Conversations With A ZBNF Farmer

Driven in a white-coloured Volkswagen Polo you would expect an early thirties techie to play Bruno Mars, Adele or maybe Mika, if you’re  a Bollywood follower, but you’re in for a surprise as you catch a reedy voice talking about farming in an earthy Marathi. Yes, Sujay Gawand plays Padmashri recipient Subhash Palekar’s lectures on Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) as we do the two-and-half-hour long drive to his family’s farm in Murbad from Powai.

We leave behind villages named Saralgaon (the village of simple-minded folks), Tokawade (rhymes with takeaway) to reach Pendhari on the NH 222 after we have had spicy vada-pao and washed it down with jeera drink in a roadside restaurant which dots the roadsides claiming to offer you umpteen variety of dishes but has not been allowed to express their culinary skills beyond missal-pao because no one so far has asked for butter chicken!

Sujay“I have downloaded hours and hours of lectures and hear them often to catch up on the techniques of ZBNF,” says Sujay proudly, who is among the growing breed who either are hobby farmers juggling their jobs and dirtying their hands with soil or those who believe that farming is their alternative calling.  Till recently a whole time techie, Sujay having worked as a software developer in places like Connecticut and Hawai presently works as a freelancer techie and a farmer. “I am seriously into it… 80 percent into farming and the rest as a software developer,” says the man who spends three days in a week in his farm and also moonlights as a software developer for a start-up he and a friend own.

The Gawand family till about 25 years back lived in a wadi in Bhandup. “We had all sort of fruit trees, mango, chickoo, papaya etc. I still remember tasting the latex of papaya out of curiosity and spitting it soon in disgust. Thanks to creeping urbanization my father sold the wadi where now high-rise towers have come up and with the money earned acquired 18 acres in Pendhari village,” he reminiscences.

BananaFew kilometres away from Malshej ghat, farmers in Pendhari continue to grow paddy in kharif and bhindi (okra), and tur as a fence crop during rabi. Sujay has planted ‘bahuvarshik tur” which is likely to yield tur for a couple of years on 2.5 acres with various intercrops including moong and ginger. The tur plants are between 6 ft to 10 ft fed with jeevamrut and the occasional spray of dashaparni to combat the pest. “The person who sold me the seeds claimed that each plant would yield around 5kgs but I would be happy if it gave 2kgs,” says Sujay who sheds his sneakers for a gumboot as he assumes the avatar of a shetkari. “The locals laughed at me when they came to know that I was growing tur as a crop but now they come to seek my advice.”

This May and June Sujay door-delivered Haphus, Payeri and gaonthi varieties of mangoes to people in the Central suburbs and also to one family in Ville Parle. “Every time I visited my farm I lugged nearly 300 kgs of mangoes in the dickey of my car,” informs Sujay.

In fact, Ghorpade family was fortunate to have the mangoes because Sujay took matters into his hands. As family members rarely visited the farm the caretaker for decades had maintained: Kahi nahi hot. Meaning the trees hardly yielded any fruit.

Like most young urban dweller turned hobby farmer Sujay believes in the motto of share, cooperate and collaborate. Spent time with him he will provide you with hazaar ideas about crops, farming techniques, organic pesticides etc. – techniques which he has either experimented with or acquired from others experiences. Like pooling resources of like-minded farmers to concretise the floor of a local cattle owner and in turn the donor is promised complimentary cans of gomutra. Or acquiring a cow past its prime so that it doesn’t end up in a slaughterhouse. Pointing towards the new guest tethered to a tree Sujay says with pride: “That’s my new possession. Now I need not scout for gobar and gomutra.”

cowIt is always a dream of every farmer to grow paddy and next kharif season Sujay plans to sow the Indrayani variety. Once harvested he plans to leave the stubble so that he can squeeze a second crop the next season.  Being a techie Sujay’s approach to farming is like handling a project: trying to minimize the chances of human errors by researching the crop/fruit he plans to introduce, understanding the suitable weather conditions, interacting with fellow growers, accumulating information from locals etc. However, he is steadfast on the issue of never taking recourse to chemical inputs but find natural means to combat issues. Be it in search of growth promoter, fertiliser or pesticide.

