Nurturing natural ecosystems

Any system which provides for cycling of nutrients and energy within the system becomes sustainable and will continue to support life for future generations. While use of chemicals and pesticides have degraded lands and water bodies all over the world, it is essential for survival of human and other species to revert to holistic farming practices.

We cherish the termite colonies in our valleys as they are important in the carbon cycle, and release energy from organic matter, otherwise unavailable to other insects as well as plants.

The Western Ghats in Southern India are one of the oldest hill ranges located about 30-50 km inland, and stretch from Gujarat to Kerala, spanning 6 states across a length of about 1600 km. These ranges harbor some of the richest tropical rain forests which are recognized as one of the world’s few hot spots of biodiversity with high levels of endemism unique to this region.

At least 325 globally threatened species occur in the Western Ghats. While wildlife has survived alongside humans for centuries here, continued development, population growth and intensification of chemical agriculture have increasingly put a huge pressure on the declining richness of biodiversity.

The introduction of modern farming systems have drastically reduced genetic diversity within the crops while the heavy use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides has destroyed the natural balance in the fields. These rain forest tracts are studded by large and small farms predominantly growing plantation crops like coffee, cocoa, cashew, rubber and spices.

The quantity of toxic pesticides being pumped into some of the bigger farms and plantations is so huge that not only has it impacted the ecology and biodiversity of the Ghats, but has also made agriculture unsustainable. Since agriculture is a dominant human activity and occupies over 40 percent of available land space, the decisions that agriculturists make dramatically effect landscapes. It falls upon these farmers to adopt agricultural practices that are ecologically sustainable and nurture the soils instead of destroying the fragile ecosystem.

Mojo Spice Farm, a family farm

Our family farm, Mojo Spice Farm, is located at an altitude of 1100 meters in the Kodagu district of Karnataka. The land stretches across hills and valleys, fragmented by streams and underground springs, all of which contribute to a habitat rich in a variety of plants, insects, birds, mammals, fungi and microbes which together, contribute to a healthy agriecosystem. We cultivate crops which can be grown under the canopies of the rain forest trees, and are adapted to surviving the heavy rainfall which often exceeds 200 inches (5 meters) annually.

Our crops are cardamom and black pepper which are indigenous to this region, and coffee and vanilla which have been introduced. We also grow spice trees like clove, cinnamon and nutmeg, fruits and vegetables in open areas. Multi-cropping is not only the first step to keeping pests and pathogens in check in the agri-ecosystem, but also enables a vital exchange of nutrients between the plants through enhancing rich diversity in the soil. The heavy rainfall results in severe runoff of the top soil and good composting practices can enable the land to recover its nutrient and humus balance. Our endeavor has been to adapt our agricultural practices to the natural balances in the forest ecosystem, and encourage conservation of the biodiversity in our fields.

Building soil fertility

Many traditional practices in India are based upon sound ecological principles and while they remain low input, their relevance cannot be undermined. Traditional farming focuses on enriching the soil. The tropical rain forest soils, though fragile, are extremely rich in microbial diversity and other forms of life. Whereas grubs of insects, earthworms and other similar soil inhabitants breakdown large particulate matter, the fungi and bacteria mineralize and provide nutrients to the plants.

Composting enhances soil microbial diversity and contributes to an active buildup of humus and organic matter. On our farm, composting all farm waste and weeds is an intrinsic part of agricultural practice. To make a compost heap, we mix hand cut weeds, dry leaves that have provided a bed for the cattle and goats overnight (and are drenched in animal urine, a rich source of nitrogen), cow dung, neem or Pongamia (Hongae) cake, and wood ash. Composting is enhanced by soil bacteria supplemented with EM (Effective Microorganisms).

EM is a mixture of soil bacteria and yeasts that can be cultured (extended using molasses and its addition to the compost significantly speeds up breakdown of organic matter. We dilute the extended EM with water in a ratio of 1: 200, and use it to drench the compost mix. The heaps are turned after 2 days and then again after 5 days, and left covered to retain moisture and heat. Excellent quality, fragrant compost becomes available within 2 months. This is applied to the base of the crops, or used in pits (mixed with top soil) before planting new seedlings. Each batch of compost we make ranges from 3-5 tons, and we apply it around the base of the plants after sloughing the soil once or twice a year, before the onset of monsoon rains. Annual applications of compost to the plants ensures optimal yields.

