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Save Soil Movement - Model Farm Proof of Concept

Nov 25, 2022, India

Introduction to the Farm: Valluvan started his farming activity in 2009 on a 7.5-acre coconut farm. Later, he purchased another 25-acre coconut farm and 3.5 acres of land to grow grains for his own family. After he acquired the land, he decided to practice regenerative agriculture as the conventional system of agriculture was failing across the state and farmers were making losses. Being a coconut farm, water requirement for irrigation was high and it was needed throughout the year. He started reading books written by various agricultural experts but he felt all of their knowledge was generic but not pragmatic for implementation. He came across Isha Outreach (Isha), where the team approached the problem from a pragmatic point of view.

Key Milestones While Developing the Farm:

1. With the understanding that water is one of the most important aspects of farming, Isha Outreach’s team designed a holistic micro-irrigation system for the entire farm with the guidance of irrigation experts. It was designed to reduce the water requirement by using water more efficiently, and allow bio-inputs to be dispersed through a centralised set-up. Various kinds of bio-inputs were prepared using dung and urine from native cow breeds along with local plants, fruits, etc. These inputs were filtered using a 120-micron cloth filter and let into the drip irrigation system. This brought down the cost of irrigation and fertigation as the whole system can be controlled remotely through a mobile phone.

2. Coconut was the only crop on the farm and it was yielding 90-100 nuts per tree per year, with each nut weighing 400-450 gm on an average. To reduce the overall risk, our team suggested diversification of crops through a multi-tier system of farming. This system ensures that by introducing multiple crops at various heights, they all get enough sunlight.

3. Soil and water testing were done to choose crops which are agro-climatically suitable for the region. The drip irrigation outlets were also designed appropriately to suit these additional crops. The team documented an SOM level of only 0.86% at the start of the farm development. Nutmeg was planted at the center of 4 coconut trees and 4 banana plants were planted surrounding each nutmeg tree. Timber trees and fruit trees were planted in the gaps between the nutmeg and coconut trees. Below the trees, crops like turmeric, yam and curry leaf were introduced. The final design ensured that every square foot of land which received sunlight and rain would be used.

4. Valluvan’s fundamental fear was two-fold:

a. Whether the existing water level would be sufficient for all the additional crops since his coconut trees alone required 140-150 liters of water per irrigation.

b. Increasing the number and variety of different crops would be expensive and create additional competition between plants for water and nutrients, resulting in a decrease in the coconut yield, which was his main source of income. Earlier, Valluvan used to collect all the coconut fronds and other leaf litter to burn them in the corner of his farm. Upon the team’s advice, he dug trenches in between the rows of coconut trees and collected litter from all the crops in the trenches. These trenches were dug perpendicular to the direction of flow of rainwater in order to arrest soil erosion and also to allow water to percolate into the soil. Despite all this effort, he did not see any improvement in the coconut yield for the first 3 years which caused him worry even more.

5. When he made the first harvest of banana, which was growing in between the coconut trees, he realized for the first time that he now had an alternative source of income, not just the income from the main crop. With a substantial earning from the banana harvest, he set aside his fears and continued farming as per our team’s advice. From the fourth year onwards, as the trenches started filling up with organic matter that was continuously undergoing decomposition and supplying food for microbes in the soil, the yield from coconut trees started increasing steadily year on year. The weight per nut also started to increase. Moreover, there was no need for summer ploughing, weeding and burning of waste matter, saving him around Rs 500-600 per tree per annum. Because of crop diversification and improved soil health through organic matter and microbe-rich bio-inputs, the weed growth became negligible by the fifth year. In addition, the cost of labor to climb and harvest coconuts was avoided as the nuts were allowed to fall to the ground naturally.

6. Timber trees that were planted in the first year had grown well by the fifth year. These trees serve 3 purposes on the farm: a. Nutritional-pump plants: Roots of these trees run deeper compared to coconut trees. These roots take the nutrients from deeper strata of the soil and bring it to the topsoil in the form of leaf litter. Hence, we call them nutrient-pump plants. b. A stand for growing black pepper: Earlier, Valluvan thought pepper could only be grown in high-altitude regions and that it was not possible to grow in the plains. Our team suggested planting a native variety of pepper, which could be grown in the plains, on a trial basis. The pepper had also started bearing fruit, adding to the farm’s income. c. Timber trees are an asset to the farm and can be selectively harvested during any cash emergency for the farmer.

7. In the seventh year, when Valluvan tested the soil, the SOM level had increased from 0.86% to 1.5% due to the different techniques of regenerative farming. He attributed this three-fold increase to 3 factors - adding the dung and urine of native cows, introducing nutritional-pump plants and adding biomass to the soil. His coconut yield increased from 90 nuts to 140 nuts per tree per year. Seeing the success of his farm, Valluvan began advocating to other farmers that they should focus on improving soil health instead of the yields. “If the soil is regenerated with life, the plant will automatically give good yields" became his motto.