Presently, in the midst of readying his plots for watermelon and pineapple, he says he is still to identify the pineapple variety he plans to zero in. “I will either go for Mauritius or Queen, not the MD2,” says he.

As he leaves me at Tokawade bus stand for a Murbad-bound bus he asks apologetically: “Hope your journey was fruitful?”

Indeed it was: for I was introduced to herbs like Akkalkada (Anacyclus Pyrethrum)—chewing the tiny flower makes the tip of the tongue grow numb for a short while; and Anantmool (Hemidesmus indicus)—the powder of its root used for skin conditions.

For an ignoramus, like me, till very recently they were just weeds.

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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.”

Rains in February

Clouds over my farm
Clouds over my farm
When I returned home last Sunday and told wifey how the showers had played havoc on the mango trees she gave me the look: “I told you…..”
For she had not approved of my putting the pictures of my blossoming mango trees on the blog.
Ever since the showers began on Friday I prayed I don’t know to whom because I consider myself atheist. Every hour of the day I was in constant touch with Mangal, asking: Paus Thamle Ka (Have the rains stopped)!
Hoping it would be a good harvest this year I had invited friends and colleagues to my farm. “We will have a mango utsav. You can feast on aplphonso, langda, dasehri, banganpalli, molgova, totapuri,” I had promised.
mango flowersOf the many I was sure my Dada and Boudi would come–for they had already booked their tickets in February. In fact, when they visited my farm in early January they stayed for over four hours and even made plans for a barbeque evening.
“We will stay overnight in the hut and have a barbeque,” Dada had said while we drove home.
By Monday evening I instructed Mangal to spray the mango trees with neem oil to prevent the pests which had multiplied due to humidity.
I will be lucky if I get even 20 mangoes this year! Get ready to pay a premium for your Hapus because the unseasonal showers have played dirty. This year mango lovers in Mumbai and Thane will have to suffice with Dasheri, Langda and Neelam.

674 plants in an acre!

Most mango orchards in India traditionally have had 40 to 50 plants in an acre. In times when land is getting scarce and land prices shooting northwards it’s time to maximize from the minimum. That’s the philosophy of ultra high density mango plantation which believes that one can have astounding 674 mango plants in an acre.
The Indian Council of Agriculture Research and Tamil Nadu Agriculture University in a YouTube presentation is propagating the idea which the agriculture scientists came across during a visit to an orchard in South Africa with 900 mango plants in an acre.
I came across the highly informative video presentation. Here is the summary:
• The pH of the soil should be between 6.5 to 7.5. If less , advised to add lime to the soil before planting
• The pit for planting should 1m/1m/1m
• When the plant is 3ft high cut the tip
• Two months later, when the plant gets three branches cut the tips
• Try to achieve an umbrella shape when doing pruning. After pruning spray or apply fungicide, Copper Oxychloride
• Don’t allow the tree to grow beyond seven feet in order to ease plucking of fruits.
• Mango cultivar recommended for dwarf cultivation, namely Alphonso, Banganpalli, Imam Pasand, Banglora, Mallika and Himsagar
I have just 25 mango trees. Which means I can have at least another 200 because I have jackfruit, Aonla, Lichi, Banana, Papaya, Cashew, Coconut, Mulberry, Custard Apple and scores of flowering trees.

Flowers can fool

By looking at the image you’re likely to be fooled. The tree in question is a mango tree in full bloom. By the end of the first week of February this Alphonso mango tree is loaded with flowers. Each flower is small with white petals and a mild sweet aroma. A mango tree in full flower is a beautiful sight indeed!
mangoHaving counted the blooms, you will be made to believe that this tree is likely to give at least 1000 plus mangoes! But that’s far from reality. If you get 200 plus mangoes, count yourself lucky.
Having observed the mango trees in my orchard since last seven years I have realized that all flowers do not become fruits. Most flowers turn brown then black and shed from the tree. The flowers are pollinated by insects and less than 1% of the flowers will mature to form a fruit.

