Cuckoo’s Nest

Ask me what are the joys associated with farming and you’re likely to be at the receiving end of a verbal volley by an otherwise taciturn individual. I can go on endlessly telling you about watching a seed spring its ears, hearing the chatter of birds come to get their share of mulberry, catching a glimpse of the long-tailed pheasant crow alighting from a tree to settle around a bush to pick an insect, glancing the early morning dew shining as pearls on the broad shoulders of a banana leaf, stepping barefoot on the moist grass on a November dawn, lying on my back on a January noon watching the clouds being chased in the cerulean skies……………..

But during my latest visit, I chanced  on something which I had never witnessed before: a nest settled on a growing banana bunch. On coming across I shouted at Mangal and he told me it was a nest of a bird, called Pavsha or Common Hawk Cuckoo which frequents our mulberry trees. As the bananas mature the chicks will come out and soon fly out deserting the nest.


Better Call Mr Ash

Ever since I began farming I have insisted and told my man-Friday Mangal: Don’t ever burn.
And he has never done otherwise.
wood ash
While my neighbours have continued burning leaves, twigs and branches my farm has never witnessed a matchstick being struck. However, my recent readings have made me realize that most of the organic materials used in making compost do not have adequate amounts of potassium. Forcing me to rethink my strategies.
Wood ash has a good amount of potash and that’s why it is recommended for incorporation into the compost. One can add ash after every layer of compost to ensure that the trace elements in the ash are incorporated into the soil. When added to compost, ash can also help neutralise acidity in the compost as it is more alkaline in nature.
Ash is composed of many major and minor elements that trees need for growth. Since most of these elements are extracted from the soil and atmosphere during the tree’s growth, they are common in our environment and are also essential in the production of crops and forages.
Calcium is the most abundant element in wood ash and gives ash properties similar to agricultural lime. Ash is also a good source of potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium. In terms of commercial fertilizer, average wood ash would be about 0-1-3 (N-P-K). In addition to these macro-nutrients, wood ash is a good source of many micronutrients needed in trace amounts for adequate plant growth. Wood ash contains few elements that pose environmental problems.
Nitrogen fertilizers often lower the soil pH, which makes neutralizing agents such as lime or wood ash a necessity.
Sprinkled lightly about susceptible plants, wood ashes will irritate slugs’ moist bodies and repel them. The repellent effect will disappear after rain or irrigation dissolves the ashes
Ash from charcoal is not beneficial as it has some chemicals that may be present in high concentrations.


Finding Ukshi

As you engage into new things you become privy to newer experiences, exposed as you’re to a world unknown to you till very recently. That world holds new promises, newer perspectives. Your engagement with this ‘new’ world opens you to virginal excitements. Of having come to know things though commonplace  but now novel and holding some promise.

ukshiI realized this fact ever since I became a bee-keeper. Looking for the source of pollen and nectar I started studying the neighbourhood flora, and during one such field trip I came across Ukshi. That’s what Mangal identified the plant as such.

Ukshi (calotropis floribunda) is a large climbing shrub found extensively in the low-lying tropical evergreen forests of the Western Ghats. Its young branchlets are dense with yellow short soft hair. The leaves are arranged opposite, egg-shaped to narrowly elliptical, entire and dense with yellow short soft hair, particularly below.

Ukshi flowers are bisexual and yellowish-green in colour. They bloom between February and March. As the flowers store nectar they are favourite among bees. Come daylight swarms of bees descend on Ukshi flowers.

I am told that Ukshi is revered as a life-saver by the forest dwellers who regularly depend on it during summer when streams dry up. Sections of the vine store water, which people often use to quench their thirst.


Mulberry March


mulberryThe mulberry tree flowers almost simultaneously as the mango. i.e. around second-or third week of February but fruits much before the ‘sunshine fruit’. By mid-March, the pale red fruit turns deep black and is ready to be plucked. Delay picking them up you may lose them to the birds, a favourite among the two-footed winged creature.

All day long birds frequent the mulberry chirping, snapping at the fruit and then flying away. But it’s in the evening when the sun is homebound they arrive in swarms, like the commuters in Mumbai trying to board the suburban locals. And leave after having their dessert.

mulberry 1Chattering, chirping their tiny wings flapping they descend on the thin branches, choosing their position they tear away the fruit with their beaks while letting many to drop on the ground. Like choosy shoppers who wouldn’t buy a good-looking tomato or apple, the birds they rarely pick the fallen fruits believing in the philosophy of ‘let others have it too’, leaving it for the insects.

Mulberry, known as tooti in Marathi and shahtoot (King Mulberry) in Hindi, has a cousin which is green in colour and is grown in the Northern parts of India. Once grown abundantly you could find them  sold in dona (cups made of leaves) in the village market but getting a glimpse of the fruit nowadays has  become a rarity.

An excellent shade tree, my friend SS tells me that during the summer months he often found his landowner uncle sprawled on  his khat (string charpoy) under a shahtoot tree in his native village, close to Jaipur. Visiting farmers from the neighbouring bera (hutments on agricultural land) sat underneath for a chat while the pet dog slept.

Picking the fruits can be a laborious task and it’s advised to spread a sheet below and shake the tree vigorously. Adivasis in Jharkhand, a friend tell me, use medicated mosquito nets given by State’s health officials to collect jamun and mulberry instead of sleeping under them.

