Vidhatakulam farm is a large operation based in Madurai, south of Tamil Nadu. The farm is spread across two areas of land, one 470 acres and the other, 50 acres. It is run by three supervisors and 36 workers. Crops were produced semi-organically, using pesticides and artificial inputs when they deemed it necessary, but even with intervention, there have been struggles with yields for some time. Situated in an arid climate with sandy soils makes it challenging to grow a number of crops efficiently.
Through a friend, Raja heard about the difficulties being faced at the farm and decided to go and work with the supervisors and workers to regenerate the farm land, starting with the crux of all successful farming – building and restoring a healthy soil ecosystem.
The first steps were to observe the environment and assess the requirements needed to enable the farm ecosystem to thrive. The initial observations were that there were major problems with retaining water and nutrients in the soil (and root zone) for the crops, which was likely attributed to soil degradation and the soil type, ranging from sandy to a very sandy loam. It was evident that before any crop care could take place, soil care had to happen first.
Raja advised that the farm land needed to be planned well so that day-to-day management and crop rotations could be efficient, complimentory and lead to an overall higher yield. After the farm was partitioned into four areas, the soil care was undertaken.
Compost, compost and a little more compost. But don’t forget the mulch.
If you are going to practise organic farming, one must appreciate that what comes out of the soil must inevitably go back in. Life is a cycle of breaking matter down and using that matter to synthesise new material. Compost and mulch are two very effective ways to incorporate organic matter (a carbon-rich material containing vital vitamins and minerals, as well as important fauna) into the soil. They also provide other services to your organic operation. In different ways, both mulches and compost can help retain water in the soil, and mulches also reduce the burden of weeds. Vidhatakulam farm began receiving regular applications of compost and most beds and tree planted were mulched heavily.
The bed was mulched with Glircidia leaves to help improve soil carbon and nitrogen, as well as reduce soil erosion from the wind moving (sandy) soil partciles. The bed was then mulched with straw to improve moisture retention and increase soil nitrogen.
The papaya were also mulched with straw to help improve the mosture retention.
The farmers had never grown corriander on the farm for the fear that the crop would fail due to water drought-related issues due to the heat. With heavy mulches of rice husk to reduce the top soil temperature, combined with raised beds and drip irrigation, the corriander was a success!
Raised beds for a better crop
The beds were raised to enhance the nutrient availability to plants and help reduce water loss through the gradual production of humus-rich soil around the root zone of the crops. (In areas where water drainage is an issue, raised beds can also be used to improve water drainage) The raised beds were standardised to enable a good crop rotation and a wide crop variety were planted next to their companions to help with pest management and nutrient availability (click here for companion planting chart). The mulches and applications of compost reduced watering to every three days.
Variety of crops:
Area A: mixed vegetables, papaya, corn, squash, ginger, corriander, sweet potatoes, bush beans, marigold flowers
Area B: (tarted with tomatoes, then carrots, two beds of flowers, aubergine, grasses for mulch to be dried
Area C: vines growing on trellices – beans & ivy goard, pumpkin, some beds had onion, cluster beans, lady finger
All beds, apart from tree crops were planted in raised beds with compost and plant litter incorporated into the soil, drip irriagtion placed over the beds, then mulched with appropriate organic matter such as grasses, glircidia leaves or leaf litter.
Winds block are necessary on most farms, especially arid/semi-arid ones
Wind blocks were created from living matter; glircidia, tapeoca and velvet beans. The wind blocks helped to reduce soil degradation from wind erosion (click learn) and evaporation from the air circulation (click learn) which are essential on most farms, but especially semi-arid ones.
Changing your soil ecosystem to improve structure, chemical composition and stability
Natural inputs and pest management are crucial to organic farming. The following are promoted and used by Aranya Eco Village, and they have so far produced very good results:
Bioenzymes: these are used to change the state of the soil you have. Just like adding lime to an acidic soil to increase the pH (to neutral, pH of 6-7), you can use bacteria to change the chemical and physical composition of the soil to your required needs (alongside other inputs such as the right mulch, compost/manure and particles like clay, sand, silt and so forth). A quick internet search can bring up a lot of information surrounding bio-enzyme activity to improve soil chemical and structural stability.
Fish amino acids: provides an abundance of crucial nutrients to plants and soil microorganisms which live around the root zone breaking down soil organic matter releasing further nutrients in the form plants can use.
Fermented glircidia leaf juice: fed via drip irrigation, this liquid feed provides the plants with important nutrients, but as a liquid feed it doesn’t add high organic carbon containing compounds to the soil. This would require a glircidia mulch or manure.
Reducing annual crops for better soil ecosystems and higher financial returns
One of the regions of the farm was turned into a forest made up of cashew nuts, guagva, jack fruit, mango, sweet lime, lemon, mulberry and small berry varieties which would provide a perminent crop that requires less labour and inputs but generates an equally, if not better, income.
An area left bare was converted into a food forest containing local native forest trees and fruit and nut trees. Under the soon-to-be canopy, nitrogen fixing plants were established. These plants help retain soil water, increase soil carbon and nitrogen levels and reduce soil degradation.
All tree crops were given root treatment, heavy mulching and high compost/manure incorporation before they were planted. This helped the plants establish in the arid soil.
Seed saving – saves finances and improves crop success
Along the way, Raja started a small seed bank, picking varieties of crops that proved to be most successful in the environment. By seed saving and using varieties that have demonstrated great success previously, you can gain autonomy from having to source externally. This can reduce operational costs and lead to more reliable, high yielding crops.
The crucial message
The overall advise from Raja was to stop using artificial inputs and utilise organic, soil building, methods to improve yields; mulching, applying compost, root treatments on perennials, building raised beds, creating wind blocks, not leaving land bare, treating pests with natural methods (home-made inputs and companion planting), pruning correctly, selecting good seed varieties and overall, observing ways to establish a more perminant (permaculture) design to manage the farm …a couple of months down the line saw an incredible result. A lot of the crop yields took a 5x increase from previous harvests.
…This was the point Raja decided it was time to mobe onto the next adventure!
Some pictures of the farm…