Hands on Permaculture

Dryland farming with microbe innoculation, no-till and multicropping to restore ecosystems.

Month: December 2013

Bhuskar Save’s farm

i traveled north to mombai (british bombay, apparently india’s largest city)

i was not inspired to see mombai sites (city and all) and got on another train going out to umbergon where bhuskar save‘s farm is.

several things about mombai from the train. i saw skyscrapers.  that reminds me on the trip up i saw a lot of farm land, a lot of sugar cane, tamarisks, chicoos (a fruit), rice, lots of stuff i did not recognize, again almost all flat land in use for growing food.  i also saw what might have been a nuclear power plant and a huge factory which stank.  folks said it was a sugar factory.    my main desire on this trip was to really see and learn about india’s 4000 year history of sustainable agriculture.  another desire was to travel back in time and see how things used to be before corporations,  it is sad to see the corporations coming in here.

again i traveled on sleeper class which means it was a lot of indian family activity.  i connected with one family in particular.   the mother was wearing a sari and both daughters were in pants and tops.  one of the daughters is starting school with a medical specialty in mombai.  she plans on being a doctor.  it seems that most of the indian women still wear saris.  my thought was if you could be a peacock why would you want to look like a wren.  and of course this is me who wears my denim uniform all the time, here i am sprucing it up a bit.  of course denim survives working in the fields best.

on leaving mombai i was heartened to see a farmer growing vegetables in the strip that in u.s.a. would be the railroad right of way.  here it is often covered by shacks made from canvas or metal roofing.  he had about 200 x 8 feet of crops which looked like vegetables growing.  i saw him working there with his tool which was a special long hoed version of what i call a (hm i forget but it was the hodad tool)

okay on to bhuskar save.  he is an elegant gentleman in his 90’s.  he talked about how we cannot farm for profit, but must farm for dharma, which i say is service to the earth and our fellow humans.  we cannot look at the soil and our crops as objects but rather as working in harmony for a common good.  he spoke a lot about earthworms and how during the monsoon season they make 10 times their body weight of good compost with many times the mineral content of the soil they ingest.

his grandson gave me a tour.  they speak of plants for the food forest in 3 different categories.  one is short term, one intermediate and the other long term.  so for example there would be one long term species planted lets say coconut trees which are in the 100 year category.  they are planted the correct distance apart, which is huge maybe 30 feet.  then in between them are the intermediate plants, in one case maybe bananas.  although the bananas die after they produce a crop, they also put up a lot of new plants from their roots.  lets say  10 feet in from each row of coconuts would be placed a trench and then on either side of that banana trees.   then  15 feet in from the coconuts would be a trench with tomatoes on either side..  then a trench also maybe 5 feet on both sides of the coconuts.  then they plant a lot of plants that are shallow rooted next to the coconuts which they use to indicate the need to water.  then when the indicator plants wilt they let water down the trenches.  one of the most important things emphasized by mr. save was the problem with too much water.  so with the trench the water keeps moving down if it is not picked up by the soil in the immediate area.  dampness was emphasized as opposed to wet.  wet gets the air out of the soil and this stops the microorganisms.  capillary action will take care of dispersing the water.  balance, balance, balance.  after maybe one year the tomatoes would be done, after many years the bananas would come out.  the only trench at the point i saw this (35 years later) was the one in the middle or at the 15 foot mark.  the capillary action would have no trouble reaching the coconut trees as measured by the plants when they wilted or did not wilt.

so i also saw furrows of coconut husks and coconut leaves put along the feet of the coconut trees.  i had seen this in one other place which at krisna’s solitude farm at auroville.  krisna however had dug trenches to put the litter in.  i personally had thought this was too much work.  at mr. save’s farm they said it also hurts the roots of the plants to dig trenches, so they just put the coconut litter on top of the soil.  at the time i saw it it was  1 foot deep by 3 feet wide.

