With rising awareness of the harmful effects of chemical fertilisers and pesticides on human health and the environment, many farmers are moving towards organic farming. The trend is catching up globally, and India is no exception.
The benefits of organic farming are manifold. It improves soil fertility, reduces water usage, promotes biodiversity conservation, prevents pollution, cuts farming costs, and produces healthier crops.
Here are ten tips for making a transition to organic farming from traditional agriculture, the cost estimates, and the time required for the shift:
1. Knowledge and Training
Start by acquiring knowledge about organic farming practices. The Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) across the country offer training programmes and workshops on organic farming techniques. It is important to understand the principles of organic farming, such as soil health, crop rotation, and pest management before its implementation.
Apart from government institutions, some farmers and researchers are also providing guidance and training on organic farming.
Dr Subhash Palekar, an agriculturist and well-known farmer who promoted zero-budget natural farming (ZBNF), has trained thousands of farmers in sustainable and organic farming methods.
Click here to join us on WhatsApp
2. Soil Testing and Improvement
At the outset, it is important to conduct soil tests to assess the current state of your soil. The tests will give the necessary information about the nutrient content and pH level of the soil. It also gives an idea about the microbial activity in the soil.
Optimal pH levels for soil are between 6.0 and 7.0. If the soil is more acidic, lime can be applied to raise the pH level and supply calcium.
Soil fertility and structure can be improved by adding organic matter like vermicompost and manure, both of which can be made on the farm using natural materials like cow dung and other organic waste like leaves, discarded vegetables and fruits, and their peels.
3. Crop Rotation and Diversification
A good practice in organic farming is to implement crop rotation and diversify your crops. Crop rotation is a sustainable agricultural practice of cultivating different crops in succession on the same piece of land.
This method can help to improve soil health, increase its nutrient content, and control pests and weeds. For example, after maize, farmers can plant legumes in the same field as it can restore the soil’s nitrogen consumed by the previous crop.
The late G Nammalvar, well-known for spreading organic farming, practised crop rotation and intercropping on his organic farm.
4. Natural Pest Control
Organic farming in many ways implies giving up most of the market-bought products. You can control pests by adopting natural pest control methods like companion planting -- a form of polyculture where different varieties of plants are grown side-by-side. Such pairing of plants deters pests, providing soil minerals and nutrients and suppressing weeds. Examples are pairing brinjal with bean or capsicum, cabbage with beetroot or potato, pumpkin with corn etc.
Biological pest control can also be used to prevent the need for chemical pesticides. Like the ladybird actively predates on whiteflies, plant lice and scale insects.
5. Avoid Synthetic Chemicals
Gradually reduce and eliminate the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Instead, use organic alternatives like jeevamrit, neem oil, neemastra (made by fermenting neem leaves with cow dung and cow urine), bhramastra (made using five types of leaves and cow urine) and dashparni extract made with 10 types of leaves and other ingredients.
6. Organic Seeds
Farmers must source organic, non-GMO seeds from reputable sources to ensure the purity of crops. Indigenous or native seeds are best grown using organic practices because they require less water, are naturally pest-resistant and can be saved or stored for use in the next season.
Native seeds are unlike hybrid seeds which have to be bought every year, increasing the cost of cultivation for farmers.
7. Organic Certification and Marketing
If you plan to sell your produce as certified organic, you have to obtain an organic certification. Organic certification can be obtained for domestic distribution or exports. Various organizations are providing it including NPOP (National Programme for Organic Production), PGS or Participatory Guarantee Systems, EU Organic logo for exporting to Europe, Bio Suisse for exports to Switzerland etc.
To apply for these certifications, the farmer must follow sustainable practices which do not hurt the environment or any of its components.
After the application is filled by a grower, an independent organization reviews the entire production, processing, handling, storage and transport processes to ensure compliance with organic standards.
They review the cultivation practices, usage of inputs, use of machinery, pest management and even animal rearing practices to ensure they are compatible with nature and there is no use of synthetic feeds or other chemicals. This is done by checking documents as well as on-site physical inspection.
The products then bear the certification mark on the packaging to help consumers make an informed decision. It is also important for growers to connect with local markets, co-operatives, or online platforms to sell their organic products.
Sikkim is the first organic state in India to promote organic farming practices and connect farmers with markets for certified organic products.
Timeframe for organic certification
It can take two to three years for the land to be officially certified as organic. During this transition, you may not receive organic prices for your produce.
The timeframe for the shift to organic farming depends on the condition of the soil, climate, and your commitment to transitioning. During this period, you'll need to adhere to organic farming principles without the use of synthetic chemicals.
Costs of shifting to organic farming
The costs of converting one acre of land to organic farming can vary significantly depending on the initial state of the soil and the specific practices you implement. It can range from a few thousand to several lakhs of rupees. Key expenses include soil testing, composting facilities, organic inputs, and labour costs. It's important to keep in mind that organic farming is an investment in the long-term sustainability of your land.
Many successful Indian farmers, including engineers, and MBAs, have shown that organic farming can be not only ecologically sustainable but also financially viable. While the transition may be challenging, it can lead to healthier and more resilient farming systems in the long run.