My Tryst with Organic Farming…on the farm.

The Ministry of Rural Development has taken it upon itself to promote organic farming across the length and breadth of India. Well that’s precisely what’ve decided to do in the National Action Plan for Climate Change and in the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture. Many NGOs have dutifully followed suit. This is especially true in some of the most backward districts of India. The self being a champion of organic farming (self-proclaimed of course and because I fancied myself a Planeteer as a kid) and an ICAR loyalist, decided to do organic farming in accordance to what may be prescribed by Indian Agriculture Universities only. To take after tosh recommended by these non-agriculture graduates working for sustainable agriculture in the rural development sector is sacrilege for me. Those iodine deficient creatures claim that “agronomists talk nonsense!” and hence have no credibility themselves!

When I was working in Mandla, I was keen upon the introduction of organic sugarcane production as many farmers near the town of Mandla have access to irrigation. The town is practically surrounded on 3 sides by the Narmada. I went about this in a thorough fashion and chose to do what is recommended by the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University for organic sugarcane production. Below is a description of how reality smacked me straight in the face.

Package of Practices for Organic Sugarcane Production by the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University (TNAU)


Recommend varieties for organic sugarcane production in Tamil Nadu are Co 8021, Co 86032, Co 86249, CoC 90063, CoG 93076, CoG 94077 and CoSi 95071.

The recommended varieties for Madhya Pradesh are as follows:

Serial No. Variety Maturity group Cane Yield (t/ha) Resistance to diseases and pests
1. Co 8371 (Bhima) Midlate 1117.7 Resistant to smut
2. Co 85004 (Prabha) Early 90.5 Resistant to smut
3. Co 86032 (Nayana) Midlate 102.0 Resistant to smut, field resistance to red rot
4. Co 87025 (Kalyani) Midlate 98.2 Resistant to smut, susceptible to red rot
5. Co 87044 (Uttara) Midlate 101.0 Moderately resistant to smut
6. Co 91010 (Dhanush) Midlate 116.0 Resistant to smut
7. Co 94008 (Shyama) Early 119.8 Resistant to red rot and smut
8. Co 99004 (Damodar) Midlate 115.5 Moderately resistant to red rot
9. Co 2001-12 Midlate 108.6 Resistant to red rot and moderately  resistant to smut
Source: Sugarcane varieties for cultivation, Agropedia and List of sugarcane varieties recommended for commercial cultivation in different states (Both websites were accessed on 3rd December, 2013)

Adoption difficulty: High

Problem: Where are all these varieties available? An agronomist colleague asked me to get in touch with the local Krishi Vigyan Kendra (Agriculture Science Centre) as they keep planting materials. Turned out that the district had not been included in the plan for sugarcane development and hence no planting material was available. All the varieties in the list above begin with Co. Co stands for Coimbatore. This implies that farmers will have to purchase the planting material from Sugarcane Breeding Institute, Coimbatore 641 007. (They have a James Bond connection.)

Most farmers flatly refused to take the pains of ordering the varieties themselves because:

qndlq to coibqtore

Even though they might not actually have to undertake a tour through 4 states, they simply weren’t willing to take the pains of ordering something from Chennai Expressland! We need to power up the marketing of better varieties. Improved varieties should not have to wait for several decades for a marriage between research and policy to become available to smallholder farmers. In fact, the thinking has to shift from agricultural extention to marketing. On second thoughts, extension education and agri-input marketing is the same thing!

Land preparation

The land must be deep ploughed once or twice with disc plough and then followed by shallow ploughing three or four times using cultivator.

Adoption difficulty: Moderate


  1. People have to be convinced to undertake the extra per hour cost for a total of 6 ploughings. They generally do not plough more than 2 to 3 times.
  2. This is contradictory to the principles of conservation agriculture (CA) as prescribed by the FAO. CA prescribes zero-tillage i.e. no disturbance whereas TNAU wants farmers to cause the highest level of turmoil possible.

In my opinion, TNAU wants to destroy insect pests in the soil by exposing them to heat.


Row spacing: 90 cm. Furrows should be 20-30 cm deep. This spacing changes with planting season. 90 cms in November- December. 75 cms for planting in January and 60 cms for planting in March.

Adoption difficulty: Moderate.

