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Organic 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 Germany.

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 every year."

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 or ploughing."

"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.