Worms, water and micronutrients - key ingredients for sustainable farming

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 7 Jun 2012 12:03 GMT
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By Alina Paul-Bossuet, communications specialist for the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)

“Look at the difference in our papayas,” Jaya-devi says, squatting down on the edge of the square pit. Like most village women in northwest India’s Rajasthan, she tugs the edge of her sari over her forehead as she speaks. But with so much to show and say, it keeps slipping back.

She digs both her hands into the dark mulch in the pit and pulls out a wriggling mass of worms. “Who would believe these could be so useful?” she asks. “People thought we were wasting money when we took out a loan to build these pits. But fertiliser is becoming so expensive we wanted to try other ways,” she explains.

She points at the two papaya trees near the pits. “I used the vermi-compost on this one with the bigger fruit. We’ve already saved on five 50kg bags of urea which would have cost us 2,500 rupees ($45),” she says. “After the pits are built and you add the worms, they can eat any organic waste to make the compost.”

While she speaks, a man climbs onto the pits with an empty rice sack and starts digging up some worms and mulch. He is one of Jaya-devi’s neighbours who, among others, has asked her and her husband to show him how to make vermi-compost. “When people see the results, of course they want to do the same,” Jaya-devi adds.

Adequate water and fertile soil are essential for farmers like her – and can be made available with affordable techniques. The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is exploring ways to improve water access and soil fertility for rural families.

Suhas Wani, ICRISAT’s principal scientist leading its watershed management programme, has been working over the last 30 years with the Indian government, local NGOs, farm research centres and, most importantly, villagers themselves on a model for participatory resource management.

The approach, which includes a range of activities - from building dams and gullies to conserving rainwater and replenishing groundwater, training in vermi-composting, testing soil for micronutrients and strengthening women’s self help groups - is giving a clear boost to water availability, crop yields and incomes.


Niruji from nearby Sharam village also makes vermi-compost which she uses on her turmeric plants. She noticed it improved the soil’s water retention, so she only needed to water her crops once or twice a week as opposed to every day.

While the compost improved the organic matter in the soil, there were other elements needed to optimise growing conditions. “I learned how to test my own soil with a simple kit,” says Niruji. 

“The sample was sent to the local farm support centre where it was tested and the researchers explained the results to me. They said soil health is like human health. If we humans don’t eat the right nutrients, we don’t grow well; we aren’t healthy. So it was like a health check-up for my land.”

Her soil was found to be lacking in many micronutrients like zinc, boron and sulphur, which the centre helped her restore.

“Not only does the turmeric now mature faster, I get much more yield,” Niruji explains, adding that she now sells her turmeric to one of India’s largest spice companies since a local NGO linked the village up with the business.

Wani says that while farmers know about the need for phosphate and nitrogen, few realise the importance of micronutrients like zinc and boron for plant growth.

His research on micronutrient addition to smallholder fields has benefited 3.5 million families across eight India states. “We train local farm centres to analyse the soil samples so that farmers are locally supported to manage their soil health in the long term,” he says.

Another important factor is resizing packs of micronutrients which are usually sold in bulk, making them unaffordable for small farming families. The project has convinced fertiliser companies to test smaller packaging (0.5 or 1 kg) appropriate for one-acre plots.


Niruji’s training in soil fertility encouraged her to start a tree nursery. She worked with researchers to grow Glyricidia saplings, which were distributed to farmers for planting along field borders. Glyricidia, a legume tree, fixes atmospheric nitrogen and adds it to the soil, naturally improving fertility. When the leaves fall, they also add organic matter and the tree’s deep root system decreases erosion by binding to the soil.

Niruji also increased her access to water when she obtained a loan from her self-help group for equipment to dig her well deeper. She now rents this out at 300 rupees ($5.40) a day, bringing her a good additional income.

With the extra water, she is growing ‘green fodder’ (fresh green plant material for feeding livestock) for buffalos which she sells for 10,000 rupees per year ($180). Buffalos are prized by local families - even more so now that milk is collected from the village and sold to a dairy cooperative. When the buffalos feed on green fodder, their milk has a higher fat content which fetches a better price per litre.

Niruji’s turmeric and green fodder businesses are doing well these days - an example of how enough water and good soil improves rural livelihoods.

“This rural community in the Indian village of Dungarpur shows how to involve farmers to move towards sustainable farming. This type of participatory approach is what the CGIAR (a global network of agricultural research institutions) is urging in its Rio+20 Call for Action,” says William Dar, director general of ICRISAT, one of the CGIAR’s member organisations.

“In its seven-point action plan, CGIAR calls for a focus on harmonising food security and environmental sustainability through agricultural research and development. Effective partnerships are an essential part of this process,” he adds.

The collaboration between ICRISAT and the Indian government, local research institutions, civil society groups and farmers means that socially, economically and environmentally appropriate solutions bring real results for the community.

Most importantly, it highlights the central role the smallholder farmer must play in such partnerships to bring about agricultural development that is truly sustainable.

AlertNet also has a photo slideshow showing farmers' work in Dungarpur.