12 Sreekrishnapuram farmers’ ingenious plenty for all food forest cultivations in Kerala
Sujata Devadas, June 27, 2019
Many of 72 million metropolitan inhabitants from Chennai(10 million), Bangalore(12 million), Mumbai (20 million) and Delhi (29 million) will have to shift out soon because of acute unreplenishable shortage of fresh water and food paucity, the detriment of over-urbanisation, their landscape lawns being just slivers of imported ‘maintained’ grass. Across the planet, this shift will happen in other cities too.
Plenty for all
At the forefront, a little before this shift happens, are the group of 12 farmers Sreekrishnapuram Jaiva Karshaka Samiti (SJKS) in Kerala, who helped 72 agriculturists create food forest canopies in fields varying from 3 cents to 6 acres ( ~ 0.012 to 2.42 hectares) area, 26.75 acreage ( ~ 10.8 hectares) in total, with amazing success. They teach this cultivation method now to students too.
SJKS attributes their brainwave to Professor S A Dabholkar’s book ‘Plenty for all’ that emphasises the need to maximise harvesting sunlight by sowing a vast variety of plants with astonishing results. ‘No Wastemind, No Wasteland, Anywhere on this Earth’ is enshrined as the book’s vision. “Maximise sunlight harvesting is our basic cultivation principle, our motto to design, structure and apply it, from 2015” say Suryaprakash & Reji Joseph, the first in the group to read it.
S P Suryaprakash
A year later in 2016, environmental microbiologist Dr.Joshy V Cherian from Coimbatore, an avid organic farmer, a specialist in solid waste management collected samples from SJKS cultivated areas to examine the amount of organic matter generated. “40 tonnes of wet bio mass per acre (1 acre ~ 0.40 hectares) is my conclusion” says Dr.Joshy, “Naturally, different crops generate a different amount of organic matter based on the vital role of carbon in the soil, the weather, air-water balance and so on. These food forests attract a lot of birds. It replenishes the soil to splendid health.”
Sreekrishnapuram Higher Secondary School teaches biodiversity lessons by SJKS on a 60 cents (26136 sq ft/ 0.24 hectare) school area. Such education is likewise given by SJKS at the local government school.
Giving a plant, a living thing, full attention means providing it great nutrition from under the ground and above it. The second word ‘Jaiva’ in the group’s name means organic. “It begins with preparing organic manure or compost, layering cattle and bird excreta, food waste, green mulch, composting microbes and coco peat to add to the soil for enhancing its cultivable strength” says Reji, the group’s leader who won the Plant Genome Saviour Award for growing 26 different local gooseberry varieties at Attapadi in 2015 and the Best Sustainable Medicinal Plant Cultivator in Kerala in 2016.
Food, food, food … circle after circle …
Above the ground nutrition is provided by what SJKS calls ‘live mulching’. By experience, they found the square planting method with each pit spaced 10 feet away from each other, ideal for maximising land use with minimal loss. “The pits are dug 3 feet deep, filled halfway with top soil. The prepared organic compost & soil are mixed manually to fill it. The target sapling is planted in the centre of each pit.”
Kerala’s rich natural heritage, its vast food plants diversity, is great for farmers to choose target saplings. A very summarised view of an unlimited choice are several mango varieties, jackfruit, breadfruit, gooseberry, guava, tamarind, cashew, sapota, mangosteen, rose apple, rambutan, pulasan, avocado(butter fruit), multitude types of lime.
Dried coconut husks encircle that target sapling, preventing the soil from drying out. Around this, live mulching happens. Pulses - *green gram (that prevents soil erosion and fixes atmospheric nitrogen), *black gram (famed as excellent green manure); *cow pea or black-eyed pea (great nutritive fodder for cattle) - *sesame (that counters phosphorus deficiency in Kerala’s soil) and corn are sown in concentric circles around this. These self-pollinating or auto pollinating crops mature in 3 to 6 months, reaching a maximum height of 2 and a half metres.
Live mulching with different pulses grown around the target plant
Tuvar dal, the pigeon pea or ‘thuvara parippu’, is sown at the outermost ring of the pit to fill it up to the edge. It sprouts and grows slower than the other sown pulses. Not for beauty, a couple of marigolds are planted abetting pest control.
These mineral rich crops giving phosphorous, iron, magnesium, calcium, manganese, copper and zinc, comprehensive nutrition to the target sapling, are also a central part of everyday Kerala cuisine. An acre can hold 400 to 410 pits. These crops in concentric circles are food for the cultivator’s family. Each pit in the square planting method costs about Rs.1200/- ($17.46 @ current exchange rate).
Strategising for success
In the 2 months that the compost becomes ready for use, SJKS prepares the field’s layout by sketching out the spacing of different seedlings and seeds to be planted in each pit on graph paper using the surveyor’s method.