Biochar-activated Compost: Since our farm is surrounded by forest, there is ample supply of wood fragments. We use this to make biochar which is produced by controlled, incomplete combustion of the woody biomass in an oxygenlimited environment. This process also allows for sequestration of carbon and if buried underground, reduces the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We pulverize the biochar to increase its surface area, and soak it in nutrient–rich solutions like panchgavya, EM, cow urine or liquid manures. This allows a high concentration of nutrients to adsorb to the biochar which is then mixed into the compost to enhance its efficacy before being applied to the field.

On paddy farms, the husk of paddy can be charred in a similar way and added to the compost. About 5-10 percent biochar in compost is sufficient. Supplementing compost with biochar increases the ion-exchange capacity of the soil, improves soil porosity and texture, as well as enhances beneficial mycorrhizal populations, and results in a slow release of minerals and nutrients to the plants over time. Having observed the improvement in soil texture, we now try to add biochar to all the compost made on the farm.

Panchgavya is a traditional preparation made from 5 basic ingredients from the cow: cow dung, cow urine, ghee, curd and milk. Lab analysis of the preparations 15 days into the fermentation period has shown significant increase in concentrations of major and micronutrients, of available Nitrogen (>65%), Phosphorus (>45%), Potassium (>75%), Organic carbon (>22%), increase in plant growth-promoting hormones like gibberellins, and IAA (indole-acetic acid).

Populations of beneficial bacteria like azotobacter, azospirillum, phosphobacteria, and pseudomonas increase rapidly during the fermentation. We use such preparations as liquid manures by drenching the root zone, or as a foliar spray to protect the plant against fungal or bacterial infections. We have found that annually, 2-3 foliar applications of Panchgavya to the crops keeps them disease free and contributes to better yields. Panchgavya’s regular use at dilutions of just 3% has shown significant increase in yields across a range of crops from spices, fruits and vegetables, to cereals and tubers.

Termites contribute to soil fertility

Although it is popularly assumed that termites are pests and voracious consumers of wood, most termites have positive effects on tropical forests as they contribute to soil fertility. Additionally, their nests provide shelters and food for numerous associated organisms. We cherish the termite colonies in our valleys as they are important in the carbon cycle, and release energy from organic matter otherwise unavailable to other insects as well as plants. We have several termite mounds scattered across our hill sides and we protect these by avoiding these areas for cultivation.

Termite tunneling and foraging redistributes soil and increases the surface area available to bacteria and fungi, which in turn enzymatically breakdown the lignin and cellulose, making these nutrients available to plants. The fungi also liberate minerals like P, K, S, Fe, Mg and Zn. The ability of termites to influence the physical and chemical structure of the soil also impacts the vegetation and other components of the ecosystem. Termites also play an important role in the nitrogen cycling. Their guts are host to a range of nitrogen-fixing bacteria (Citrobacter, Enterobacter, Treponema and Spirochaeta).

Nurturing self sustaining ecosystems

The rain forest, if left undisturbed, is a self-sustaining ecosystem with cycles of life and death of numerous diverse organisms. With the various species of insects, grubs, worms, fungi and bacteria contributing to this detritus, the soils offer an excellent matrix for cultivation of crops adapted to growing under the shade of the rain forest trees. We supplement the soil nutrients which are used by the crops, or lost due to heavy monsoon rains, with compost prepared from organic matter on the farm.

Most crops have surface feeder roots and these are mulched with dry leaves which fall from the rain forest trees. The trees tap into the lower reaches of the soil and through their leaf fall, bring the nutrients to the surface again, which in turn are used as substrate by saprophytic fungi and bacteria, releasing nutrients for the plants. Any system which provides for cycling of nutrients and energy within the system becomes sustainable and will continue to support life for future generations. While use of chemicals and pesticides have degraded lands and water bodies all over the world, it is essential for survival of human and other species to revert to holistic farming practices.

Sujata Lakhani-Goel

Mojo Plantation,
PO Box 101, Madikeri 571201 Karnataka, India

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