable garden where a whole range of seasonal vegetables are grown, mainly for home consumption, any excess if of course marketed. Also grown in the farm are several fruit trees including mango, guava, sapota, pomegranate, moringa, coconut, goose berry, banana, papaya and lime. The bunds of the pond are planted to fodder grass, making effective use of space and serving two functions bank stabilization and fodder production. There are also several other multi-purpose tree species like teak, gliricidia, leucaena, neem growing in the farm. Plants like calotropis, adathoda, lantana, vitex that are used for pest and disease control are also grown in the farm along the boundaries. The careful selection of species - both plant and animal, the effective utilization of space and resources and efficient recycling processes has not only added stability and resilience to the system, but has also helped in increasing farm income.
Over the years, with continued use of organic manures, vermicompost, biofertilizers, panchagavya and practice of green manuring, mulching, etc Mr.Thilagar sees a definite improvement in the soil quality in the farm as is evident from the improved crop production. His input costs have been progressively declining as most of the inputs required for agriculture like seeds, soil fertility management inputs, inputs for pest and disease control are all being produced within the farm itself. In addition to the environmental benefits that accrue through the practice of organic agriculture, there is overall improvement in the food, health and livelihood security as well.
The larger issues:
Mr.Thilagar is aware about the politics of seed - how the multi national seed industry is trying to sabotage the basic rights of farmers and endangering food security of millions of people. He fails to understand the rationale for research on transgenic crops and is troubled by the fact that governments and research institutions spend crores of tax payer's money on such research. He strongly believes that locally adapted traditional varieties of seeds are the true wealth of a farmer and that it is every farmer's duty to conserve as many of these traditional varieties as possible. In his farm he grows four different traditional varieties of paddy Seeraga samba, Mappillai samba , Thanga samba and Thooyamalli as part of the seed conservation program. How ever, for commercial cultivation he grows white ponni, because there is very little market demand for traditional varieties. He feels that exploring avenues for marketing of traditional varieties would play a significant and positive role in the conservation efforts.
Markets, he says, also play a very significant role in encouraging more farmers to take up organic farming. The fear of decreased yields during the transition phase is a major block. If this could be offset with better prices for organic produce, more farmers would switch to organic agriculture practices. Though, he was quick to point out that it might also encourage fly-by-night operators' to completely sabotage the movement. He feels that registering for formal organic certification is the way out of this situation as certification provides the necessary checks and safe guards.
Mr.Thilagar expresses deep interest not only in the cultivation of crops organically, he is extremely interested and vocal about the larger issues that affect the agriculture sector. In his opinion, governments, large private and public sector undertakings that influence agriculture development must focus their attention on improving infrastructure, establishing processing facilities, improve markets and marketing linkages and ensure that adequate credit facilities are available to farmers.
He is very worried about the declining interest in agriculture among the youth and feels that unless steps to attract them are put in place, agriculture will be in crisis. Even in his own family, he points out that his son is not very keen on them continuing with agriculture. His son has moved to a city and is working there with a reputed company, visiting them when ever his work schedule permits. How ever, Mr.Thilagar is sure that he will continue with farming as long as he can, luckily for him, his wife is very supportive and takes an active interest in all his farming activities.
Mr.Thilagar is filled with questions about farmers and their issues. He wonders why after so many years of independence and so many successive governments (all supposedly working for the welfare of farmers) the same problems still exist?
Why do producers of food go to bed without food? Why are they living under constant poverty? Why are they driven to commit suicide? Aren't their lives valuable? Who is responsible for this? He points out that farmers are the most optimistic people in the world - in spite of having to live with so many uncertainties the weather, pests, diseases, markets - they continue to live in hope of a bumper harvest. He shudders to think of a day when farmers would quit farming because it is a losing proposition, a failing business. What would happen then? Do we need to wait till such a situation presents itself, before we start taking action?
Very valid questions indeed, coming from a farmer who takes pride in being a farmer. We may not have answers for all these questions right now, but it certainly is time we started looking for answers, paying more attention to farmers needs and providing them with the right environment for their equal development.
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