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.


Welcoming The Hummingbird Tree

Come rains, sorry monsoon because it’s a season, we, farmer colleagues, ask each other: What are you planting this time?

HadgaThough our plot sizes are limited we all look forward to the monsoon to take care of the vacant spots. Besides we want to create a biodiverse universe of our own. Either we plant a sapling which we acquired some time back or grow our own saplings. Last year I had acquired seeds of Hadga (Sesbania grandiflora) from a group in Bangalore, specialising in heirloom seeds. They are called Sahaja Seeds. I had sowed the seeds in the bag when the monsoon in peak. They sprouted; the seedlings were around six inches but were soon eaten away by a pest.

So this time I sowed the seeds a fortnight prior to the rains. Interestingly, all the saplings survived. After they were feet in height I planted them. Most have survived.

I’m told it will take nearly a year to flower. The flower made into fritters is a delicacy among Bongs. In fact, a Bong will pay a handsome amount to acquire flowers of Hadga, called Bak Phool in Bangla.

Among ruminants such as cattle and goats, Hadga leaves are a favourite. The leaves are a good source of green manure too. The reason, I planted them in the first place.

My Article on Safflower

Healthy Oil

Safflower cultivation sees drastic fall despite benefits

Despite its many health advantages, the cultivation of safflower for its oil is declining across India because farmers are not finding a ready market and are discouraged by the low prices it fetches


Vijay Jagtap discontinued sowing safflower (kardi) last year on his one-hectare plot in Baramati Pandhare village, 12 km from Baramati town in Maharashtra. “The price we get for kardi is not at all attractive. A mere Rs 2500 per quintal,” says the 51-year-old farmer. “Besides, engaging labor to harvest kardi is more expensive than other crops due to its spines.”

Safflower has the highest percentage of good fat and second-lowest content of bad fat. Rich in linoleic acid, it helps greatly in reducing cholesterol levels. Sadly, the urban middle class, its kitchen narrative influenced by TV cookery shows, newspaper columns penned by nutritionists and the aggressive media campaign by FMCG companies is totally unaware of the real heart-friendly oil, safflower oil.

A study, unveiled in January this year by the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition, which took into account the total polyunsaturated fatty acids (TPFA), total mono-saturated fatty acids (TMFA) and total saturated fatty acids (TSFA) in as many as 13 edible oils found safflower (kardi in Marathi, kusubi in Kannada) oil as the best cooking medium followed by sunflower oil, mustard oil and soya bean oil.

Falling cultivation

While India has emerged as the largest importer of edible oil, its farmers are abandoning the cultivation of safflower, thanks to low market demand and unattractive price offered to the growers.

In the neighboring state of Karnataka, the state that leads in safflower cultivation, a similar story unfolds. Veera Reddy (61), who owns 15 acres of land in Markunda village, off National Highway No. 65 on the way to Bidar, told, “I have been growing kusubi for several years now but discontinued it as there are not many takers for its oilseeds. As there are no oil pressers close by, I have had to ferry my crop in a lorry to Bidar, a 30 km drive from my village, to get it pressed. I would rather grow sugarcane, jowar or tur and receive a better price.”

Another farmer, Ram Kumar Prajapati (55), originally from Haryana who migrated to Gujarat’s Kutch about 18 years back and has around 90 acres of farmland in Kanakpur village in Abdasa taluka, explains his reasons for dumping safflower in flawless Gujarati. “I grew kardi on eight acres and made only Rs 8,000 per acre. Now even the ground water level has reduced further and I don’t have any irrigation facilities,” he told “I would rather grow something which fetches more at less expense.”

Ancient crop

One of the oldest oil crops in human history that can withstand drought and low moisture, safflower has been cultivated in Andhra Pradesh as a popular fence crop. Besides the oil, the sharp-needled leaves offer a good defense against the straying cattle. Chevella in Ranga Reddy district and Parigi in Vikarabad district are major centers of safflower cultivation. But here too things have changed.

The family of Siva Kumar of Kurnaguda village who have been cultivating safflower for over three decades on 10 acres, has reduced it to a bare two acres. Explains the 53-year-old farmer: “Now hardly 10% of farmers in our village and neighboring Chevella and Bodempat villages grow safflower. We begin sowing in October end and harvest in January-February but the lack of irrigation or timely rains is the major limitation to our yield. Moreover, we are able to get a mere Rs 3000 for a quintal.”

