Agrawal Organic Farm (AOF) has a 100 acre stretch of land in Sirohi, Chandwaji, Jaipur. This location is about 4km from Jaipur on Jaipur-Delhi highway. Jaipur is the nearest railway station and airport. AOF has another farm at Bassi which is on Delhi-Agra Road which is about 50 kms from Jaipur.
Deepti Agarwal, the founder of AOF, was diagnosed with critical illness back in the US around 2007. She decided that if those were to be the last few days of her life, she would rather live-off a farm back in India. She explored various systems such as Permaculture, Holistic Management, Ecological Restoration and others for the farm. Based on this, she initiated setting up a food forest, grasslands and bought some Native cows in Bassi near Jaipur. Dr. Sreekumar & Dr. Sreekala came into the equation next. They introduced the concept of holistic farming that they had already practiced in Belgaum, Karnataka and Palakkad, Kerala. Others that joined are Ajit, Abhishek, Nitesh, Bryony, Gufran, Bhagat, Neeraj, and Ketaki.
The objective of this farm is to try and create a community that wishes to grow organic food consciously. This farm is inspired by permaculture, holistic management and Fukuoka’s method of natural farming. The focus is on using minimal resources and works by creating self-operating processes which allows the farm to flourish as a complete ecosystem where human role is to simply orchestrate the ecosystem processes based on natural intelligence.
If seasonally humid/ arid( brittle) land is left untouched and unaccessed by humans & animals, it will desertify. Desertification would happen because oxidation continues, which means that the carbon material that is fixed into the soil from the photosynthesis process, burns under the sunlight and carbon dioxide is released. Thereby carbon matter that otherwise would have supported millions of microorganisms, leaves the soil. Hence the microbiome in the soil suffers and soil becomes depleted and devoid of microorganisms and hence nutrition. Since, it is the microbiome in the soils that makes it possible for plants to get nutrient supply. Hence the fertility of the soil would never be able to get revived left to itself.
If we leave farm animals in the brittle land, without humans and without predators, this condition would be termed as “open grazing” and would lead to repeated and over grazing of one specific kind of vegetation that is more palatable for the livestock, which will cause that particular vegetation to go extinct and furthermore the land to become or remain barren and stay exposed to sunlight.
This is where humans are called upon to access nature’s intelligence instead of becoming exploiters of scarce vegetation in brittle regions. If they can perform planned grazing & kraaling, then with the support of livestock, nature’s healing process, rains, sunlight, micro-organisms etc. they can revive the brittle land over five to ten years.
Initial Foray Into Organic Dairy & Challenges
Bassi’s Organic Farm was formed with the intent to make it equitable for all people to be able to have access to good healthy milk starting with people around Jaipur. The team wanted to set a model farm which could be adopted by anyone irrespective economic class.
However, they realized that providing good healthy milk under an socio-economic model was not possible and holding on to the commercial framework while having a social intent, would certainly lead to culling of cows. They did not want to create a premium brand for dairy products to make it viable as it would deny access to good milk to people with lower economic means. Instead they looked for other solutions or alternative models.
Searching Solutions for Managing Livestock
Deepti Ji met Dr. Sreekumar who introduced Holistic farming. This model integrated the needs of all stakeholders like soil, people, birds, livestock, vegetation and millions of other life forms. Holistic farming is based upon holistic management by Allan Savory. Allan is a Zimbabwean livestock farmer and president and co-founder of the Savory Institute. He originated holistic management, a systems thinking approach to managing resources.
Holistic management (HM) has been proposed as a means of restoring degraded deserts and grasslands and reversing the impact of chemical farming or climate weirding. The fundamental approach of this system is based on conscious planned rotating of livestock herds to mimic native ungulates reacting to predators in order to break up biological soil crusts and trample plants and soils to promote restoration. Their dung and urine on land supports the underground ecology of critters.
Why Land Was Barren
The 100 acre stretch of land in Sirohi, Chandwaji where holistic management has now been practiced for only 7 years was acquired. This land had become barren due to scarce resources in the area, before the AOF team came in. Previously, the villagers were open grazing on this land and hence the grasses never had a chance to grow fully. The land never had a chance to develop a ground cover for protection from evaporation from the sunlight, due to there being no resting period for the land. The organic carbon percentage was 0.01% when the land was secured.
When the team first arrived here, the villagers were surprised as to why this land was purchased by the team, as according to them they had this perspective that nothing grows here. So the land was barren and water could not be found. Only six out of fifteen borewell experiments were successful and water was found at 300 ft. Hence, the entire forestation had to be based on intelligent rain water management while harnessing nature’s healing process of the land, and not on the borewells.