Problem: People practically plant sugarcane setts at a distance of 10 to 15 cms. Ask them to plant the setts at a distance of 90 cms i.e. 3 feet and their eyes pop out. However, this can be dealt with. Many farmers who would scatter paddy seeds earlier have adopted the 25cms x 25cms spacing of the System of Rice Intensification. Sugarcane farmers will adopt too.

Organic manure

In order supply a total of 280 kgs of Nitrogen per hectare, the TNAU recommends the application of farmyard manure or compost or well-decomposed press mud at 80 t/ha either before last ploughing or in the furrows before planting. However, the quantity of N can come through one or more sources like farmyard manure, compost, press mud etc., depending upon their N content.

Difficulty level: As high as the Burg Khalifa.


Reaction of an agronomist colleague


Reaction of farmers:


People laughed at me when I discussed this with them on their farms. I remembered the words of Dr. Norman Borlaug himself.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There’s a lot of nonsense going on here.

From his interview on his 95th birthday.

Honestly, adding even in 1/4 th this amount is a very big deal. I checked out the recommendations of the TNAU in it’s package of practices for integrated nutrient and pest management in sugarcane, i.e. conventional sugarcane cultivation. They’ve recommended a basal dose of farmyard manure at 12.5 t/ha or compost 25 t/ha or filter press mud at 37.5 t/ha before the last ploughing under gardenland conditions. Still not possible! People laughed at me, again.

Don’t know what had gotten into me but I refused to face the truth. I was still not willing to give up. I was completely sold on the idea that organic farming is efficient. If not 80 tonnes of well-decomposed cowdung (farmyard manure for Mandla farmers means rotten cowdung), then I decided that they could use alternatives like:

a) Mahua oilcake: 2.5 kgs of N from 1 quintal @ INR 700 per quintal during monsoon and INR 1400 per quintal after monsoon.

b) Linseed oilcake: 4.9 kgs of N from 1 quintal @ INR 1800 per quintal

c) Niger oilcake: 4.7 kgs of N from 1 quintal @ INR 1700 per quintal

d) Poultry manure:  30 kgs of N, 20.7 kg of P and 10.4 kg of K from 1 tonne. Sold @ INR 650 per trolley (about a tonne) near Mandla. I do not know the prices elsewhere.

All values for NPK have been calculated in accordance with the average nutrient content values of bulky and concentrated organic manures on the Organic Farming portal of TNAU.

Taking all the financial and physical constraints into consideration, I started abandoning my hardline stance. Farmers should consider various permutations and combinations of these options according to their budget. This is certainly expensive business for lower middle class folks (sugarcane farmers in Mandla aren’t exactly poor, they’ll be middle class in 10 years surely). Organic farming is fine but not in such a fanatical manner that it ultimately appears comical. To be fair to the TNAU, they have stated what they calculated is needed in 1ha, so as to supply 280 kgs of N from organic sources only. Tough job that! I do hope to have the opinions of scientists of the TNAU or from other parts of the country about this.

Planting material

Setts must be from 6-8months old disease free nursery crop. Two budded setts should be preferred over three-budded setts. The seed material better be from organically grown sugarcane crop.

Difficulty level: Moderate

Problems: Not manyof the present set of varieties being used in Mandla are resistant to red rot and smut. People continue to use the stock that they have for many years now. The setts will definitely not be from organically grown crop.

Sett rate and planting

75,000 two-budded setts are required for planting one hectare with a distance of 90 cms between rows.

Adoption difficulty: None

Problems: None except for helping farmers overcome the shock of keeping a 3 ft distance between rows.

Green manure intercrop

Green manure crops like daincha or sunhemp need to be sowed on one side of the ridges on 3rd or 4th day after planting sugarcane and raise it as an intercrop with sugarcane. Harvest and insitu incorporate the intercrop around 45 days after transplanting.

Difficulty Level: Low

Problem: Almost none. Some green manure crop seeds will always be easily found.

Weed management

Hand hoeing and weeding at 30, 60 and 90 days after planting. Only non-chemical weed management technologies like hand weeding and mechanical weed control methods are to be employed.

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Problem: The current practice of sowing the sugarcane crop very close practically leaves no space for a human to enter to the sugarcane field and hence weeding is not carried out. This does not mean there is no weed growth. However, by introducing a gap of 3 feet between rows, it will now be possible to carry out weeding. This increase makes sugarcane cultivation more labour intensive and this burden generally breaks the back of women farmers and hired women labourers.


