Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Weekend Farming!

A year or so back, I felt the need to take the plunge and see if I have it in me to do full time farming - the logical step obviously was to lease a small plot of land, work on it and see if I can sustain with it. Well, as luck would have it, we found a nice community farm (some 30 or odd kilometres from our home) that offered about 1000 sq ft of space along with a watchman who also took care of the watering and deweeding if required. There was no hesitation - we signed up right away.

We worked on that land for about 6 - 8 months earnestly (working on every other weekend as that was the only time we could actually travel that distance and visit and spend time at the land).

1. We prepared the land using the Natural farming methods of Leaf Litter, applying Jeevamrutha on them to create a living mulched bed/soil, then growing Nitrogen fixing crops and chopping and dropping them, etc. This took about 1.5 months.

2. The next step was to sow the saplings and seeds. Fortunately, I had started the Tomato and Brinjal saplings (and got few of them from a Gardening event too) - so they got transplanted straight away. Then sowed carrots, corn, potato, some greens, etc. I guess I kind of went overboard on the mixed cropping - everything seemed to be growing everywhere - this caused some problems later on.

3. Then the regular maintenance - which in my book actually reads no maintenance sans regular application of Jeevamrutham. I don't believe in Pesticides or other crop protection mechanisms (Live and let live!).

4. And after a waiting period of about six months, we harvested our first crop - about 12-15 kilograms of Tomato. All the brinjal were eaten by worms, the corn wilted due to lack of watering, the potato crop did not produce as much as expected. We of course got loads of greens every visit starting our second month itself (Amaranthus and Hona Gone to the rescue!).

5. Finally, in December (about 8 months after we took the farm), we decided to throw the spade in so to speak. We just could not manage the hectic schedule anymore - maintaining this land, our home garden, paying attention to kids, giving our week-long worked body some rest, etc, etc was getting a bit too much to handle. Plus, we felt the distance we were travelling to the land (about 1 - 1.5 hours of commute) was also not worth it.

Though I enjoyed this exercise immensely, I also understood that farming (at least the way I see it) cannot be a weekend job! Especially if you are NOT living in the farm!

Here are some pictures that will take you through our journey over those eight months:

The first survey (View from right) - 28th March

The state of the plot when we took over was semi-arid with minimal vegatation. The land has been mono-cropped with Sweet Potato for more than a year(sparsely in some areas) and the soil seemed stripped of much of its biology and life. There were some trees providing some much needed shade to the exposed soil including Mango and Guava. The same shade also acts as a deterrent to the growth of sun-loving plants (a problem we will need to handle much later; falling leaves, fruits and branches will need to be taken care of).

The landscape is also not very even - with hilly mounds here and there and of course the underground tunnels created by Bandicoots (another threat we will need to deal with once harvesting time nears).

The first survey (View from left)

The first treatment - 29th March

In keeping with the principles of no/minimal digging, PC and ZNBF, the most important thing we needed to was obviously to treat the soil and bring back it's life. So that's what we did. A barrel of Jeevamrutham (a concoction of cow dung, urine, among other things) was prepared and spread on the preliminary beds we created for convenience along with the fallen Honge leaves we gathered from the streets (sweeping the neighborhood much to the dismay of the hubby!). We prepared six horizontal beds of about 6 * 2.5 ft. A batch of cover crops will now predominate this area until soil fertility is regained at least a bit (though the full process will take about a year). A mix of mustard, fenugreek, cowpeas, sesame, beans, and Mung bean seeds were broadcast across the six beds with no rhyme or reason! There were ants and termites abound alll over - but we left it nature to decide if the seeds will survive their sight - somehow, seed starting and working with seed trays is not my cup of
thing! I prefer direct sowing.

Application of JM and Honge mulching

Broadcasting seeds on the beds were sub-contracted to the kids!

First signs of life - 12th April

Life seems to be trickling back when we visit after a gap of two weeks. In the interim, minimal watering must have been taken care by the farm keeper (perhaps once in three days). You can see sprouts of beans, mustard, and cow peas. The dormant and left over sweet potatoes in the ground from the previous year's crop had sprouted profusely as well. We decided to create two more beds - this time on the raised mound in the corner and reserve it for creepers. But this time, no cover crop for this area - just a treatment with JM and light mulching. In the other vertical bed, we broadcast radish, red and green amaranthus. Unfortunately, both these beds are completely under the shades of the mango and guava tree. Let's see how the greens and creepers are going to perform.

Cow Peas/Bean germinating

Establishing ourselves - 25th April

Surprise awaited us as we went to the plot another 12 days later. The beds were covered thickly with saplings of the seeds we had broadcast as well as with all kinds of weeds, especially weeds that foretell the fertility of the land. We were happy. The Saplings seems to be well-established though Methi was nowhere to be seen! Probably the seeds got eaten

Dense, dense, denser!

