Authors – Sreesvarna B & Apoorva Srinivas
Monsoon rains have finally arrived this year and all of us can take a sigh of relief now that farmers can go back to farming soon. However, we cannot again rely on chemical-based fertilizer farming where farmers have to pay a heavy price for input costs. Further, the harm done to the environment due to excessive use of pesticides is evident to all.
The current trend in term of Indian agriculture is to get higher yields of farm produce without disturbing the nature of the soil since the area under cultivation is drastically reduced. This comprehensive approach is emerging due to socio-environmental issues such as climate change, migration of the younger generation away from agriculture and lack of food security.
This has led to a steady rise in awareness about organic agriculture and various other forms of natural farming. Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) is one among these various types of natural farming that are being practiced across India. This concept was popularized by Padmashri award winner Subhash Palekar from Maharashtra. This idea came across when Palekar studied tribal lifestyles and forest ecosystems in detail and he realized that forests do not require any human assistance for their existence and growth.
ZBNF is a method of organic farming where inputs for the crop are given by nature itself and not by the farmer or any outside agency. This practice implies the use of locally available resources making the net cost of growing equal to zero. For natural farming, the production of main crops is compensated by the production of inter-crops. Thus, the main crop becomes a bonus.
The term ‘zero budget’ in ZBNF indicates that no budget is incurred as there are no external inputs in the form of fertilizers (farmyard or green manure), tractor cultivation (costing labor or fuel), micro-nutrients, pesticides or seeds from the market. This further adds to 25% reduction in labor. There is also an added advantage of 10% lesser water and power requirements, which is due to the additive practices that is to be followed along.
Four pillars of Zero Budget Natural Farming
Jeevamurtha: adding soil inoculants
Soil nutrition is the most important factor for plant growth. The required soil health can be achieved by either using fertilizers (chemicals that affect the soil in the longer run), or organic manure (a natural ingredient requiring manure preparation which is time-consuming and labor-intensive). But Zero Budget Natural Farming states the best method is to increase the microbial activity in the soil in such a way that nutrients are easily available, which is achieved by adding an inoculant made from fermented cow dung, cow urine and jaggery.
Beejamrutha: The seed treatment
Seed treatment is normally done to enhance the nutritional accessibility for seeds and to protect them from any stress so as to enhance their viability. The conventional way of doing that is to coat it with a chemical. But in ZBNF, the seed treatment is done using cow dung, cow urine and soil. This adds to the advantage of protecting the soil from seed-borne diseases.
Mulching: An outer cover for the soil
Crop residue is used to cover the soil from direct sunlight hence reducing the evaporation loss and soil erosion. This, in turn, conserves soil moisture. Both earthworm activity and microbial activity increase drastically in such dark and moist conditions.
Waaphasa: Maintenance of soil water balance
Waaphasa is carried out by spraying water on biodegradable materials. For more yield, stem width should be higher which means root coverage should be higher. When water is given outside the canopy of the crop, the root will automatically spread. This would increase the vegetation. If a trench is done, it must be so at least a foot away from the canopy so as the root can grow until there. Once it does so, the second trench is to be dug during the next season outside the first one as now, the canopy is more.
Typically, the atmosphere would contain about 35% humidity in summer, 65% humidity during the winter and 95% during the rainy season. It is this natural moisture absorbed from the atmosphere that is used in ZBNF. Further, a multi-tier cropping system is used instead of monocropping. This provides two advantages: one preventing hot air blows during summer to withstand minimum irrigation and also withstand against pest and insect attacks.
Particularly, this kind of multi-tree system is most suitable for plantation of more than three varieties of horticultural crops. The first layer will have drought-resistant, tall trees such as coconut, silver oak, teak etc. Under the shade of these trees, smaller fruit bearing trees like mango and guava can be planted. The space between these two trees can be used for spice crops like pepper or ginger (shadow crops).
Shadow crops like coffee and cardamom (spices) can be planted in between the trees. This way the utility of the land can be increased by about five times. Space for furrows can be given in between to ensure the percolation of rainwater into aquifers. Trenches can also be made in between two shadow region crops. The trenching border can be cropped by a dribble system with crops like cow pea, cucumber or watermelon. The trench lines must though be covered by mulching.
Disadvantages of ZBNF
The main disadvantage of this ZBNF method is due to the misunderstanding among farmers who go by the word literally! While the method is natural (more like the Ayurvedic treatment for humans), but it does incur a minimum input cost. The cost is in the indirect form of labor for field work and cattle rearing, the input requirement for cattle feed and its health requirements like vaccinations. Zero budget implies that no direct cost is incurred but there are indirect costs in terms of feed to the cattle, labor and so on which are kept at very minimal.
Further, we should not forget, ecological changes cannot be done instantaneously. Zero Budget Natural Farming might be profitable in the long run, but as of now, completely depending on it for profit is not feasible (particularly for those owning more than 5 acres). The best option is to combine chemical-based farming, organic farming and ZBNF and slowly, over years reduce the proportion of land under chemical farming. States like Andhra Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh have started to take steps toward ZBNF, we need to watch out for the outcome.