by Gaiam Staff
A rural community in India has found that its shift to organic farming is enriching more than its soil.
Cotton is one of India’s most important cash crops, but it hardly felt like it to the farmers who were growing it conventionally in Gujarat, India. The saturation of chemicals depleted their soil of nutrients, hardened the land and lowered their crop yields. It also severely depleted their income.
“We used to spend 3,000 to 5,000 rupees ($70 to $115) on fertilizers and pesticides, which we had to pay at the time of Diwali,” says organic farmer Kailash Burman, speaking of the annual Hindu festival honouring the goddess of wealth. “Now we don’t have to do that. The pesticides are natural.”
For the past five years, he and others in his farming village have gotten out from under the debilitating cost and health effects of pesticides. He is one of several hundred farmers in rural India who are part of an organic cotton farming project that teaches natural growing practices, supplies seeds and sells the organic cotton in the marketplace to Gaiam and other customers. This hand-harvested, 100 percent certified organic cotton from India is used in our baby collection, bed linens and clothing, creating a cleaner, sustainable source of revenue for communities on the other side of the globe.
The True Cost of Conventional Farming
This is a significant improvement from life as a conventional cotton grower — as chemical costs accounted for up to 25 percent of a typical farmer’s income. In villages that are still growing cotton conventionally, excessive debt and failed crop yields have driven farmers into bankruptcy, and some even to suicide, according to the Equator Initiative of the United Nations Development Programme.
The U.N. initiative puts the cost of chemical insecticides at up to 40 percent of the costs of production. This is exacerbated by the fact that overuse of pesticides has caused the cotton bollworm to become increasingly resistant to the chemicals. To be effective, farmers have to spray more, creating a vicious circle that pushes them into deeper debt with pesticide suppliers. The University of Greenwich’s Natural Resources Initiative (NRI) reports that some farmers in India’s cotton growing region spray their crops 10 to 12 times in a single growing season. Cotton fields account for just 5 percent of India’s farmland, yet NRI says more than 50 percent of the pesticides used there are applied to cotton plants.
Of course, the real cost of the excessive use of chemicals is the harm caused to everyone who comes in contact with them. V. J., a technical advisor with the organic farming project, says the sprayed chemicals ultimately reached everyone in the village.
“When we were using chemicals in our fields, it was being introduced in the soil, in the environment, in the cattle feed,” V.J. says. “And there we are feeding the milk to our kids. It poisons everybody.”
Most affected were the farm labourers who applied the pesticides by hand and plucked the crop. These workers developed numerous skin diseases, according to another advisor, M. Tiwari. In addition, the agri-chemicals are often stored in homes; the containers are susceptible to leakage, which allows the chlorine-based pesticides to fumigate. When inhaled for a long period, the fumes are “more dangerous than chloroform,” he adds.
Now that the land has been chemical-free for more than five years (a condition of organic certification by international agencies including SKAL and IMO is for land to be chemical-free for three growing seasons), one farmer says he can “smell the freshness of the soil.”
Desperate Times Call for Organic Measures
These lush fields are a far cry from how things were several years ago, which is what prompted members of the farming project to step in and work with the farmers to find a solution.
“The land was becoming infertile, and generally it was a very pessimistic scenario all around,” says S.K., another technical advisor with the project. “We felt that we needed to create a system to help the farmers earn a livelihood for themselves. It just made more sense to take a step back — on one hand helping us develop better quality cotton, and on the other hand helping the farmer have a sustainable livelihood.”
Organic farming was the solution they were looking for. Consultants with the project taught these farmers natural methods for everything from creating pest-resistant seeds to amending the soil with nutrients. The project has also helped the village become completely self-sustainable. Nothing gets wasted, not even oxen dung — it’s put in a biogas chamber, which turns it into methane gas that provides power to the whole community. Oxen urine also has a use. It is applied to the seeds, along with bacteria cultures, to make them pest-resistant.
