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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

An Organic Farmer in India: Spiritual Connection to the Land's Bounty

Air Date: Week of

Sandy Tolan visits with a farmer in India whose health and environs suffered under the nation's promotion of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. But he found renewal for his health, soil and spirit by turning to organic farming.


CURWOOD: In the next 30 years, the world's population is expected to jump by more than 3 billion people, and each and every one of us will need something to eat. But for the past decade, per capita food production around the world has leveled off and started to decline, as soil erosion and the disappearance of croplands under cities have taken their toll. So, how will we eat? While the chemically-based green revolution boosted food production in the 60s and 70s, it also led to a lot of environmental damage. But there are techniques that can help grow more food without using much in the way of chemicals. As part of our month-long series on the global food supply, Sandy Tolan takes us to India, where one farmer has found an organic path to higher yields.

TOLAN: In India, signs of faith are everywhere, random and surprising.

(An imam calls from a minaret.)

TOLAN: In the capital, Muslims sit cross-legged and face Mecca, touching their foreheads to the Earth.

(Imam up and under; fade to Indian music.)

TOLAN: In the northern state of Punjab, turbaned Sikhs file silently around the reflecting ponds of the golden temple.

(Hindu singer and instruments)

TOLAN: In the south of India, Hindus enter a stone temple that stood for thousands of years, praying to Vishnu, while the cacophony of a horn plays on the walls of the inner sanctum.

(Horn continues.)

TOLAN: For many, faith is a way to accept one's lot in life. To make one's peace with fate. For others, it's a basis to change. Even when everyone says, what you're trying to do is impossible.

(Bird calls.)

PAL: When I came to this farm not a single tree existed. Now you see. Coconuts alone are two ton.

TOLAN: He's a short man, Manindra Pal, of slight build. And at 60, moving past middle age. But there is a power in his eyes. They hold you in their gaze. They give you the feeling he's learned something: something worth listening to.

PAL: If you grow a tree that is devoid of love, it perishes. Similarly the animals that you grow. Besides producing food, you must take into consideration the spiritual aspect of life.

TOLAN: The spiritual aspect of life. These are not the words of a typical farmer, even in India. And probably not many outside this 3-year-old Hindu Ashram that owns the farm would even listen to these gentle words if it hadn't been for one thing: Pal's success in producing food. Here at Gloria Land, a 100-acre farm of rice paddy near the Bay of Bengal, Pal has accomplished what few farmers in the world have even dared to try and many said could not be done. He's taken a highly productive farm, removed the chemical fertilizers and pesticides credited with making that high production possible, replaced them with organic material, and actually increased his annual yields.

PAL: Once upon a time, people used to call me a crazy fellow. But the fact that exists, so that nobody can deny the fact that it can be done, with high productivity, it's not hard. My yield is increasing every year.

(Conversations among workers)

TOLAN: Workers bend over in the hot sun. An old man in loincloth and turban separates the rice husk from the grain. The muscles in his back glisten. A woman in a purple sari, a load of chaff on her head, disappears into a 15-foot-high stack of hay.

PAL: I am very happy in the sense that I have found the sense of life. I don't live for myself; I live for the Earth. I live for all my brothers and sisters. And I try to do something which will be beneficial to the Earth in general, and I am also having the body which is of the same element of this earth and will go back to the earth.

TOLAN: Manindra Pal did not come to all of this suddenly. Thirty years ago, when the green revolution came to India with its promise of high production through chemical fertilizers and pesticides, Pal was eager to sign up.

PAL: I was the first participant of the green revolution in India and I was the most modern farmer. Anything new would arrive, I would be the first person to grab it. I would move Earth and Heaven to get the seeds or get the fertilizer or chemicals. And I did that for 7 years.

TOLAN: But as his fields became an eerily silent place of producing chemically-processed crops, a place devoid of all insects and birds, Pal became disturbed. And then one night he literally got sick of the chemicals.

PAL: I was perspiring. I felt sick. I had vomited profusely, and developed fever, but I went and had my bath in the evening. And the fish was floating dead. And when I go to the field I found a few birds are lying dead, and some toads are lying dead. And that day I revolted. I said this cannot be.

