cotton: At last, freedom for farmers
By Meena Menon
InfoChange News & Features,
07 May, 2003
Anandrao Mukundrao Subedar
from Tivsa village, Yavatmal district, Maharashtra, is one of the pioneers
of organic farming in Vidarbha. But Subedar, one of the largest landholders
in the district, was also the largest user of chemicals and pesticides
at one point.
"I achieved record-breaking
yields of 14 quintals (one quintal= 100 kg)/acre in 1984. We thought
we had conquered all pests in cotton. Synthetic pyrethroids rid us of
the American bollworm but then we got the white fly. In 1985 we lost
all our cotton to white fly. It was an insect we had never even heard
of before. Our losses made us think and when we analysed the reasons,
obviously the rampant use of pesticides was the cause. Yields had come
down to 2-2.5 quintals/acre from an average of 6 q/acre," he reminisced.
"We knew the answer
was not to use chemicals. At that time we had no options, not a single
university could help us and even the Central Institute for Cotton Research
(CICR), Nagpur, was unable to give us any advice," he said.
"It was Fukuoka whose
book revolutionised our way of thinking -- here was a man saying we
could grow crops without any chemicals. Bharat Dabholkar was also instrumental
in changing my farming practices and after I met him, in 1990, I decided
not to use any chemicals. I want to repeat what Dabholkar (one of the
pioneers of non-chemical farming) has said, "The only input we
need is our grey cells."
Now he farms 260 acres in
Tivsa, 19 km from Yavatmal. Subedar loves to experiment and to this
day keeps growing several varieties of cotton to select the best. "I
found that high yields have no relationship with chemicals or fertilisers
-- we can prove that on our field. The other trick is to get a suitable
variety of crop -- we want an indeterminate type. And the third factor
affecting yield is the distance between two rows and two plants. There
must be room for cotton to grow."
He grows sugarcane, banana
and tuvar (lentil) but cotton is planted alone. "In 2002, I planted
cotton on 45 acres, of which 35 acres is rain-fed." He has grown
18 varieties in 2002 and wants to prove that not a single cotton type
requires spraying. Since 1990 he has stopped all chemicals and is in
search of a suitable variety of cotton. It has taken him five years
to stabilise the yield. Last year yields were 8 q/acre. He uses 30 kg
cowdung, 30 litres cow urine and 300 litres of water along with black
jaggery and ferments it for five days. This solution is mixed in 20
times the amount of water and sprinkled on the field.
The use of chemicals and
pesticides is very high in this district and five years ago Rs 100 crore
was spent in this district alone. Now spraying is considerably reduced
and the amount spent on chemicals and pesticides has come down to Rs
40 crore (estimates from various local farmers and dealers).
Subedar's expenses for cotton
are about Rs 4,000 per acre; it was double that when he was using chemicals.
Large landowners and rich farmers can spend upto Rs 12-14,000 on chemicals
and pesticides with about 20 sprays in one season for cotton. Subedar
and other large farmers like Om Prakash Mor and Baburao Wankhede have
inspired scores of farmers to stop using chemicals in this region.
Subedar has managed to inspire
his neighbour, a small farmer and his employee to stop using chemicals.
Around 1993, when Kisan Mehta visited CICR, Nagpur, to suggest organic
farming, he was met with disbelief. Mehta has been involved with organic
farming since 1986 when a small group of Gandhians became concerned
about the large-scale use of chemicals in agriculture. They formed a
trust called Prakruti which aimed to develop an environmentally sustainable
society and decided to work towards discontinuing the use of chemicals
and fertilisers, hybrid seeds and heavy machinery in agriculture.
Cotton which in 1993 used
up more than 50% of pesticides on just 5% of land, was the main target
and since Vidarbha was the largest cotton-growing area in Maharashtra,
they targeted that area. Mehta made 20 trips to the region to meet farmers
and convince them of the need to stop using chemicals.
A German group, Environmental
Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA), Hamburg, which was interested
in supporting organic cotton efforts, visited Vidarbha to confirm that
many farmers were growing cotton without chemical fertilisers. Jens
Soth of EPEA contacted the director of CICR, Nagpur, in 1993 for information
on non-chemical ways of growing cotton. The interaction with the CICR
scientists, who were working on the low/no-pesticide option for pest
management in cotton led to a project that EPEA took up with GTZ of
Subedar said, "When
EPEA showed an interest in our cotton, Soth came here and took samples
and it was confirmed that we were growing organic cotton."
Mehta's efforts and those
of the farmers and later of CICR laid the foundation for an organized
platform to grow cotton organically and export it. Meetings started
in August 1994 with farmers over five districts of Nagpur, Wardha, Yavatmal,
Amravati and Akola and resulted in 135 farmers committing1,200 hectares
of land to organic cotton by June 1995, according to Mehta.
On December 19, 1995, the
Vidarbha Organic Farmers Association (VOFA) was formed with 132 farmers
as members The idea was to have an independent organisation for farmers
to help in marketing of cotton on a non-profit basis. Agreco agreed
to certify the farmers and each farmer was provided a diary to record
cultivation practices. The season of 1996 brought a bumper crop of cotton
organically grown without much hindrance from pests, notes Mehta.
"We had prepared a complete
70-page booklet for farmers who were interested in organic cotton cultivation.
The cotton was grown under international organic standards certification
guidelines and the German support ensured certification and other requirements.
Over 1,200 hectares were soon under organic farming, making it (then)
the largest area in the world under such cultivation," Mehta said.
Subedar was made president
of VOFA, Manohar Parchure vice president and Om Prakash Mor, secretary.