Organic farming is more labour-intensive, but the technical consultants with the project say the hard work is paying off with lower farming costs, higher prices for organically grown cotton and a better life for everyone in the community. They’re even enjoying an increase in the number of cotton cycles they get out of a single plant. They used to get only one. Now, because they use non-genetically modified seeds, they get up to five.
“Ever since we started organic farming, we have found the nutrient value of the land is returning,” S.K. says. “We are finding the production numbers are going up. People have more income, and they are healthier.”
Poor materially. Rich spiritually - As practitioners of the Jain form of Hinduism, these farmers believe nothing should be killed. Even their pheromone traps only trap — not kill — insects. The Jain leader meets regularly with neighbouring farmers to share organic farming techniques.
Oxen are used for ploughing and powering - Machines are absent from this sustainable farm. All the fields are ploughed with oxen, whose dung is burned in the community’s biogas chamber. The dung is converted to methane, which supplies power to the entire community.
Natural fertilizers boost soil quality and the local economy - Once burdened by the debilitating cost of Monsanto chemicals, the village is now completely self-sustainable — oxen and chicken dung is composted to naturally fertilize the fields while structures on the farm are made of mud.
Microorganisms boost seed success - The seeds given to the farmers are not genetically modified. Instead, they are treated with bacteria that ward off insects. An abundance of border crops and intercrops, including corn and sesame, are also used to enhance the activity of beneficial parasites.
Our organic cotton is hand-harvested - Hot summer temperatures create favorable conditions for growing cotton, but not picking it. The women handpick the cotton bolls for four hours in the morning, take a break in the afternoon and return to the fields around 4 p.m.
Bales of soft, organic cotton await delivery to a ginning mill - The lush, green fields in the background are thriving now that chemicals are not being used on the farm. The earth is able to absorb more water, reducing the impact of monsoons.
Every part of the boll is used - The harvested cotton bolls contain both seed and fluffy fibre, which are separated at a nearby ginnery. The cotton seeds don’t go to waste — the ginnery can sell them for the production of organic cottonseed oil and to feed livestock.
The organic farming methods adopted by our cotton farmers are not unlike the methods used by other organic farmers around the world. But the local environment and religious beliefs of people in the community here require unique solutions for controlling pests, amending the soil and harvesting bolls by hand.
Pests Are Controlled Humanely
Pest control has long been a major concern for these farmers. For many, however, the concern is spiritual as well as economical. Some spiritual belief systems that are common in India’s communities hold that no living thing should be killed — a major conflict of interest for farmers when their chemicals kill anything that moves.
“Ninety-seven percent of insects in the fields are beneficial,” explains V.J., a technical advisor with the project that supports some of our organic cotton farmers. “So by killing all the insects, the farmers were also killing beneficial insects.”
Farmers ban agro-chemicals and bad energy - The Jain farmers often turn to their spiritual beliefs to encourage successful growth of their cotton. During Puja prayer ceremonies, the farmers create smoke by burning oxen dung, oil and rice to cleanse the air of bad energy.
Not a single insect is killed - In lieu of the insecticides that are liberally sprayed on conventional cotton farms, these farmers practice natural pest control with pheromone traps, a scientifically devised method using female sexual scents to attract male moths.
Now, in addition to treating the seeds first, the farmers use a variety of methods that trap or repel harmful insects, some of which are evident as you walk through the rows of cotton plants. Birds are now encouraged to rejoin the ecosystem and prey on insects through the addition of large perches that tower over the plants. And sophisticated pheromone traps use the reproductive hormones of female bollworm moths to attract the males. Pulling the males out of the fields results in less mating and fewer destructive offspring.
Meanwhile, deep ploughing and crop rotation are employed to prevent insect infestations, and some farmers use castor-oil sticky traps and natural pesticides derived from local Margosa trees.
Soil Is Enriched Naturally
Compost is also created from local, naturally occurring material — waste from the community and oxen dung — and added to the soil. Intercrops, such as corn and soybeans, are planted alongside the cotton to replace nutrients in the soil that are depleted by the cotton plants. Intercrops also give the farmers supplemental income in between cotton harvests.