Low returns

Unable to earn a handsome price, and with village-based ghanis (traditional oil pressers) shutting shop due to the paucity of oilseeds, farmers in the country’s arid zones in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana are discarding the cultivation of safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), a crop which actually doesn’t need much irrigation or care.

At present, safflower occupies the seventh place in the acreage dedicated to oilseeds in India. Maharashtra, Karnataka, along with Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, accounts for 94% of the total acreage and about 99% of the country’s production.

Drastic decline

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the country had 712,500 ha (hectares) under safflower cultivation in 1996-97, but by 2014-15 it had come down to only 174,940 ha. Simultaneously, production has plummeted to 90,120 MT (metric tons) from 450,000 MT in the same period. The area under safflower cultivation has slumped by 64% since 1991, while the production has witnessed a fall by 41% during the same period. Though ranked number one in global safflower production, India produces only 29% and is followed by the US (17%), Argentina (13%), and Kazakhstan (12%).

Dwelling on the lack of enthusiasm among farmers for safflower, A. Vishnuvardhan Reddy, Director, ICAR-Indian Institute of Oilseeds Research, told, “The chief factors for the decline of safflower acreage in the country is the preference of the farmer towards gram (chickpea) primarily due to better market price, assured output market and higher farm-level output.’’

Experts opine that the major reasons for the decline are due to higher remuneration from competing for crops such as sorghum and gram, low price realization as compared to other oilseed crops, comparatively low oil content than other oilseed crops, susceptibility to various biotic and abiotic stresses such as aphids and import of cheap palm oil.  Another major cause for its decline is due to the spiny safflower breeds, which involve hiring expensive skilled laborers.

Societal interest

“Farmers need to return to safflower in the larger interests of society and for their own welfare on account of its strength to withstand drought and low moisture,” stresses plant breeder N B Gadagimath of Dharwad -based Sarpan Agri-Horticultural Research Centre, who has to his credit four promising varieties of safflower, both spiny and non-spiny ones which have been commercially tried on large plots on farmers’ field in Karnataka and suitable for mechanical harvesting using combine harvesters. In fact, farmers in Dharwad and Bijapur districts have been successfully making use of Sarpan’s non-spiny safflower varieties.

Interestingly, farmers in rain-deficient Marathwada region of Maharashtra, namely districts like Beed, Osmanabad, Parbhani, Latur, Hingoli, Jalgaon and Ahmednagar, continue to grow safflower despite getting much lesser returns than the Minimum Support Price. Here farmers hire mechanical harvesters to harvest the crop while oil pressers continue to flourish. Beside safflower farmers here grow cotton, jowar, cattle fodder, sunflower, sorghum and green gram. While green gram fetches them Rs 9,000 per quintal safflower a lowly Rs 3,000!

According to Shaji Kakasaheb Shinde, a senior safflower breeder with Mahatma Phule Agriculture University, Sholapur, “Farmers in Marathwada have continued their faith on safflower as it’s easy to grow, needs less irrigation and inputs while additionally fulfilling their need for a cheap and healthy edible oil. But it’s also due to the availability of mechanical harvesters on rent and existence of oil pressers in the neighborhood. ”

While most safflower-growing countries use the oil as a cooking medium, China for centuries has cultivated it as a dual-purpose crop growing it for medicinal purposes too. In Chinese medicine, safflower decoctions are used in combination with various other herbs and additional ingredients to treat menstrual problems, cardiovascular disease, pain and swelling associated with trauma, male sterility etc.

Manifold benefits

Value-added medicinal products from safflower seed, oil, and petals have a great potential in the pharmaceutical industry and are waiting to be tapped. In fact, the ancient Ayurvedic text, BhavaPrakash Nighantu, attributes petals of kusuma of activating the nerve system, treatment for heart arrhythmia, controlling hypertension, providing relief in muscular arthritis and joint pains, regularizing the menstrual period, improving the skin color etc.

