Eating is an agricultural act - Wendell Berry

Monday, December 31, 2012

Aadi 2012 - agriculture update

we have been recording updates on our activities and observations on paper rather than online as its a lot easier. here is the synopsis for Aadi season...

the summer notwithstanding, we started preparations for the important Aadi season (July-Aug) in right earnest. the earnestness was buoyed by some rains in early july (Our first rain for the year). what was till then a limited agricultural area, just exploded into a large scale (2.5 acre) rainfed attempt. (actually since we had been twiddling our thumbs most of this super hot summer, the first rain unleashed the 'lets scale up beast' in us).

we got the area ploughed using a tractor a couple of times, divided into plots and hired labour to put up varappu (bunds) around the plots - clean and pretty. while all this was being done we were reports on reading deficient rainfall in the SW monsoon, unprecedented dry weather etc in the rest of the country. we still hoped we would get regular showers.
this jump from 0.5 acre to 2.5 acre (1 acre inside our fenced area and 1.5 acre non-fenced) can be simply termed as bravado. without the necessary experience, fertility, soil preparation, it rolled out as an inspired rush job. using two runs of tractor based ploughing solved the soil preparation issue and importing farm yard
manure solved the fertility issue. also we were relying entirely on rain for irrigation and did not have any other option to irrigate.

anyway we bought seeds and waited for the sky to open up and it did. as luck would have it we got 11cm overnight on the 8th of Aug 2012.

here is the list of crops we sowed.


Ragi (first attempt in Aug ) in 60 cents. failed - very poor germination and the ones that did, did not survive the long dry spells in between the rains.
Ragi (second attempt in sept). in 25 cents. good germinaiton and received follow up rains. 15 cents inside fenced area survived and is coming up for harvest in about 10 days. 10 cents outside got grazed by cattle.

being our most consumed millet, we wanted to scale up Ragi. our earlier experiments with mulched and SRI Ragi yielded well but cannot be scaled up beyond 5-7 cents. we had to get the broadcasted-rainfed method to work. Ragi is not a common crop around here and the few who grow use transplant-irrigated method. It is not possible to plan for transplanting under rainfed conditions as rains are unpredictable and with no option to irrigate we could just end up with the seedlings maturing in the nursery. Hence the direct sowing.
with no real experience in the neighbourhood on  broadcasting, it was done the way other broadcast based crops like green gram, black gram are done - throw the seeds around and plough the field to cover them. we realised lated that this may not be the best method as it might have sent the seeds too deep.
they did not germinate the first time. we got the farmer to do a very  shallow ploughing the second time and that worked.

Varagu (kodo millet) & other millets. 

sowed in 50 cents - failed - poor germination due to no follow up rain and the ones that did got grazed by cattle. we sowed them in the non-fenced area.

Assorted millets - kudiraivalli (banyard millet) & samai (kodo millet) in 17 cents did not germinate - no follow up rain.

Kambu (Pearl Millet) in about 15 cents, germinated and grew very well but got rain during flowering and ear maturing stage. this spoiled most of the ears. we got about 5kgs of kambu.


our earlier attempt at irrigated groundnut in Dec-March 2012 season yielded poorly due to insufficient fertility and irrigation. we sowed about 15 kgs of groundnuts in about 25 cents and used the sprinkler for irrigation as our solar based power can only run a quarter hp motor. as the days grew hotter we could not keep up sufficient moisture levels. as field preparation we had just ploughed an area that was under broom grass and thought it might have some fertility for it had never been cutivated over the last 30 years. as it turned out, it had none. the tough broom grass was an indication that nothing else could grow. we got about 15kgs of nuts. about 20% of a decent yield expected for the area. the nuts were of very good quality though and so we milled a part them for oil.

