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India's women farmers show way to organic future

Posted: 07 Sep 2006

by Neeta Lal

Away from media glare, the farmers of Khakrola village in Himachal Pradesh - a mere blip on India's geographic radar - have been working tirelessly to usher in a new green revolution.

For the last three years, these agricultural workers, most of them women, have been shunning pesticides and chemical fertilisers to cultivate organic grains, fruits and vegetables with the help of herbal sprays and vermicompost.

As a result of these eco-friendly organic practices, not only have these 150 farmers improved their yield and enhanced its marketability, but all of them - each with a family land holding of between 60 and 100 bighas (1 bigha=2,500 square metres) - have also become eligible for OneCert Asia certification on the quality of the organic produce.

The Khakrola experiment is part of a Rs 15 million ($22,000) model project initiated in 2003 by the M R Morarka Foundation. This Rajasthan-based NGO is working with the Himachal Pradesh State Agricultural Department, which is funding the initiative, to switch the whole state over to organic farming. And the success of the project in Khakrola village - which has a population of 1,200 - now serves as a beacon of hope to other farmers in the state.

The farmers in Khakrola are, in fact, among a pool of 5,657 farmers registered under Morarka Foundation's organic farming scheme, which is being implemented in nine blocks of Simla district - Narkanda, Jibbal, Rorhu, Chirgaon, Chaupal, Mashobra (of which Khakrola is a part), Vasantpur, Theog and Rampur.

Missionary zeal

"The organic farming methods initiated by us have worked very well, especially in Khakrola," elaborates Divender Chaudhury, Project Coordinator, Morarka Foundation, "largely because the women farmers here took to it with a missionary zeal." Women farmers are in the majority in this region. These women say that they have an added incentive for using a method that saves them money because any money that is saved can be funnelled into household expenditures.

The Foundation also has a tie-up with OneCert Asia, which will issue certificates to farmers whose organic produce measures up to international ISO standards. This will help the farmers' produce move faster - and with an augmented price tag - both in the domestic and international markets. So far, about 1,300 farmers in the nine blocks of Simla have become eligible for the OneCert ISO certificates.

With an enhanced brand equity for their produce - and the coveted 'organic' label within their reach - Khakrola's women farmers are naturally upbeat. Says Bhagmati, whose family owns 75 bighas of land in the area, "Not only do organic farming methods work out cheaper than the chemical ones, but they also improve the produce's taste, which further enhances their market value." Adds Sunehri Devi, another farmer eligible for the OneCert Asia certification, "Without putting in any extra effort - except perhaps making organic compost ourselves, rather than picking it up readymade from the market - our product has gained so much more in terms of value. Organic farming has worked like a big boon for us."

Sheer economics

Morarka Foundation Project coordinators admit that what worked most in the project's favour was the sheer economics of it all. Both vermicompost and herbal sprays (used as pest repellents) can be easily rustled up at home by the farmers using locally-sourced ingredients.

Sprays, for instance, can be prepared by using earthworms. Vermiwash - the liquid collected after the passage of water through a column of activated earthworms - works effectively as an organic spray for all kinds of crops. Panchagavya, a growth promoter, can also be easily produced by mixing cow dung, cow urine, cow's milk, curd and ghee in suitable proportions. Earlier, the villagers had to trudge to the city market to buy chemical fertilisers, whose spiralling cost and lack of easy availability had even impacted productivity in the area.

Not that the women farmers of Khakrola - most of who have studied up to high school - needed much persuasion to switch to organic farming. The Morarka Foundation field workers, who had put in place a procedure to identify farmers willing to switch over to organic farming, divulge that since these women had some basic education, they were already aware of the benefits that could accrue from such farming methods.

Evident benefits

All that the foundation had to do was distribute literature on the subject and follow it up with a few sessions to clarify the farmers' doubts. "Once the benefits were evident," says Chaudhury, "like improved taste of the crops, bigger sized vegetables and fruits and a better price in the market, the farmers were all set to take it up with gusto." The Foundation also plans to arrange market tie-ups for farmers to sell their crops through an organised distribution system.

According to Sandeep Bhargava, CEO, OneCert Asia, "Not only are organic practices easy to follow, but a farmer's input costs also plummet by half by following them, leading to improved yield and greater profitability." The proof of the change, according to the state's agricultural department, is evident from the plummeting sale of pesticides for Simla district as a whole - from Rs 240 million in 2002 to Rs 140 million in 2006.

Sunehri Devi, had the last word: "I have been farming for 21 ears, I wonder why this marvellous experiment wasn't started earlier!"

Source: Women's Feature Service

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