“Safflower cultivation can provide a dual income to farmers, as the florets can easily be collected from non-spiny safflower after the crop matures and sold for food and textile dye,” Nandini Nimbkar, president of Phaltan-based, Nimbkar Agriculture Research Institute (NARI), a non-profit R&D institute engaged in the field of agriculture, renewable energy, animal husbandry and sustainable development since 1968, told It has so far developed eight safflower varieties, both spiny and non-spiny. Its NARI 96, released this year, has 31% oil content while NARI 57, released in 2015, has 37%.

Adds Nimbkar, “The average yield of seed and flowers from NARI’s non-spiny hybrid is 2000 and 150 kg/ha, respectively. The income obtained from the flowers at Rs 800 per kg will be Rs 120,000 per hectare while that from seed would be Rs 60,000 at (at Rs 30 per kg).”

Due to the low price it commands for the growers, it’s very unlikely that safflower will ever become a popular crop among farmers but considering its medicinal and nutritional properties, a niche could be created — a fact policymakers need to take into account if the country wants to arrest its continuous decline.

A. Patil, former Director, IARI (Indian Agriculture Research Institute), strikes an interesting note, “We need to lay emphasis on safflower as secondary agriculture crop whereby products and crops residues or even the main crop is used for extraction of high-value bioactive compounds to save this vintage crop from extinction.”

Hiren Kumar Bose is a journalist based in Thane, Maharashtra. He doubles up as a weekend farmer.

Tribal Fare

I found that an early morning visit to the local subzi mandi during the beginning days of the monsoon can be revelatory.  For I came across an unknown leafy vegetable which I had never chanced upon in my life today.

The women, an adivasi, with a meagre fare of vegetables in a basket at Thane’s subzi mandi told me: It’s fodshi, we pick it from the Yeeor hills. Very tasty. You can prepare it like methi.

Wifey asked: How much?

We ended a bunch of three for Rs 20.Fodshi

Having never heard of it, I sent an image to my botanist friend, Dr. Ajit Gokhale and was told that the tribals call it kuli. Its botanical name is chlorophytum tuberosum but is generally confused with chlorophytum borivlianum, commonly known as safed musli.

According to edible chlorophytum is a herb found throughout the warmer regions of the world. The plant is about 20 cm tall, seen in gregarious clumps. Leaves are strap-shaped, 6-12, all arising from the base, 15-30 cm long. The plant blooms in June-July with the first showers of monsoon. Flowers are white, 2.5 cm across, with 6 elliptic petals. The centre of the flower has 6 erect stamens with yellow anthers. Edible Chlorophytum is also a famine food, its bulbs and leaves are eaten. Bulbs and leaves dried and pounded into flour for bread.

Writing in Ashwani Kumar, Prof Emeritus, former Head of the Department of Botany, and Director, Life Sciences, University of Rajasthan elaborates: “This is a genus of two hundred species and twelve are native to India. Organic-rich well drained sandy loamy soil and warm humid climate is suitable for its cultivation. Plants are propagated by seeds and by the division of rhizomes. Seeds remain dormant for nearly ten months. Germination of seeds takes two weeks and only about 20% of them germinate. Flowers are star-like white up to 2 cm across, sepals are acute, anthers are longer than filaments are green or yellow in colour, bracts are long. Seeds are black in colour with angular edges. The dry roots possess less than 5% moisture. It contains carbohydrates, proteins, root fibres, saponins and minerals. Dry roots of the plant constitute the drug and are used in powdered form. It is a well-known tonic and aphrodisiac and also used to treat general debility. Leaves of this plant are also eaten as a vegetable. The tubers of about 20 g are boiled with milk and taken twice a day for a month for  impotency and general weakness.”


Sometimes you have to wait for a plant to flower for years. So much so that you even tend to forget that it exists in your garden. I had planted the Ananta some five years, maybe six. Now, I don’t even remember rightly, when. Having heard and read about it I had visited scores of nurseries until I found it in my neighbourhood. The nursery owner handing me the plant had said: “The flowers are milky white and very fragrant. It’s as large as a rose.”


For over 10 days I was unable to visit my orchard, first due to new assignments which came my way and second due to the excessive rains. The downpour was so heavy that roads were flooded: the car unable to move ahead. Crestfallen I had returned home to wait for another three days so that the rain god could be more reasonable.