we figured that we are not going to be able to scale up irrigated peanuts with our well-motor combination. and so this time we scaled up rainfed peanuts. sowed 30kgs in 65 cents. (20cents outside and 45cents inside out fenced area). this was another calculated risk. instances of rainfed groundnut are getting scarce in the locality. we sourced local seeds from a village market near gingee and sowed with reasonable precision on timing on the 10th of Aug. they sprouted beautifully and grew well. we had added farm yard manure and organic matter from nearby neem trees and that worked in improving the fertility from last time. however rainfall was deficient and they went through prolonged dry patches with severe heat in september. they also got infected with some pest that was supposed to go away with rain and that rain took too long to come. so the crop did take a beating but turned out ok in the end.  harvest was due end oct - early nov. with strong NE monsoon starting mid october and with Nilam cyclone dumping some 15cm of rain during maturing phase (when the soil is supposed to be dry to aid in maturing) we thought we had lost this one too. but a month of dry-hot spell that followed Nilam helped the crop immensely and we could harvest, dry and bag the nuts to safety before the next rain. we got 5 bags (100kgs of nuts) from 45 cents (the 20cents sowed outside did not do well due to lack of fertility like our earlier crop). the productivity this time was 3 times better than our last irrigated attempt on the same field. we now need not worry about cooking oil for the next two years :-)

we sowed assorted carbonaceous and green manure crop in the rest of the 45 cents & they were ok.

so we got some and lost some. overall good learning from this season. we still need to figure out scaling up of ragi & kambu.

Monday, July 23, 2012

House - update and final part

no, we have not moved into the house we built. the house was built as a back up should the pavilion thatch give away or leak during the monsoons. as we also re-thatched the pavilion last year, it is unlikely to leak for a couple of years now. so the house will remain as a back up accommodation.

in-spite of the steps taken to prevent them, we saw a heavy infestation of termites as soon as the monsoon started last year. they completely took over the walls and flooring. our brand new house suddenly had a haunted look early this year. post NE monsoon we did a complete lime-wash on the walls as an experiment to deter termites. it has worked so far. we have since been maintaining it with regular cow dung dabs on the floor and have installed a kutty fan and a light. this is how it looks now.

the front

mud floor with cow dung dab

mud floor does require regular maintenance and cow dung dabbing is the common practice in the village to keep the floor smooth and to prevent the mud surface from chipping off.  we will not be able to use any wooden furnitures because of termites. otherwise the floor feels very good.

we also had to put a long awning in the front to prevent the walls from taking a direct rain splash. after much deliberation we decided to put up a keeth pandal ourselves and it was great fun.

skeleton for keeth pandal

we learnt the rope knots from the pavilion

finally done and cost us little over a lakh of rupees.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

the summer of these contents!

dec 29th 2011 cyclone thane – 21cm rain in less than 12 hours
june 22nd 2012 – 173 days and counting of no rain since above

this summer has been different for obvious reasons...

- its been hot hot and hotter. we must have had about 30-35 days over 40 deg C between april - june and its still going strong

- we have been indoors - sweating and cooling it off.

- we sowed some summer veggies in march but very few survived the hostile weather. the ones that did survive did not produce much. we see nearby organic farm produce some veggies (okra, cluster bean, bitter gourd etc) in the summer but they seem to have pumped their soil and plants with a high quantity of water and fertility. it will take us a few years to get the soil to a level when we can grow summer veggies with our level of watering.

- last couple of years we had had about 100 mm of rain by this time (apr-jun). this year we are yet to receive even 5mm.

- our standard summer crop, ragi also failed - repeated attempts at raising a nursery never took off as ants took away most of the seeds we broadcasted and rabbits nibbled clean the ones that sprouted. they too were desperate for food in this weather and so we let it be. with no summer showers, we gave up the attempt and decided to take it up again in the next season.

- we lost 4 of the 5 sapota saplings and a few coconuts we had transplanted last year inspite of regular watering . we also lost a few forest trees we got from the forestway. :-( very painful indeed.

- our laptop hard disk got fried in the heat and it took a couple of months to get it replaced.

the brighter side (pun unintended) to all of these has been..

- we scaled up on tubers. 40 yams, 30 tapiocas and 5 vethalavalli kizhangus all growing well.

- our solar cooker has been working overtime giving us more leisure time. In addition to rice, dhal, sundal, sun dried tomatoes we have perfected making kheers and ragi mudde in it. fill it, shut it, forget it (well not entirely, just little tilts of the mirror ever so often)!

- one of our mango trees produced some 20 odd fruits. we let the fruits ripen and fall from the tree and they were delicious. its been exciting to walk around the tree every morning looking for 'today's special' :-)

- we have had tons so sweet papaya this summer.

