Organic Farming Changes Everything: Part 2, Escaping the Chemicals

The local ecosystem and the religious beliefs of a community of cotton farming families in rural India called for unique solutions to some universal agricultural challenges. Organic farming methods proved to be the solution on all counts.

Pests Are Controlled Humanely
Pest control has long been a major concern for these farmers. For many, however, the concern is spiritual as well as economical. Some spiritual belief systems that are common in India's communities hold that no living thing should be killed — a major conflict of interest for farmers when their chemicals kill anything that moves.

"Ninety-seven percent of insects in the fields are beneficial," explains V.J., a technical advisor with the project that supports some of these organic cotton farmers. "So by killing all the insects, the farmers were also killing beneficial insects."

Now, in addition to treating the seeds first, the farmers use a variety of methods that trap or repel harmful insects, some of which are evident as you walk through the rows of cotton plants. Birds are now encouraged to rejoin the ecosystem and prey on insects through the addition of large perches that tower over the plants. And sophisticated pheromone traps use the reproductive hormones of female bollworm moths to attract the males. Pulling the males out of the fields results in less mating and fewer destructive offspring.

Meanwhile, deep plowing and crop rotation are employed to prevent insect infestations, and some farmers use castor-oil sticky traps and natural pesticides derived from local Margosa trees.


Soil Is Enriched Naturally

Compost is also created from local, naturally occurring material — waste from the community and oxen dung — and added to the soil. Intercrops, such as corn and soybeans, are planted alongside the cotton to replace nutrients in the soil that are depleted by the cotton plants. Intercrops also give the farmers supplemental income in between cotton harvests.

But it's the earthworms these farming families cultivate that may have the most significant impact on soil quality. "One earthworm eats about 3 grams of soil every day, and it gives 3 grams of manure," V.J. says. "On an average day, we'll get about 120 kilograms of manure free."

More important, the worms loosen the soil, causing a key side effect: better water penetration and retention. This is vital in an area drenched with rain during the monsoon season. In the past, the hardened, chemical-laden soil merely repelled the water. Now, the farmers don't have to use artificial irrigation until the end of September, when the monsoons end. Some farmers say their organic cotton plants are taller than their former conventional plants, a probable benefit of deeper root development.

"Earth worms come out of the soil for air during nighttime," says technical advisor M. Tiwari. "That helps the roots of the plants get air. Water and nutrients also percolate to the roots."


Women Harvest the Cotton by Hand
It takes about 120 days for the cotton plants to start blooming. And while conventional cotton farmers often use chemical defoliants to strip plants of their leaves and hasten the ripening of cotton bolls, here they are allowed to open naturally.

The women of these farming families pick the cotton in the morning — to avoid the midsummer heat and to take advantage of the dew, whose moisture coaxes plants to make picking easier.


Non-genetically modified cotton blooms naturally. Because the farmers use seeds that have not been genetically modified — a common technique in conventional farming to resist disease and insects — the organic cotton has five blooming cycles instead of just one.



Farmers ban agro-chemicals and bad energy. The Jain farmers often turn to their spiritual beliefs to encourage successful growth of their cotton. During Puja prayer ceremonies, the farmers create smoke by burning oxen dung, oil and rice to cleanse the air of bad energy.



Not a single insect is killed. In lieu of the insecticides that are liberally sprayed on conventional cotton farms, these farmers practice natural pest control with pheromone traps, a scientifically devised method using female sexual scents to attract male moths.



Worms give back to the earth. Vermiculture is an important component of the farmers' natural fertilizing techniques. The women of the village cultivate the earthworms, which efficiently turn all the food waste from the village into a nutrient-rich soil amendment for the farm.



Women sow the seeds of change. Dressed in saris, the women of the farm plant the seeds, using straw to mark where they are placed. The cotton is grown on family-owned acreage that has been ISO- and SKAL-certified to meet the strictest organic agriculture standards.



Organic cotton is hand-harvested. Hot summer temperatures create favorable conditions for growing cotton, but not picking it. The women handpick the cotton bolls for four hours in the morning, take a break in the afternoon and return to the fields around 4 p.m.




This 2-part series also includes:
Organic Cotton Changes Everything for a Community in India



 

 

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