Natural Farming in Goa

Iris C F Gomes

Organic food is in demand for its benefits, which generally entail fewer pesticides and heavy metals entering our bodies through food; no antibiotics or synthetic hormones; and higher concentration of antioxidants and healthier fats. However, availability, consistency in availability, affordability, variety, and maximum nutritional advantages are factors that are important in the case of organic food. In Goa, certainly, it is these factors that make it difficult to include organic food as part of our daily diet.

In India, we are more reliant on meals produced from basic ingredients right in our homes. Therefore, unlike Western countries where organic food is more readily available, we tend to settle for produce that is not organically grown. This means the use of produce being transported from elsewhere, over long distances, which not only has an environmental impact because of transport, but also reduces the freshness of the produce, thus reducing the nutritional quality and palatability.

The conclusion is that the food system we have is not working so we have to change the system or create an alternative one. Progress towards achieving the goal of encouraging and teaching farmers to grow organic produce is slow, but we have in our own hands the power to make changes. One way would be to eliminate the middlemen who take a major cut and so increase costs while diminishing the quality of the food. Growing our food will also help to generate a better perception of food quality and change our consumption patterns, which can, in turn, affect the supply chain.

To those who protest that growing their own produce is an impossible task, Karan Manral of Green Essentials says we are not born with a green thumb, but we can surely learn how to grow our own food. Other protestations are limited space, the inability to meet all food needs through a kitchen garden and the paucity of time. However, the space constraint can be overcome as there are people who are growing gardens in spaces such as terraces and small verandahs. This and other reasons to avoid growing our own food can be felled by the simple fact that our health is of primary importance and if we truly believe this, we will do all in our power to move in that direction.

A simple, natural approach, based on the working of nature will allow us gains with the minimum effort. We can grow little saplings/seedlings from seeds, prepare the soil, transplant the saplings/seedlings to the soil, grow them and harvest them when they are mature. Then we need to plan what we will grow next because food consumption will not end with the harvest, and therefore food production needs to be continuous. Seedlings can be grown directly in soil or in cups in a soil mix or a soilless mix (made of peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, bark and/or coconut coir) for about 25 days before transplanting. We can grow our crop in pots and/or in the soil on the ground. Fertilisers like cow dung, vermicompost and compost are added. A layer of dry leaves can create mulch to protect the soil. This mulch will conserve water and reduce soil temperature (this will reduce the need of water), and maintain the richness of soil microbes (sunlight kills soil microbes). We can grow a wide array of vegetables. Experience is a tremendous advantage to productivity. Depending on consumption needs, produce can be grown in pots in balconies or on terraces, in kitchen gardens and the larger homestead gardens. If we want to grow food for wider consumption we could opt for market gardens. 

Things to keep in mind are:

  • Do not plant too much of one type of produce. Establish a biodiverse garden in keeping with nature, which will provide protection against pests and, if one crop fails, there will be others that can be harvested.
  • Avoid overwatering plants.
  • Carefully prepare soil before planting for best results. Healthy soil will result in nutritionally optimal produce.
  • Plan succession crops in advance so the garden is not empty after a harvest.
  • Grow crops in the season that they are meant to be grown in. For eg, cabbage should be grown in the winter, not in the summer.
  • Make the best use of sunshine and shade by planting crops that thrive in these environments.

There are many perspectives of how nature can be mimicked in farming such as biodynamic farming, hydroponic farming, permaculture, etc. One can borrow and amalgamate different aspects of these natural approaches in our own gardens. ‘We observe nature around us and try to replicate it in our garden. If we try to do stuff that is out of sync with nature we have to spend more resources, expend more time and will probably end up with poor results,’ says Karan. 

Growing perennial foods will let us have returns through the year. We have to learn to grow crops that will benefit future generations as well.

The problems of plant pests and diseases should be approached with an attitude of preventing them and building the plants immunity to fight them instead of using quick non-organic solutions.

Hybrid seeds are difficult to grow compared to open pollinated varieties and desi, or heirloom varieties, which can adapt to water and soil nutrient availability. Karan says, ‘We believe you should save your seeds and use them again and again. This is also a part of natural farming.’

(This article is based on Karan Manral’s presentation and talk A Successful Small Scale Natural Farming System at the New Earth Summit that took place on the 8th, 9th and 10th of November 2019)