“These details are planned ahead to minimise loss by ensuring enough space for each plants’ unimpeded growth, while we maximise sunlight harvesting. As the live mulch crops grow, that dense growth prevents weeds from growing there.” Reji explains. “Managing the canopy is the key. Anything that impedes the target crop is cut and dropped back into the pit for soil replenishment. All that green vegetation locks moisture into the soil.” It replenishes soil health and prevents soil erosion. The pulses mature in 6 months, then become organic mulch under the main plants in the first year.
The forest is SJKS’s guru. By natural corollary, uncultivated land along the margins is first tilled, then a mixture of 40 different varieties - millets, pulses, oil seeds, spices and green manure, all five - are spread over this area and tilled again in the first year. This ‘live shading’ method to maximise organic or bio mass creation on the uncultivated remaining area can be done anywhere.
In the 10 feet ample space between target plants, Tapioca, Colocasia or Taro root vegetables are cultivated the next year. Turmeric, ginger, arrow root, sweet potato, different kinds of yam, Chinese potato (or koorka in Malayalam)... Kerala’s endless list of edible spices, condiments and native tuber crops flourish in the middle of the target crop without ever competing with it, 5 feet away from the target plants on each side, growing well even if the space in-between is slightly less. This canopy is shorter than the main crop.
Conceptually, each pit is, ‘a kitchen’. Vegetables differ in taste - they can be sweet, sour, bitter or spicy. Plants or seeds chosen to sow take the cultivating family’s taste preference and practicality into account. Sprinklers or flood irrigation wastes water. So food forest cultivation relies on drip irrigation.
New Zealand visitor, Annelie Petra Stephenson, Permaculture Designer from Nelson, met Reji at the New Delhi IFOAM Conference in November 2017.
Annelie Petra Stephenson, Living Soil Ltd, Nelson, Tasman, New Zealand
“Reji was unaware of the worldwide movement to create food forests." she says.“The Food Forest International Research Network intended to document old remnants of food and medicine forests still existing around old homesteads and temples. But it failed due to inadequate funding and the challenge posed by many language barriers.”
Annelie stayed a month in Sreekrishnapuram studying every aspect of SJKS cultivation. Impressed by the quick food production, Hippocrates words ‘Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food’ came to her mind. “Food forests have far more diversity than normal mono-crop orchards or fields. They are therefore less disease prone, faring better during extremes weather conditions than field crops. With many different varieties giving and taking different minerals from the soil, minimal input is required from outside” she realised.
The trump card
Dr. C Mohanan ( orthopaedic surgeon of 41 years, now retired), reaped ground reality benefit when he converted a part of family property, a rocky 5.75 acres slope, in Edappal (Malappuram) into a food forest with resounding success. “The rock on that slope was cut and used; the soil 50 feet below it was removed to construct a section of the Kochi to Mumbai national highway along the Ponnani coast. What remained was barren wasteland without any capacity to hold water.
After attending an SKJS camp and consulting them in 2018, Dr.Mohanan hired 2 digging machines to level the ground, dig 600 pits across the acreage after systematically marking them out, dig trenches (4 ft wide, 12 ft long, 4 ft deep) around these pits to capture rainwater in the May-September 2018 monsoon. “11 truck loads of compost was prepared and mixed into the soil. Heavy rains delayed planting the target saplings and pulse seeds until end-September,” he recollects. “But a fortnight after sowing the pulse seeds, we used leaves from the emerging plants to make delicious curry.”
Barren, laterite soil, Edappal, Malappuram, Kerala
Accomplishing soil replenishment at Dr.Mohanan’s earlier wasteland
Target saplings chosen were grafted mango trees, jackfruit, bread fruit, guava, different limes, gooseberry, sapota, rambutan, red colour berries, rose apple trees, custard apple. They bear fruit in 3 years. But melons, aubergines, paprika, colocasia sown between the 600 pits and the live mulching pulses produced yield in the first year itself. The vegetable surplus left after the household’s consumption was sold to local vendors.
In Dr.Mohanan’s estimation, “it cost Rs.12 lakhs; from building a small shed with a tube well for drip irrigation, hiring machines, labor, compost materials, plants, seeds and live shading. To maximise yield, organic manuring continues monthly. Astonishingly, some competing plants support the target plants’ growth.”
Annelie’s forthcoming book pays singular attention to SJKS’s original designs with more permanent nitrogen fixing trees, the cultivated forest’s great capacity to hold and retain water. Kerala Agricultural University’s Agronomist Dr. K E.Usha speaks with great esteem of SJKS food forest cultivation success.
Spread the word: plenty for all. Food is the ultimate wealth.
Over 200 attended composting, live mulching & shading, canopy management, electric fencing, drip irrigation field trips in Sreekrishnapuram, culminating with a value addition class by K Aravindan, recipient of the Plant Genome Saviour and Kerala State's Biodiversity and Organic Farming Awards in 2014 and 2018 respectively for his impressive medicinal plants and fruit orchard collection.