8. As he began earning from all other intercrops like banana, nutmeg, turmeric, fruits, pepper, and curry leaf in addition to coconut, he quickly recovered his initial investments and the farm became a profitable business. The farm had stabilized, so Valluvan turned his focus to marketing his coconuts. As the price for coconuts was fluctuating, just like any other agriculture commodity, he realized that the price of coconut oil was not fluctuating as much as the raw produce. With this understanding, he set up his own, simple value-addition unit to make organic coconut oil and started selling it at a good profit. His sales had expanded to several regions within the country, when a few customers suggested that he consider exporting his oil. This made Valluvan test his oil in a lab in Chennai. The results certified that the oil was of great quality and very suitable for export as well.

9. The state of Tamil Nadu faced severe droughts in 2016 and 2017. Open wells and bore wells had gone dry and there was no source of irrigation. Some areas received light showers but they did not even wet the topsoil properly. Many farmers near his farm had started cutting down trees as the crown of these trees started drying. They sold the trees for firewood to make some money. Farmers who were a little affluent purchased water from water suppliers to keep the coconut trees alive even though the yield had gone down drastically. Seeing all this, Valluvan was also worried and requested Isha's team to have a look at his farm. Our team advised him to increase the mulching area around each of the crops to reduce loss of water through evaporation, which Valluvan did meticulously. To Valluvan's surprise, he saw that his farm was able to survive without much difficulty. Though there were some signs of dryness in the leaves, the plantation survived with a marginal reduction in usual yields. This made Valluvan realize apart from water, creating the right environment in the soil to sustain agriculture against drought conditions was crucial. When the region received its first rain after 2 years, the plants jumped back to life within a week’s time demonstrating the responsiveness of the soil and the plants despite the depth they were under.

10. Just one year after this drought, in 2018, there were torrential rains in that region. More than 1200 mm of rainfall came down in a matter of days. Such heavy rains usually result in damaged pepper plants and nutmeg trees as they are very sensitive crops. Such rains also affect the new shoots of coconut trees, which would grow into flowers under normal circumstances. In addition, soil erosion is unavoidable in these situations. Because of the trenches dug in between the lines of coconut plantation, which was filled with decomposed biomass in addition to diverse plant roots covering almost 100% of the ground area of the farm, there was no sign of crop damage or erosion in the farm. In fact, all the rainfall percolated into the soil and there was no runoff outside the land. This was also observed as a unique phenomenon which was not seen in the neighbouring farms. Valluvan’s key observation was that the deep-rooted timber trees were facilitating the percolation of excessive water into deeper layers of the soil, which other plants were not able to do. The soil was able to retain moisture for longer periods and was feeding the open well and bore wells sufficiently for many months even after the rain stopped. Out of his curiosity, when he went and observed the open wells of his neighbour’s farm, he saw that the water levels were 6-7 feet lower than his open wells.

11. From 2016, Valluvan realized that this form of agriculture can make any farm immune to both drought and flood, thus making this a climate-resilient system of farming.

12. Recently, when our team tested the soil for organic content, the SOM had increased to 2.33% which is a phenomenal increase for a tropical country. With this experience, today Valluvan encourages other farmers by proudly telling them that his expenditure on fertilizers is not even 10% of what he used to spend earlier and even with one good rainfall, he can harvest produce from his farm. His irrigation requirement has drastically reduced compared to what a regular farm would. The farm has reached its final stage of achieving self-sufficiency. The only work he has on the farm now is harvesting his produce. Earlier, he needed 10-20 to take care of the farm but now, he has just one person who goes around picking the fallen nuts and other produce as they come to fruition. He does not need to visit his farm for anything else and is confident that he can just come for harvesting.

13. Biodiversity: Earlier, he never saw many birds on his farm. Recently, however, the farm is buzzing with a lot of rare birds, insects, and reptiles which are usually found only in forests. Valluvan quotes, “They don't disturb us and we don’t disturb them.” The increased biodiversity has brought a balanced soil food web within the farm, where he is able to observe pests being controlled naturally without much human intervention. (Malabar grey hornbill, monitor lizards, colourful looking spiders, frogs, and different varieties of snakes have all starting co-existing in the farm in a harmonious way.)

14. Valluvan is now a model farmer and he shows his gratitude to Sadhguru and Isha by allowing Isha to conduct regular training programs for farmers in his own land and he is our resource leader who conducts a few of the sessions during the training programs. Thousands of farmers have benefited from his work. We deeply appreciate his trust in Isha and for following all our instructions meticulously.

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