As with climate change, but not so publicised, we are edging towards another crisis: a desperate shortage of soil and arable land to grow the world’s food. It takes the forces of erosion millennia to produce a foot of soil. Meanwhile, with deforestation and tilling, millions of tons of soil are being washed away into the oceans every year; not to mention salination and leaching of minerals in what remains. For decades, soil scientists and organisations like the FAO have been urging farmers to stop or reduce tilling their fields. Of course some of these also urge the use of chemical tilling and herbicides instead, which seems to be a remedy worse than the problem.
Three years ago, following local wisdom (till the hell out of it), we managed to harvest about 25 kilos of ragi and 10 kilos each of urad and moong – not bad for complete novices. The next year we decided to try sowing our crops without tilling the soil. While Rajendra and Raju shook their heads over my folly, I made seed balls and scattered them. Our harvest was zilch. Last year we told the smartypantses to go ahead and plough. But between the spells of drought and excess rain, they missed the boat. Once more, no crop.
This year, determined to have something to show for being farmers, we have had three fields ploughed by tractor and sown with ragi and various pulses. Meanwhile, we have dug swales bordering every field so that the soil is not washed away by the rain; and also to keep in as much water as possible.
Also a field of paddy, but with no expectations – that field is a write-off to the elephants. If elephants like ragi, they luurve rice. Plus, the paddy field, near the bottom of the valley, is right on their nightly route. (This year, though, the wild boar seem to be beating the elephants to it, even before the crop comes to a head.)
Then we’re getting the crops hoed by a pair of cows, a process called kunte in Kannada. The cows pull a light wooden hoe over the field, ostensibly to thin the crop and remove the weeds. As far as I can see, it makes no difference. But it’s fun, looks decorative and adds free manure.
I’m not terribly happy about this whole thing. Next year we may go back to no-till farming. Hopefully we’ll have a better shot at it now, with some experience behind us, more mulch under us, and lots of reading on the subject. This article holds out hope.