Eating is an agricultural act - Wendell Berry

Monday, May 31, 2010

ragi crop - experiences

this has to be the toughest task that we have done so far in around 5 months at pR.
and also the toughest blogpost.
this was item 3 on our things are afoot post over a month ago.

april 2nd week
we decided to sow ragi in month of april mid to may mid (called chittirai pattam - aka chittirai month sowing season).
we selected a patch of land approx 2500 sq ft (hereinafter called 'field').

I. preparation of field - since the field was lying fallow, we needed to add nutrition. we did this by using the amrut mitti system - albeit, modified. we spread to approx 2 inches height of leaves/grass soaked in amrut paani over around 2000 sq ft. due to limitations of availability of biomass and time constraints. this is how the soaking is done. this process took around 7 days of 2 hours each of physical work.

then the field was mulched with wild grass (dried).
normally any field is ploughed with the added biomass/dung etc., prior to the crop.
in our case, the constraint of water availability determined the approach to be a no-till crop.
mulching also serves to retain moisture, contain weed growth and increase micro-organism activity.

II. preparation of the nursery patch (april 20th) - we decided (with inputs from many neighbouring farmers) to use the transplant method instead of the open broadcast method. this is the classically used system for most grains. this enables people to choose the best sapling and plant the field in a orderly manner.
we apportioned around 200 sq ft of nursery patch in a corner of the field.

this patch was levelled, deweeded, watered and we mixed a variety of manure (dried cowdung - dull brown colour, farmyard manure - steel gray colour and decomposed vegetable matter-dark colour) and spread it around this patch.

then the seeds were sown.
these seeds were from karnataka and were sourced through a friend and originated at green foundation.

check out the simple hand-raking system to even out the seeds.

a look at the hardworking csm team.

this process was easy and fun and lasted all of 1 hour for 4 people.

and the saplings grew beautifully.

april 4th week
III. intercropping with karamani - cow pea
to attempt a simple mixed cropping system, we planted karamani (chouli beans) in rows approx 27 inches apart. the ragi would be transplanted in 2 rows in between this gap in the karamani rows.
the advantages of intercropping are obvious and the use of a legume and grain in combination is supposed to help each other.
also we love karamani. it is hardy and bountiful. and look how quickly it has sprouted and taken its place (this is within 10 days of planting karamani which was planted 10 days after the ragi as planted in the nursery bed ).

may 2nd week

4. transplanting (may 12th to 14th) - we waited for the saplings to grow to a decent size (as seen in image) and in our case it took approx 22 days to grow to that size.

the nursery patch was watered and the saplings plucked out and handed out to 3 teams of 2 each.
we remain indebted to 2 volunteers who were around to help us in this arduous process - siddharth and arvind.
one would make holes in the space between the karamani rows (with a pointed wooded stick) and the other would plonk 2 saplings and close the hole.
much tougher than we imagined.
it took around 25 personhours to complete this task over 3 sessions.
it is recommended that the planting is done in the evening to allow the saplings to live their first 10 hours in the relative cool of the night.

here is the planting team (csm, siddharth, annamalai, raju and chellama in the front).

the field as on today - day 40.

general comments and observations.
1. transplanting method is physically very intensive.
2. managing weeds. especially in the areas where the mulch levels were low or were moved to sow the karamani/transplant the ragi. as on date, we have spots which are heavily weeded and will take hours of effort to remove.
3. watering - we are using a sprinkler system to water the field. the other option was to use a watering hose. this system is simple, gentle and time consuming and is blind to certain spots in the field (circular watering in a rectangular field). and in spots which have heavy mulch, the water hardly seeps through to the ground.

4. soil type - in heavy clayey soil (which we have in some places), the transplanting is like hammering a nail with your fist.
5. we were helped by the 2 bouts of rain - one during karamani planting and one during the laila storm.

we have some improvements lined up in our next ragi crop. in early 2011.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

heat is on - again

the last 10 days has been a relentless heat spell.
the weather in chennai is a close approximation of the weather at pR.

inside the pavilion, the heat has reached upto 40 deg C (on May 27) and has hovered in the high 30s otherwise.
10 am to 4 pm is strict indoors time.
the plants are getting their regular share of watering and care.
many are struggling through this phase. we may have lost one cucumber vine and many that we planted post the rains have just not germinated.
a good set of lessons to learn about may heat and growing vegetables.

