Dance of The Wings

As the day breaks and a fresh new sun rises colouring the eastern sky they arrive, as if snatches of hues hanging in air. First a stray one, then a couple and soon a swarm flapping their coloured wings flying around the tall plant, deciding on whether to or not to and finally settling to drink the nectar the rattle pod plant offers.

bly 1The herbaceous plant’s common name comes from the fact that once the seeds mature they become loose in the pod and rattle when shaken. There are around 400 species in the Crotalaria genus and the one growing in my farm is Crotalaria retusa. Though considered a weed I let the flowering plant, belonging to the legume family, reside for it provides the much-needed nitrogen to the soil and ushers the flying colour–butterflies to my farm. Isn’t that a double whammy? The Crotalaria species are used as food plants by the larvae. In fact, the toxic alkaloid which the larvae feed on secures its defense from predators.

The butterflies generally arrive mid-September but this year they have come much early. The flowers haven’t blossomed but are likely to, soon. And till the lemon-yellow flowers survive the butterflies will be around providing a sight which we rarely encounter living in urban settlements but would like to savour nonetheless.

Observing the butterflies are a great way to learn about them but also a relaxing experience which I’ve realized having watched them for four seasons now. Most species of butterflies use flower nectar as their main source of food.  The use of the sugary nectar gives the butterflies energy and allows them to fly. Isn’t it a good idea to raise a rattlepod in your garden?

bly2Butterflies are great motion detectors and can be surprisingly fast fliers. They will inevitably fly if you or a predator approaches. Your slightest movement or even your shadow can trigger flight. Males spend most of their time looking for potential mates in one of two ways: perching or patrolling.

The butterflies in my farm are so inebriated having consumed the nectar that I have watched them just a breath way! At times even caught them with my fingers but released them soon after.

Until last year I used to get the Viceroy Butterflies in hordes but it seems the word has gone around, and last Sunday I chanced upon the new arrivals: the Tiger Butterfly. So large are their numbers that they have outnumbered the Viceroys.

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Silk Route

It flew past me; followed by another taking me by surprise while I was busy in the banana grove chopping off the yellowed leaves, raising bamboo support for the growing bunches etc. Yellowish-brown in colour with blotches of black on the wings they moved in a flash leaving me wonder-struck.

Amazed I asked what they were.

Phulphakhru, remarked Mangal, my Man Friday. That’s butterfly in Marathi.

Tussar MothI pursued them but lost them for they settled somewhere in the grove, may be underneath the banana leaves or on the stem. I tried locating them but gave up soon. Mangal’s assertion that they were butterflies seemed unbelievable—for they were pretty large to be one.  If they really were, I had made a discovery worth a mention in the next day’s newspaper, I thought. Only if I could have a selfie with one of them, I sadly hoped.

Later in the day when I what’supped Vineel Bhurke, an agri post graduate whom I have known for years now and who presently teaches in Welingkar’s. Moments later his beaming DP replied: Tussar Silk Moth.

The image on Google confirmed what Vineel had stated. It feels nice to have friends around who know about the insect world unlike us who can’t differentiate between a crow and a coucal (that’s a summer crow, dude).

Tussar is type of silk and the moth derives its name from the same. The Tussar Silk Moth is one of the wild moths from which wild silk is extracted. It’s not commercially reared like the Mulberry silk moths where the silk is extracted by boiling the cocoons, killing the caterpillars inside. The tribals of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, I am told, are adept in extracting Tussar silk from the cocoon after the moth emerges from it. Rich in texture and natural deep gold colour,  Tussar is known as Kosa Silk in Sanskrit.

Inhabitants of wild forest and dwelling in trees belonging to Terminalia species and Shora robusta as well as other food plants like Ber, Asan, Arjun, Jamun and Oak..Tussar Silk Moth eat the leaves of the trees they live on.

Yellowish-brown, the large moth has lovely patterns of maroon and pink. Despite its lovely colours, it is well concealed among the leaves. Each of its wings has eye-like markings, akin to mirrors and is meant to confuse predators. When a bird or reptile intends to attack the moth, having come across the four large eyes is fooled into believing to be larger than it really is, it retreats abandoning its prey.