But seeing the milk-white flowers on a tree this weekend as Mangal picked them up I rushed towards it only to be enveloped by its fragrance. The Ananta flowers, I am told is a favourite of Lord Ganesha, have a distinct heavenly fragrance which can be sensed even from far as the breeze caresses it and spreads its heady scent.

Belonging to the Gardenia family, the Ananta is known as Gardenia jasminoides. The flower is named after Dr. Alexander Garden (1730-1791), a Scottish-born American naturalist.

Also known as Ghanda raj (king of fragrance) it was a common fragrant plant a few years back but now has become a rarity and is difficult find one. Incidentally, it was Sigmund Freud’s favourite flower.

Manna For Diabetics

I had interviewed James Joseph when he published his book, God’s Own Office, sometime in 2014. We kept in touch as we had similar interests.  His jackfruit initiative,, has been a path breaking feat focusing on the much-ignored fruit. Here he shares his journey which has resulted in invention of green jackfruit flour, a great boon for diabetics. Read on.

“James, you can’t expect rest of India to eat Kerala’s traditional jackfruit meal. Diabetes is a big problem for whole of India, and you must find a way to add green jackfruit to what people normally eat to make it diabetic friendly.” – Late Dr. APJ Kalam

Once I completed my research with Sydney University to scientifically explain the discovery with Fr. Thomas, my thoughts went back to Dr. Kalam’s ask mentioned above, when he invited me for a meeting at his house, in November 2014. By this time many diabetic patients, had started powdering the freeze dried jackfruit, and mix it with their idli and roti. The powder from freeze dried jackfruit had good binding and worked well with rice and wheat flour and patients could easily add one third portion, without any change in taste or texture. However, time and again, our customers raised their concerns about the product as somewhat expensive for daily consumption, even though the cost was still less than the savings they had on medicines. Any other form of drying wouldn´t have given us the same result with respect to binding and having positive impact on sugar levels.

The HERO ingredient!

Our tests, narrowed the reasons down, to one key nutrient which is retained intact through the expensive freeze drying process, and that was the soluble fibre! The concentration of soluble fibre reaches its peak in mature green jackfruit and gets converted to sugar as it ripens. The soluble fibre serves two great functions. It gives excellent binding for the flour, just like gluten in wheat flour and once inside your body it binds not only just sugar, it also binds cholesterol from getting absorbed into the body. This very ingredient turns into harmful sugar in two days as the green fruit ripens. This explains the ancient Sanskrit text one Ayurveda doctor shared with me during the discovery phase. “Panasam madhya pakvam Lavanadhiyuktham” which means, jackfruit is most nutrient rich when it is in mid-ripe stage. Our ancient scholars knew about this hero ingredient -soluble fibre, which is much less in the tender or ripe stages of a green jackfruit.

The Inventions!

After several months of experiments, which took every ounce of engineering still left in me, we got two major breakthrough inventions! First we could develop a green jackfruit flour, which had much more soluble fibre than the powder, made from freeze dried slices. In fact it had more soluble fibre, than the much hyped Oats. It also had less available carbohydrate and sugar. So we had a better product at the nutritional level for our diabetic customers that also had better binding and taste!

Second breakthrough, was developing a continuous process machine, to peel and process jackfruit to flour in the shortest possible time while maintaining global hygiene standards. The labour intensive manual process of peeling and slicing jackfruit had two major problems. Very low productivity due to the size and sticky nature of the fruit and the challenge of finishing the job before the fruit turned ripe. I knew automation was the only way to ensure quality, quantity and to keep the flour economical for the larger diabetic population in India. My search for a machine took me to three Chinese manufacturers and five European manufacturers. The Chinese had a peeling solution for tender jackfruits which are much smaller; but they couldn’t handle bigger fruits. One European manufacturer from Italy agreed to try but came back with the response “it’s impossible!! It’s too big…it’s too sticky… and the stones (seeds) are all over the fruit, not in the middle like in all other fruits!!!” Finally I had no choice than to try and build one ourselves. After making several cross country trips carrying heavy jackfruits in a bag on trains, we finally cracked a continuous process machine which could process truckloads of jackfruits in a day! 25 years after leaving engineering college thanks to the humble jackfruit I now have two pending patents and the all-purpose green jackfruit flour which can make almost all Indian meals with Rice flour or Wheat flour diabetic friendly, is very much affordable for the wider population!

