~8 minute read~
With events like coronavirus and more biodiversity-loss induced calamities increasing in likelihood over the years, food security should be the first priority for all of us. The economic systems of our country, including agriculture’s, is excessively dependent on just one resource for functioning – crude oil. Any shocks to the supply of petroleum and the civilization will go into a tailspin because there is poor preparedness for an alternative system. Developing systemic resilience by learning to grow local foods is the best alternative, in my opinion, wherever you are. This is the best way you can contribute to your family’s, community’s, nation’s progress!
Rice provides low but assured profit to farmers because of years of governmental policies. And it is said to be a lazy man’s crop. So, it is a crop of choice for a majority of farmers in areas with 800+ mm rainfall. Our preferred choice of cereal crops will slowly shift to millets because they are hardier and consume less water. Because rice occupies a majority share of our food basket until now and it has been a part of our culture, we want to cultivate it every year for self sufficiency without using a lot of machines, using mostly hand tools.
Thooyamalli seeds being broadcasted on a rainy evening in November 2019
We broadcasted Thooyamalli’s seeds in November and harvested it in second week of March – crop duration of 4.5 months. Thooyamalli is a native rice vairety – malli is jasmine in Tamil- the variety is named so because the grains are as white as the jasmine flower.
Sudhakar transplanted the seedlings of Red rice following single seedling method in December 2019
A local red rice research variety was transplanted in second week of December after one month in the nursery and harvested along with Thooyamalli – crop duration of 4 months. This year, we have moved to more sustainable ways of cultivation of rice. Details follow:
Mechanics of Cultivation
- Plot 1 – Thooyamalli ( 0.25 acre) : 5 kg seeds were directly broadcasted by Sesaiyya and me. This method is the cheapest, least effort and the most environmentally friendly. It is believed that transplanting rice saplings from a nursery provides a shock to the crop and therefore, is best avoided. Because the seeds are open pollinated, we can save some and incur zero seed cost next year.
- Plot 2 – TK9 Red rice Research variety (0.10 acre) : Sowing for this plot was in the SRI technique. One sapling per transplant with 1 feet distance between each sapling. Ramanathan, a fellow natural farming enthusiast, had excess saplings and shared with us
- Tilling : We did zero primary tilling this year. We did secondary tilling by rotavator – that too only 2 rounds by tractor. Primary tilling turns the soil for almost one foot while secondary till only acts in the top couple of inches. Conventionally, the tractor goes around the entire field for 3 or 4 times. Last year, we did conventional primary and secondary tilling. To spend lesser, to reduce fossil fuel use and to prevent soil erosion & compaction, we took this decision of minimum tillage.
- Harvest : The most laborious task of the entire crop this year was taken up by hand. Noushy, Sesaiyya and I harvested the entire crop with a sickle. Ramanathan and his friends & family joined us for the harvest occasionally. My parents also chipped in during the threshing exercise. It took the three of us approx 3.5 days for harvest and 1.5 days for threshing. Watch the video that we took during the harvest. This was a fun but physically taxing activity. Both harvesting and threshing rice are great activities to bring your family and community together.
- Nutrients : We haven’t yet reached a stage of soil health or started crop rotation where the nutrient cycle is managed on its own. So we needed to add cow dung to provide nitrogen for the crop. To increase carbon in the soil, we shredded and added neem, subabul, calotropis, manjanathi and other green manure to the soil before tilling. We avoided use of bio fertilisers this year because we think we should be self sufficient in our fertilizer needs as well – biofertilizers also have a carbon footprint of transportation from labs to farms.
- Irrigation was conventional – we kept the field flooded through out the duration of the crop
- No pest control – the plots are surrounded by neem trees and because the plots were small, we didn’t have any major pest attack. Avoiding monocropping and introducing diversity has been the key strategy rather than any active pest control measures.
- Seed cost (raw material and courier ) : Rs. 350
- Tilling (tractor rent) : Rs. 1500
- Broadcasting of seeds / Transplanting of saplings (labour) : Rs. 0
- Weeding (labour) : Rs. 1500
- Cow dung compost application (labour) : Rs. 600
- Organic matter application (labour): Rs. 1000
- Jeevamrutham and EM (raw material) : Rs. 1500
- Pest control (raw material) : Rs. 0
- Harvest (labour) : Rs. 0
- Milling (rent) : Rs. 750
- Total = Rs. 7200
These costs don’t include the cost of efforts by Noushy, Sesaiyya (who is employed on monthly salary) and me. The labour costs can be brought towards zero over time once we move into the farm and if more people get involved with us.
The total paddy produce that we got this year was 150 kgs. We will get 90 kgs of rice from this after milling, which will suffice the 4 of us, including my parents, for 9 months of the year. The cost of cultivation was Rs. 60 per kg of rice. Whereas on average, the cost of cultivation per kg of rice is less than Rs. 25 with conventional methods.
While we will definitely improve our productivity with time, the cost differential can never be totally bridged. This is mostly because the majority of cost as you can see (bullet points 5,6,7) is towards fertilising the soil organically and improving soil health, which needs labour. Labour is not subsidized in this country in the farms. Whereas, fossil fuel fertilizers like urea, DAP are subsidised by approx 50%. So, at the policy level itself there is very little impetus provided for healthy ways of farming. The farmer has very little incentive economically to pursue organic farming i.e. to improve his own soil’s health. A lot of people have asked me why organic food is costly. I will try to explain these and more reasons in detail in another blog.
Average yield of paddy in India and in Tamil Nadu is 1000 kgs per acre. Locally, the yields are even greater because the land around Thamirabarani river seems to be suitable for rice cultivation with ample water and the perfect loamy soil.
We achieved a yield of 1000 kgs per acre last year despite no use of fossil fuel based fertilizers or pesticides.
We achieved around 450 kgs per acre this year for both varieties. That is a drop of more than 50% compared to last year. What enabled high productivity last year was use of a cross-pollinated variety of rice, usage of biofertilizers and conventional tilling.
- We didn’t observe any difference in productivity between the two sowing techniques employed in the 2 plots. We need to conduct a controlled experiment with the same variety of rice with the two techniques in the next season
- In the 2nd plot, the crop didn’t seem as healthy as the 1st plot. We think it is because we did a millet crop for cow fodder prior to the rice crop. Having the same crop category viz. cereals back to back in the same plot is not a good idea at all. Because the 1st crop consumed nitrogen from the soil and didn’t leave much for the next crop. Crop rotation is a crucial strategy to manage nutrient cycles. We have broadcasted seeds of various pulses (green gram, black gram and cowpea) in the plots a few weeks after harvest. This is to add nitrogen and carbon to the soil before we do rice or millets in the next monsoon season. We are hoping the peacocks and rabbits dont do much damage to the pulses. 🙂
- Harvesting with a scythe is a much more practical way to harvest the crop. One of us needs to practice with it on grasses, weeds or millets and learn how to use it effectively so that we are ready before the next crop.
Cereal crop objectives for the years to come
- Conduct more controlled experiments
- Various sowing techniques
- Minimum and no-tilling (with crop rotation)
- Conventional irrigation and alternate dry & wet irrigation
- Start growing more millets
- Bring cost of cultivation lower by putting more efforts ourselves and by inviting more friends, family and volunteers to help us with the crop 🙂
People who have experience with natural ways of farming, please let me know if there is anything i have mentioned is factually incorrect. I would love to learn. 🙂
Read about our last years rice cultivation experience here