- with all this free time and nothing much to do on the field we have been reading and re-reading anything in print. Some of the treasures have been
    regenerating the soil by claude bourguignon (a must read classic for all farmers)
    the ecology of commerce by paul hawken
    an agricultural testament by sir albert howard
    collected works of dharampal on panchayat raj, education, science and technology
    rediscovering india by dharampal
    an omnivore's dilemma by michael pollan

- surprisingly, we have been able to take this onslaught of heat and resultant inactivity in our stride.

- with no laptop, we have had blissful two months of no access to current events, popular media, breaking news etc. now that we are connected, we spend far less time on the net. this has been a pleasant and unexpected development. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

what are we doing at pR?

when confronted with this question, some of the common responses we give are:
1. pR is a wasteland restoration initiative/project.
2. an abandoned parcel of land is being restored to Nature.
3. we aim to produce surpluses from a previously uncultivated piece of land.
it is a response that is easy to understand and easy to explain.
and none of the responses fail to elicit the appropriate oohs and aahs.
and over time as we repeat these lines, there is a obvious risk of us getting enamoured by attention and actually starting to believe it!!
affecting the core of who we are and what we do is the way we look at things, human-centrically.

borrowing michael pollan's strategy (used at his famous TED talk - from the plant's eye view - where he examines the world from the corn's viewpoint) and examining this question posed in the title from the point of view of the land.
this parcel of land has obviously existed since the birth of earth several billion years ago.
She has been a witness and a participant in a microcosmic part of the Earth's etire history.
She has been a womb to several creations and a graveyard for several destructions.
(i use the past tense injudiciously, struggling to overcome the pull of human-centricity).
she will continue to create and destroy and continuously modify herself till the sun explodes.
it is She who has welcomed us, we like little children looking for a playground, have stumbled onto Her courtyard.
it is She who is playing the gracious and wise host, promising us a good time.
like tennyson said about the brook, " for men may come and men may go, but i go on forever."

She too would say, "pR is a wasteland restoration project."

Monday, February 06, 2012

new residents

of pR in the wild. this season we are seeing a few natural beehives with a tiny colony of bees.
they have appeared in tulsi plants, grasses and small weeds.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

samba wheat experiment - failed

our experiment with samba wheat sprouted and took off quite ok during the first week. it also received constant rains in december and we had reasonably cool weather over dec - mid jan. however the crop did not show vigourous growth after the rains. the test seeds we planted in the nursery grew at a rapid rate but direct sowing did not have the same effect. we will try again earlier in the season this year to see if that works.

tuber january

this new year we got a tuber treat from the farm. after our potato growing fiasco, we planted a few varieties of tubers that are known to grow in the humid tropics. these paid off well.

elephant yam (senai kizhangu in tamil and suran in hindi)

we cut a full grown yam with a sprout into 3-4 pieces in such a way that every piece retains a part of the sprout. we got our initial seed from our friends at green local. we then planted these pieces into a 2x2x2 feet pit with a lot of manure and mulch. we feel we can reduce the pit size to 1x1x1 foot next time. this was planted in late april with the help of one of our friend shankar who was visiting at that time. we watered the pits regularly till the monsoon took over. the plants grew through the year and wilted after the end of NE monsoon. nice pictures of various stages of the plant growth can be seen here. we dug up to find the treasure in jan. each of the pieces had grown into a full yam @3kg/tuber. we plan to replant most of the harvest to scale up for next season. yam stores well over months and is a tasty vegetable to cook.

vethalai valli kizhangu
(betel leaves tuber)

we got this tuber from our friends at pebble garden, auroville. this is a vine with a leaf structure similar to betel leaves and hence the name. grows and climbs vigorously onto anything and is quite hardy. we harvested and cooked the tuber. it feels and tastes like a combination of elephant yam and colocaesia yam.

tapioca (mara valli kizhangu)

sticks of mature plant is planted on a mound in april and watered till rains take over. the plant grows tall and tuber forms below. if the soil is fertile, loose and friable, the tuber branches and grows thick. its very tasty to cook fresh tapioca. we just steam boil with a little salt and have the tuber instead of rice. unfortunately this tuber does not stay beyond a couple of days. so its harvested and cooked fresh. these are also par boiled and sun dried for storage.

all of the above nourished us with over 20kgs of food this jan.