During the initial period, cows were integrated with the farm to feed on the grasses grown during monsoons. However, the team ensured that the cows did not over-graze in one area. Also the cows were taken through a process of planned grazing in herds which helped in revival of the soil with the introduction of biomass (cow dung and cow urine). Hoof Impact tramples down the grass to bring it in contact with the ground and provide grass cover to the ground for the purpose of bio-degradation as well as induce regrowth. Otherwise the standing grass will dry off overtime and get oxidized. The laid down grass acts as a roof for the soil microbes. It protects them from direct sunlight, which prevents oxidation and death of microbes. It provides an insulation to the root zone of vegetation (either the same grass or other newly introduced vegetation) inducing optimum growth. With hoof impact the grass seeds get sown into the soil for the next growth.
As Allan Savory puts it, “What we had failed to understand was that these seasonal humidity environments of the world, the soil and the vegetation developed with very large numbers of grazing animals, and that these grazing animals developed with ferocious pack-hunting predators. Now, the main defense against pack-hunting predators is to get into herds, and the larger the herd, the safer the individuals. Now, large herds dung and urinate all over their own food, so they have to keep moving to fresh grass, and it was that movement that prevented the overgrazing of plants, while the periodic trampling ensured good cover of the soil, as we see where a herd has passed.”
Insects, Worms, and other life forms bring up the soil from deep down to the top and make it available for the plants to use for giving better nutrition. These life forms take the dung through the tunnels they have dug up for the purpose of eating or breeding. This process is Bioturbation. Nature performs bioturbation which today’s farmers are doing mechanically using tractor & plough or other attachments. But in the process they are killing the soil life and exposing it to the sun. That’s when the root system is destroyed, which prevents water from percolating and inhibits the nutrient exchange and also breaks the fungal network.
Livestock Herding, Planned Cow and Bull Grazing as well as Kraaling
Cows prefer to graze the juicier or softer part of the grass which forms 25% of the top section of grass, rather than the fibrous base which forms 75% of the grass.
Hygiene is maintained and the herd is shifted to different paddocks twice daily. Cows are not kept for too long in the paddock where cow dung & urine has been discharged. Livestock is very healthy, happy and well fed.
1000 cubic feet which is used for drinking, cooking, and washing. Daily use. For cows drinking. Sometimes for irrigation when needed.
Importance of Hills & Mountains
It allows rain to fall on the trees and slowly reach the soil and with the root system percolates into the soil at different levels, recharges the aquifers and leaves the soil, forming gently flowing streams.
Without life there is no soil. It is only dirt. Life is possible with plants only since they are the ones that will feed the life in the ground. With the arrival of this life the dirt gets life and becomes soil. Soil has millions of microbes and it’s the living entity. Different microbes are keys to attract specific nutrients at different levels in the ground and make them available for the plants to revive.
Multi Strata Agro Forestry (Ground Cover, Biomass, Plants & Trees)
Thorny shrubs are used to protect trees from being eaten pre-maturely. For e.g. It was observed that neem was growing inside the thorny bushes due to seeds dropped by bird droppings and these Neem trees were the only survivors, because of the protection of thorny bushes. This observed phenomenon was replicated manually for new saplings to survive. Incidentally at the start the locals had advised the team to burn the thorny bushes, which means that the thorny bushes are otherwise considered useless in the farms. For brittle regions integration of livestock is essential so that ecological regeneration can take place. Brittle regions receive seasonal rainfall
Under biodiversity we have community and succession. Community means co-existence of different life forms with mutual support. For desertified land, Nature will try to heal itself needing a longer period of time that may take 1000s of years. By increasing biodiversity, the resilience of the ecosystem increases, needing much less time for land restoration. Ecological succession is the process by which the mix of species and habitat in an area changes over time. Gradually, these communities replace one another until a mature forest is reached.
In the journey of reaching to a stage of a forest, a barren land take a journey across different stages starting from growing of pioneer vegetation that can endure the harshest of conditions and start photosynthesis starting to sequester carbon in the soil, thereby inducing life initially and creating a favorable environment for the next species to survive. Pioneers are generally not palatable, thorny and irritating and this is a safety mechanism provided by nature to them to prevent exploitation by the herbivores. Later in the succession stage comes more palatable species like grasses, bushes, small trees, larger trees, canopies and slowly it becomes forest and finally the apex forest.
Rajasthan’s native cow size is bigger since Nature needs the heavier impact from the animals with longer resting period to re-generate the grasses. Heavier cows cause more impact on dry standing grasses and plants for a soil contact so soil life can break down the fibrous vegetation.
A key premise of Holistic Management (HM) is that livestock can be made to emulate native ungulate responses to predators by moving them frequently in large numbers and tight groups. This promotes very close cropping which is said to benefit grasses and other forage, as well as hoof action that breaks up soil crusts, increases infiltration, plants seeds, and incorporates plant material, manure, and urine into the soil.
ECOSYSTEM LITERACY & MANAGEMENT
Effective Water Cycle
Water hitting exposed soil bombards the soil with water droplets leading to capping which form surface ponds and the water does not percolate into the soil, rather it remains on top and evaporates/ flushes. Soil gets run off with the water which is responsible for floods and draughts.
