by Weisen Li
It was the bigger of tomatoes, it was the smaller of tomatoes. It was the taller of vines, it was the shorter of vines…
I was in shock when I first saw the difference between two tomato fields that were sown at the same time 2½ months ago – one chemically fertilized, the other organically fertilized. The difference was astounding! The chemically fertilized tomatoes hung on vines that were about three feet tall and the fruits were so heavy that the vines needed support. Right beside the chemically fertilized tomato field was the organically tomato field. The plants looked paltry and sickly in comparison to its chemically fertilized sister field. The vines were not as developed, leaves were not as green and the tomatoes were not as plump. It looked as though the organically fertilized fields had seeds sown a month after the chemically fertilized one yet both fields were planted at the same time.
Vikas, the plant manager of Tasty Bite’s farm, was doing an experiment. As a student of chemical fertilizer usage (Vikas studied agriculture at the University of Pune), Vikas was skeptical about the economics of organic farming. Like most Indians, Vikas can discern the taste between chemically and organically grown fruits and vegetables and prefers organic though he is unwilling to pay the premium for it. In his opinion, Vikas does not see the economic sense in organic farming for the average small Indian farmer. A typical Indian organic farm is a self sustaining ecosystem. It requires large amounts of land (for harvest and for feed fodder), dozens of cattle (for urine and manure) and additional labor (for de-weeding, planting, harvesting and composting). This kind of resource (not to mention time – it takes 3 years to become organically certified) is not available for the 98 million Indian farmers who own <2.5 acres of land. As such, many farmers don’t farm organically.
The next day, we visited Jayant Barve, a progressive farmer and an evangelist for organic farming in India. Jayant started organic farming in 1988 after receiving an undergraduate and graduate degree in Physics at the University of Pune and worked as a chemical fertilizer salesman. During his sales role, Jayant realized that Indian farmers were unknowingly abusing usage of chemical fertilizers by drenching plants with chemical fertilizers right before harvest and consumption. He believed that everything should be “balanced” and natural. Thus, upon his father’s death and his subsequent inheritance of the family’s 30 acre farmland, Jayant decided to convert the fields to organic farming. After over twenty years since he first started organic farming, Jayant Barve’s farms now have equivalent if not higher yields than comparable chemically fertilized fields. While the chemically fertilized fields are facing soil depletion, his land is getting richer every year as the microbial in the soil grows with additional organic compost. He has turned what used to be an arid wasteland barely suitable to grow anything to a farming oasis.
This then leads me back to the Tasty Bite farm. Why is there such a difference between the two tomatoes in Vikas’ field when Jayant Barve’s organic farming yields are higher? I can only conclude that the reason for the variance is due to knowledge. Organic farming is not a science, but an art that can only be mastered with training and experience. Jayant Barve is not your average Indian farmer. He is highly educated (able to quote Rachel Carson) and spent many years in organic farming. He is also from a wealthier family that has 30 acres of land to sustain the ecosystem necessary for organic farming. Unfortunately, the average Indian farmer does not have access to that kind of resources. Moreover, they are getting bombarded with information from all sides – government, neighbors, businesses and non-profits – and many of these sources are giving them conflicting information that they don’t know who to listen to. As such, they rely on look-and-see and stick to whatever methodology has worked for them. In this case, chemical farming, as the results are much more distinct in the short run. The market for organic food in India is there. During our visit to the mandi, the middleman had told us that he would buy any and all organic produce he can get his hands on because they sell almost immediately. I believe that in order to have Indian farmers adopt organic farming to reverse the damage done by the Green Revolution, education is vital. Not all farmers can do organic farming because of the limited land they have, but for those who can, they need to be properly trained organic farming. They need to be able to see for themselves the benefits of organic farming. Until then, Indian farmers will continue to overuse chemical fertilizers and destroy their precious land.