Apply 5 kg each of Azospirillum and Phosphobacteria respectively on 30 and 60 days after planting of sugarcane. Mix the biofertilizers thoroughly with 500 kg/ha of farmyard manure to increase the bulkiness before application. This should be followed up with light earthing up and irrigation.

Difficulty level: High


My reaction:


Mid season, when farmers have more or less exhausted their stock of decomposed cowdung, obtaining 500 kgs will be as difficult. Application of fresh cowdung is not an option. Farmers will also find it difficult to buy so much azospirillum and phosphobacteria because they cost INR 25/kg and INR 70/kg respectively. Not much for a middle class pocket but that’s a lot of money for smallholder farmers. However, they can try and apply as much as they can afford.


Remove dried and senescent (old in simple language) leaves in the 5th and 7th month and apply as mulch in alternate furrows.

Difficulty level: None

Benefits: This is an activity that is not a part of current set of practices and can be adopted. Will require more labour.

Irrigation schedule
Germination (up to 35 days)

Every 7 days

Tillering  ( 36- 100 days)

Every 10 days

Grand growth (101-270 days)

Every 7 days

Maturity (271 days to harvest)

Every 15 days

This schedule is for medium type of soils. The interval is to be reduced for light soils and increased for heavy soils. When there is rain adjust the interval depending on the account of rainfall. Ridges and furrows method is inexpensive and best. Convey the irrigation water from source to the field head through pipelines to reduce conveyance loss.

Difficulty level: None

Prevention of lodging

At 7th month after trashing, a wet earthing up will help to reduce lodging of canes. Tying the canes with trash-twists (trash twist propping) will also help to reduce lodging.

Difficulty level: Very low

Insect control

Early shoot borer

Trash mulching, frequent irrigations and light earthing up at 35th days will result in lower incidence. Release 125 fertilized female Sturmiopsis parasite/ ha when the crops is at the age of 45 to 60 days.

Difficulty level: Moderate

Problem: Where do we obtain Mrs. Sturmiopsis? (pregnant & therefore married.)

Inter node stem borer

Cards pasted with 0.2 cc eggs of Trichogramma chilonis parasite are to be obtained from parasite breeding laboratories. They are to be placed in the field @ 25 cards/ha in 25 places once in 15 days when the crop is 4-11 months of old.

Alternatively, pheromone traps are to be introduced in the field @ 25/ha spaced at 20 meters apart when the crop is 5 months old, trap and kill the male moths of internode borer. Replace the pheromone vials in the traps in 7th and 9th months.

Difficulty level: High

Problem: Trichogramma & Sons are just as hard to find as Mrs. Sturmiopsis. I enquired about the points of sale for Trichogramma and many people led me to Trichoderma! Not the same thing! Not even close! And a trichologist will be of no help in this case whatsoever. An acquaintance (an agronomist) told me Syngenta sells these and he sent me information of their Bioline line that is only available in the UK. Facepalm!

Pheromone Traps are available with only one dealer of the Pest Control of India in Jabalpur (for supply to Mandla and surrounding areas) and these have to be pre-ordered. This can be managed and farmers can be ‘trained’ for the same through the infamous capacity building sessions.

Red rot disease

In places prone to red rot disease only resistant varieties such as Nayana, Kalyani, Shyama, Damodar and Co 2001 – 2012 are be planted.

In case susceptible varieties are grown, adopt the following practices.
1. Select and use disease free setts
2. Eliminate and burn affected clumps
3. Stop flow of irrigation/rain water from diseased fields to healthy fields
4. Do not raise ratoon crop from the disease affected crop and
5. After the harvest of affected crop, grow rice crop and destroy the soil debris inoculums.

Difficulty: Medium

Problem: Resistant varieties are not available for reasons explained earlier. Other precautions can be introduced in the area.

Smut disease

1. Obtain setts from disease free canes
2. Remove and burn affected clumps.
3. Do not allow more than one ratoon crop and
4. Grow resistant varieties.

Difficulty level:  Medium

Problem: Same as for red rot.

Grassy shoot disease

Treating the setts in an aerated steam therapy (AST) unit at 50°C for one hour can destroy the disease causing organism in the setts. Use the setts from 3-tier nursery raised using AST treated setts to avoid the disease.

Difficulty: High

Problem: What is an aerated steam therapy unit? How does a farmer access one? What are the alternatives for smallholder farmers on field?

