A greener way out of farm crisis

Chemical overuse is turning India’s grain bowl into a basket case. But a few brave farmers have switched to bio-fertilisers and reported spectacular results

Growth spurt: Balli Singh at his kinnow orchard that’s flourishing after three years of treatment with bio-fertilisers.
BATHINDA: On the face of it, farmers Sanjay Siyag and Balli Singh have little in common. Siyag is suave, speaks English and owns a few hundred acres of land.

Three pit bulls and a Pakistani bully dog guard his sprawling house in Chautala village of Haryana’s Sirsa district. Balli is the stereotypical doughty Sikh farmer, earthy and practical. When his lands got tangled in a family dispute, Singh started managing a 7.5-acre orchard on profit-sharing basis at Lilanwali village, just across the state border in Rajasthan.

But what the two farmers share is a success story — a tale that could lead agriculture out of the expensive chemical fertiliser-pesticide dependence most cultivators here are trapped in.

Balli’s kinnow trees were dying, afflicted by huanglongbing and phytophthora, diseases that have wreaked havoc on citrus cultivations across the world. After conventional pesticides failed, he took a gamble with bio-fertilisers.

He hasn’t regretted that decision. “Within six months, progress of the disease was halted. The trees started recovering,” he says. So did his investments. While the first year fetched a return of just Rs 60,000, the second year’s yield got him five times that amount. Continued use of bio-formulations kept increasing yields. Last year, the farmer claims to have earned Rs 10 lakh from the orchard.

Siyag relates a similar experience. “Around 600 kinnow trees in my orchard were dying. I tried a bio-formulation on a few plants. The results were beyond expectations. I was able to save 450 trees, which are now healthy and bearing better fruits than ever before.”
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Singh and Siyag are part of a growing tribe of converts to bio-fertilisers — products containing micro-organisms which increase the ability of the plant to extract nutrients, stimulate growth and help the plant fight diseases by natural processes. These microbes also restore the soil’s natural nutrient cycle and build soil organic matter.

Travelling through Faridkot and Bathinda districts in Punjab and Sirsa in Haryana, TOI met several farmers who related their happy experience with bio-fertilisers on various crops, from wheat and paddy to chillies and potatoes.

Their costs had come down and their yields had increased.

Experts endorse many of the benefits. “Bio-formulations are very effective in plant growth promotion...They help in root elongation and root biomass increase which in turn improves the nutrient uptake of the plant,” says K Annapurna, head of the microbiology division at Indian Agricultural Research Institute. The microbes also inhibit the pathogen population. “Hence disease incidence is lowered and the plant remains healthy. Bio-fertilisers also strengthen the plant defences so that it can withstand pathogen attacks,” she adds.
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Punjab and Haryana, India’s shining agricultural success stories, are plagued by problems due to high chemical usage. Fertilizer use is highest in Punjab (250kg per hectare) and Haryana (207kg), compared to the national average of 128kg/ha. Pesticide use also is among the highest in the two states. This, coupled with water availability problems, has led to stagnating yields in major crops, raising worries for the future.

“Most bio-fertilisers contain concentrated amounts of naturally occurring micro-organisms. These speed up nature’s growth and regenerative processes,” says Uday Philar, CEO of Sequoia Biosciences, a Pune-based bio-fertiliser company.
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The paddy crop of Jasbir Singh near Jhoke Sarkari village in Faridkot was visibly taller, greener and healthier than adjacent fields. He told TOI that bio-fertilisers helped his wheat crop withstand the havoc caused by unseasonal rainstorms in March-April this year because the roots of his crops were “deeper and the stalks stronger”. With the just-harvested paddy too, Jasbir claims to have substantially increased his yields, getting up to 7.5 tonnes per hectare, much higher than the state’s average of 4 tonnes.

Farmers using bio-fertilisers on other crops too have claimed better quality and quantity. Ruby Singh Sandhu, a big potato farmer in Mallekan village near Haryana’s Ellenabad town, reported a yield of up to 25 tonnes per acre, almost double the average output in the region.

D L N Rao of the Indian Institute of Soil Sciences has been researching bio-fertilisers for over two decades and says their use undoubtedly leads to healthier plants and better yields. “At least 25% of chemical fertilisers used in India could be replaced with bio-fertilisers. Not only would this save a lot of money for the farmers, it would also rescue the soil from poisoning and regenerate its vitality,” he says.

The real promise of bio-fertilisers probably lies in the big picture. In the region, south Punjab and north Haryana, where intensive chemical farming is not only ravaging the soil but also people’s health, a shift towards more natural cultivation would bring much-needed healing.

As Sanjay Siyag puts it, “Moving towards green products is no longer a matter of choice for us. We are running out of other options.”
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