The Aranya Permaculture Farm Story

Narsanna interview 1

Picture of the badam tree and all its friends close to the entrance. There is a passion fruit plant happily climbing on a dead tree.

This mature food forest is the only one I know of in the permaculture world — a  never irrigated dry land food forest, that can  increase  the ground water   (dry land means that it is not irrigated) It is important that we give as much information as possible.  It is Narsanna’s vision is to make a model of what farmers who own 1-3 acres can do to grow the food they need to eat a healthy diet:  cereals, oil seed, pulses, vegetables, fruits and nuts as well as a cash crop.  Many farmers in India who have land that used to be irrigated can no longer irrigate their land because they cannot afford to dig new bore wells to get to the water which has receded.    Other farmers have never been able to irrigate their land and often they cannot feed their families because of low yields.   The permaculture
technics demonstrated at Aranya allow these farmers to grow the food they need, earn the income they need as well as recharge the ground water.  Aranya is dedicated to answer any questions we have not answered.

Another issue which is drawing a lot of interest is how to increase food production for an increasing population.   In India there is a tremendous amount of land which is not being farmed because of poor soils and lack of access to water.  We submit that with these technics could be used to farm these lands.

Charlotte:  we are walking today on Aranya Farm, a permaculture farm, which was begun 16 years ago.   The first thing I see is a kind of semi-circle of many trees and creeping plants growing together.

Narsanna:  There was a thorny bush growing there.  I uprooted that.   I planted Indian almond (badam),  Because of its red color it is a known bird attractor.   When the birds sit on the tree and sing their droppings pile up.  The birds filled in all the rest of the trees:  neem, seethapall (custard apple),  tamarind, glycicidia and some buchanaia lanzan ,(morri) passion fruit, pongamia, moringa, subabul and sandal wood.  All the rest of these seeded themselves.  I rarely take out trees if they are not seriously competing with the other trees.  Some people might think these were competing, there are about 10 trees growing in this loose circle, but they all were doing well, lush and green, so I left them. They do not look orderly, but i believe they look wonderful.   I never watered these plants, never gave them a pitcher feeder.   They made a lot of mulch in addition to their fruit.  Though the Indian almonds are small, we sometimes eat them.

Narsanna interview 2

Picture of a line of mixed fruit, mangoes from aranya

Charlotte:  Okay now we are going to the main part of the farm:   It looks like a mango orchard with a lot of other trees mixed in.   How did you end up purchasing this particular piece of land.

LAND PURCHASE

Narsanna:  In the beginning I thought the entire area belonged to the scheduled caste people.   The Forest Dept. was removing the local species from these lands, planting only accacia aricloformis and eucalyptus trees.   There were lots of fauna and flora useful to the local farmers that I was trying to convince the Forest Dept. to leave for the local people.

Narsanna interview 3

Picture of the eucalyptis trees on the govt land coming into the farm.

Through all these discussions it turned out there was a small plot owned privately in the middle of the forest land.  Several women had wanted to help me buy land so that I could show what permaculture could do. A goal of mine in buying the land was to allow the local people access to the land so that they could keep harvesting the plants that supported their village economy. Much of the land in rural India (70%) is cultivated only by dry land agriculture.   Also dry land agriculture was what the local farmers knew and they were my teachers.  This land was purchased by these women for me for a permaculture demonstration.

My intent at the time of purchasing the land was to have 2-3 acres for myself. Again I wanted to make sure that the local people could continue to have access. In India the typical landholding is 2-3 acres.  These are small and marginal farms using dry land techniques.  I wanted to keep 3 acres.  More than 3 acres is not so easily managed.  My desire was to collectively share resources, practicing more sustainable living.   Otherwise I thought this was too much for me.  I invited people to come and live on the farm.    It was not easy to find people ready to come and stay on the farm.    I wanted to help local people without land in the village.  In India most of the people live in the village and they go out to work.  They do not want to stay on the farm.  My farm is 4 km away from the village so it was too far to go for these people.  I gave one and half acre in the middle of my land to 2 women who have lived and worked on that farm for many years.

CHANGES:  In farming communities changes of mindset are very difficult.  I needed to learn to be content with small changes.  Every year the Government was monocropping glyricidia on the west side of my farm.    All the tropical trees are deciduous.  In November, December and January I got this leaf fodder for my cattle and for mulching.  I was doing this since inception as there was not sufficient biomass on my farm.

Gliricidia forest, owned by the government next door to Aranya farm.

Gliricidia forest, owned by the government next door to Aranya farm.