Cane harvest

The canes are to be harvested when they are fully mature. The sucrose content of the juice of the crop will be more than 16 % and the purity of the juice around or more than 85%. In general is advisable to harvest at the age of around 1 year. The canes are to be harvested 2 to 3 cm below the ground level using a hand axe. Topping should be done at the point of break.

Difficulty level: Low.

Cane yield

When all the package of practices are carried out appropriately in time, the cane yield will be around 150 t/ha. In well-drained fertile deep soils, the cane yield can go up to 250 t/ha.

Problem: Given that it is next to impossible to follow all the package of practices, the cane yield will not be close to that that has been stated above. I chose not to torment my soul with what may be the output of any farmer’s heroic efforts at implementing this package of practice.

Green Cane Trash Blanket

Short description: Elimination of burning as a pre-harvest treatment of sugar cane, and managing the resultant trash as a protective blanket to give multiple on and off-site benefits. This is a sustainable land management practice from Australia that I wanted to introduce in our area since farmers burn their fields after harvest to kill weeds and insects. I wasn’t successful due to the setbacks I faced in the previously described intercultural operations. The green cane trash blanket is not a part of the package of practices of the TNAU and is something that I wanted to integrate. Colleagues gave me an almost paternal look that said, “Let the child try weaning farmers off their burning habit as much as she wants. She’ll come around.” Well I did come around and how! The simplest solutions are not simple to implement.

More here: WOCAT – Green Cane Trash Blanket

Ratoon cane yield

If the ratoon crop is managed well with all the appropriate package of practice, the cane yield from the ratoon crop will be almost equal or marginally lower (around 5%) compared to that of the previous plant/ ratoon crop.

Problem: We weren’t getting started on the first yield properly and hence decided not to wreck our brains on the ratoon yield.


Organic farming is difficult because

1. Adding the requisite amount of NPK is very difficult due to a lack of organic materials in necessary amounts and exactly when they are needed;

2. The non-availability of inputs for biological pest control in many locations as compared to the ease of access to chemical inputs and

3. The high cost of organic inputs.

I know that organic farming enthusiasts will be offended by some or the other part above. I won’t even touch upon the part concerning the alleged higher nutritive values of organic food. I doubt that myself. It is pesticide-free but more nutritious? Haven’t got a clue. I continue to harbour the hope that there should be some way to practically implement organic farming on the farm, outside control conditions. I continue to hope that WorldWatch is right and Dr. Borlaug was not. What is to be done? Many are sitting on the fence. I’ve jumped from the ‘enthusiast’ camp to the ‘on-the-fence’ camp. Paul Neate on CGIAR Climate is right that organic farming needs more debate. If it is organic, it needn’t necessarily be right.


I sincerely thank the TNAU for the excellent website that they have set up. They have presented the principles and techniques of conventional and organic farming is the most simple manner possible.  This post and everything that I learned, unlearned and relearned about organic farming and sugarcane cultivation would not have been possible without the treasure trove of information that is available on the website of the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University. The learning was very intense indeed and many of the things that I read there made me revise entire chapters in the Handbook of Agriculture. Now every time I think about organic cultivation, I never take a step forward without referring to the TNAU. I strongly encourage anyone interested in sustainable agriculture and organic farming to do the same.

Dear readers, we can now have a verbal slug-fest in the comments section.

How caste interfered with Organic Farming

The Indian government, more precisely the NMSA, is very gung-ho at the moment to ensure that every farmer (well everyone who is willing to listen and experiment at least) takes to organic farming methods. Right now, most smallholder farmers are organic by default (lack of money and/or access to resources). The grand plan is to make them organic by design.  We, the loyal foot soldiers, are leaving no stone un-turned to get all the prescribed techniques across to our target beneficiaries or as the WhyDev guys will like it, people we work with. We are out to enhance food production and every Collector worth his/her salt is after agriculture departments and NGOs working in agricultural development to ensure that line sowing is done in as many fields as possible. Furthermore, the most repelling (not always) and complicated concoctions have been formulated to enhance soil fertility and slay pesky bugs. The way one is supposed to go about preparing them might convince on-lookers that we are out to give the grand old Getafix a run for his money. See Nimastra, Ghanajeevamrutam and Beejamrutam via DigitalGreen. Nonetheless, we are determined to ensure that our agricultural GHG emissions do not help accelerate the drowning of Venice, Tuvalu, Bangladesh and of course save our own bums. Hence our target is that every smallholder farmer in the country is taught the tricks and that he/she starts implementing it in their fields. After all, our land area is not to increase but the productivity can.