Member of the Emperor Moth family, they are pretty large, between 4-10 inches, with males having large, feathery antennas’. As they do not have mouth parts they do not feed as adults surviving on the food accumulated by the caterpillars when they are feeding.

Describing the moths, Peter Smetacek, author of Butterflies on the Roof of World, who pioneered the use of Lepidoptera as indicators of climate change in 1994, writes: “A moth has six legs; to see them frantically scrabbling over an uneven surface and falling to find a hold is a remarkably absorbing sight. Sometimes, one claw manages to dig in and arrest the slide. Then the moth dangles in the air for a few minutes before finally gives up the struggle. There is dull thud as it hits the ground. Looking down, one can see it lying on its back, weakly moving one arm in a universal gesture that any bartender would instantly recognise.”

As Tussar Silk Moths generally thrive in the wild, it makes me feel pleased that I have been able to create a ‘wild’ in my humble farm plot which always I have aspired to. That merits a pat.

 

As the fog descends

The fog doesn’t come so early, at least I haven’t seen it descend so soon. For the winter is still couple of months away. It’s the last week of September and I was greeted by the opaque landscape of Chon, the village which is home to my farm, this weekend. Generally, the fog appears in the month of November. Is it due to climate change? Maybe yes.

fog

Early mornings are pleasantest here and you can see the leaf surfaces rich with dew, especially the plantain leaves. Bend the leaves a little and you can see the dews becoming one and a river flowing into your cupped palm! I didn’t let it go waste, collected them and drank them later, when the sun appeared on top of the trees.

This is the best time to visit a farm for its green all over and the ground wet with dew.

dal

The lentils I had broadcasted all over the field in early September have sprouted. They are pencil high and are likely to flower within a fortnight or so when they will be chopped to provide nitrogen to the soil.

Kadamba—the May tree

May is the month when the kadamba tree (Neolamarckia cadamba) yields fruit—those yellow-orange ball-shaped fruit, the size of golf balls. It’s that month when the sun is really, really harsh. It also happens to be the month when most deaths due to the heat wave occur. It’s not the month when you would like to venture out in the open (contrary to the claims by sun-screen TV commercials).

IMG_20150528_121938

If you do, do venture out early in the morning or late in the evening and tilt your neck towards the sky while standing below a tall kadamba tree. I’m sure you’ll see a marvel. The crown is a canopy of branches, like an outstretched palm with leaves sprouting all around, as if an umbrella held over you. If you lie and stretch yourself (not possible because kadamba trees are used as avenue trees in cities) you’re likely to be awe-struck by what I call the nature’s wonder. The marble-white of the sky peeping through the speckles of green, reminding you of an embroidered sari you inherited from your grandmother.

A favourite of Lord Krishna, kadamba tree and its flowers is consider a universal favourite among the Gods. In fact, the Mother Goddess Durga is said to reside in a kadamba forest—for she is lovingly called Kadamba Vana Vāsinī.

The fresh leaves are edible and a favourite fodder among cattle. The ornamental tree, used for soil reclamation sheds large amounts of leaf and non-leaf litter which on decomposition improves some physical and chemical properties of soil under its canopy.

The fragrant orange flowers attract pollinators like bees, butterflies and birds. Furthermore, this tree can grow best in alluvial sites like river-banks and in the transitional zone between swampy, permanently flooded and periodically flooded areas.

Come rains, the branches lashed by wind the kadamba fruit–by now ripe and coloured bronzed brown– drop on the earth, one by one. In the mornings you’ll see scores of them lying around. Of them, some will grow to be a tree continue the life cycle.

Adivasis of Chattisgarh believe that planting kadamba trees closer to lakes, rivers and ponds, brings happiness and prosperity.

Rabindranath Tagore mentioned the kadamba in one of his poem: Badal diner prothom kodom phul.

You offered me your first yield,
The fragrant Kadamba of monsoon
For my part, I bring you
My rainy tunes.

I have shielded them
With cool shadows, dim skies,
Treasuring
My first lyrical fruition

I know today offers you abounding harvest
But tomorrow will leave you bare

And so each monsoon,
My songs will come to life,
My boat will be heaped with your honour
My melodies, echo your glory
Riding on tides
Of your lost remembrance.