last time i cribbed on the heat is 3 years ago.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

handling a bull run

the master trainer - look at the stance and the poise.

learning the ropes

going solo (after 10 mins of training!!)

this is ballelaka at its most elemental.

and action photography at its best.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

basic element for survival

the rains round the corner forecast turned out to be prophetic. this is our second installment of rains this summer. first installment reports are here and here.
2010 has to be noted down as a lucky summer.

check out the 2 satellite pics of may 18th.

one at 12 noon

one at 12 midnight

all images courtesy - indian meterological dept

we started getting a light drizzle from around 130AM and medium rains from 330AM.
yes, it is the middle of the night and i am noting down the time.

i have been cloud watching since the afternoon of may 17th searching for this rain.
since coming to pR, rains have moved from becoming a thing of beauty/traffic snarler/heat respite to basic element for survival.
being in the cities hardly allows one to appreciate the rains for what they really are.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

down to the wire - david orr

david orr has appeared here around 18 months ago in 'what is education for?'
turns out that he has written on another subject just as close to my heart, climate change.
this book is 'down to the wire - confronting climate collapse'.

he explains the book and many other related things in this 3 part interview on transitions culture.
part 1
part 2
part 3

tremendously enjoyable.

he refers to this book - the shock doctrine by naomi klein.
she takes on free-market capitalism heads on. my kind of reading.

the treadle pump

this foot pump was item 6 of our 'things are afoot' post last month.

we installed it last week as our water resource (borewell) dried up as the summer was taking its toll.
it uses the water from the pond for irrigation as against the borewell which taps into ground water.

the blue barrel at the background in the right pic (above) is where the water is getting filled up. it is approx 20 m away. the flow rate we are generating is approx 15 lt/min.

here is a close-up from the front and the back.

there are 2 cylinders in the left pic (above). the left one is the suction and the right is the discharge cylinder.
as is clear from the right pic (above), the mechanism is exactly like a stepper (gym users will know). using pure leg power, the water is drawn into and ejected from the cylinders.

the pond which is our current irrigation source.

some modifications are being planned. the current arrangement, through the 20 m pipe discharge + 3 feet level rise, is making the discharge pedal very tough (pressure loss due to pipe friction).
so if i use this pump regularly, my left leg is likely to become far far stronger than my right!!
so we shall raise the pump to nullify level rise and install a tank right next to the discharge and then let gravity do its work.

this is totally awesome exercise+watering system.

para-hovering at zamin endathur

zamin endathur is the name of the main village close to point return.
those who read this post carefully, would have come across the link to Adventure Zone.
it is run by Maj SR Roy, our neighbour and a good friend.

he was kind enough to offer a trip up on his parachute.
we did not parasail, we hovered being tied up on a jeep.
and got a better look at the local topography than what google maps offers.

getting kitted up...

up, up and away...

we were around 200 ft above the ground.

and to keep us grounded and safe, the jeep...

others need to go to a special place to enjoy adventure sports.
we do it in our backyard :-)

Monday, May 17, 2010

celestial dance

being in rural india has some serious charms.
the low levels of pollution and the lack of artificial lighting in the nights, opens up the spectacular night sky.
one can never tire watching the splendour of the moon in its various shapes and positions or the magnificence of the early morning orange sun. and the rare solar rings.
and stars are a daily awe-inducing sight.
and i am not even an interested astronomer - just like to look up.

the tough part is to capture this beauty and bring it to this blog. unfortunately, the equipment does not allow this, yet.

but here is a try at what we saw last night on the western skyline - the celestial dance between venus and the crescent moon. just lovely.

as the moon rose, it released venus from the eclipse pose. here are some better photos.

rain is around the corner

even a simple layman can see this image and come to this conclusion. rains are going to happen pretty soon.

being in the south-eastern part of the indian peninsula has its advantages.
we get a limited but early taste of the monsoon and hence a respite from the sizzling summer heat.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

our co-resident

the first installment of co-residents of pR covered the more sedate species.

here is a close encounter with a beautiful slithery resident - a huge beautiful rat snake.

regular readers will be familiar with my encounters with snakes.