Tipu Sultan’s Mangoes

If it’s May, it’s the month for mango stories. Mango is one fruit which we all love. You can’t take mango out of an Indian. Here is a story I picked up from different published sources. It’s about amazing diversity of the King of Fruits.
mango in karvaliKirgaval is a lush green village which is a part of Mallavalli taluka of Mandya district in South Karnataka. Here a farmer grows mangoes which were popular during Tipu Sultan’s time.
The 18th century ruler had an army station in Kirgaval. Folklore has it, when Tipu decided to disband the regiment, he gave the land in and around the village to his soldiers. At that time Kirgaval was known for 300 to 400 exotic mango varieties.
Syed Ghani Khan of Kirgaval village grows mangoes which were favourite with Tipu. Today, except for some 116 rare mango trees surviving in Ghani’s farm, Kirgaval is as faceless as any paddy growing village in the area.
Here you will find mango smelling like a mosambi, called ‘mosambi ka aam’, the one that looks like an apple is called ‘seb ka aam’. There are other varieties too, like “moti ka aam”, “aate ka aam”, “meethe mian pasand” and “nanhe mian pasand”. Then there is Farha, which matches the Alphonso in taste and pulp quality.
Ghani’s favourite is “manjhe bi pasand”, the mango that shrinks with time. “It is exceedingly sweet and has a shelf life of 15-20 days after it is fully ripe,” says Ghani.
In 2006, Ghani came in contact with an organic farming group called Sahaja Samruddha. Through the group he met agriculture scientist and writer Devinder Sharma who advised him to register his varieties with the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. After two years of hard work his 116 varieties were registered as indigenously collected plant material.

Courtesy Down to Earth. Pic by Aparna Pallavi

Dasheri, my love

Dasehri mangoes in my farm
Dasehri mangoes in my farm
My first mango, if I remember rightly was a Dasheri which father had brought having cycled four kms. to the market. At dinner, we all seated on the floor enjoyed the fruit, sliced and cut piled on a steel plate. We lived in a Air Force cantonment and the market was away. One had to bicycle all the way to the market to fetch groceries, vegetables, fruits etc. Even for a haircut—which costed 50p—one had to travel that far. On Sundays father balancing sturdy cloth bags stuffed with groceries and vegetables on both sides of the cycle’s handle bar and also one on the rear carrier would arrive by noon, having left earlier in the day. We would rush out as we heard the tring tring of the bell to check out the goodies father brought. Those were the days when you could buy a kilo of Dasheri or Langda for Rs 5.
Years later the taste of Dasehri I had those June days still lingers in my mouth and my memories come afresh every summer when I chance upon this 18th century mango which first appeared in the gardens of Lucknow’s Nawab. When I decided to plant couple of dasheris on my farm I wanted to have the best and so didn’t source the saplings from the nursery closeby but from village Dasheri near Kakori, Uttar Pradesh, thanks to a friend who resides in Lucknow and visits Mumbai often. Fetching the four saplings at Dadar station, carrying it home travelling in the local train as commuters queried about its origin was a experience which I leave it for another post. For those not in the know the original Dasehri originated in the gardens of Late Syed Mohammed Anser Zaidi. The gardens are still owned by the descendants of Anser.
My farm friends are too biased when it comes to their favourite mango. So much so that they all have only one variety of mango: Alphonso or Haphus. Most of them, since their childhood have spent most of their growing up years in Maharashtra and cannot see beyond Haphus. I have an eclectic taste having spent my growing up years in North, South and Eastern parts of the country and thus exposed to varieties like Dasheri, Payeri, Langda, Kesar, Banganpalli, Malgova and others. Presently, I have around seven varieties of mangoes. My Dasheris have favoured me well this year and is followed by handful of Haphus. By next year I plan to include Nuzivedu(from Hyderabad), Himasagar and Malda (from Kolkatta) and others.

Mango March

Now it’s the time you offered them some water. I’m talking of your mango trees. Horticulturists I spoke to told me that if mangoes (which are as tiny as almond) have appeared on your favourite Totapuri or Alphonso trees it’s the right time to water them. Around 50 to 100lts each day till the second week of April if you’re looking for the luscious variety.
mangoIt’s a general practice that mango trees are not watered in the post monsoon months. The flowers appear in the beginning of February and by early March the fruits make their appearance. And that’s when you should hydrate them.

Mango Tree Care

Time you took care of your fruit-bearing trees, especially mango. It’s Dussehra and the monsoon has left but for occasional showers which trouble you. Get your farm free of the grass which has occupied your plot following the rains. Don’t burn them you can use it later for mulching or depositing it in the vermicompost pit.