English Translation courtesy Anjan Ganguli (GEETABITAN)

Listen to the poem. https://youtu.be/JAnevYvrs68/ https://youtu.be/cNNgPwLDyds

Learning from folk wisdom

KS, my friend of two decades, an original inhabitant of Tikamgarh in Madhya Pradesh, was the one who introduced me to Ghagh. ‘His proverbs are still popular among old timers,’ he told me. and went on to give me some examples.

Weather forecasts, predictions of rain, use of  organic fertlisers in farming, behaviour of birds/cattle/insects prior to rain, interpreting the signs of the seasons, folk perceptions of astronomy and other facets of environmental knowledge systems are interwoven inseparably with everyday peasant life in the world of Gagh-Bhaddar proverbs or Dak vachan. These vachans have been in circulation in the region of north eastern part of Bihar, popularly known as ‘Mithila’, since 14th-15th century A.D.

These proverbs and folk sayings have been preserved and passed down from generation to generation in oral tradition and show that the same kernel of wisdom may be gleaned under different cultural conditions and languages.

With time these proverbs, constituting a domain of ‘rustic wisdom’, have been found in languages like Bangla, Awadhi, Kannaujia etc.

Who was Dak? Interestingly, no one has been able to identify him but the consensus is that he was a Maithil Brahmin. Dak studied the heavenly bodies, the change of seasons beside being gifted observer of nature and human beings too.

The first Maithili compilation of these sayings is Kapileshwar Jha’s Dakvachanamrit published from Darbhanga, Bihar in 1905.

In 1931, Ram Naresh Tripathi brought out the most comprehensive collection of these sayings. Writes Sadan Jha in Many Worlds of Dak Vachan: Proverbial Knowledge and the History of Rain and Weather , published by Surat-based Centre for Social Studies that Tripathi “… with an objective to revive the agrarian condition, he travelled across the country, collected sayings personally or received entries by post, searched for them in the library and also wished that the Government had paid some attention to the peasant’s knowledge of rain by establishing a separate department to maintain an account of the environment of Paus and Magh.”

Reading Dak Vachan in the 21st century can be really instructive for those who practice organic farming or those intending to do non-chemical farming. The principles and methods of farming continue to remain the same: don’t harm the Earth for profit or greed.

Here is a selection of some vachan’s:

On rain

Phagu karaai, chait chuk, kirttik nattahi taar,

Swati nattahi makh til, kahi gae Daak Goar.

“If it rains in the month of Phagun (February-March) urid is spoilt; if in the month of Chait (March-April) lemons; if in the asterism of Krittika (about middle of May) the toddy palms; and if in that of Swati (latter part of October) beans and sesame; says Dak, the Gowaala.

Shukrabar ki badri, rahi shanichar Chay,

To youn bhakhaey bhaddari, bin barse na jay.

If the clouds which had appeared on Friday continue to be present on Saturday, says Bhaddari that there is likelihood of a heavy downpour.

Aage ravi peeche chale, mangal jo ashad,

Toh barseanmol hi prthvi anandayee bar.

If in the month of ashadh Mars follows the Sun it will result in good rains resulting in joyous celebrations.

Jo badri badar ma khamse,

Kahin bhaddari pani barseey.

Says Bhaddari if one bunch of cloud breaches the other it’s likely to rain.

On distancing the crop

Kark Buwaee Kakri, Singh abolo jai,

Aesa bole bhaddari, keeda phir khaye

Sowing cucumber during the period of zodiac sign of cancer rather than during Leo, says Bhaddari, the crop will repeatedly by attacked by pests.

Gajar, ganji muri, Teeneu boway doori

Radish, sweet potato and carrot should be sown at a distance.

On oxen behaviour

Pariba bahe dhurandhar, chhati aathain har jay,

Chaudah chauthi amabaas, ayalo har bithaaya,

Barda mute khet dahay, khasai khet jaun barad paray,

Gora jhar ki mura jhar, taun nahi nik jaun khasai faar,

Issa tutai sun ho kor, laagan tutai barad le chor,

Jua tutai ta subh hoya, ‘dak’ kahaichhathi nischint soya,

Khur singh samati liya, bahu sukh kari manahi diya.

