Building Farm Resilience through Natural Farming – Reflections from Field


Natural farming being recognised as an important pathway for achieving sustainable development goals, a study was undertaken to understand the potential of natural farming as a sustainable agricultural model. The field assessment revealed that natural farming systems contribute highly to the environmental/ecological dimensions of sustainability of farmers while there is a clear trade-off on the economic dimension. The study recommends a multi-pronged approach that adopts strategic interventions on the institutional, governance and marketing aspects for natural farming to be promoted as a new paradigm for inclusive agricultural growth, at scale.


 The word sustainable agriculture has been defined from diverse vantage points by various stakeholders, and as a result, there are different kinds of systems and practices promoted as sustainable agriculture with claims of building  resilience of farming systems (LEISA, Agroecology, Permaculture, Natural farming etc.). Agriculture being human driven, the concept of resilience in agriculture has put the farmer at the center of the discourses on sustainability of production systems. Hence, resilience in agriculture has been investigated in the light of farmers being part of urban, socio-ecological, and agrarian systems.

The natural farming system prevalent in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka is one such agrarian system, that is gaining popularity, as a model of sustainable agriculture that has principles of resilience built into it. These farming systems are based on ecological principles but are not prescriptive in nature. Moreover, they are centered on the synergistic relationship between people and nature and have a strong social movement emphasis.

Natural farming system aims (i) to end dependence on external synthetic inputs and agricultural credit, (ii) improve soil condition, (iii) source inputs from local resources, (iv) emphasise conservation of functional biodiversity, (v) reduce reliance on irrigation and (vi) conserve soil moisture.  Accordingly, at the core, the natural farming practices are (i) seed treatment using a slurry of cow dung and cows’ urine (Bijamrit) (ii) application of in-situ culture of water, cow manure and urine from indigenous cattle, unrefined cane sugar, legume flour and uncontaminated/virgin soil, to introduce local soil microbiota (Jivamrita) (iii) Acchadana: Live, soil and straw mulching – to conserve soil moisture and (iv) Whapasa: Improving soil aeration – to build soil humus. The fields are designed using the ‘five-layer multi-crop’ model. Unique to this practice is the use of cow dung and urine of indigenous cows, which is the primary ingredient in inputs in natural farming. Thus, the goals and processes of natural farming are aligned with the agroecological principles of equity, synergistic relation between human and nature and decentering of markets.

The natural farming system prevalent in Rachuru has principles of resilience built into it.    Photo : Timbaktu Collective

Natural farming has been recognised as an important pathway for achieving sustainable development goals and is said to have the potential to meet 169 targets of SDGs. The movement has been inclusive of all classes of the peasantry in the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.  Natural farming movement in India is part of the La Via Campesina, the agroecology-based global peasant movement.  The system attracted policy attention not only from the national government but also from international development agencies. The Bhartiya Prakritik Krishi Padhati (BPKP), which was introduced in 2020-21 budget, as a sub-scheme of Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) for the promotion of traditional indigenous practices, advocates principles of natural farming and agroecology. Moreover, the practice has found mention in the Union budgets 2019-20 (‘going back to the basics’) and 2020-21. Also, NITI Aayog, the Government of India’s think tank enlists natural farming as a means for doubling farmers’ income A recent NITI Aayog working paper hails natural farming (Agroecology) as a new paradigm for agricultural growth. The state initiatives on natural farming in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have also got financial support from national and international funding agencies. State governments of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh have specific allocations for natural farming, while governments of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Meghalaya have set up programmes for the same.

Commissioned studies on natural farming systems have shown substantial savings on paid-out costs, decline in interlocking of markets and long-lasting improvement in farm efficiency. The potential social, economic, and environmental impact of natural farming has been mapped to specific targets under the 17 SDGs using specific case studies. However, natural farming, has attracted criticism for the magnitude of labour that is used in producing the natural inputs. Large part of this being family labour, if imputed in the cost of production is bound to challenge the claims of lowering expenditure. Hence, the ecological gains in natural farming are argued to have been realized at a huge trade-off of economic viability.