The solution Dr. Kalam had asked me to figure out is finally a reality.  Jackfruit365™ Green Jackfruit Flour is being offered in partnership with Eastern Group. The easiest way to reduce your grains by half and double your greens in your plate, without changing what you eat in quantity or taste, for just 5 rupees per plate!


Symphony of the Soil

Having been a weekend farmer for over a decade now let me share a secret with you: I know how soil is made.The process begins sometimes in early October when the soil is not moister as the rains are now a memory. The twigs, fallen branches, dead leaves, fruit waste and all have become the food of the termites.Soil in the making

Utter the word ‘termites’ and you’re likely to hear orchard growers curse them. More so those who have a farm in the Konkan belt of Maharashtra where it is considered a menace one need to live with. Every means available are used to them exterminate them but fail miserably. Yes, for a brief period the termites seem to be effaced. But they return: for they share a relationship which is as old as this planet.

Unwilling to be defeated, the farm owner repeats the cycle and it goes on and ends.  But the soil unlike our kidneys which flushes out what the body doesn’t need loses its fertility, eliminated of its most friendly dweller.


What do the termites do to the litter?

It envelopes the litter with soil and within months it disintegrates to become a fine powder, like sawdust.

In the initial years, I too felt that there is something wrong with my soil but I played the game of caution: watching the organic matter turn to soil, as days’ progress to become months and as seasons come and go.  I have been restraining myself from any kind of intervention which will disturb the ecological cycle. Keeping my ear and eyes to the ground. Listening to the symphony of the soil.  We, humans, consider ourselves as a superior species and are unwilling to let Nature be what it has been, for eons. And that has been our failing.

Once the rains come, the termites go into hibernation for moisture is its arch enemy.  But I do take precaution so that termites do not attack my fruit-bearing trees by applying a paste of lime and copper sulfate, beginning with the base of the tree trunk and reaching a height of a metre or so. Also in order to fool the termites, I make it a point is all over the place so that they don’t attack my tree.

Soils deepen with the accumulation of organic matter primarily due to the activities of higher plants. Topsoil deepens through soil mixing. Soils develop layers as organic matter accumulates and leaching takes place. This development of layers is the beginning of the soil profile.  What soil scientists address as “A horizon”.  This humus-rich topsoil where nutrient, organic matter, nd biological activity are highest (i.e. most plant roots, earthworms, insects, and micro-organisms are active). The A horizon is usually darker than other horizons because of the organic materials.

But mine isn’t darker and I’m not complaining.

Season of Golden Droplets

Amaltas (Common laburnum or Indian Laburnum), I think, may be the only tree of its kind which flowers and seeds simultaneously. It begins flowering in early March (in Thane): the bright yellow flowers hanging like droplets. That may be the reason it’s also known as Golden shower plant. The cylindrical seed pods, in the beginning, are dark green and slowly with days turn dark brown or black. Sanskrit has four names for it: Aragbadha, Suvarnaka (golden), Rajataru, Nripadruma (royal tree) and kritamla on account of the beauty of the long racemes of yellow flowers. The seedpods have hundreds of seeds; enough to grow a modest forest. Break open the seedpods with a stone and you’re likely to see the seeds neatly stacked—like in a CD rack. The pods contain approximately 30 -100 large hard flat, water-drop-shaped seeds and are light brown in colour.

firtsI came across this translated poem by Maaz Bin Balal which eulogizes the beauty of amalatas, published in Himal.

As crusts over hearts may bake in this season of amaltas,

Our parched souls, if florid, ache in this season of amaltas.

In that blinding yellow haze, what, did we not rake in those

inflamed passions, the sun’s make, in this season of amaltas?

Delhi’s very own harvest, for the tired lover, what rest?

Crackdowns, protests; what’ll he take in this season of amaltas?

You’re out to pick roses at the time of laburnums, Maaz,

They will know you’re a fake, in this season of amaltas.

And then come the rains:

When unbearable yellow blooms are drenched by the monsoon,

The thirst of Qais’s solitude is quenched by the monsoon.