I understand what i had done wrong last year with my acre of land. i had wanted to start a healthy chunk of land and see if i could do it pretty much by myself effectively.   if i had spent the time i spent watering, mulching instead. the garden would not have been taken over by weeds.  i would have needed to get the garden planted in april

another important thing for me is that he cuts the weeds instead of pulls them.  then he uses the cut weeds to mulch.  he says you need to use 3 inches of weeds as a mulch so you can only get about 40% of the area mulched with the weeds. you either use chop and drop methods to grow the rest of the mulch or  you let the weeds grow again and again you can mulch 40% of the area with the weeds.

there was a section of land where a tree had died and we could see the weeds luxurating in the light.

i have long noticed the when you put manure or compost on land it tends to start a cycle of what i call a bacterial and fungal bloom.  if there is too much matter put on (i put on only 1/4 inch) then the bacteria all dye off when the additional nutrients are devoured by them.  this means that the soil tilth flattens and the crops cease to grow.  so this is the basis of what i am hearing about relying on the earthworms and mulching instead of concentrated compost for the plants.  the mulch decomposes very slowly keeping the bacteria active.  also planting some nitrogren fixers is also good.

but i had never fully applied this thinking to water.  so the water can stop the microbial action.  wow what a break through.  apparently all the salinization is caused by water and more water. 

he also has fields where he does till.  more about this next time.

i am heading down to karala next.

another insight.  i had traveled once with tom ward and he was commenting on all the ecosystems we were traveling past at 40-60 miles an hour.  i thought wow, i was sure different.  i was so looking at the soil tilth, microbes etc. that i could not imaging noticing what he was noticing.  of course i do not presume to notice what tom was noticing, but it is amazing at how much you can notice when you can see the forest for the trees so to speak.  it is like being out of my milleu allows me to see the big picture better.  this is a very important realization for me.
when i was at auroville i saw that very few of the farm folks interact together.  they are all busy focusing on the trees.  so may be a human thing that we need to take time to widen our perspective now and then.

Auroville Bamboo

went out to see the bamboo folks on saturday.  this area was another wonderful surprise about auroville.  it is called the industrial area  it has a lot of sites relating to what i would called industrious endeavors.  as always in auroville it is a lot of lovely jungle with a small 8 foot wide road running through.  on each side of the road were various endeavors including companies making musical instruments, spiralina, herb potions, bamboo products and many others.  it was a long ways from auroville center in another direction.

at the bamboo place which you can google at auroville bamboo, india, there had a showroom maybe 50 x 30 which had lots of bamboo products, bed frames, couch frames, chair frames, table frames, clothes, model trains, a lot of stuff that is usually made out wood.  they are growing bamboo there that are special coastal varieties.  at that point they are probably 10 km from the coast.  they gather about 60% of their material locally.  this is fairly low grade material that they use when bamboo does not have to be straight.  they buy the rest of the bamboo that they use for furniture construction.  a man their told me of his trip to karula (the western side of india, about even with us here to gather bamboo seed.  he says that the bamboo goes to seed somewhere between 1 and 120 years and no one knows when that will be.  after they seed they die.  anyway he gathered all this seed ad planted bamboo seed to grow some of the varieties that they grow.  they have a small plot though so not too much bamboo growing, more of a demonstration.  they have been working with auroville to get a larger plot where they can grow a significant amount of bamboo.  their main mission is to train youth to produce the bamboo products so that they can make a living for themselves (meaning the youth).

on leaving the bamboo place i trotted off to new territory.  i went in the direction of an indian village nearby  i love to walk in india but do not like to go on the main roads (more about this later).  i found a lovely village, quite clean unlike the cities and larger villages, where throwing trash is a throw it out wherever you are attitude here.  the village had some huts which look like traditional tamil buildings which are made from wood or bamboo covered with coconut leaves.  the coconut leaves evidently stop rain for 3 years.  very heartening to me was a plot maybe 1/2 -1 acre of coconut trees with rows and rows of eggplant interplanted.  it was great to see what appeared to be a village farmer growing serious food  it was not mulched, so was probably tilled, but still this is a traditional way of growing, with the plants right under the trees.  (plenty of light in the tropics allows this.  

anyway i got lost as i almost always do on my treks.  a woman asked me where i was going and i told her and she redirected me.  so i got to walk many more miles out in this countryside.  almost no crops growing but a lot of available land. 