With this background, a field study was conducted to measure the performance of the natural farming systems on various parameters of sustainability using a comprehensive assessment framework. The assessment was carried out among 15 farmers in Rachuru village of Roddam block (mandal) in Sri Sathyasai District (previously part of the undivided Anantapur district).

Background

The geographical position of the Indian peninsula renders Anantapur region (consisting of Sri Sathyasai and Ananthapuramu districts of Andhra Pradesh) as one of the rain-shadow and drought-prone regions in the country. Sri Sathyasai district records an average annual rainfall of 604 mm with only 34.7% of its total geographical area under net sown area. A total of 79% of landholdings are with small and marginal farmers and 22.7% of the district’s gross cropped area is irrigated. The high variability in the southwest monsoon is an indication of the risks associated with farming in the district.

Many of the farmers in the Rachuru village are part of the Dharani Farming and Marketing Cooperative promoted by the Timbaktu collective. The Dharani Cooperative is a producer-owned business enterprise of more than 2000 smallholder farmers from eight blocks (mandals) in Anantapur region. Besides supporting the farmers in crop planning and training them in sustainable farming methods, the cooperative undertakes procurement, processing, value addition, packaging, and marketing of members’ produce. The major crops cultivated in the village include millets, groundnut, pulses, fruits, and vegetables. Sericulture was also a major enterprise and farmers raised mulberry for this.

Sustainability Assessment Framework

The sustainability assessment framework had specific indicators that covered the major domains of sustainability- economic, environmental, social and governance and perception of climate change (Table 1). The indicators are assigned equal weightage and the dimensions of sustainability are also equally weighted on the framework. The indicators would take ratings of one, three and five, where five represents the highest (best quality) and one represents the lowest (low quality) value of the indicator.

Table 1: Sustainability Assessment Framework
 Dimensions/Indicators   Ratings Scales
Environment 1 3 5
1 On-farm external input use Chemical Both Natural
2 Presence of earthworms No Yes
3 Presence of honeybees No Yes
4 Type of soil Sandy Clay Laterite/Loamy
5 Change in groundwater table – past decade Deep Remains same Closer to Surface
6 Changes in surface water availability Lesser months than before Remains same More months than before
Economic 1 3 5
1 Average yield of the major crops? < than potential yield Same as potential yield >Than potential yield
2 Share of agriculture income in household income <25% 25-50% =/>50%
3 Number of crops grown in a year One or two three More than three
4 Source of credit No Source Informal Formal
5 Alternate livelihoods opportunities None two in addition to crop-based agriculture more than two in addition to crop-based agriculture
6 Size of the land holding less than 2.5 Acre 2.6 to 5 Acre More than 5 Acre
Social 1 3 5
1 Ownership of land holding Lease Joint ownership with family Sole/name of husband and wife/Own
2 In whose name is the land registered Male Female
3 Who usually makes decisions related to agriculture? Only Men Men leading decision in consultation with women Joint decisions through consensus
4 Wage difference between male and female labour Two times < Two times No difference
5 Membership in collectives No Yes
6 Dominance of caste in access to productive resources Always Sometimes Never
Governance & Perception of Climate Variability 1 3 5
1 Number of schemes availed for agriculture in the last two farming seasons? None One to two More than two
2 Number of interactions with the extension officer in the last two farming seasons None once or twice More than Twice
3 Distance to the PHC > 5 Km Within 5km In the village
4 Distance to the nearest veterinary dispensary > 5 Km  1 to 5km < 1 km
5 Perception of rainfall pattern – compared to parent’s time? Different Same
6 Perception of the impact of weather on farm-based livelihoods Negative None Positive
Author’s work

The performance of dimensions of the sustainability framework is the cumulative value of the individual indicators in that dimension. Thus, the individual dimensions will take values in the range of six to 30. The closer the value is to 30, the higher the performance of the dimension on the sustainability framework.