TOLAN: This was not, Pal decided, what his faith had taught him about the purpose of human birth.

PAL: And I said, what am I doing? I myself am a farmer, I am producing food not only for myself but for the country. And for my fellow brothers and sisters. And what will be the poisonous effects in the grains I will be eating? So all these things, when I used to kill birds by spraying! You grow that way and you die.

TOLAN: So Pal decided he had to abandon chemicals, not just pesticides but fertilizers, herbicides, all farm chemicals. It was more in keeping with his beliefs and the beliefs of his fellow devotees in the ashram, in life's sanctity.

PAL: This is the vibrance of life. The vibrations of life. Look, look, look here. The birds, I mean, they are probably collecting some insects. If I had sprayed they definitely wouldn't be there. Yes, yes, yes, demonstrate to my friend.

TOLAN: The birds are back now, and today Manindra Pal oversees what's probably the most successful organic farm in India. The dark soil retains its fertility unaffected by sterilizing agents and chemical fertilizers. His waters run clean, untouched by chemical pesticides. In their place are natural pesticides like the leaves of the neem tree. And Pal's rice yields have not suffered. They run close to the highest in India. Manindra Pal walks down a path between the vast green waves of rice paddy.

PAL: This has been in the field for 140 days. In another five days we'll harvest. You see, you can come down here and see.

TOLAN: Gloria Land is attracting curious farmers from Japan, Denmark, Holland, and Germany, to learn Pal's techniques. Pal has a simple success formula, really. He's converted the farm and retained its high production simply by reusing every ounce of the farm's organic material: decaying leaves, cow urine and cow manure. Fresh manure goes into the bottom of a pond where methane is produced, which fuels the farm kitchen. The remaining dung is then pumped out to the fields and used as a natural fertilizer.

(Cows mooing)

PAL: The thing is, you see, all your waste is gold if you know how to use it.

TOLAN: But not everyone has so much natural waste available. M.S. Swaminathan, the father of the green revolution in India, says Pal's work is impressive. But he says much of it is based on having a lot of cows and a lot of acres. Most farms in India are small and couldn't be set up in the manner of Gloria Land's hundred acres.

SWAMINATHAN: Twenty-five percent of the world's farming population are in India. Hundred million. Now, out of these hundred million farming families, 75 million farming families have land holdings of 5 acres and below. And out of them, a majority are one acre and below. Now, if you preach to them that you do this, you are organic farming, you do and so on, these are all people who can do, very rich people can do it. For the poor people, you can't do away without some fertilizer.

TOLAN: Manindra Pal says there are big obstacles for small farmers to convert to high productivity organic farming. For one thing, he says, producers of chemical fertilizers are trying to discourage successful organic farming because that would cut into their sales. Plus, he says, the Indian government isn't taking the lead in providing education and incentives for farmers to convert. And there are other challenges built into the way Indian farmers live.

PAL: Normally, all the farmers of India do not live in the farm. They live in village cluster, and all these animals live in the homestead area. The farm is one kilometer, two kilometers, away. Therefore, they are not able to recycle all the byproducts and the waste of animals effectively to the farm. They need transport, load facilities. That is why it is difficult. But still, it is possible. But the thing is, one should get down to it, one must have the motivation to do it.

TOLAN: For Manindra Pal, beyond the matter of motivation, there is the matter of faith. And for Pal, that's part of a wider worldview, a sense that everything's connected.

PAL: It is not the knowledge from books, but it is the knowledge by identity. In the tree, something is wrong, I should be able to know by identifying myself with the tree. The tree, too, has a soul. I, too, have a soul. And this is a knowledge which cannot be proved by the material science.

TOLAN: The spiritual part of Pal's work, like his methods, won't apply to all farmers. But Manindra Pal provides a glimpse, in a world starved for real examples, of a way of farming, and perhaps, a way of thinking, that may allow for many more generations down the road.

PAL: Love is the code of everything. If you don't love your plants, if you don't love your animals, if you don't love your birds, obviously they depart. And where love exists, where the fellow feeling exists, everything survives. Everything blossoms. This is the language of the soul.

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan in Pondicherry State, southern India.



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