Monday, May 10, 2010

kezhvaragu koozhu - ragi porridge

continuing the series on millets, here is a summer-time breakfast dish that is right out of the farmer's home - kezhvaragu koozhu (the tamil 'zh' phonetic is sometimes too much effort even for us and we shorten it to 'koo').

ragi powder/flour - 1 cup (one can either use sprouted ragi powder or the plain powder)
cooked rice - half a cup
water - 4 to 5 cups

1. mix the ragi flour with water onto idli/dosa batter viscosity. do this in the morning and let it ferment till the evening (approx 10 hours). it will not rise like idli/dosa batter.
2. take a pot and boil water.
3. add the ragi batter slowly and keep mixing.
4. once added, sim the flame and stir till ragi is cooked. this is take approx 15 mins. do not use pressure cooking.
5. add the cooked rice and mix in well (usually people use leftover cooked rice from lunch/dinner).
6. at the end of the cooking, it will have pongal type consistency.
7. let it cool overnight.
8. have it in the morning (for breakfast) by mixing it with buttermilk, salt and onions. onions are compulsory. the farmers have it at a thick drinkable consistency and bite into full size onions.
you can do enhancements with pickles, moar milagai, left-over sambar/kozhambu, crushed appalam/vadam/vathal, etc.

other internet recipes here and here.

am told that there are handcarts in chennai which sell this delicious porridge in many locations. if around, do look for them.

we are having this 3-4 times a week now. simple, nutritious, cooling and sumptuous.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

3 things to avoid - redux

the shun cabbage, cauliflower and grape post heated up this space last month.
met our neighbourhood army-major-turned-corporate-trainer yesterday who came and said:
"i just read an article which said that the 3 things to avoid eating are....", you guessed it: cabbage, cauliflower and grapes.

and he did not read it at Fun, yeah.

and he went on to say that malathion is the key pesticide used and the spraying is done at extremely high dosages and frequency.
cabbage and cauliflower are very popular on his menu.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

growing sesame - til - yellu

sesame (til in hindi and yellu in tamil) is mainly used for oil.
it is limited culinary uses as a grain.
we took a shot at growing yellu to meet our oil requirements.
sesame oil is called nalla ennai in tamil (translated as good oil).
it is one of the few oils which can be consumed raw (draw readers attention to the oil used to mix with the podi served along with idli).
it is also much more expensive than the popular edible oils.
and could be subjected to mixing with cottonseed oil (which could be from BT cotton).

so here is what we did - a story in pictures:
1. the designated field was already planted with sunn hemp - a common and popular green-biomass crop (sunn hemp is a legume and adds to the fertility to the soil through its roots).

2. it is cut and chopped down into small pieces.

3. and then mulched onto the soil and then ploughed in with the classic bullock plough.

a bullock-backside cam shot.

4. the seed is then sown (approx 100 gms) through a simple broadcast system. this was done on 29th jan (within 10 days of our first arrival at pR).

5. over the next 80 days it was watered around 5-6 times. we did no other operations (like weeding/de-weeding, fertiliser/pesticide addition).

6. at the time of harvest it looked like this - april 18th.
due to our own inexperience and other factors (inaccurate sowing and initial watering), the crop never looked optimal. but we are not greedy farmers, are we?

7. see how the stalk looks with the seed pods. these are carerfully chopped off from just above the ground (never uproot as the soil hanging onto the roots will find their way into the sesame)

after full clearance - the field.

8. it is piled up neatly like below with the pods facing the center of the tarpaulin/mat. it is covered with another tarp. it is allowed to remain like this for 4-5 days for the pods to mature and be ready to split open with a tap.

9. the covered pile is gently hit on the top with a stick. this breaks the pods and the sesame will settle to the bottom of the pile. (as this was done in our absence, we missed this part).

10. the seeds are gathered and then cleaned by winnowing.

11. and then we have the final harvested sesame. approx 3 kgs (inside sources reveal that we should have got at least 5-10 times this amount). this close up looks identical to the photo under point 4- but swear that they are seed and crop).

12. the leftover stalks and spread back onto the field.

what shall we do differently the next time?
1. sow in december
2. no ploughing.
3. prepare field with higher levels of humus infusion
4. mulch the field through the growing period to increase moisture retention and enhance micro-organism activity.
5. mix cropping sesame and a legume (like green gram, toor dal)

some of these techniques are already being tried in our ragi growing experiments.

we shall be converting this small quantity into oil and that's another post coming up in 2 months from now.