Attappady had many indigenous seed varieties. However the introduction of modern agriculture has taken away many of them from the farms just like other parts of the state. Though it is tough to cultivate and keep the seeds due to concentrated attack from animals and birds, we have managed to keep some seeds.
Wild Animals and Farming
Can you imagine what goes through a farmer’s mind when he sees his farm is been ploughed by wild boars? The human animal conflict is a growing issue and we experience it first hand. Our farm is being visited by wild boars, rabbits, monkeys, civets, barking dear, birds and sometime wild elephants!
Is this a new issue? Not really. Wild animals used to come to farms all the time. However, the animal attacks were distributed over all the farms in the neighbourhood. Everyone used to have food crops. Everyone lost part of their crop to the wild animals however good the night watch was. There was a balance between the animals and farmers. Also there were traditional traps to catch some of the animals. For example, there were trap experts from the tribal community. Wild boar doesn’t have any natural predator in this region. Their fast growing numbers were kept in balance through these tribal traps.
Where did it go wrong?
More farmers turned into cash crops and the attacks got concentrated on the few farms with food crops. The damage was drastic. More farmers left food crop for cash crops due to the animal attack. On the other hand, the new generation (was convinced by Government and development agencies) considered tribal way of living primitive. With no one to control, the wild boar population soared and the attacks got intense. The remaining trap experts were threatened by forest laws. Reducing forest land added to situation.
So cultivation is impossible?
No, it is just that we have to strengthen the fences, keep vigil in the night and cultivate a lot so that we get a little. We have fence with live plants around our plots. The plants includes medicinal plants, Jetropha (Good for bio-diesel), Glyricidia (Fodder and manure) and flowering plants. Dogs were good to chase away wild boars. However, after a while the wild boars started chasing away the dogs! Now we are considering hunting dogs against wild boars.
When Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi started their experiments in natural farming at Sarang, they didn’t have any book knowledge of alternative farming and had no guidance. But their experiences of living and working with their agricultural families were deeply rooted in them. Once they started working on the land all their instincts came alive. They also walked all over Attappady and traveled afar, learning farming practices, suitable for their land, from old farmers. Slowly their experiences metamorphised into innovative work on the Sarang land.
In 1983, when the Sarang family bought it, the land was poor due to the ploughed soil being continuously exposed to rain year after year. Through their work in the field Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi understood that tilling or ploughing, a soil preparation method widely used, was unsuitable for steep sloped areas since it helped soil erosion.
By experimentation they found that mulching with biomass had great effect on the soil condition. Mulching helped to retain moisture, controlled soil erosion and facilitated growth of microorganisms. When after mulching the soil with available local material a variety of gram and grain were sowed without ploughing only the gram sprouted but not the grain.
The family used small pit latrines which were covered up with soil after use. This significantly added to the enriching of the soil. Green gram, a legume, was grown to enrich the soil. Percolation pits were dug to retain rain water in the ground. On continuing to mulch along with these activities, in 2-3 years the surface soil became loose and rich. Eventually grains which were sown started emerging.
The initial 5 years were spent in cultivating soil and nourishing it using these techniques. Eventually, the top soil became black, fertile. From then onwards, pulses and grains needed for the family were produced on the farm itself.
Now the once barren land has rich top soil with the depth of half a foot and is even ready for the rain-fed cultivation of paddy.
According to the rain pattern, crops can be cultivated twice a year (May to September and September to October). A mixture of pulses and grains (black gram, green gram, cow pea etc and maize, millet, sorghum etc) are grown as per the needs of the household. Banana, elephant yam, pumpkin, and other vegetables are grown. Varieties of wild bitter gourd and tomato which were self seeding grow with zero attention.
Now since the family is away studying in different parts of Kerala, only vegetables and drought resistant banana are grown. The two families that look after the campus protect the land, harvest produce like gooseberry and lime, mulch the land and clear the fire boundaries. They are protecting and keeping the land well-tended for the time the whole big Sarang family returns home.
Even on their travels the children are learning the basics of natural farming by cultivating vegetable patches, experimenting with seeds, working on the land whenever possible and keeping their minds as fertile as the land.