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Jonathan: Organic farming & the Thar Desert

February 19, 2011

This week, instead of five days of classes we took a two day (three night) field trip to the Shekawati Region of Rajasthan. Located in the Thar Desert, this region is known for its elaborate Haveli’s (mansions owned by wealthy merchents of the region who covered its walls with beaitful, if not eclectic paintings) and subsistence farming.

The theme of our out-trip was organic farming, and we visited a number of demonstrations of using sustainable methodologies for life in one of the state’s harshest environments.  A wonderful example was our hotel, a beautiful complex constructed with cow dung walls.  Cow dung is an amazingly versatile and readily available resource for millions of people and is used in building and as fuel, and is also rumored to be an antiseptic.  I would rather not be the one to test this last hypothesis.  To quiet your minds, I can say that our stay at the hostel smelled much less like dung and feces than most of my more recent hotel stays on weekend trips, and the streets of Jaipur for that matter.

But the lessons did not end at the hotel.  In the nearby village of Nawalgarh, we visited the research and development headquarters of a national organization, Morarka Foundation.  There they create and test new methods of composting, herbal pesticide, and sustainable farming technique.  Interestingly, the photograph above is of a small hut built using descriptions of a Vedic Era agro-ritual involving the a religiously oriented burning of ghee to ward away evil spirits (and perhaps pests in the process).  Researchers are studying to see if this traditional Hindu practice could be revived to benefit farmers.  Their main function, however, is in aiding local farms in transitioning from using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which has been devastating the local ecosystem, to organic methods.  Interestingly, their food is USDA Organic certified.  They have converted a number of farms utilizing a unique and effective methodology that is culturally competent and sensitive to the realities of the precarious life of a subsistence farmer.

To begin, all ingredients for the making of the pesticides and compost are either readily available on the farm (cow urine, local vegetation, cow dung, water, etc.), or easily acquired from the organization (such as self sustaining worm populations).  Secondly, when talking to farmers they invoke the not-yet-forgotten traditions of grandfathers who had all formed ‘organically.’  The controversial Green Revolution of the 1970’s, which introduced genetically modified seeds and chemical fertilizer and pesticide, had overtaken the technique of the farm, but not the memories. Finally, recognizing that transitioning to organic methodologies requires letting land lie fallow for a number of years, they support the decommissioning of small strips at a time to slowly and economically convert.  While the process does not see immediate financial returns, the NGO in part provides a buying market for the goods in its specialty grocery stores, as well as some farmers are finding that their local communities are responding to the production of purportedly ‘healthier’ options, even if they are a bit more expensive.  The two actual farms that we were able to visit had begun their transition at least ten years ago, and were thriving and expanding; both were bustling with workers, modern equipment, and a healthy crop.

This trip also marked my first true, albeit brief, excursion into the villages of India.  Infrastructure varied widely, from clean and flat roads to ones with pot holes the size of small countries.  We passed ‘Fair Price Stores,’ a storied government scheme to provide heavily subsidized grains and other foodstuffs to the very poor (although corruption has reportedly diminished the effectiveness of the program).  We saw huge investment in education, with scores of billboards advertising english medium schools in the big cities, and we saw economies based entirely around farming.  It was an interesting experience in its own right, and makes me hope I am able to spend time in this other iteration of India so inaccessible to the casual tourist.  Perhaps during my upcoming internship.

And now to bed, for tomorrow is more school and a long bus ride to Johdpur, “The Blue City.”

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