Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Organic Agriculture Conference, Indore!

I busted my ass to get to Indore for the North Indian Organic Farming Conference on Feb. 7-10 and succeeded! First I had problems with my visa, because there is a new rule by which people with multiple entry visas must be outside of India for two months each time they leave. I didn’t know this and it doesn’t say that on my visa. The rule was created in December last year. So I showed up at the Bangkok airport and they wouldn’t let me on the plane. Fortunately (after much running around and stress) I was able to catch the plane the next day after getting an exception from the Indian embassy in Thailand.

Indore is a famous place which many organic farmers know about because of the experiments of Albert Howard. He was one of the first agricultural researchers to seriously challenge chemical farming. His experiments were conducted in India after he rejected the British research systems.

I’m actually not going to go into the technical issues of organic farming that I learned at the conference but if anyone reading is interested I did write a kind of briefing afterwards which I can send.

When I got to Delhi there were no trains to Indore. It turns out bookings fill about two months in advance. So I had to pay about $200 for a flight. It seemed like a lot at the time considering how cheap the train is, but it worked and really $200 is a fairly small amount to spend to go to a conference.

Once in Indore, had some tense moments trying to find a guest house but ended up staying in the Hotel Chananya which insisted on charging me a mysterious tax that no other guest house charges. They wanted to append some other ridiculous amounts but I protested. I find that protest goes a lot further in India than in Canada, although in Canada presumably they don’t try to pull this crap. In the morning I made my way to the Indore Agricultural College borrowed a student’s cellphone to contact the conference organizers. Once Dr. Prakash and friends got ahold of me it was smooth sailing :-).

They set me up as a special guest in the DAVV University guest house which was a surprise. I thought I would just be a conference attendee like everyone else but they treated me as if I were special, presumably because I was the only person at the conference from far away. I stayed with some very knowledgeable scientists, farmers, professors and organizers. The university guest house was an oddly chilled out place. Many people don’t lock their doors. We didn’t even receive a lock. And when I wanted to stay a few days after the conference they weren’t going to charge me any money (eventually I prompted them enough and they took Rs.125 for two days! That’s about three dollars.)

At the very start of the conference they set up a red ribbon to cut and symbolize the opening of the National Center of Organic Farming. I didn’t learn too much more about the center but it sounds pretty awesome :-). I suppose they timed the opening to coincide with the conference.

They opened the conference with some sort of ceremony, I’m not sure what. The conference had sprinkled throughout some singing and ceremonial burning things going on. The guy in the black vest in front is Dr. Prakash, one of the organizers. He is wearing khadi clothing, produced by villages in rural India.

The many important speakers assembled at what looks like pretty much any other speaking panel. There was only one lecture hall for the conference which makes it different from every other conference I’ve been too. The whole conference was super simple: go to the trade show area, meet people, and listen to lectures in the one lecture room. There were a few question but not many, they seemed to be rather discouraged actually. Every speaker gave his mobile phone number after speaking which impressed me. It’s nice to see people breaking through that “personal barrier” that sometimes exists and really getting into organizing.

The food was all vegetarian which was awesome. See details on my future post about Indian food :-).

I met lots of different characters at the conference. There was the ICICI bank manager who walked out of his job to start organic farming and wants to produce herbs for pharmaceutical companies. There were quite a few people wearing all khadi. I met a number of professors as well a few activists who reject the academic system. There was the farmer researching which kind of sweet potatoes make the best sweet potato chips. The new age fellow who was convinced in the healing powers of crystals and gave me some amethyst and turquoise. A couple agricultural students who attend the college, one of whom took me out to tea. (They do that a lot here, “take tea”. I guess some British things are good enough to keep.)

A lot of my time I spent sitting around the trade show reading really interesting books, organic farming newspapers and talking to people because the lectures were all in Hindi. I sat through some but didn’t catch a word really. Some had english powerpoint slides.