Once you’ve done through loosen the soil 2ft from the shadow of the canopy. Don’t dig the soil but loosen it. It’s done to let the secondary root to receive plenty of sun.

Next leave 4 parts of lime, preferably the rock variety, in a bucketful of water. Take one part of copper sulphate, make a poultice of it with piece of cloth and leave it hanging with a stick in a half bucket of water. Leave both lime and copper sulphate for three days. Do stir it often with a stick. On the fourth day mix four parts of lime and one part of copper sulphate in a bucket of water till you get a sky blue coloured liquid.

Now dip a brush in the sky blue liquid, take it out and paint the stem of the mango tree moving it from bottom to top. This is done to avoid insects to attack the fruit tree. You can do it with other fruit bearing trees too. 

My Mango Memories

You can divide people into two groups—those who love mangoes and those who don’t. Those who do, have their ‘mango memories’. Memories of God’s own fruit! Memories of the sunshine liquid oozing from the skin as you squeeze the fruit! My mango-memory is of collecting the storm-felled fruit beneath the giant and sprawling mango tree standing beside the monsoon river in my father’s ancestral village, Debipur, in Howrah district of West Bengal, which we visited during our summer vacation.
The memories of those sunny, wonderful, summer days of never-ending fun and digging into juicy mangoes are evergreen. The pre-monsoon storm, known as kal baiskahi in Bangla generally struck in the evening. More so when it was dark around, the moon cruising gently behind the clouds and stray lightening illumining the horizon krrakk, krrakk and krrakk. The wind singing shaeen, shaeen as we jumped out of the palm thatched hut running like a pack of wolves towards the lone mango tree, which I was told has been around since Pulin Bihari, my grandfather was juts knee-high. Which meant that the tree had witnessed some sixty summers. Standing beneath the tree we couldn’t see much but heard the occasional thud, thud as the mangoes came down loosened by the wind and fell all around us. With battery torches in our hands we rushed to the source of the sound and picked the lime-green fruit. At times the fruits fell like a shower. Our makeshift bags and towels heavy with the fruit we rushed back home as the wind quieted.
Next morning we would feast on our ‘catch’ squatting on mud floor. The unbridled pleasure of sinking one’s teeth into the succulent flesh, the juice dribbling down our chins, hands and arms, and licking one’s fingers in delight is still etched in my memory. As we returned, our 15-day long vacation over, and resumed our schools everything was forgotten. As we grew up our annual summer visits became lesser and lesser and my ‘mango memories’ rested somewhere in the recesses of the mind.
Few years’ back I learnt that my uncle, father’s elder brother, who looked after our landed property had sold off the mango tree. The new buyer had chopped the tree down and made a good sum selling its timber. That was the day I felt as the throat of my mango memory has been slit. The stump of the tree still stands testimony to those days and tells the river when it flows that once here stood a mango tree which gave fruits to the world.
Then, mangoes were just a summer fruit to be gathered from under the tree and enjoyed during summer vacations to our ancestral home. As I grew up and work took me to different places in the country I was introduced to the pleasures of fruit with exotic names like Dussheri, Langda, Totapuri, Alphonso, Kesar, Banganapalli, Fazli, Chausa and others and realized they each had a distinct taste and flavour.
A year back I was introduced to Malgoba, thanks to colleague Devanshu. Grown in villages of Valsad, South Gujarat, the fruit which is harvested during May end is relished for its thick curd-like juice. Britain’s pickle king Lakhubhai Pathak sourced raw mangoes from Valsad namely Payeri, Rajapuri and Malgoba.
In fact, the so-called alphonso juice which you buy year-round from your neighbourhood sweetmeat shop is nothing but the juice of Malgoba with alphonso essence.
Now a resident of Mumbai, Devanshu hails from village Umarasadi in Killa Pardi taluka and tells me that the locals consume Malogoba juice like they are having water! Once the juice is ready a spoon of ghee, powdered dry ginger and cumin seeds and salt is added before downing it.
“My father who is around 80 still consumes nearly two litres of mango juice in one sitting,” he says.

This was earlier published in my blog sunshineanyday.wordpress