want to talk about the roads.  so these roads were maybe 10 feet wide and as there was no real traffic quite pleasant to walk on. wanted to talk about the indians monkeyness a bit.  this is not intended to be politically incorrect but rather to capture something about the indian people i have met.  they have an organic way of being where their bodies and whatever they are connecting to seem to become one.  they eat with their right hand and it is almost quicker than the eye can follow how they take the chapati in hand gather some grain, some soup, some vegetable and put in their mouth.  i have seen them driving along, talking on the cell phone and seen something go wrong with the tuk, tuk and seen them fix it all in the same kind of organic motion.  i have spoken with some of the folks at auroville about this and they say yes they do have this quality and also another one which is very passive.  in other words if they consider the fix out of their domain they\ will do a work around just as quickly.  the boundaries between people are almost nonexistent.  this is the reason that 15 of them can fit into a a place on the train meant for 9.  anyway on the road it makes for a chaotic scene.  when i walk along they come within inches of me.  just this morning i stepped right to avoid a cow pattie and a bicycle almost ran me down.  anyway all of these tuk, tuks, bicycles, cars, trucks, buses go along the road missing each other by inches, all apparently very comfortable for these monkeyish folks.

Sabhana Forest:

i went out to sabhana forest again to hear their spiel for their friday night tour.  it was very heartening.  a lot of the ideal of auroville involves a gift economy, people doing what they love and trusting they will be taken care of.  although in the rest of auroville they are charging money.  at sabhana forest they rely on gifts.    it seems this philosophy has worked well for these folk.  they brought 100 of us out for their friday night talk on buses, told us what they were up to, fed us and showed us an ecomovie.  they have expanded to several small other communities in india and to kenya and haiti as well.

their work on this 70 acre site is to bring back the ecosystem that was wiped out. they base their system on ahimsa and believe this means a vegan diet.  they live in the tamil fashion, again coconut leaves over bamboo.  their main unit is a magificant 3 story affair where i sat on a very hot day experiencing a cool and comfortable climate.  they cook with rocket stoves to use minimal wood.  they have a very fancy system of compost for humanure that involves finally placing the humanure on the forest trees.   they are not growing  hardly any food here.  this i believe is a mistake.  what if the ecosystem could include at least some fruit.  this is an old argument of course.  it just seems that sustainability without food growing is not sustainable. 

they practice unschooling.  this means to them that the kids do not have to study anything.  folks who want to work with the children ask them what they want to learn and act as facilitators for that learning, rather than agendas for what the kids need.

their mission here in auroville is to recreate the ecosystem that has been almost wiped out by folks harvesting all the wood from the forests.  they are doing a lot of water works including digging large ponds again all over auroville to bring the water table up.  the person that gave me a tour had disdain for the acacia tree from australia which is springing up all over.  he did mention that one small area where they had got the trees in the proper balance, the acacias had died out.

this acacia of course can grow with a lot less water and has the job in addition to or because of being nitrogen fixing  of growing where nothing else will to bring back the soil.  (sorry my simplistic version) .  in permaculture we use these trees for chop and drop in such places as palestine where water is very low and desert is so basic that supposedly fruit trees will not grow.  and voila with these and other  “forest trees” the fruit food forest grows and produces fruit.

Trial and Error

i was  reading in the book about bhasta save’s work, vision of natural farming about a dry land rotation near him.  i realized that what i had done wrong in my acre  last year was to water.  i should have spent the time watering mulching everything that was growing.  then the weeds would not have taken over, making my one acre impossible for me to take care of.   we forget that the plants have many ways to get deep watering in a no till situation.  as in the forest you see many baby trees growing without water.  even though i had tilled initially, if there was time with rain after that tilling, i could have relied on the ground water if i had mulched.  the other thing i learned was that when i do pull weeds i usually drop them right where i weed them.  now i would collect enough weeds t make at least 3 inches high.  bringing in mulch for the rest of the plants.

i met some folks at solitude who were visiting from near mombai.  they work with an ngo which is working with a low caste group, who in the past could not own land and are fisherman and try to get other jobs. insert italian guy on ngos

they  told the story of the place where they are serving  about 5 hours outside of mumbai where most of the trees have been cut down for wood or charcoal.  then desertification happens.  in certain places dams are built to grow large scale crops and for resorts, in this case mainly for folks from mombai.  there is an indian ngo that has been in place for 25 years working with these folks.  they are mainly trying to get them food allotments from the indian government.  he wants to find something that they can do independently.  a woman in a nearby village has figured out a way to make stoves that use little wood from cow dung and earth.  he would like to have them learn skills to make and market these stoves which would be a many win situation.  so lovely to be in a place where folks are making deep changes for what seems to be the betterment of all of us.