Related to a ritual known as har thaadh karab (meaning placing the plough in standing position; thaad in Maithili also means putting to rest or break in motion) symbolically marking the commencement of the agricultural season and the day falls on magh sudhi shir panchami (which is normally in mid January). On this day, plough and oxen are taken inside the inner-courtyard (angan) and un-husked rice discharged over it. Following this ritual plough along with oxen are blessed (chumaun) and considered ready for the agrarian task. During this ritual if the ox urinates then the field is likely to be devastated by floods. If it drops poos (cowdung) then there is likelihood of a low yield. If its feet or ears itch or it drops on the ground—these are ominous signs of bad times ahead. Dak says if it scatters the soil here around with its horns or toes then the house keeper will have a pleasant time tending to the fields.

On easterly wind

Purwa par jaun pachhwa bahai, bihansi ranr bat karai,

Eh donon ke ihai bichar u barsai i karai bhatar.

If the west wind blows during purwai (easterly) and if a widow chats

and smiles, one may surmise that in the former case it will lead to a downpour and in the latter the widow may get married soon.

On organic farming

Jekar khet parrey na gobar,

Unhi kisan ko jano dubar.

The farmer who can’t afford to use cow dung in his fields is considered a poor farmer.

Wohi kisanon mein hai pura. Jo chodey haddi ka chura

The one who uses bone and flesh meal in his fields can be regarded as a genuine farmer.

Gobar mael neem ki khali. Inse kheti dooni phalli.

Using cow dung, farmyard manure and neem kernel waste is likely to result in more yields.

On mulching

Gobar maela pati sadey. Tab kheti mein dana parrey.

When cow dung, farm yard manure and leaf litter decompose it gives a good yield.

…………………

Proverbs courtesy Gagh Aur Bhaddari ki Kahavaten (Dak Vachan), Edited by Devnarayan Diwedi, Diamond Books; and Many Worlds of Dak Vachan: Proverbial Knowledge and the History of Rain and Weather by Sadan Jha, Centre for Social Studies.

Ends

Rahul, the mango man

Jarda, Langda, Bambaiya, Cipiya Sukul, Bathua, Mithua, Fazli, Chausa, Krishnabhog…Many of us who are not from the hinterland of Bihar will not recognise that these are names of local varieties of Mangoes, prized for their distinctiveness and loved by the locals.

“Cipiya has a better shelf life, Sukul is the one you like to dig your teeth into and then suck the juice besides its best suited for pickles while Mithua as the name implies is the sweetest of them all,” says Rahul Singh (24), a mango grower of Namidih (24°40’18″N   84°28’27″E) village in Vaishali district of Bihar. Those who can’t think beyond Alphonsos, Bainganpallis, Dasheris et al may not agree. Each his/her taste, as it’s said. For there is nothing called as ‘common’ taste.

Twenty-four-year–old Rahul, a M.Tech, is recipient of Krishi Yuva Samman 2015, awarded by the Mahindra Samriddhi India Agri Award for reviving his four-decade old mango orchard using the Canopy Management Technique resulting in increased yield. The Agri Award which is in its fifth year recognises the innovation undertaken by farmers in increasing yields and adopting new technologies. Sadly, it hardly gets any media coverage. In fact, the organisers this year inserted a full page ad in The Times of India.Remember these are the farmers who feed us.

Rahul Singh
Rahul Singh

Village Nimidih is 40kms from the capital city of Bihar, Patna. Here the Singh’s own 30 acres of land in which they have a mango orchard in 7 acres, litchi in three acres and the rest they grow paddy and vegetables. Rahul’s father, Jitendra is the sole custodian of the family’s land as the other male members of the joint family have moved to the cities, taking up government jobs. In fact, you’re likely to come across such stories in Vaishali—of people abandoning farming as returns are low and preferring to be sarkari babus assured they are of their monthly salary. “I have been taking care of our land since the last 15 years growing paddy for our consumption and selling the rest in the market,” says 54-year-old Jitendra.

