Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Perfect Farmer

A couple weeks ago I went out 4 hours by car from Ahmedabad to Bhavnagar district to visit a very special farmer, Hirji Bhinradia. Hirjibhai is one of those few real visionary farmers, a thought-leader, an influential voice for his community and Gujarat as a whole. I went to his farm to do some voice recordings for an experiment I am working on, but after we finished the recordings, had a huge meal with 3 different forms of dairy products, and took a brief nap, we went out to visit his farm.

Hirjibhai is a very progressive farmer. He doesn't use chemicals, and believes in the concept of a farmer as a steward of the land. When you are driving through the farms surrounding his village, you can immediately pick out his farm because it is the lone one surrounded by a lush, dense grove of trees. You can make out a progressive farm first and foremost by how many trees it has, how closely it looks resembles a forest.

Hirjibhai's 40 acres have wall-to-wall drip irrigation. Drip irrigation is a fundamental technique for water conservation. Hirjibhai has had drip installed on his farm for 23 years, the first one in his area to have it. He got it so long ago that at the time the government subsidy for drip didn't even exist; it's now a very common scheme. Hirjibhai had to apply for it retroactively and even had to re-install lines to be eligible.

Of course no holistic farm system is complete without animals. Hirjibhai keeps cows for two main reasons: personal dairy consumption and manure. His farm does not take any outside source of nitrogen, he uses a combination of manure and carbon from his farm, and has a vermicompost operation to decompose into fertilizer. Very simple, very effective. Hirjibhai remarked that there are many composting methods, but most are labor intensive. With manure-based fertilization, the cows do all the work. My favorite thing to do is to smell the compost produced by earthworms. Shit never smelled so wonderful. It's black gold.

Hirjibhai has a simple white cloth stretched around each of his plots. It's a technique he picked up from a TV program on countermeasures for wild pigs. The cloth makes the pig unable to see the crops. It thinks nothing is there, not even trying to knock the flimsy cloth over.

Hirjibhai's main crop is cotton. He intercrops with sesame, which I had not seen before:

Hirjibhai's cotton is from BT seeds, which is the one and only reason why he is not certified under the Jatan Certification System, the organic certification I developed with Kapilbhai in 2007. Kapilbhai has taken a strong stand against BT, saying that a sajiv kheti farmer rejects it categorically. Hirjibhai is not so hard-lined. He told me that he uses BT because it works with his farm system. He does not use any of the heavy chemical pesticides that BT cotton almost always require (which is of course Monsanto's business model). He told me that pest problems for any crop aren't so much about the pest as they are about the environment in which the crop grows. Give a crop a healthy environment (soil, sun, air, and water), and pest problems are automatically averted.

As we were walking Hirjibhai and his wife Godhavariben picked some okra from a row for dinner that night. I joked to them that in America people go to huge supermarkets to do what they are doing. Watching them made me realize how backwards I had it. I'm looking at this couple picking fresh vegetables from their farm for their dinner that night, and I consider that radical.

If I had to pick out the number one most outstanding feature of Hirjibhai as a farmer, I would say hands-down it is the way he conducts himself with his wife. It is clear by every way they interact that there is mutual respect, they listen to each other carefully, they are considerate, they are mutually supportive. Godhavariben is herself a schoolteacher in their village, so she's no slouch. But beyond that they are a team, a partnership, which I rarely see amongst couples in rural Gujarat (let alone anywhere). I would like to believe that it is a secret to their farm's success.

As I was leaving to go back home, Hirjibhai and I called Kapilbhai, who had first introduced me to Hirjibhai. When I told Kapilbhai how impressed I was with Hirjibhai and his farm, he replied, "Yes, he is the perfect farmer". High praise coming from Kapilbhai, especially given that they disagree on fundamental issues. But I felt what Kapilbhai feels, that Hirjibhai is one of those rare diamonds in the rough. Interacting with such farmers brings me a lot of joy and strength, they are the reason I do what I do.


  1. i love my grandpa because he is more than my parents to me