Sunday, May 30, 2010

So here I am at SOS Organics, in Almora. Elevation 1600m. It was a bit of an adventure to get here. I braved the 13 hour sit down bus along with my travelling buddies Remi and Peter, both from Guelph! The distance is only a few hundred kilometers but the speed that the bus goes is quite slow. We were lucky: for most of the trip we had lots of room to put our bags and stretch out. There are no bathrooms on the bus, they just stop periodically.
During one stop we pulled up to a curtain of towels and I found Winnie the Pooh staring back at me :-).

We arrived at Almora at around 5 or 6 in the morning. Remi took his own direction while Peter and I went on to SOS Organics, taking a taxi to Chitai. From there we asked around for SOS Organics and were pointed down the hill. It was a magical little walk down, through the terraced fields in the cool morning. Peter and I were both happy to be in such an interesting area, and one that seemed like it wouldn’t be so hot as Dehra Dun!

Here’s Peter, arriving at 6am to SOS Organics. At the time we didn’t know this but the house behind Peter is owned by Santosh. At the moment it is where Peter is living.

We were given a warm welcome by Santosh, the owner of the property and Sophie, a WWOOFer from England. Santosh is a very talkative guy, full of energy and he did his level best to give us an idea of the philosophy behind the farm and what is going on here. Some other places I’ve been could really take a cue from Santosh. His proper introduction to the farm made us feel at home fairly quickly. Moreover, for the first few days he paid close attention to what we were interested in and we quickly settled on some interesting and useful projects for each of us to work on. This is something that was severely missing at Navdanya; coordination of volunteers. Peter has mostly been building a greywater system to handle the waste from the sinks around the property. I’ve mostly been working as a chemist in the soap making factory. Fortunately we have have lots of other things to do to break up our day too, planting the garden, turning the compost, making a tree nursery, planting natural fencing (spikey plants that the goats don’t eat).

We’ve also done a fair bit of thinking about and making seed balls; seeds encased in clay. The idea is that once encased in clay the seeds are protected from being eaten by animals or attacked by fungi. Also, the seed appears to be buried so it is not necessary to form a furrow and plant the seeds in the normal fashion. Instead, the pellets can be distributed freely onto the ground. This lends itself to no-till agriculture as well as potentially the ability to re-vegetate large areas of land through large scale seed broadcasting. Santosh is applying for a $20 000 grant to start up a longer term project to work with seed balls. Seedballs themselves cost next to nothing but the money would be useful to set up a library and little research center that visitors could use while the work on the project. At the moment we’re hopping on and off the factory computer, with many people sharing a slow connection and able to use it only outside the hours of 9-5 (only when the factory is closed). So it’s hard to do any substantial research on the net and although there is an interesting book shelf there aren’t many books relevant to the specific projects we’re doing.

SOS Organics is a very interesting project. To have a factory here in a rural area in the mountains is very strange. Most factories are of course in large cities where all the facilities are provided. Here, the factory runs entirely off of rainwater. It has a backup generator and battery bank for when the power goes out, which it frequently does sometimes for days at a time. They arrange the work schedule to fit around power outages. Using gas stoves, written records and scales with batteries helps I’m sure. All the materials are transported down this little concrete path, barely big enough for one small car. And of course when finished all the products are carried up again! So in some ways the factory is situated in rather a difficult and contorted situation. But this is exactly what India could use right now; decentralized production, outside of the cities and in the rural areas. Having low input, low polluting, fairly low capital and necessary basic industries like soapmaking in rural areas is totally key. The people who work in this factory live in the nearby village, and have only a short walk to work in the morning. Having employment in the country helps fight the mass migration to the cities and curbs the whole disgusting trend of people leaving the country because they are miserable only to go to the cities and swell the slums. E.F. Schumacher would have thoroughly approved of this project I think.

When I stop to think about my life here it is quite strange indeed. Half the day I spend being an industrial chemist in a soap making factory. The other half I spend building a permanent agriculture project based on the ideas of natural farming and sylviculture. It’s good though, I basically am getting to do what I want with my life; to learn about natural farming and do some good work.

The past few days I’ve spent making a seed ball rolling machine. My experience making fireworks makes the whole process fairly familiar. It’s a great big rolling drum, the clay, seeds and compost mix is put inside and sprayed with water which rolls the mix into balls, just like making round stars for fireworks. These seedballs can then be distributed over land and provide the seed with protection and some nutrients. Seedballs lend themselves well to planting seeds on large tracts of land that is becoming desertified, and also in agriculture to plant without tilling or using any of the fancy no-till machinery.

Right now I’m thinking about staying here until June 20, then returning to Navdanya for a week before heading off to a different farm for a month. Once August rolls around I’ll start heading South again to visit friends in Nashik, Udaipur, one other place and then get to Sevagram to stay for a while there.

Until next time,
Good Night and Good Luck.

P.S. Here’s a photo of George the smiling seedball :-)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Just for Kicks at Navdanya Conservation Farm

Hello all!

I’ve spent the last month or so at Navdanya Conservation Farm / Bija Vidapeeth (Seed University). Navdanya is a non-profit trust with the goal of maintaining seed sovereignty for Indian farmers. They are involved in a lot of legal stuff around intellectual property rights, trying to prevent companies from patenting already existing plants and genetics that have been developed by Indian farmers over generations. The phenomenon is known as “biopiracy” when a company marches in, starts patenting existing genetic technology then uses the laws of the State to prevent people from growing their traditional plants.