Did the rain then dissipate what desire did create?

Did water douse raging fires, belched by the monsoon?

It’s thunder, lightning; will the revolution be frightening?

Or will all beauty, romance now be wrenched by the monsoon?

Do think of it again, Maaz, could this be your final stance?

The thick yellow fleece may yet be flinched by the monsoon.

IMG_20170424_142845At times I feel how fortunate we are to have such a beautiful tree around, giving us visual pleasure during the summer months: for its native to South East Asia and also found in Australia, Egypt, Ghana, Mexico, and Zimbabwe.

This is the right time to harvest the seeds of amaltas if you are among those who become rapturous watching the Golden Shower in full bloom. Plant it because it attracts hosts of bees and butterflies.

IMG_20170424_143130Having gathered the seeds from pods clean it thoroughly to remove the pulp. Once cleaned, the seeds must be gently scarified and soaked for 24 hours, prior to sowing.



My article in

Sustainable Agriculture

Organic farming for better yields takes wing in Gujarat

Inspired by examples of farmers earning ample returns through various techniques of chemicals-free farming, a farmers’ produce company in Rajkot is writing a new chapter on sustainable agriculture in arid and semi-arid zones

Moringa1.jpgA moringa crop is ready for harvest at a farm near Rajkot town. (Photo by Hiren Kumar Bose)

“Farmers who are forced to sell tomatoes for Rs 1 for a kilo or onions for 50 paise and end up destitute have become the norm,” says Neetu Patel, an agri-entrepreneur. “That’s not the kind of farming we believe in. We are into growing medicinal plants and even crops like wheat, castor, sesame, moong, arhar, etc., by strictly following organic farming.”

The feisty director of Future Farms, which counts Patanjali Ayurved, Himalaya Drug Company, and Zandu Pharmaceuticals as clients, was speaking at her organic food store in a residential neighborhood in Rajkot. The shop stores a range of products from alfalfa capsules to organically grown lentils. In 2016, it supplied 750 tons of castors grown in Kutch’s Bhachau region to Gandhidham-based Castor Products Company for pressing into oil, which was exported to Wala Heilmittel GMBH in Germany. With 100 acres adding up every other month, the farmers’ produce company is writing a new chapter on sustainable farming in the country’s arid and semi-arid zones.

A recent study, titled Development of Optimal Crop Plans (OCPs) for sustainable groundwater management practices in Saurashtra region, and conducted by agricultural scientists of Junagadh Agricultural University (JAU) in two villages each of Jamkandorna taluka of Rajkot and Wankaner taluka of Morbi, both in Gujarat, revealed that farmers cultivate water-intensive groundnut and cotton because of high gross returns compared with other crops that consumed less water. The study suggested that in order to improve crop diversification and lessen farmers’ dependency on high water intensity crops, suitable crops be suggested after duly considering its income generating capacity.

Encouraging uptake

The good news is that scores of farmers have already taken the initiative as suggested by the researchers and Neeta Patel’s Future Farms is one of them, which holds 8,000-odd acres in Gujarat’s Saurashtra and Kutch region, and benefits around 3,500 small and marginal farmers.

While most land holdings in Saurashtra’s Surendra Nagar, Bhavnagar, Junagadh, Rajkot, Morbi, Wankaner, and Jamnagar districts are within the range of 3 and 5 acres, the landholdings are bigger in Kutch due to its sandy soil and less rainfall. A sort of disruptive farming is being witnessed as scores of kheduts (farmers) abandon chemical-based farming and adopt organic farming. They use drip irrigation techniques, moving away from farming which relies heavily on over exploitation of ground water and increased dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These farmers feed the nascent market for organically grown crops, like wheat and lentils, besides fuelling the demand for herbal and medicinal crops, which go into making wellness products.


Regained fertility

Future Farms has been reaching out to small and marginal farmers, organizing workshops commending the virtues of cow’s bio-waste based organic farming and giving them demonstrations on making compost, organic fertilizers and pesticides. “Each month we get two to three requests from farmers for organizing workshops,” K. E. Chandravaidya, Associate Professor at Mangrol-based BRC College who has held workshops on behalf of the farm produce company in villages of Rajkot, Junagadh and Mangrol, told “Those who have followed our advice have found that the land which had lost its fertility has regained it and lessened their dependence on chemical inputs.”