Solitude Farm

this is my last day at auroville.  am leaving tomorrow for mombai (british called it bombay).  going from almost the southwest tip of india (pundacherry) to near the last place still touching the sea in the northwest  of india.  will see if i can get a train, (there is a 5% limit on tourists on trains so often we must schedule way ahead) but might fly because of my back, also not sure if i am up for another 48 hour train ride just now.  they do have a disabilities car and if i can get on that, will go for it.

this week has been amazing.  my back is slowing improving allowing me to visit a lot of the farms and more than visit have the energy to take it all in.

solitude farm.  solitude is 6 acres of land seems like 5 acres food production, the rest is in a guest house, some huts tamil style, which is often bamboo with coconut leaves for a roof which keeps out the water.  he also some land dedicated to music festivals.  he has a farm combing a lot of his interests, music and natural farming.  


krisna has recently opened an organic restaurant to show folks living in and visiting auroville about local foods.  he also has a csa for aurovillians to learn about food production.  he has what seemed to me to be  a lot of 15 year old banana trees and is growing a lot of rice, other grains and vegetables in amongst them.  he has a well which was powered until this year with his windmill and solar, but this year added electricity so as not to miss the critical time for watering the rice during the flowering stage.

krisna represents the local farm serving the local community, he is maximally using everything he loves including his music.  i asked him if any of the indians have taken an interest in  his farm ad he said his main assistant is developing his own sense of what is needed and getting good at it.   my own predilection for of course is  a demonstration farm would work more with the indians to start having their own farms.  especially true in auroville, where after 45 years there seems to be plenty of water and a lot of land lying fallow.  i was delighted to hear krisna talking about some of his students growing potatoes at a time when he had tried to grow potatoes and because it was too hot, they had not succeeded when he grew them.  she had planted them under the banana trees and they did well even though it was  too hot out in the open.,  i loved it that he was learning from the folks that worked with him.

 i got a new insight about natural farming from this farm.  in permaculture (or maybe i should say in my vision of permaculture) we are looking to have an established all perennial growth like an end stage forest  system.  

in natural farming they are looking to grow crops in a way that can be repeated for centuries, if water is not easily available then without additional water, growing the grains and vegetables that they eat.  so while they are still doing no till they are planting every year and here where it is fairly tropical, they can plant everything under trees.   i have heard for years that this is not possible in the u.s.  i say that is poppycock.  we just cannot take the rotations they use and the seed varieties they use without refining the system to work for us. certainly we do not have the light they have here.   i believe it is just like a food forest, it would take 1000 years to do it by the scientific, trial and error or isolating method.  by using intuition, listening to the plant we could figure it out in 3-5 years.

Travelling in India

arrived here on the 27th of november after 2 nights flying.  spent the day at heathrow in london where folks  had told me i could find a meditation room, a place to sleep and showers.

i arrived in delhi and went to a place near the railroad station.  the beginning of my india experience.  there were no windows in the hotel.  there was a lot of ventilation which meant noise really traveled.  outside there were markets, which were interesting.  there was trash everywhere and the smell of tires burning.  the last time i came others had remarked about this but somehow it did not affect me.  this time it did.  by the second day i felt i had to get out of delhi or loose my soul.  dramatic maybe and it felt real.

i went to many travel agents and they all told me i could not get on a train.  i persevered and the next place got me on a train the same day.  the price to chennai (the english madras) was 32.00.  it took 2 nights and one day to get there.  i was on a 3rd class sleeper which is the way most of india travels for 32.00.  it was another indian experience.  the accommodations were meant for 9 people in my compartment, but somehow there were more like 15.  there was a family atmosphere, people taking me under their wing, showing me how to buy food and telling me what was in it. 

i found a person at the place i ate breakfast near the bus station that knew how to get to auroville, so that part was easy.