In 2011 and 2012 I gathered the leaves, grooming and making heaps.  The next day i would collect the heaps and use for mulching   One day someone had taken away the heaps we had made.  I asked my farm worker to see if he could find out who was using them.  It was a very hot season.  Farmers used to come to the farm to see how I was using the mulch. One of these farmers had taken the leaves and they had mulched their plants.  After 10 years, one person had gathered leaf litter and mulched his own plants.  I felt relaxed and slept well, one element of my system had been taken up by that farmer.

This is what the Aranya land looked like on purchase.

This is what the Aranya land looked like on purchase.

Charlotte:   What was the Aranya farm like what you purchased it.

Narsanna:  It was just barren land, with a lot of thorny bushes and as I mentioned before some local flora and fauna that was valued by the villagers.   The depth of the soil was only 2 inches because at that point we ran into a lot of rocks.  It had been farmed many years before.  In the interim it had been owned by a shepherd who grazed his animals there. There were two types of soils, a small amount of brownish organic rich soil, and a lot of red laterite, sandy soil.

ACTIONS:

Narsanna interview 6

One of many current nurseries at Aranya. The trees shade the plants.

Charlotte:  What did you do first?

Narsanna:  First thing, I started my nursery.  I had no source of water.   There was not much biomass on the property and i wanted to plant materials for mulch.    I wanted to plant trees and shrubs on my boundaries.  I made a small pit.   I cemented the bottom of the pit.  The water that accumulated here i used for the nursery.  That year there was not much rain so there was not enough water for nursery.

January was when we ran out of water.    I purchased a pair of bullocks.  I employed a person from the village and in the evening he would take the bullock cart home, a distance of 4 km.  He would bring water from the village when he returned in the morning, 2 containers each 200 liters for the nursery.

Later on the recommendation of the local women who were advising me, I dug a small well where i struck water at 10 meters.  I could pitch water from this well.  By that time I had 2500 leguminous plants, fruit trees, nut trees, forest trees, grasses, glyricidia, subabul, calatropis , Shikakai,  Cesalpania bonduc, Acccacia initia, Ber, Accacia nelotica, Bamboo, pariki and mehindi , silver oak,  casurina growing in my nursery. I needed all these plants for my boundaries, fencing, windbreaks, companion plants, and of course for my orchard of fruit and nut trees grown from seed.

Charlotte:  You mentioned planting in your nursery with seeds for fruit and nut trees.   How has that worked for you?

Narsanna: The plants grown from seeds, mango stones, natural seeds have done well.  I collected a lot of local regional germ plasm tasty mango, jamon, and guava varieties.  i collected a lot of seeds and planted in the soil itself not in pockets.  We use the germ plasm in a special way.  We do not allow these plants to go to seed.  They are for scion wood to graft onto trees and we want all their strength in the wood.

30% of my trees are, planted directly from seed and 70% are grafted trees.  The grafted trees I purchased from commercial nurseries in my locality.  I chose these local nurseries because the soils, water, and other local conditions are the same, so they do better than getting from a faraway nursery.  What I value in a local nursery is they have their own germ plasm.  This means they are saving the varieties that do well in the local area.  Of the trees planted from seed, even though because of sexual reproduction, the seeds do not seed true, all the varieties taste great except the ones we planted for pickles which are good for pickling.

All the trees that we planted from seeds made good strong trees with lots of fruit.  Some of the mangoes fruit every year, some every other year.

Mango tree planted with gliricidia tree on the west side to protect against the afternoon sun.

Mango tree planted with gliricidia tree on the west side to protect against the afternoon sun.

Charlotte:  You tell me this tree just up ahead is fruiting for the first time since you planted it 15 years ago.  I assume this was planted from seed.  From the 1/3 of your trees that were planted from seed, is there any kind of average time that these trees usually take to fruit as compared to the grafted trees.

Narsanna:  In dry land farming, grafted varieties begin fruiting in 4-5 years, and seeded trees 7-8 years, but this depends on the variety.  With a dwarf grafted plant, fruiting will be faster.  (We do not recommend these because of their spindly root system).

Narsanna:  At the same time as starting my nursery I broadcast a lot of seeds onto the land just as the monsoon started.  I broadcast sunhemp, cassia tora, horsegram, stylo hammata, niger (an oil seed), You waste some seed by broadcasting, especially if the rains are very heavy.  In these parts of India most farmers make furrows and plant their seeds in the top of the furrows.

I wanted deep rooted grasses and fodder for my oxen to eat. I wanted to cover every inch of my soil to protect the microbes from the sun and wind.  I wanted to plant locally available seed for its resiliency.  I also wanted leguminous plants to feed my new saplings nitrogen and I wanted plants for biomass for mulch, again to feed all the other plants.

