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, :-)



  1. Here'a story of a Cuban so famous he even made the "seed news" in USA with a project that sounds similar to Navdanya

    It sounds like an exchange is due with sr. Humberto Rios Labrada, anyone bilingual at Navdanya?

  2. well .
    what a place u choose my dear .
    its really wonderful..

  3. Dear James,

    I am Anke, an undergraduate student from an honors college in the Netherlands, and for one of my courses (a research seminar) I am currently doing a small-scale case study on Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya project in India. Unfortunately, due to the limited scope of my research, I do not have the means to travel to India myself, which is why I am mainly relying on first-hand experiences from others like you, who went to see the project themselves. The aim of my case study is “to explore the Navdanya initiative as a way to gather insights into attempts to establish subsistence farming as a viable future and/or alternative to cash-cropping and industrialized agriculture”. I found your blog here about your time with this project (I know it's been a long time), but still I would like to kindly ask a few minutes of your time for you to answer the follow question: could you describe for me what, according to you, the strengths and weaknesses of the Navdanya project are based on the observations you made and the experiences you yourself had? I would be extremely grateful to hear back from you (it only needs to be a few sentences) as soon as possible.
    Kind regards,
    Anke Brons