|This week's newsletter was written by Sanket Jain, an independent journalist and documentary photographer based in Kolhapur, India. Jain is also the co-founder of Insight Walk, a nonprofit that offers teaching fellowships to rural community women. These women work to ensure every child in their village has access to contextual education of their choice. Follow Jain's work on instagram @snkt_jain.
VARAD GAIKWAD SAW THE COVID LOCKDOWN AS A PERFECT OPPORTUNITY...
to take a temporary break from schooling. Enrolled in grade two of a decrepit rural public school in the Jambhali village of Western India’s Kolhapur district, e-learning couldn’t wholly replace the classroom sessions. So, from March 2020, he began exploring more of what he loves: watching tractor videos on his grandfather’s smartphone. Describe the agricultural geography, and this nine-year-old will tell you the best available tractor with specifications.
By the following March, when Varad had exhausted the options on YouTube, he asked his 73-year-old grandfather, Narayan, if he wanted to listen to classical Hindi songs. Narayan was lost in a distressing thought: with a 45-58 percent rise in the prices of chemical fertilizers and his son’s farming loss of 1,400,000 Indian Rupees (USD 18,780), he could no longer afford fertilizer. A marginal farmer with three acres of land, he would need to find an alternative fast – it was sowing season.
Turning back to the smartphone, Varad began using the voice command feature in his vernacular Marathi language. After a day of trials and errors, he chanced upon multiple videos of organic farming practices. Narayan, who doesn’t know how to use a smartphone, spent sixteen hours across a week watching these videos, which he then adapted to his circumstances. Up to that point, Narayan had been farming over 30 vegetables and crops organically, but couldn’t find an organic solution for the sugarcane. “Finally, I am able to cultivate sugarcane without using any chemical fertilizers,” he told me proudly in July.
India is the second-highest sugarcane-producing country in the world, covering roughly 12.6 million acres of land. “Farmers in Maharashtra use at least 1100 kilograms of chemical fertilizers per acre every 15 months,” he says. This roughly costs around $400. In addition, multiple pesticides and insecticides are used. “This has made the soil either excessively saline or acidic. How will we replenish the nutrient cover if there’s no end to this?” he asks. “A chemical cannot help take the salinity away without inducing another side effect.”
Narayan, who regularly gets his soil tested, used the video instructions to make a mixture of cow dung and urine. Mixed with chickpea flour and jaggery, he added around 200 liters of water, feeding this concoction every 15 days. Sugarcane is a water-guzzling crop, so, “To save water, I only water the alternate furrows,” Narayan shared.
“For poor farmers like us, cattle are the biggest fertilizer factories.” Narayan also uses organic manure, dung, and composted chicken manure to enrich the soil nutrients. To recover the cost of chickpea and jaggery, he practices intercropping and cultivates green beans, bitter melon, coriander, turmeric, and ridge gourd in the same sugarcane field. On the remaining 0.7 acres of land, he grows an indigenous variety of rice.
People often warned Narayan to start with at least 50 percent of chemical fertilizers. “The ones who suggested this reported pest infestations despite using the chemical fertilizers.” But, he added, “The sugarcane I cultivated is 100 times better than the normal ones.” In several parts of Maharashtra, the impact of toxic chemical fertilizers is so severe that farmers have reported skin infections. Narayan’s dry, cracked heels are visible proof. “Now my heels will get better,” he says, laughing.
Inspired by Narayan’s work, farmers from the nearby areas in the district have started approaching him. “Several younger people in our village are educated but don’t practice organic farming because this requires a lot of effort,” he says. Now, Narayan’s goal is to work with marginal farmers and help bring down the cost of production. Meanwhile, Varad is back in school, but still supplementing his education daily with videos on his grandfather’s smartphone.
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We are thrilled and grateful to have collaborated with Jain through our Share Your Voice initiative, an ongoing effort inspired by the #sharethemicnow movement.
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The PDF version of our guide to How to Write a More Equitable Job Post is here, and it's our gift to you as we take a hiatus from newsletters in August. Now you can download and share it, or view it on instagram. We will see you back here on September 7.
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Yours in food, justice, and food justice,
Tay + Dor
photo of Varad and Narayan by Sanket Jain