In many parts of the country, senile unproductive orchards of seedling origin continue to stand. These orchards with unmanageable canopy neither produce fruits nor the quality. Besides, they act as sources of pest and disease. Canopy management is the manipulation of tree canopy to optimize the production of quality fruits. It encompasses both training and pruning which affect the quantity of sunlight intercepted by trees, as tree shape determines the exposure of leaf area to incoming radiation. An ideal training strategy centers around the arrangement of plant parts, especially, to develop a better plant architecture that optimizes the utilization of sunlight and promotes productivity.

In 2012 July Rahul, an alumnus of Jaipur’s Gyan Vihar University, began the process of Canopy Management on the four-decade old mango trees under the guidance of National Horticulture Mission. He followed the three principles:

  • Formation of strong frame work having branches on all directions with near equidistance between branches
  • Developing the canopy with centre opened so that it gets better exposure to sunlight
  • Controlling the stature/size of the plant to harness the maximum productivity

Two year later, Rahul’s mango yield jumped from 4000kg/acre to 10,000 kg/acre attracting the attention of the jury of Mahindra Samriddhi Award resulting in him winning the Krishi Yuva Samman’s Regional Award (East Zone). Reminiscences Rahul’s father, “Every year when he came home on vacation he tried new methods to increase yield and has even gone for high density plantation, planting 160 mango saplings in a acre, compared to the old orchard which has barely 40 plants.”

Rahul suggests that pruning of the plants be conducted only once in three years, immediately after post harvest. With seven varieties of mangoes the harvesting begins in the month of June and continues till mid-August. “After pruning the plants I spray them with a fungicide. In July and November he plies the plants with vermicompost and neem cake. “While vermicompost works as a fertilizer the nitrogen-rich neem cake also prevents pests, “says Rahul.

Asked whether he would continue to do farming considering he completed his MTech degree in 2014, he says, “I have still to make up my mind. Presently, I am enjoying farming.”

Worm Friendly

It’s taken me five long years to realize that my farm is truly a haven for earthworms—gentlest of the soil loving insects and a boon to farm owners who believe in the ‘no chemical’ policy. Farmers who think that the soil which gives fruits and vegetables is like their own bodies, not to be tampered by synthetic chemicals.
This Sunday while digging the foot of the coconut palms plant to make place for place nursery grown black pepper climbers I came across earthworms thick as a pencil and measuring around a foot. Thanks to my persistence to use only home-made pesticide and fertiliser it has been possible to get such huge –sized earthworms.
If you too have similar stories, do feel free to share them on this blog.

Importance of Leaf Litter

People I have met in my avatar as a farmer have time and again advised me on the importance of mulching.  But it was a casual talk with the veteran organic farmer Vasant Futane which made me realize the importance of mulching.

He went on to say that he has come across many incidences of agriculture universities burning agricultural waste and not use the same for mulching.

If P Sainath (referring to Everyone Loves a Drought, the book which brought the nation’s attention to farmers’ suicides) wrote a book on the importance of mulching his contribution to the debate would be much immense than focusing on the suicide, said Phutane.

Why is leaf litter important for a farm?

Leaf litter is dead plant material, such as leavesbarkneedles, and twigs, that has fallen to the ground. This detritus or dead organic material and its constituent nutrients are added to the top layer of soil, commonly known as the litter.

Litter aids in soil moisture retention by cooling the ground surface and holding moisture in decaying organic matter. The flora and fauna working to decompose soil litter also aid in soil respiration. A litter layer of decomposing biomass provides a continuous energy source for macro- and micro-organisms. As litter decomposes, nutrients are released into the environment.

Leaf litter provides food and shelter for earthworms, pill bugs, millipedes and a multitude of smaller life such as eggs and larvae of insects and spiders of many kinds. These creatures are all essential components of the food web providing sustenance to toads, frogs, lizards, and countless other animals. Nearly all backyard birds require protein from insects to feed their young.

Good. Argument taken.

But how does one indulge in mulching if one doesn’t have enough leaf litter? has been my problem. I have tried collecting vegetable waste and sugarcane thrush and transporting it to my farm. However, I have discarded it as a viable option to build leaf litter or organic mass, as it has proved a costly proposition.