Shahtoots are good for health and have the same benefits as other mulberries, being rich in antioxidants; flavonoids and what researchers believe are anti-cancer agents.

Last Sunday I brought home nearly 2kgs of mulberry home and by evening wifey turned them into jam. Though it was her maiden attempt she succeeded.  The next morning it was the turn of the smoothie while overnight the fruit stayed in the fridge.

Did you know that you can also get multiple crops by pruning immediately after your first crop?  I had a crop in October and again enjoying one in March.

Bee My Guest

Life does spring surprises from places you least expect it from. This ‘surprise’ happened in early January and I remembered it today while I was going through the image on the album of my phone camera. That Sunday morning I was overjoyed on seeing a swarm of wild bees hanging from the branch of my cashew nut tree.
honeyIs it really happening, I asked myself?
“Was it there when I came last?”
“No it wasn’t.” said a confident Mangal and asked with caution: “Sure it won’t bite,”
“Only if you disturb it,” I replied.
Standing below the tree it I could hear them buzzing, as if hundreds of machines were whirring, far away.
These were giant bees (apis dorsata) or Indian rock bees. Apis dorsata are slowly disappearing, thanks to human interference. They are the only wild variety among the four species of bees found in the country. Apis cerana, Apis lorea and Melipona irridipennis (dammer bee) are the other three. Unlike other honeybees, Indian rock bees never settle down in an area polluted by air or sound. They help in pollinating flowers on tall trees, like coconut. When their natural habitat is disturbed, they move to tall trees or vacant buildings in human habitations.
Rock bees create colonies below rock cliffs and trunks of huge trees (like they had in my farm), usually inaccessible to people. They are a dependable source of honey, which is in good demand.
As I left for home at around noon I prayed that they remained. However, next day Mangal called me saying the rock bees had left.

LED Strips To Stop Fatalities

Farmers mostly use bullock carts to transport their produce travelling post sunset to transport their produce. They face fatal accidents due to speeding trucks and cars. According to a recent NCRB study, every year over 100 farmers in India lose their cattle and crops due to accidents at night.At times there have been deaths of farmers too.
Observing this challenge, Deepak Fertilisers and Petrochemicals Corporation Ltd (DFPCL) which has a stronghold in Maharashtra has embarked on an initiative that would provide solution making life-changing impact for the farmers and eventually their families.
DFPCL has come up with a simple, yet smart idea of “Lighting up farmers’ lives”. Bullock carts have been installed with battery operated LED strips that would be lit when the farmer is plying the highway in the night. The concept has turned out to be simple, cost effective while successfully addressing the challenge of poor lighting on highways and roads for typically those 4-5months when the crop needs to be transported. The approximate cost for lighting up one bullock cart is around Rs. 2000 and one such installation is sufficient to typically last for eight to nine months.
“Some of the accidents have dented the lives of the entire family as the main bread earner lost his life. We felt that there was a dire need to address this issue immediately and approached various agencies to come up with a solution that could help in avoiding accidents,” Arvind Kulkarni, Vice President Agri Sales DFPCL.
The initiative currently is in its test phase and is being piloted in Daund, a small taluka near Pune, where sugarcane is one of the primary crop.

Combating pests, the organic way

It’s really tough being a follower of organic farming methods, I‘ve learnt from my experiences of being one. Moreso, one who is a first generation farm owner. Patted by friends and acquaintances, one can pride being a ‘natural farmer’ doggedly believing that there are alternatives aplenty to chemical farming. But the road is truly crooked and the ride bumpy. However, I have not given up.
Adopting trial and error techniques are, I feel, is the only way to problem solving. If a solution is in sight you feel like you’ve broken new grounds. Here is the story of my encounters with one such ‘problem’ and the solution.
One such ‘problem’ I was facing was of my chickoo trees, of which I have I have eight, not yielding fruits despite being around for over eight long years. Generally, chickoos start giving fruits within the fourth or fifth year.
The moment new shoot of leaves appeared on my chickoo plant they were chewed, gobbled by some, yet unidentifiable insects. In spite of my best efforts and Mangal’s too, we were unable to lay our hands on the mysterious ‘pest’. Suspecting they were nocturnal I advised Mangal to light candles in half-cut pet bottles. For over a week Mangal carried the routine of lighting the candles as night settled on my farm. Come mornings he would inspect the bottle but with no luck.
“Saab koi keeda nahi mila,” Mangal would tell me over the phone.
Hoping that such a problem may have been encountered by farm owners in Dahanu, the place famed for supplying chickoos to the city of Mumbai, I spoke to them. I even approached horticulturists and posted my ‘problem’ on farming sites too. The answers I generally received were names of some chemical pesticides. I told them I was looking for organic alternatives. I tried spraying extract of chilli and garlic which didn’t help. Followed it up with gomutra (cow urine) spray, it didn’t help either.
Considering that neem could be of help I tried a combination of cow urine and neem oil with soap as a surfactant. For three long weeks with a gap of three days, between each cycle Mangal sprayed the mixture.
I am happy to tell you, fellow travellers, that it has worked. The chickoo plants are lush with new leaves in florescent green, sitting atop the old leaves clothed in a darker shade.
When I returned home last Sunday with my maiden chickoos wifey exclaimed: “Oh My God. See they are really big. Try selling them you will get a good price.”