Results 

It was observed across the farms, that the environmental dimension performed well on the framework, followed by the social, economic and governance and perception of climate change.  The environment dimension scored values in the range of 22 to 24 across the farmers whose fields were measured on the framework. The indicators which performed best on the environment dimension were the ones that captured soil-biodiversity and the use of natural inputs. However, indicators on availability and sustenance of ground and surface water sources  were observed to perform very poorly on the assessment framework.

The economic dimensions scores were in the range of 14-20. Access to credit is the only indicator on the economic dimension that showed a high level of performance. Whereas the other set of indicators, that are more reflective of the economic viability of the individual farms and farm households had received lower score on the framework. Access to credit can be closely linked to the indicator on the social capital of the farmers. Through the assessment it was observed that the farmers who got the highest score on the ‘access to credit’ indicator on the economic dimension, were also the ones who got the highest score on the ‘membership in collectives’ indicator on the social dimension.

The other indicators on the social dimension, like ‘gendered aspects of farm level decision making’, ‘gendered wage differentials’ and ‘gendered ownership of land’ have scored poorly on the framework, with the indicator on ‘decision making’ performing the worst. Governance indicators, namely, – ‘awareness and access to government schemes and entitlements’ and the ‘intensity of engagement of the extension worker’ show medium performance (score 3). Additionally, the rest of the indicators set on this dimension, which captures farmers perception of climate change and its impact on farming scores the least on the framework.

The field assessment reveals natural farming systems contributing highly to the environmental/ecological dimensions of sustainability of farmers in the Rachuru village. However, a clear trade-off on the economic dimension was also evident from the analysis. Further, the positive outcomes on indicators like  access to credit, government schemes, entitlements and extension services could all be linked to the membership in the collectives. This indicates the strong facilitating role played by Dharani Cooperative in building resilience of smallholder farmers in the region. The performance on the environmental dimensions can also be attributed to the membership in the cooperatives as members receive focused capacity building on preparation of jeevamrita, bijamrita and techniques like whapasa and multi crop models – which are the pillars of natural farming practices. In addition, the village has a decentralized unit for production and supply of natural inputs. The role of Dharani Cooperative in value addition, branding and marketing of the products from natural farming systems is limited to oil seeds, pulses and millets. However, farmers engaged in horticulture face challenge in realizing economic benefits in terms of branding or premium pricing. It is also evident from the analysis that membership in the cooperative has not resulted in any gender transformative changes in agrarian relations at the community or the household level.

The study is an attempt to understand the potential of natural farming as a sustainable agricultural model. Despite, the small sample size, the results of the study, have relevance in the current agricultural policy and practice context. Agroecology/Natural Farming has been hailed as a new agricultural paradigm in a recent working paper from the public policy think tank NITI Aayog. Government of India is already making budgetary provisioning for BPKP. However, for natural farming to be promoted as a new paradigm for inclusive agricultural growth, at scale, would need a multi-pronged approach that adopts strategic interventions on the institutional, governance and marketing aspects.

Acknowledgements

The cumulative scores on the sustainability dimensions are based on a field assessment carried out by a team of students and faculty in a course on Sustainable Agriculture at Azim Premji University in April 2022. The authors acknowledge the support received from the Timbaktu Collective, the Dharani Cooperative and the farming community, in Roddam block of Sri Sathyasai District.

References

Bharucha, Z. P., Mitjans, S. B., & Pretty, J., Towards redesign at scale through zero budget natural farming in Andhra Pradesh, India, 2020, International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 18:1, 1-20

Tripathi, S., Shahidi, T., Nagbhushan,S., & Gupta, N., Zero Budget Natural Farming for the Sustainable Development Goals, Andhra Pradesh, India, 2018, Council on Energy, Environment and Water. New Delhi.

https://srisathyasai.ap.gov.in/document-category/district-profile/

M. Manjula, V. Manikandan and Divya Sharma


M. Manjula, V. Manikandan and Divya Sharma

Faculty, School of Development, Azim Premji University,

Survey No 66, Burugunte Village, Bikkanahalli Main Road, Sarjapura,

Bangalore, Karnataka – 562125

Email: manjula.m@apu.edu.in

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