i got to auroville about noon on sunday.  it is an island in the storm so to speak.  founded under sri aurobindo’s vision to form an international community where no one culture dominated, my first impression was of beauty and cleanliness, so missing up until then in my india experience.  it is 20 kilometers in all directions.

the biggest thing to me is that this area was a total desert 45 years ago when it was founded.  it is now covered with graceful trees everywhere.  this was done by putting in berms to stop the water running off turning desert into a supportive environment, a lot of ponds as they say to bring up the water table.   the folks at sadhana forest evidently engineered the transformation.
the sadhana forest folk have a place outside of the current auroville area where they continue their reforestation projects.  they are making new inroads into sustainability, living in ways that allow coolness in the heat (thatched huts for which their is a history here), a lot of rocket stoves for cooking.  they do not grow their own food, a strange version of sustainability to me.  i hear this is in their plans.  for me the idea of combining the forest trees with fruit and berries (agroforestry or food forests) is so important. 

Permaculture in India

there are other folks doing permaculture here in the ways that work for them.  several places worth mentioning solitute farm.  the model they are using is to grow a csa and to feed their workers and also they have a restaurant.  they have 6 acres.  another one is the auro-orchrard which has 45 acres.  they are having trouble getting ag workers.  everyone else has housing for their workers and they do not, so they seem to be using local indian folk where they can get them.  they have traditional orchards, limes, mangoes, traditional to me means no interplants of medicinal herbs, different types of fruit and berries, dynamic accumulator plants (weeds) chop and drop nitrogen fixing trees.  they have like many situations in the u.s. 12 acres worth of water for their 45 acres.  a good place to use dry land farming, but not so easy for them to figure out.
the main thing about auroville from my perspective is that it is a planned community and things are very far away from each other.  so to register at auroville you go to one place, then you must go 3 – 5 kilometers to find your guest house, then you must go another 3 – 5 k to open an account so you can pay for your accommodations.  the work around here is mopeds or bicycles which everyone rents.
and that brings me to my moped accident.  i was so exhausted after all my travels, that even though i wanted a bicycle i did not have the energy to ride so far everyday.  i did not mention that food also was 3-4 k from where i was staying.  anyway so being totally exhausted i tried to rent a moped.  i crashed it on my first solo ride.  okay no moped.

however, suffered a herniated disc for my trouble and have been pretty much laid up ever since.  fortunately i can walk.  i cannot turn over in bed, but i can walk.  found an aurovedic healer who put poultices on my back and finally the inflammation is down enough that i do not scream when i cough or sneeze and can with a lot of pain but no screams turn over in bed.

this all speaks to what is really important.  how do you be in a foreign county where you have nothing to stand on so to speak, no way to get food, i was locked out of my bank account, my internet,  and have this kind of injury and survive.  the good news is if you have a master you can surrender and know that you are paying off karma and it is all good. 

On the Road to Peace

someone directed me to the auruvedic place where they let me stay, fed me and put poultices on my back and waited for me to figure out my bank account.
the most amazing thing here for me is the light.  i was up at first light this morning.  there was a dusky rose/mauve coloring.  slowly the neme trees around this guest house began emerging out of the haze.  magnificent coloring.

oh and this guest house (i have moved back to the guest house from the auruvedic place making room for the next persons0 is back from the road   everyday i walk toward the road and meet many herds of cows and goats, some of whom i am starting to recognize.  i am led to pet some of the cows and they respond very well.  i saw several of the indian cowherds with their cows heaping petting and loving attention on them.

 on the bus to pondicherry from chennai i was sitting in the back which allowed me peace.  they asked me to move to the front of the bus when we got near the auroville exit.  then i could see what was happening on the road.  very scary.  it was a 4 lane road (2 lanes in each direction)  and the drivers treated it as 8 lanes with various bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles, buses, autos moving in and out in chaotic fashion.  it seems honking is a big part of the driving.  my favorite site was of a full grown cow eating from the median extending its body into one full lane.  all the drivers easily accommodated the cow, no one even honked at it.
i found a new book called vision of natural farming which is about b. save who is india’s fukuoka and about his age.  so i will go visit his farm next which will be around the 23rd of december.
love to you all

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