And then suddenly researching on the subject I came across two plants, namely Kadamb and Jungli Badam, famous for producing leaf litter in big volume.

Suitable for reforestation programs, Kadamb sheds large amounts of leaf and non-leaf litter which on decomposition improves some physical and chemical properties of soil under its canopy. This reflects an increase in the level of soil organic carbon, available plant nutrients and exchangeable bases.

I got the idea of Kadamb having observed it in my neighbourhood and impressed by its litter.

This monsoon I plan to plant dozens of kadamb and jungle badam, and I’m sure that in coming years I will be able to follow Vasant Phutane’s advice.

I’m looking for more such leaf litter-rich plants, do suggest if you know one.

For more:

http://www.botanical.com/site/column_poudhia/articles/_1254.html

http://www.mymotherlode.com/news/local/614741/Leaf-Litter-Is-an-Environmental-Windfall.html

 

Keeping Rodents Away

I have often heard farm owners ruing that the coconut palms in their farm have been ravaged by rodents and they are unable to do anything about it, try as they might.

“Once you plant Gliricidia or Giri Pushpa on the edges of your plot the rodents will avoid your farm,” says Kusum Dahivelkar.

This advice comes from one who has worked in Maharashtra’s Forest Department for thirty five years and presently runs workshops for ayurveda doctors and those interested in herbal medicine. Her HirvyaPunya Nursery is home to both traditional medicinal and herbal plants gathered from different parts of the country.

Used for its medicinal and insect repellent properties, Gliricida fixes nitrogen in the soil, boosts crop yields significantly without the expense of chemical fertilizers.  Most importantly it keeps rodents away.

As we moved around Kusumji’s modest sized nursery she pointed to her papaya trees—one which was reaching the skies and the other hardly four feet tall.  The former with hardly any fruits while the later was laden with fruits.

Kusumtai Dahivelkar

“Do you see the difference,” she asked.

“Yes,” we said, “One with couple of fruits and the other heavy with fruits.”

“That’s obvious. But why?” she asked and went onto explain that the plant which was shorter and laden with fruits had a benign surroundings.

The plant was surrounded with other plants and had thick undergrowth providing a safety net to her fruits, if they fell.  Just like a pregnant woman who feels secure in a loving and caring environment.

Do plants do have a mind. Have emotions and feelings. I think so.

Nitrogen Fixation

I had planted a Gliricedia (or Giripushpa as it’s locally known) a year and half back at the extreme edge of my garden. It has grown tall and  should be around 12 ft.  I have snipped all its leaves, which are rich in nitrogen and spread them close to my fruit trees. Now the tree, spread like a fan resembles a skeleton. New leaves will take some more time to come.

I remember telling Mangal to make cuttings of the plants and plant them during the rains. Though he said he did it. In fact, he didn’t. Few Sundays I chopped some branches and put them in plastic bags, in an effort to grow them.  I was foolish to think that one Gliricedia would be enough for my 100plus number fruit trees!

So that my plants do not miss their nitrogen fix I have now planted chana. Though I know it’s late. Still I’m trying.

You may ask why I’ve suddenly become ‘nitrogen conscious’. Being an organic farmer I’ve realized that I need to aid Nature to play its complimentary role and not interfere by using chemicals to feed my plants’ mineral requirements.

My farming friends tell me that Nitrogen is one of the most important chemical elements for plants. “If there is not enough nitrogen available in the soil plants look pale and their growth is stunted,” they say.

How does one usher Nitrogen?

Two ways: either introduce chemicals or grow Nitrogen fixing plants, called legumes. Legumes – and all peas and beans are legumes – are plants that work together with nitrogen fixing bacteria called Rhizobia, to “fix” nitrogen. The Rhizobia chemically convert the nitrogen from the air to make it available for the plant.

Legume plants live in a symbiotic relationship with the nitrogen fixing bacteria – the Rhizobia live in nodules in the plant’s roots. This way the plant can look after its own nitrogen needs without the use of fertilizer. In addition, when the crop is harvested and the plant cut back to ground level, the root nodules release all the valuable fixed nitrogen for following crops.