Thursday, 28 January 2010

A mango farm that uses biodynamic techniques

25 January 2010

On the 23rd I visited a new mango farm near Devgad. It uses biodynamic techniques as prescribed by Rudolf Steiner. The man behind it is a physicist in Devgad whom I happened to meet on the road between Devgad and Malwan when I stopped to take a photo. He, like myself, believes that the current chemical farming techniques are not sustainable and that biodynamic farming techniques can be. He, you could say, is an entrepreneur, because he is also looking to make money from his enterprise and already has an organic store in Mumbai to sell his produce and hopes to export some of the mangos he grows in the future.

His choice of land to start the farm was a desert-like rocky landscape, save a number of mature mango trees further down the hill. The choice of land was down to the high level of iron in the ground which is important for giving mangos their flavour. The total area of the farm occupies 3 acres.  Most of the trees he is planting himself giving him a total of 150 mango trees, many banana trees and a handful of coconut trees - I forget the precise numbers! He is also growing pineapples and rice in the monsoon and watermelons in the dry periods.

In order to plant his trees on his rock and desert farm he had to blast holes in the rock and fill the holes with soil. This might sound a bit drastic but what he is doing at the same time is creating an ecosystem capable of supporting more wildlife, and of course, generating more food.

When I asked about disease and pests he said that it can be minimised by boosting the plants natural defences by ensuring it had all the correct nutrients to grow. These he provided with a cow dung compost from his two oxen, to which he added plants that were particularly good at extracting the required nutrients, such as sulphur, from the ground. He was able to able to point out indications of different deficiencies in Mango trees from either the yellowing of leaves or knotted flower growth. A particular insect pest he was able to control by spraying with the bacteria Rhisorbium, Azatobactor and Nitrococcus. The bacteria sprays  last three times as long as chemical sprays so are not more expensive to use. These, and small quantity of apparently organic fertiliser called NaturaLife SuperCrop, I understood, are the only external inputs (apart from electricity and the occasional use of a tractor and tools) that he requires. I have yet to find out if their use has any negative impacts and what their embedded energy, water and land use is in their production.

If the techniques used conform to organic and biodynamic standards such as of The Soil Assiocation and Demeter respectively, I am most impressed by what he claims, that his mango trees can achieve two to three times the yield compared to a conventional chemical farm with up to 500 mangos from a mature tree. The reason for this he claims is that his methods boost the number of micro-organisms in the soil that aids the trees with their uptake in nutrients.

I think clearly his methods will be better for the environment but I question whether it is sustainable. My idea of sustainability is that the nutrient inputs must match the outputs and that the inputs must not depend on the use of oil (which is a non renewable resource) and should not require a large amount of land or water that it impacts on food production elsewhere. I intend to write to the NaturaLife company to see what they say as their website is not very informative.

Photo: mature mango trees - about 30 years old,  with the typical walls surrounding them that protect the soil from erosion during the monsoon.

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