In fact, ever since Subhash Palekar, the originator of Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), was awarded the Padma Shri, his daylong workshops held in villages of Saurashtra have been attracting huge participation. “Though we have been popularizing organic farming through our extension program within our university campus and through Kisan Vikas Kendras, spread in the 10 districts of Saurashtra, it has been Palekar’s workshops which have helped change the mindset of farmers,” Amrutlal M. Parakhia, director, Extension Education, Junagadh Agricultural University, told

Better produce

Like elsewhere, farmers here too are slowly realizing that soils rich in organic matter produce more nutritious food with higher levels of antioxidants, flavonoids, vitamins and minerals. An increase in soil organic matter, and therefore total carbon, leads to greater biological diversity in the soil, thus controlling the spread of plant diseases and pests.

Home to black or sandy soils, with a lower percentage of the humus content, the soil of Saurashtra has low availability of nitrogen, medium level of potassium and high level of phosphorous. From the point of fertility, the land is poorly supplied with plant nutrients. To get a reasonable yield each year, the farmer is forced to increase his dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. With subsidy on fertilizers, except urea, being withdrawn, farmers have realized the futility of chemical-based farming.

From initiating the process of enriching the soil and completing the procedure involving the organic certification to post-harvest sale, Future Farms handholds the farmer for three years. It offers a fixed price to its associates (the farmers) decided at the beginning of the season. “We begin harvesting the tender leaves once the moringa plant is four months old, repeating the cycle every 45 days, not allowing them to flower or bear fruits. The leaves are dried on our solar drier channel for two days and ready for sale,” says Neetu at a 160-acre farm in Vinaygadh village in Than taluka of Morbi, 55 km from Rajkot town. The farm has rows upon rows of aloe vera, rose plants and shoulder-high moringa, all irrigated by drip, which alternately provides water and a fermented concoction of cow urine, dung, jaggery and powdered lentils.

Soon Future Farms plans to host free residential workshops at its Vinaygadh farm for farmers willing to take up natural and ecosystem-based (Natueco) farming method. “We make around Rs 1 lakh per acre from sargawah (moringa) and aloe vera,” associate Narbheram Vermoda told “Our wheat fetches around Rs 800 per quintal, which is Rs 200 more than those grown with chemical fertilizer inputs.”

Ecosystem networking

Natueco, popularized by Deepak Suchde, is built on the premise that it is possible to create a micro-climate to assure self-sufficiency. It follows the principles of ecosystem networking of nature in our farming system and emphasizes harvesting through a critical application of scientific inquiries and experiments that are rooted in the neighborhood resources. It depends on developing a thorough understanding of plant physiology, plant geometry of growth, plant fertility and plant biochemistry.

Like others, the 25-acre farm owned by Gautam Kangar at Bichdi village in Rajkot, follows the Natueco method and is lush with its banana grove, rose plants and lemon grass. Most farmlands are fenced with medicinal herbs like kakaj (Caesalpinia), senna (Cassia acutifolia), prickly pear (Opuntia (Cactaceae), jaljamini (Cocculus hirsutus), shatavri (Asparagus racemosus), neem, akado (Colotropis gigantean L.), guggul (Commiphora wightii), gliricidia, lemon grass, curry leaf, and adulsa (Justicia adhatoda). Besides creating a microclimate of sorts, these fences prevent the ingress of pests and bring in additional income to the farmers through the sale of its leaves and fruits.

“Prickly pear, which belongs to the cactus family, grows in the arid zones of the US and Mexico, as it does in India too, but through our research we have been to establish what Ayurveda literature has been claiming since long that its fruit is good for those who are anemic, especially those with low hemoglobin content,” says Sanjay Chauhan, associate professor of Pharmacy Department at Nadiad’s Dharamsee Desai University. “This makes our product unique.”

With Gujarat having become the ninth state in India to declare a policy for organic farming with a promise of offering a subsidy to those engaged in organic agriculture, it’s likely that more and more farmers will take to sustainable farming in the near future.

Hiren Kumar Bose is a journalist based in Thane, Maharashtra. He doubles up as a weekend farmer.