Farmer’s Notebook: How Group Organic Farming Empowered Tribal Farmers in Tamil Nadu

Organic farming has doubled the crop yield and increased tribal farmers' profit margins, helping relieve their previous debts.

Coimbatore district: “We took a chance and tried something different,” said Rajan, a farmer from a small tribal village called Sadivayal in Tamil Nadu. “The result was selling a new crop for double the price of anything we had grown before. Not only that, but the seeds we planted gave us a double yield.”

This, after five years of little success. First the lack of rainfall had affected growth, and then wild boars and elephants destroyed the fields.

As a result, most farmers were forced to become day labourers in the nearby forest just to earn enough money to feed their families. Many were in severe debt. But the decision of the most impoverished families of the village to join together towards the end of 2016 and begin group farming proved to be a turning point.

Sadivayal, in the Coimbatore district, is home to the Irulas – a scheduled tribe of about 25,000 people who live in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

With no irrigation facilities, the villagers primarily depend on the rains to grow their crops, and so they cultivate rice only once a year.

When the farmers decided to join together to grow organic rice, it was the first time in decades that anyone in their village had done so.

“Honestly, we didn’t have a clue about organic farming,” said Rangaswami, another local farmer. “We had no advice on how that system worked nor did we know about the damage pesticides and fertilisers are causing to the soil. We needed someone to tell us.”

So how did they find success?Farmer's Notebook.

The first step had nothing to do with the agricultural practices and everything to do with how these farmers came together to save each other from complete poverty.

The Sadivayal farmers joined hands with Amrita SeRVe, a self-reliant village project of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math. One of the focuses of the project is to empower India’s farmers by taking small steps. The vision is to blend traditional agricultural methods with new technologies that are eco-friendly.

“The Amrita SeRVe and Amrita university people came and held a meeting instructing us how to proceed with organic farming,” explained Rangaswami. “They suggested that we first form a farmers’ club and gather money from each member to open a bank account of Rs 9,000. After that, the plan was to contribute Rs 2,000 each to start the organic farm project.”

According to K.R. Sreeni, the programme manager, an aspect of Amrita SeRVe’s work in Sadivayal was to use the convergence method to help the farmers gain access to government schemes and other support mechanisms.

To begin, on May 9, 2016, a resolution was passed at the village level where 20 of the most deprived families were selected for group farming and the farmers’ club opened a bank account.

Next, the farmers defined their responsibilities and formulated guidelines for internal management. They started activities like selection of seeds, soil testing, seed testing, crop planning, water budgeting and water conservation measures. The farmers then began field work on June 20, 2016.

Teams were formed and labour distributed for land clearance, development and plotting. They also constructed a water channel and fenced in the area.

The farmers used cow waste like dung and urine for the rice crops. As result they stopped having the usual skin ailments like itching and burning caused by the chemicals they had been using before.

Farmers from Sadivayal village in Tamil Nadu. Credit: Special arrangement

Farmers from Sadivayal village in Tamil Nadu. Credit: Special arrangement

Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University provided 90 kg of seed and the state science and technology department provided another 500 kg. The farmers prepared a field of 35 acres and planted the Bhavani variety.

“This type of rice has more hay than other varieties, which turned out to be a huge plus because it could be sold as cattle feed. In fact, Bhavani hay is in demand and one acre can fetch about Rs 24,000,” said Sreeni.

“At first, we were unsure and more than a little tensed,” said Kaliswami, another member of the farmers’ club. “But once we started to see the first rice sprouts spring from the ground, we knew success was on its way.”

After 110 days of organic fertilisation and 140 days of persistent care and hand weeding, the village farmers began harvesting a healthy crop.

“They [the farmers] found that their profit margin had actually increased, despite the fact that organic seeds cost more. For one, they didn’t have to buy pesticides and fertilisers. Secondly, the variety fetched a much higher rate than their previous crops. The old rice fetched Rs 9-13 per kg while the Bhavani variety sold for Rs 28 per kg. On top of that, the crop yield doubled,” explained Sreeni.

After all expenses, each farmer earned a profit of about Rs 19,000 per acre.

“To get such profit was an incredible experience for us. In previous years, many of us often still owed money for their loans, even after harvest. For example, one farmer had a debt of Rs 20,000 from previous year’s failure, but thanks to this year’s results, he was able to pay that off. Now he can move forward and make profit once again,” smiled a satisfied Rangaswami.

“We are committed to continuing with organic farming,” said Kaliswami. “It won’t be easy. We know there are challenges. The soil does need to be revived after decades of chemical use, and that will take a couple of years. But we have to continue this practice to heal the soil.”

For Amrita SeRVe, this was a pilot project, the next step is to start farmers’ clubs in all villages across 21 states.

For more details, contact K.R. Sreeni at 9846210175 or sreenimarketing72@gmail.com.