On the last day of the conference the provincial (I think, or was it federal?) government announced a moratorium on genetically engineered brinjal. Yay, what a great way to end an organic farming conference :-) !. Mahyco, partially owned by Monsanto, was trying to sell their GM product BT Brinjal. Brinjal is like a small eggplant. The weird thing about their BT Brinjal is that brinjal doesn’t seem to really suffer from low yields from insect attack. That is, their product doesn’t have much to offer. So maybe it would have gone the way of the antifreeze tomato and nobody would have bought it anyways. Politically, it is an important and encouraging victory nonetheless.

The day after the conference the board of the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI, sponsors of the conference) had a meeting. I got to stick around and go for dinner with some of them which was awesome. Then the next day I hung around the college while their meeting was on, read books and checked out the rose growing operation that the college has going on.

A gorgeous rose, brought to you by Indore Agriculture College. The only pretty picture in the whole post :-).

I went for tea with a new random friend and bummed some lunch from the OFAI. In the afternoon when the meeting was over I went with some of the OFAI members on a tour of an factory that creates mostly biological pest control agents. The company is called Indore Biotech Inputs and Research. As one of the OFAI folks said after the tour “He’s a good chap because he encourages people to do it themselves.” That is, the company encourages people to breed and reproduce the biological control agents on their own rather than continually pay the company for a product.

Indore Biotech Inputs and Research has a small lab which reminded me of a glorified personal laboratory. They have quite a collection of products, including pheremone traps, parasitic wasp populations, worms for vermicompost, various bacterial control agents like BT, funguses including mycorrhiza, “Effective Microorganisms”, neem extract (pesticide from the neem tree), and growth stimulants. You can apparently also send them a sample of your soil and they will culture the stuff in it and send you back a culture. I guess it’s kind of like compost tea only they do it without pumping air through the mix. I’m not sure quite what the point is but they have a whole collection of “cultures” from different soil samples people have sent them and they keep them in a bank. It seems to me that the culture must change over time because the bank is just room temperature. But what do I know.

Agricultural Conference.
The lab has a bunch of posters inside it, here is one of them. The title is “The Guardian of the World Crying Out for Protection!” It shows the farmer getting roasted by politicians and bureaucrats on one side and agro-chem companies on the other. The text underneath reads “During the Period between 1993 to 2003, 11 indian farmers committed suicide every week.” Then it shows how between 1951 and 1996 the non-farming sector: farming sector income ratio has gone from 1.4 to 10; farmers, compared to everyone else are making far less than they used to. The woman is saying “The Guardian of the World has become prey to chemical farming”.

I mentioned neem extract as a pesticide above. Incidentally the neem tree is a fascinating and highly useful tree. Gandhi had a bit of a preoccupation with it, and conducted many experiments with it. People who have access to a tree and are so inclined often brush their teeth with the twig of a neem tree. I got a chance to try this after the conference.

After the conference I chilled out and dealt with the police for a couple days then for four days I attended a meeting for families who homeschool their children. It was set in a lovely farmhouse outside the city. I was a bit of an odd one out but I was invited during the conference so I pretended to fit in :-). They talked about organic farming as well, and visited two farms. It was an interesting and relaxing few days but I don’t plan to make a post about it yet. Maybe later.

I’m in Chhatarpur now. I’m here earlier than planned because I got run out of town by the Indore police. According to my visa I am supposed to register with the police within 14 days of arriving in India. The police in Indore hassled me about registering. It was a weird situation. I think the officer was just really paranoid, didn’t know what to do with me and wanted to cover his ass. He said that I could either come back to Indore every time I change towns (totally ridiculous, considering the distances involved) and accept other draconian conditions on my stay, or register in Chhatarpur. The police in Chhatarpur are much more chilled out. They told me that if I wasn’t staying here for more than three months don’t even worry bother to register. If I decide to stay longer than three months I’ll contact them. This is in contrast to what it says on my passport but I can’t make them register me if they don’t want to. Something tells me if I had just ignored the requirement like a clueless tourist it never would have been an issue.

Until next time, goodnight and good luck.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this wonderful information. I am feeling proud to be an Indori. I have started Indore's First 100% Certified organic Food outlet by the name Organic Sansar ( It would be of great help if you could provide some more information about the technical aspects shared in the conference.