Bring it on - we are on our way to become wild - 5th May

This visit was very short - couldn't do much except a brief survey. The ground appeared more greener and denser. Holes on many leaves, especially mustard, indicating presence of caterpillars and worms. Yay! Food to the ecosystem! However, a slight fear of what is to come once the real crops start making their way!!

Wilderness! Nature is on her way back - 16th May

Oh, the glory of returning mother nature. If you look at the plot now, you wouldn't believe a human being worked on it! Such is the density and wild growth. By now, distinguishing between any recognizable variety of plant we sowed is almost impossible except in the two beds where we planted greens and creepers - the weeds and sweet potato have taken over in all the other beds. Added to that, seeds from the JM (from cow dung) and Tomatoes! Delightful!

Creepers established as well

Weeds galore amidst the cover crops

Raised Beds, Cover Crop and Biomass - 23rd May

After abt 4 - 5 weeks of intense growth of the cover crops, it was time for cleaning them up to make way for the veggie crops we wanted to plant. With a small prayer, we cut them all (without disturbing the roots as much as possible so that aeration pathways in the soil bed remains intact though there's the risk of having them regrow) and mixed them back in the beds we had made. Additionally, we used the soil we dug up from the walking pathway to create a raised bed with the now rich biomass of the cover crop beneath them. Now the waiting begins for our saplings to become a bit more strong in their traybeds before we transfer them to the raised beds here at the farm

Raised beds, Cover crops and Biomass - 23rd May

6 beds created! We let the other wilderness around stay - partly because we were super tired after 3 hours of continuous bending and digging, and partly because we didn't have anything planned to plant in those areas!

Planting Tomatoes, Beans, Corn, Chillies, Brinjals, and sowing Potatoes, Carrots and Marigolds - 13th June

When we went back after a gap of about 20 days, the beds almost looked like "revenge of the cover crops"! Most of them had put out new shoots over the covered biomass and the weeds seemed to be happily thriving further. The leftover sweet potato stems from last year seemed to be in a never say die mode putting out new growth all over. Another three hours of back breaking work later, the beds were ready post further cleanup and raised lines for planting the saplings we had got.

Ha! Finally done after multiple mistakes

Mistake 1 - Surface level planting of saplings that was pointed out by our farm keeper. We had just made abt 1.5 inches depth holes and inserted the saplings - but our farm hero came along and told us our saplings will not survive the week (with impending rains!) So we had to re do all the plantings - pull out, remake more deep holes, and replant.

Mistake 2 - Planting on top of the raised lines and not on the sides as required. Again pointed out by the farm keeper. His logic being better access to watering from the side of the line mound than top of the mound. But we didn't have the patience or energy to correct this one. So we let it stay!

Mistake 3 - Not enough saplings for six beds. We underestimated how many saplings we really needed. We were only able to fill two beds completely and the third one partially. We compensated by directly sowing beans and corns (and potatoes (sprouted ones left in the fridge!) which anyway need to be direct sowing) in the fourth bed. Two beds stayed empty! The cover crops and weeds are sure going to take over again!

Mistake 4 - Not planning for trap crops or pest repelling crops. There are plants like marigold, cosmos, amaranthus that act to repel or attract common pests to themselves so that they give the real crops a miss. We didn't send start them in the trays at home. We compensated by just broadcasting the seeds on the beds! Hope they take root and survive!

Mistake 5 - Not researching enough abt companion plants. Though we made sure we didn't mono crop and planted sets (tomato, chilly, carrot), (beans, corn, potato), (brinjal, tomato) - we could have done better.

And with that, we stopped documenting our work on the farm! Unfortunately, we had to stop in September as the commute, decision to give more time to kids, and daily commitments were conflicting with our desire to grow our own food on a land.

But it was few of the most awesome months of our life for sure - from preparing the land, going all against the advice of the farm hand (in letting the weeds grow, chopping and dropping, mixed cropping, and what not!), waiting eagerly for the first flowers of the tomato, weighing and finding we harvested about 15 kgs of tomato (only to realize that tomato prices were at the lowest in the market in the year - it was retailing at Rs. 5 per kg or less!), loosing all our Brinjals to the worms (yep! no pesticide in our plot - natural or chemical!), loosing all carrots, potato and corn to drought (the borewell motor became nonoperational for about 10 days with not a single drop of water coming forth from the sky either!)...and then to top it all off loosing all the tomato plants to heavy rain (yes, what irony isn't it?).... Wow, that was one roller coaster of learning and understanding the farmers' plights first hand.

That was just on a rented 1000 sq ft land with bare minimum investments - now imagine the same thing happening in acres and the farmer who invests his entire life savings. Sigh!


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