Effective Mineral Cycle
Land’s function is to recycle biomass. In brittle areas, livestock helps the landscape to do this function efficiently.
Efficient Solar Energy Flow
AOF considers its role simply to help the landscape in maximizing photosynthesis and reducing oxidation. The idea is to increase the photosynthetic rate of the vegetation and photosynthetic capacity of the landscape to harvest maximum solar energy.
This place has seen the return of many native birds that had not been witnessed for many years. Some of the rare birds that have been spotted are Jacobin Cuckoo (Chetak), White-Broad Fantail, Indian White Eye, Indian Golden Oriole, Asian Pied Starling, Baya Weaver (Darjido in Gujarati), Black Redstart, Large Cuckoo shrike, Indian Robbin, Magpie Robbin, sub – species of Prinias like Jungle Prinia, Ashy Prinia, Gray Francolin (Teeter), Quail, Owls & Owlets, Yellow-Eyed Babbler, Indian Silver bill, Peacocks (Mor), Greater Coucal (Bharadwaj), Bulbul, Bay-backed Shrike, Koel, Gurría (House Sparrow), Brahminy Starlink, Shikra, Hawks, Kites, several species of Butterflies & Moths, Lizards, Gilhairy, Porcupine, Foxes, Neel Gay, Fireflies, Leopard. They have spotted Baya Weaver’s fragrant nests made using lemongrass. Leopards come and sit around the herd of cows inhabitants of the farm. Mushrooms are quite prevalent in the landscape.
OTHER ASPECTS OF AOF
A worker was diagnosed with a mental disorder before joining the farm. His family came to a point of selling their property, land and even utensils. Later she joined AOF farm and over a period of five years she healed from the mental trauma.
Over more than a decade of practicing HM, the AOF team has grown a variety of flora for human/ animal consumption. Here is a small list –
|Spices||Jeera, Dhania, Saunf, Raye, Sarson, Lal Mirch, Methi, Green Chilly, Ajwain|
|Medicinal||Amba Haldi, Amla, Shatavari, Ashwagandha, Bhoomi Amla, Gokhru, Hadjod, Aloe-vera.|
|Fruits||Water Melon, Papaya, Mangoes, Bananas, Mulberry, Karonda, Ker (Caper), Falsa, Ca, Custard Apple (Sitafal), Anar, Guava, Ber, Rosel, Malta, Mausambi, Lemons, Sapota, Cheeku,|
|Root||Carrots, Radish, Sweet Potato, Garlic, Onion, Potatoes, Beetroots|
|Greens||Methi, Spinach, Poi, Ambadi, Gongura, Lettuce, Khatta Palak, Bokchoy,|
|Vegetables||Green Peas, Tomatoes, Ash Gourd, Bottle Gourd, Ridge Gourd, Bitter Gourd, Kundru, Okra, Cauliflower, Red Cabbage, , Pumpkins, KnolKhol, Ker, Shangri, Spike Gourd, Broccoli|
|Pulses||Chana, Arhar, Urad, Moong, Chole, Peanuts,|
|Grains||Gheu, Bajra, Jawar, Jau, Quinoa, Rice, Maize, Foxtail|
|Beans||Gwar Fali, Chaula Fali, Sem Fali|
Holistic Management Research & Learning Centre
AOF organizes workshops and courses from time to time to help participants learn how humans & soils are intimately connected and to help the participants experience a land regenerations project. Participants understand why past agriculture movements failed to create abundance, why farmers & agriculture businesses face so many challenges. They also learn to reconnect with where their food comes from.
· Workshop (3 days)
· Internship Program (6 months)
AOF also supports student’s to set up pilot land regeneration projects after the internship program.
As of now this place has a community of caretakers who are adept at Permaculture, Farming, Livestock Management, Natural Housing. Some team members are full time and some visit the farm. Workers on the farm are employed from the adjacent villages. They had local community engagement in terms of workshops for local villagers which did not take off or was not well received by the villagers and hence discontinued.
Seed Storage, Conservation & Preservation
A traditional seed bank using natural materials like limestone, stones, sand, brick powder, etc. is being built which will store all the seeds. This will be used to support other land restoration projects across the local region.
Vegetable, Fruit, Native Tree and Flower saplings are prepared and kept ready for internal use. AOF hopes to support other land restoration projects using the Nursery in the future.
Self-Reliant Energy (Solar Pumps)
AOF farm uses solar energy for powering the water pumps for pumping water from borewells for the purpose of daily use, cows and a portion for irrigation when needed. Solar Energy will be extended.
There are 3 buildings which can accommodate 10 members overall.
For the first time, the team is trying natural housing using sand, stones, limestones, etc. for the seed bank. Natural Building workshops are on the cards.
Traditional Food Processing
AOF has a solar dryer facility which is used for food processing. Eg. Drying of moringa leaves, tomatoes, mangoes, kutcha mango, rose petals, genda, aparajita, etc. Traditional food processing using Ghani for cold press oil extraction, flour making using stone crushers, etc are on the cards.