Add cows, subtract chemicals: Organic farming a plus for climate-hit Indian farmers

Farmers are producing biogas from cow manure to provide clean energy at home, and then using the leftover slurry to improve the soil in their fields.

As climate change brought less predictable weather, farmers Deepankar Mandal and Sanjib Mandal used to struggle with growing uncertainty about whether they would get a crop each season.

“Rains have become erratic, insufficient or wrongly timed,” said Deepankar. “The crops failed, the water table got lower each year (and) there were newer pests attacking our paddy and vegetables.”

Most years, “we were battling against the odds for our survival”, added the farmer from India’s West Bengal state.

But in recent years, they have tried a new way to cope: producing biogas from cow manure to provide clean energy at home, and then using the leftover slurry to improve the soil in their fields.

The change has helped them save money by cutting out costly chemical fertilisers. It has also reduced deforestation and allowed them to restore the earth so it now holds more water, helping them through droughts, the farmers said.

Moreover, with biogas to cook at home, “we do not have to wander for hours here and there in search of firewood from nearby forests”, said Chobi Mandal, Deepankar’s mother.

There is a misconception prevailing among the conventional farmers that organic farming produces lower yields than the chemically grown crops.

Sanjib Mandal, farmer

These benefits are the result of a three-year push by Susanta Mukherjee, an agricultural scientist who works with the Indian government’s Agricultural Technology Management Agency (ATMA), to help farmers in the village adopt organic farming as a way of coping with more challenging climate conditions.

The new approach has also helped them reduce their already low planet-warming emissions, he said.

In Ichapur, 50 farmers, working on 20 acres (8 hectares) of land, are now using the organic farming system, with another 40 planning to join by mid-year.

Under the effort backed by ATMA, farmers are each given a cow and support to set up a home biogas production system.

After water and manure are fed into a digestion tank, the methane produced is captured for use as cooking gas.

Chobi Mandal said the gas was sufficient for her to cook three meals a day—and meant she no longer had to work in smoky conditions over firewood.

The leftover slurry from biogas production, rich in organic nutrients, is dried and used as fertiliser in the fields.

Farmers also have been trained to use earthworms to help produce compost, and to concoct other natural fertilisers and organic pesticides at home.

Less rain, less watering

Deepankar Mandal said he could now go nearly two weeks without watering his fields, even in dry periods, as the soil holds more moisture.

Even on irrigated land, more water is retained and slowly seeps into underground aquifers, helping recharge wells and other water bodies, said Mukherjee.

Farmers are able to produce more crops, more consistently—all without chemical fertilisers and pesticides or big demand on limited groundwater supplies, he said.

Sanjib Mandal, who is unrelated to Deepankar, said rice production had risen 30-40 per cent each year on average since the switch, while costs had fallen by about 35 per cent.

Besides harvesting two rice crops a year, farmers are growing vegetables and cattle feed, as well as crops like oats, sorghum and maize, and getting milk from their cows, he said.

They have also noticed that their plants’ roots seem to hold the soil better, making them more able to withstand harsher storms and strong winds, Mukherjee said.

Persuading farmers to switch away from chemical fertilisers and pesticides wasn’t easy at the start, Sanjib said.

“There is a misconception prevailing among the conventional farmers that organic farming produces lower yields than the chemically grown crops,” he said.

The project, however, has “demonstrated to them the cost-effectiveness and higher yield of crops in our fields” - and that has led some other farmers to “join our brigade”, he said.

Finding funding to build home biogas plants - which cost about 30,000 rupees ($430) to set up - has been another challenge for poorer farmers who cannot afford one on their own, said Biswajit Das, a farmer from Ichapur.

The farmers’ collective is seeking additional funding from ATMA to pay for more plants, he said.

Meanwhile, farmers said they enjoyed seeing more life in their now-organic fields, from owls and sparrows to honey bees and butterflies.

They “make our fields come alive”, said Srimanta Mandal, an Ichapur farmer.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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