Navdanya also has a network of seed banks set up throughout the country where they collect local seed varieties and have an active process of distributing them to farmers to re-grow them. The whole project is very much participatory, unlike many seed bank projects where their attitude is to take the seed and refrigerate it for many years, keeping it safe but unused. Actively re-growing the varieties each year is also very good because it allows the variety to adapt to the changing environs. A seed that has been kept safe for 20 years in careful storage may not grow well once it is planted because there may be new pests or climactic conditions that come as a shock to it.

The facility I stayed at was called Bija Vidapeeth or Seed University. Started in conjunction with Schumacher College (for those of you who have read Small is Beautiful, yes it’s the same Schumacher.) Compared to other places I’ve been the physical facilities were great. There’s a lecture hall, dining room, kitchen, office, library, residence buildings, the seed bank and a laboratory. It was a nice relief to be in a sort of small college campus, after the odd situations I’ve been in this was like a piece of something I’m used to :-).

This is the first thing you see when you walk in through the gate, after approaching the campus through the mango orchard. It’s the office/bookstore with the dining room and kitchen behind. If you want to see an overhead view, check out google earth, N31deg 55' 36'', E 76deg 05' 33.5'.

There are volunteers coming and going often; while I was there in ranged from about 4 people to 18 or so. The campus also hosts events of various sorts. Mostly these are targeted at middle-upper class people and the point is to teach them about the value of traditional knowledge systems. There is staff on campus who look after most things and volunteers or interns pay around 400 to 600 rupees per day to stay, depending on their length of stay and if they are OK with staying in the dorm rooms or want a private room. I stayed for over a month so it was 400 Rs per day (about $10 CAD). A lot of people who come are university students from different countries. There are lots of people who live in India and want to learn about organic farming, and also people from abroad. The only requirement really is to pay the fee and have a serious interest in organic farming.
Unlike most places I’ve stayed, since we are paying a substantial amount to stay here (400 Rs is a mid-range hotel rate) there is no substantial expectations to join in the farm work. But most people do to some extent, while others spend their time on other things.
While I was there the main work that came up was harvesting the wheat. Navdanya preserves a number of wheat varieties, does some experiments, as well as growing food for people who stay here and to sell. I was used to harvesting things by hand from my experience at Gandhi Ashram otherwise it would have been rather a shock to someone from an industrialized country! The wheat is cut using a small serrated hand sickle. I joined in usually in the morning while it was still reasonably cool for an hour or two. Some quick calculations show a person can harvest about 17 kg of wheat per hour which as far as subsistence is concerned is plenty. That’s not including the threshing, which is done by machine and takes relatively little time. Cutting wheat is a dusty job and they way they do it the job involves bending over a lot but once I got used to it I had a good time. It’s kind of like chopping wood; not really drugery, at least not if it’s only for a little bit each day.

Here is a photo of some of the staff harvesting wheat. The farm laborers for the most part are paid 3000Rs per month (about $75) and are given free food and housing if they want as well as an informal (but apparently generous judging from the operations Navdanya paid for for its cook Satya) medical plan but I understand no pension. This isn’t a high wage, even by Indian standards and in fact there is a bit of discontent about it.

Here’s a volunteer Aditya in the seed bank. There are roughly 500 varieties of rice kept here, and re-grown each year on the farm. Fortunately rice is self-pollinated for the most part so this large number of varieties can be grown in a fairly small space. Plants that pollinate each other can cross-pollinate between varieties so each variety must have a buffer zone around it in order to keep the breed.

I spent most of my time at the laboratory learning about soil science and soil testing. It was nice to spend some time on science after wading around in the Pranyam, expanded claims about Yoga and other slightly sketchy stuff. By the end of my time at Navdanya I was able to conduct tests on soil for potassium, phosphorous, organic carbon, pH and electrical conductivity. I also did testing on irrigation water to check for salinity hazard, determining the calcium and magnesium content as well as sodium. The lab was basically my hangout :-).
Sometimes working in the soil lab was frustrating, maybe partly because I am used to the nice labs at Chernoff Hall at Queen’s. Other things were just plain neglect though. The lab obviously hadn’t been used in a while and some of the pipetting equipment was very difficult to use; the latex bulbs crack over time, many of the pipette tips broken. A latex pipette bulb is hard enough to use compared to a normal syringe arrangement or an Eppendorf. Electricity would often be off, or even worse turn off in the middle of my using a machine while I was calibrating it or something. For this reason we weren’t really able to use the oven. We had to insist on some gloves and goggles before starting serious work, which took a long time. To me it’s blindingly obvious that a lab stocked with concentrated sulfuric, perchloric, nitric, hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide, blood poisons and carcinogens needs to have gloves and goggles too. In the end we got lab coats, googles, (very slippery thick latex) gloves and a fire extinguisher but no new equipment other than this safety gear.
In other ways the lab was well stocked, having most of the chemicals I wanted, a colorimeter, spectrophotometer, automatic stirring machine, water distiller, electrical conductivity machine (with a broken keyboard...) and pH meter. Their scale was shitty and caused a lot of extra work and hence frustration.
In the end I decided to be cheerful about taking twice as long and having half as good results as I could do with a decently stocked lab. What does it matter to me anyways? I was just doing soil testing for kicks :-). Actually the work I was doing is going to be used in a master’s degree project, I was basically the soil technician for some french students. The irrigation water testing is going to be used in a summer camp to teach kids about farming stuff. But the master’s project was kind of a makework thing that was half abandoned because the student’s hadn’t had anyone to help them for the first two months of their three month project and had since changed their focus. And the summer camp thing isn’t really a big deal either. No academic rigor or especially accurate results required :-).
On May 8 my new friends Peter, Remi and I took the 12 hour overnight bus to Almora. Remi went off to visit some other friends, while Peter and I went over to SOS Organics. More about this later!

Wait, just one more photo for cuteness factor, :-)