But it’s the earthworms these farming families cultivate that may have the most significant impact on soil quality. “One earthworm eats about 3 grams of soil every day, and it gives 3 grams of manure,” V.J. says. “On an average day, we’ll get about 120 kilograms of manure free.”
Worms give back to the earth - Vermiculture is an important component of the farmers’ natural fertilizing techniques. The women of the village cultivate the earthworms, which efficiently turn all the food waste from the village into a nutrient-rich soil amendment for the farm.
More important, the worms loosen the soil, causing a key side effect: better water penetration and retention. This is vital in an area drenched with rain during the monsoon season. In the past, the hardened, chemical-laden soil merely repelled the water. Now, the farmers don’t have to use artificial irrigation until the end of September, when the monsoons end. Some farmers say their organic cotton plants are taller than their former conventional plants, a probable benefit of deeper root development.
“Earth worms come out of the soil for air during night time,” says technical advisor M. Tiwari. “That helps the roots of the plants get air. Water and nutrients also percolate to the roots.”
Women Harvest the Cotton by Hand
It takes about 120 days for the cotton plants to start blooming. And while conventional cotton farmers often use chemical defoliants to strip plants of their leaves and hasten the ripening of cotton bolls, here they are allowed to open naturally.
The women of these farming families pick the cotton in the morning — to avoid the midsummer heat and to take advantage of the dew, whose moisture coaxes plants to make picking easier.
Non-genetically modified cotton blooms naturally - Because the farmers use seeds that have not been genetically modified — a common technique in conventional farming to resist disease and insects — the organic cotton has five blooming cycles instead of just one.
Women sow the seeds of change - Dressed in saris, the women of the farm plant the seeds, using straw to mark where they are placed. The cotton is grown on family-owned acreage that has been ISO- and SKAL-certified to meet the strictest organic agriculture standards.
Our organic cotton is hand-harvested - Hot summer temperatures create favourable conditions for growing cotton, but not picking it. The women handpick the cotton bolls for four hours in the morning, take a break in the afternoon and return to the fields around 4 p.m.
When Gaiam clothing designers Mary Foley and Cindy Clyde stepped into the factory in Bangkok, Thailand, where Gaiam organic cotton is dyed, knit, cut and sewn, they were welcomed with warm smiles rather than warm temperatures.
“The first thing I noticed was that it was very clean,” Foley says. “Then I realized that the temperature was great, even though it was extremely hot outside. And everyone was smiling.”
Clyde and Foley travelled to Thailand as part of an around-the-world trip to visit Gaiam’s textile manufacturing vendors. The factory in Thailand is one of several that assemble our sportswear and dye the fabric using a low eco-impact formula. All our vendors are expected to follow Gaiam’s vendor standards and practices, which include guidelines on working hours, discrimination, child labour, health and safety, and wages and benefits.
“It’s very important to us that our vendors follow responsible business practices,” Clyde says. “The well-being of everyone involved with Gaiam products — as well as the communities they live in — is part of what we stand for as a company. It’s key to walking our talk.”
This particular factory was one step ahead of us, as it had already set strict standards for its working practices. In fact, Foley says every morning the workers walk past a big billboard that states the factory’s code of ethics. She says it’s one of the only ways to tell it’s a factory.
“It looked like a campus,” Foley says. “In the courtyard, people were playing soccer. And, inside, there were lots of windows, so it was really bright.”
Clyde noticed an abundance of water fountains and bathrooms — the lack of which is common among factories criticized for their labour practices and business ethics. But more than anything, she and Foley noticed the happy faces.
“They would just smile and stand around us,” Foley says. “They really appreciated our visiting and making a personal connection with them.”
Gaiam's team of writers in the United States brings together more than 60 years of combined experience and numerous published works on healthy, eco-conscious living. Their work has included in-depth articles, research and a rich variety of other projects in mind-body fitness, health and wellness, eco-living, alternative medicine, nutrition and related topics. Each of our writers brings an insight and passion to their work rooted in a personal interest in living a healthier, more eco-sensitive lifestyle.
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