Though it was decided that VOFA was not a commercial organisation and
would help market produce, differences developed and there was a dispute
which ended when Mor walked out and founded Eco Farms which also sells
and markets organic cotton and other produce.
Subedar adds, "We want
to promote organic crops and we feel farmers should get a good price.
Cotton is being exported since 1995 and we sell 1,500-2,000 quintals
VOFA has distributed Rs 51
lakh in incentive wages to its members since 1995-96 . In 2002 too farmers
got Rs 700 per quintal as bonus, apart from the premium per quintal.
It is also making efforts to sell organic produce other than cotton
from this year.
Of VOFA's 205 members, 90
are practicing organic farming. The total area under cotton is 1,250
acres and the minimum landholding is 3 acres; the maximum is 54 acres.
The total land under organic cultivation is 3,500 acres (spread over
Wardha, Amravati and Yavatmal districts).
When VOFA began in December
1995 there were 132 farmers; that number rose to 250 in 1994. Members
donated the first year's profit per quintal of Rs 130 to VOFA to form
a sort of corpus which has swelled to Rs 6.4 lakh. In 1999-2000, the
Japanese company Fair Trade which buys their cotton, gave the cottonpickers
a bonus of Rs 2 lakh for clothing. The Fair Trade company also donated
Rs 1 lakh towards the corpus.
For farmers like Raosaheb
Dagadkar from Usalgavhan, Dhamangaon taluka, Amravati district, exporting
organic cotton is the only reason to grow it. He is India's Fukuoka
and closely follows his mentor's principles of do-nothing farming which
sets him apart from other farmers. A member of VOFA, he is a certified
organic cotton farmer. His farm is also a pilgrimage place for farmers
from near and far. On the day I visited him, he was taking around a
group of farmers who had come to see how he grew crops without any chemicals
or fertilisers. He grows til, jowar, bajri, cotton, vegetables and fruit
over 110 acres. Farmers were amazed to see that he neither sprayed insecticides
nor used urea.
To a purist used to seeing
crops in neat rows, his farm can appear very untidy. Weeds grow everywhere
and there is barely any space between two plants. "Fully-grown
cotton fields become like a forest -- I can't enter," he joked.
His farms are full of weeds but that does not bother him. Weeds are
a goldmine and he uses them to mulch his land. The trick he says is
to know which ones to keep on top and which down. "I find compost
expensive so I use what is there in nature. All we need to do is create
conditions for earthworms to grow and then there is no need for bullocks
"When I read One Straw
Revolution in 1990, I decided to adopt do-nothing farming. First there
was a reduction in yield but now I usually get 4-6 quintals a year for
cotton. This year I expect around 6 quintals per acre."
VOFA is one of the few commercial
organic cotton ventures in the country. Maikaal bioRe Ltd, which claims
to be the largest organic cotton venture in the world, in Bheelaon,
Madhya Pradesh, has over 1,000 farmers involved in organic cotton production.
The production of organic cotton started in 1991 as a private initiative
of Mrigendra Jalan, Managing Director of the spinning mill, Maikaal
Fibres Ltd, and Patrick Hohmann, Managing Director of the Swiss cotton
yarn trading company, Remei AG, according to a report from Maikaal bioRe.
A pilot project was initiated
in 1992 with a few farmers on 15 acres. It has since expanded to over
1,000 farmers and 7,600 acres in 80 villages of Khargone district. Remei
developed partnerships with manufacturers to produce a whole range of
quality, fashionable, ecological-social garments made of Maikaal bioRe's
organic cotton. The entire supply chain was integrated in 1995 when
Coop, the retailer joined. Coop is Switzerland's second-largest supermarket
chain and Europe's market leader in ecological-social products.
According to Hohmann this
was the world's largest project on organic cotton, from the cultivation
to the marketing and product sale stage with the active and conscious
participation of farmers, spinners, retailers and purchasers. Every
year since 1993 at the open house in the ginning factory, hundreds of
farmers meet their production partners from abroad, apart from designers,
researchers and others involved in this cooperative venture. Farmers
are encouraged to practice biodynamic agriculture, while certification
is as per the requirements of organic agriculture only.
In Kogawa village in Kasrawad
taluka of Khargone district, Sher Singh grows cotton on 8.5 of his 10.5
acres. He is a certified organic farmer since the last four years, part
of Maikaal, and last year his yield of cotton was 12 q in 7 acres.
He also grows tuvar, makai
(maize) and mung. His cost of inputs for chemicals and pesticides used
to be Rs 2,500-3,000 per acre, but since the last three years, the costs
are down to Rs 1,300 per acre. All the inputs are provided by the company.
There are 12 or 13 organic
farmers in this village who get premiums of 10-20% on organic cotton.
After switching to organic
farming, Singh found that yields dropped to 12 q in 8 acres in the first
year from 25 q in 8 acres. He tried to keep his morale up by visiting
other organic farmers and did not lose his nerve. In the second year
he harvested 16 q from 8 acres. He feels things will be better this
year. Farmers with Maikaal now believe that pests are fewer and expenses
less in organic farming.
Organic farmers get a premium
of 10-20% above market rates. However, price need not be the only incentive
for organic farming. The importance of organic farming in regions like
Vidarbha which is marked by poverty and drought, cannot be overstressed.
Every year many farmers commit suicide in this region and NGOs like
Dhara Mitra and YUVA are trying to promote organic farming among small
farmers in a bid to reduce their cost of cultivation. It is not only
for that extra premium that farmers must adopt organic farming -- in
some cases it may save their lives.