Potions for work: Chilli Garlic potion as an insecticide

Potions for work: Chilli Garlic potion as an insecticide

Me being a lover of organic agriculture since the age of 10 (thanks to a certain Mr. Captain Planet and his Planeteers) took to all the prescribed ideas with mucho gusto, thank you very much and decided to go about it in an even more thorough fashion in order to educate farmers about various options for organic manures. I revised my beloved Bible, the Handbook of Agriculture and came to the conclusion that apart from the various seemingly magical potions that we expect our farmers to cook up, there are many other locally available thingamajigs that they ought to be adding to their land but are unfortunately (more like due to the lethargy of agriculture departments?) not aware of the uses. So what are these seemingly in our face but notoriously mysterious crop yield enhancing goodies? Well there are many. I zeroed down on several of them but I chose to concern myself with two soil fertility enhancers keeping in mind my work area – Mahua oil cakes and bone meal. More about mahua and its multiple uses in another post. Farmers, especially elderly farmers (men and women) often express their displeasure with urea (they call it ‘ooria’) and SSP. They report that urea kills the land or that urea brings down the land (quality). The complaint is that if they happen to add 7 bags of urea this year, they are bound to obtain increased yields. However, the following year they need to add almost 14 bags of urea to obtain the same level of yield. Hence, many have stopped using urea, di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) and single super phosphate (SSP) altogether.

To resolve their problem in a sustainable fashion, this recently graduated enthusiast stuck to a textbook prescribed method. I made it a point to inform every group of farmers I interacted with about the uses of concentrated organic manures like bone meal, hoof meal and horn meal. These are abundantly available, especially near the periphery of the forest (as per the villagers themselves), are very cheap and being slow release fertilizers, provide benefits to the soil for up to 3 years (residual effects included). Bone meal is rich in calcium and phosphorus and has low but decent amounts of nitrogen and potassium.  After having given this lecture about half a dozen times, I became accustomed to the reactions it evoked and learned to be cautious as the last manner in which I would want to die is being lynched. Talk about security concerns in the field. Here is why. Everywhere, people looked offended by the very mention of bone meal and point blank refused to use it. They throw a look that kind of suggests that they were looking at a blasted, little louse that is out to contaminate them with leprosy and in turn make them social outcasts. I risked my neck a little more and probed into the root of the problem. It turned out that our beneficiaries do not care two hoots for Article 17 of the India Constitution that abolishes untouchability and are very positively ‘My Foot!’ about the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955. This is the scence. A certain caste whose name I shall not mention since it is possible that my respected readers might happen to know someone by that surname and then tag them as untouchables in their heads (I am such a Miss. Goody-Two-Shoes!). I shall instead call them  the dead body cleaners (DBCs). They are responsible for cleaning up the carcasses of cattle. People simply throw away their dead animals in open fields and the DBCs then come to take away the hide. The animal is allowed to rot and then the DBCs descend upon the plot again to collect the bones. Problem is that DBCs are considered untouchables. The DBCs make their living by selling animal hide and animal bones. Traders send trucks to villages where DBCs have their collected stock. Entire trucks filled to the brim with animal bones leave our area. The bones are later taken to factories where they are crushed and sent for further processing. Now I was of the opinion that people could simple buy these bones by the quintal, crush them themselves and use it in their farms. You see this is optimal utilization of local resources without relying on fertilizers of an industrial origin. Besides providing good amounts of phosphorus, the bone meal will also provide micronutrients (I don’t know which) that Indian soils are notoriously deficient in. I tried to feed all the scientific facts I had mugged up about bone, horn and hoof meal to our farmers and also the economic logic of obtaining it withing the village. But alas! All in vain! They staunchly told  me that if they start handling bones, they will be ostracized and get declared ‘untouchables’ themselves. Tribals, merchant castes, oil extracting castes, fisher folks, Brahmins all in the same boat! Make no bones about that. They are fine with handling bulls***, i.e. cowdung but no bones. Thank you very much. I tried to reason with them that by this logic all doctors (human and vets) can be termed untouchables. No use.

Our soil science professor had very clearly and concisely taught us how to use various concentrated organic manures . What the man forgot was that all that is permissible in science is not permissible in society.  Just because one has their heart and head in the right places does not imply that everyone else does. I learned a lesson again. There is little use picking up a bone with that sacred cow called the Great Indian Caste System.