What is natural farming?
Natural farming meant not using machines and chemicals. It also meant not tilling the soil. Modern tillage techniques have done much damage. Farmers have tilled the soil through ages to eradicate weeds but have in the process compacted the soil and degraded it, which has accelerated soil erosion. Tilling has also led to unintended outcomes like the destruction of soil microbes and other organisms like earthworms. The no-tillage approach is known to liven up the soil through the increase of soil organic matter and moisture. Such a remoulding of agriculture was no mean task.
Titus tried mulching with straw and seeding in unprepared soil. Tilling was not done away with completely in the first few seasons but was reduced. The shallow blade implement called the bakhar was replaced with the mould board plough. No-till experiments began from then on. This made the soil healthy, soft and high on soil moisture. Soon enough Titus realized how the soil favoured hardy local seeds.
No-till farming has existed in various parts of the world through time. "No-till agriculture has been historically practiced by some in India", says Titus. On the occasion of the Rishi Panchmi festival, women consumed wild foods gathered from uncultivated soil. This festival dates back to ancient times when rishis (sages) grew their entire food without tilling. Friends Rural Centre called it Rishi Kheti. It was not just a farming approach but also a way of life – one that was in harmony with the environment, others and oneself. Fukuoka visited Rasulia in 1987 and this gave a boost to Rishi Kheti in the area.
Wheat is a major crop in the area where the Titus’s live. Soyabean is also grown but has shown a rapid decline in productivity according to the farmers. At the time I visited, most of the Titus farm was devoted to orchards and some acreage to vegetables. Shalini does the seeding using small hand tools while labour is engaged for weeding purposes.
"Eliminating fertilizer, pesticides and insecticides was easier than the shift to no till", the Titus family recalls of the farm that has been unploughed for over 23 years. “When the land is tilled, the rainwater instead of getting absorbed by the soil, quickly runs off washing of the soils as well as its organic content. This causes a lot of damage to the soil", says Titus. The unshredded straw is spread across the farm as mulch to improve the organic content. “The soils do indeed fluff because of the increase in organic content, and tilling as an operation is not needed for that. It is always better to mimic natural conditions under which soils have formed while farming”,