Originally published in Times of Israel here
Written by Sourajit Aiyer
Increasing desertification of the soil is a severe challenge facing the agriculture sector, not just in India (as per the State of India’s Environment 2017 book by CSE and Down To Earth) but also in Israel (as seen with its Runoff Agroforestry System strategy).
In India itself, man-made degraded land has risen by 11% from 2003-5 to 2011-13, as per its Ministry of Statistics. Erratic monsoon and drying up of rivers are adding to this strain. While several districts across India have been at the receiving end of this challenge, Anantapur district in India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh now offers a solution – a solution worth emulating by other countries (like Israel) who are fighting desertification conditions themselves!
Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh state has been chronically drought-affected and is now declared desert-prone, as per the Indian government. Most of its cultivable lands are rain-fed, but the region experiences one of the lowest rainfalls in the country. The water-retention capability of its soil is low, as is its soil carbon content. These, along with continued run-off of water and soil, and high temperatures, have posed an impediment for cultivation.
In this backdrop, the Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) policy implemented across Andhra Pradesh (by its State agency RySS) since the last two years has helped find a solution for agricultural uptick in this desertified district. ZBNF uses practices like coating seeds with a microbial mix, application of bio-inoculant mix on the soil, mulching the soil with agri-residue to reduce moisture evaporation and enhancing the water vapour-air movement in the soil. All the inputs used are available within the villages and at a low cost, unlike the inputs used in chemical farming. Its aim is to regenerate the activities of the beneficial microorganisms in the soil and set off the virtuous cycle of bringing plant nutrients back into the soil in the natural process. To help farmers understand and implement the ZBNF practices, one of the field-cadre types deputed in the villages are agriculture graduates as Natural Farming Fellows (NFFs). These NFFs, apart from acting as guides, also have to operate their own farm using the ZBNF practices.
During the kharif season (Indian summer sowing season), seeds are typically sown when the monsoon rains start. But this year, a group of NFFs deputed in Anantapur district, including Bhairava, Vishnu and others and led by their District Project Manager, tried implementing dry-sowing, i.e. pre-monsoon sowing, in their farms there as a live experiment. This was a possible ‘first’ in the state’s agriculture history, necessitated by the challenges of desertification. But this implementation was made possible by the ZBNF farming practices.
The NFFs started sowing from end-May onwards instead of end-June as done during normal monsoon sowing. Given the specific conditions in Anantapur, they improvised on the ZBNF practices by applying a near 4X of the bio-inoculant mix (jiwanrutam) on the soil’s surface. The soil was mulched with a cover of groundnut husk, to a thickness of almost 2 inches. This was then covered with a thin layer of soil to save the husk from being blown away in the heavy winds seen during this month. All these practices helped the soil retain maximum moisture from the negligible rain it saw (average 10 mm per day after almost a fortnight each time). No additional water through irrigation was applied in that region. About 9-16 types of seeds for poly-cropping were broadcast across their farms, including cereals, millets, pulses, oilseeds, etc., to maintain the nutrient balance in the soil.
Through the crop season, Bhairava, Vishnu and the rest observed several findings. The seedlings emerged within 7-10 days despite only 4-10 mm rainfall during that period. The root system penetrated deep into the soil, indicating soil porousness. Despite the lack of rainfall, the root system had good moisture with soil aggregates adhering to the roots. This helped in the effective formation of humus in the soil. The depth of the soil moisture was seen to be more in their fields as compared to neighbouring (non-ZBNF) fields, indicating improved water holding capacity. The shoots showed healthy growth, plants were green, the number of tillers in cereal crops were more than conventional cereal crops and the number of branches/pods in plants like sesame were more too. Lastly, beneficial insects (as pollinators or predators to pests) were observed.
Apart from overcoming the challenge of drought, their original aims included improving the soil’s health, help form the natural humus, increase the soil carbon content and improve the soil fauna. As per the anecdotal evidence, it seems the experiment with using ZBNF practices on drought-prone soil helped achieve most of those original aims. In a region where crop yields have generally been deficient, the average yield from these NFFs’ fields exceeded expectations. Some of these experimental farms were cut after the third month itself, at which time the average yield across crops were estimated to be already similar to traditional chemical-based farms. In the others where the crops were left till the sixth month, the average yield was estimated to be double than chemical farms.
The success of this dry-sowing experiment in India’s Andhra Pradesh now offers a breakthrough “low-cost” solution worth emulating by other countries, including Israel, whose land also suffers from desertification conditions!