Here at Aranya we do not take out plants except if we know they are toxic or if they are thorny. Many companion plants seed themselves.  Some thorny plants we leave for bird habitat, especially in our boundary area and in the middle section for wild life.    Certain plants like subabul are invasive.  They are also one of our most valuable plants as they are nitrogen fixing and very fast growing, and produce good leaf litter.  So we let them grow until they flower and then take them out and use them for mulch.  Their root mass also feeds the soil life.

Charlotte:  After broadcasting your seeds and planting your nursery, what was next?

Narsanna:  in June, of the first year, I begin designing my farm.  As I said I originally intended that 3-4 farm families would use this land, so the property was designed to grow food for those families.  There are 11.5 acres (4 hectares) out of which we wanted land for water harvesting which turned out to be 4%.   We wanted boundary plants for windbreaks, fire breaks and heat breaks.  This was another 4%.  We wanted areas for cereals, pulses and oil seeds, (18%) wildlife 2% (middle section) mixed fruit orchard is 70%., structure and other uses 2%.

There are a lot of stacking functions here. Most of the water retaining structures are planted.  I mean to say that we say 4% for water harvesting structures, but these are actually all planted, so really they do not take up much space.  On some properties we will advise a large percolation tank, but even then we plant around the borders and often even add water plants.  Wind breaks, fire breaks etc are used for fruit and nut trees as well.  The alleys in between the orchard are used for pulses, oil seeds and cereals.

We never had the thought that is so prevalent today that any land not used for growing a cash crop was wasted space.  We knew we wanted to harvest the water, and have boundary plantings, wildlife habitat.  Traditionally Indian farms had all of these and they have been working for many thousands of years.

In our case with a dry land farm, the plants would have all died without the water retaining strategies along with the deep rooted trees.  Also without the fire barrier we would not have any plants at all.  The wind and sun barriers allowed the plants to use their energy for plant growth instead of protecting themselves.

WATER HARVESTING:  Much of the land is fairly flat.  We did contour swales in an east to west direction with a small bund on the lower side of the swale, comprised of the earth we had taken by hand out of the swales. Contour swales means that even though the land looks fairly flat we measured where the land was actually level and used those markings to build our swale.  Going along the contour the shape is a gentle curve.

In another area there was a small steep, north to south slope.  In the ridge portion where it was shallow there was a depression area, nice deep black soil.  After a rain that land is slopy and prone to erosion.  We did contour bunding on that land, swales, trenches, and gully plugging.

Percolation tank.  The water was 6 feet high, this is one month later, after the water has gone down to restore the ground water in the whole area.

Percolation tank. The water was 6 feet high, this is one month later, after the water has gone down to restore the ground water in the whole area.

On the southern steep side, 2-3 gullies were plugged with stones, bushes and plants, lot of work was done in this slopy area.

Aside:  This is a water harvesting story from a farm we are consulting on this year, 2015. We advised that a pond (percolation tank) be put on this  farmers land.  There was a small rain and his pond had water 6 feet high.   The reason his pond filled up with little rain is that he is almost at the bottom of his water shed.  His 2 bore wells had run dry and when that pond filled up his bore wells had plenty of water, as did the wells of is surrounding neighbors.  It was great for all of us as the neighboring farmers had been watching us, laughing at all our earth works.  After they saw their wells fill up they are no longer laughing and asking us questions about how they might apply what we are doing.

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PLANTING THE FOOD FOREST:

Charlotte:  Okay so you have your nursery, a lot of the terra forming for retaining your water, and your beginning design, what did you do next?

This was the original hut that Narsanna lived in.  The thatch has mainly blown away and otherwise been confiscated by animals, birds, etc.

This was the original hut that Narsanna lived in. The thatch has mainly blown away and otherwise been confiscated by animals, birds, etc.

Narsanna:  I had limited resources.  I began staying on the farm in a small hut that I made.  I began the laborious job of  digging out the thorny bushes.  I did not disturb the useful local bushes, plants or trees.  I used the same pit where I dug out the unwanted plants to plant my nursery plants.   I did not dig many new pits.   When you uproot thorny bushes if you want to get the whole plant, you need to dig around the plant.   Because of the tenaciousness of those thorny plant roots, I had room to plant my nursery plants along with burying a pitcher pot. This is a ceramic pot, which leaks water very slowly.  That first year the plants were all doing well with water seeping out from the pitcher pots as well as around four inches of mulch preventing the soil from drying out.  We would replace the water in the pitcher pots about once every 5 days in the hot summer.

My primary tree is mango.  The tree rows are planted at two different distances.  One is  6 meters apart.  The other is 10 meters apart.  The larger spacing was so we would have alleys after the plants had matured for planting cereals, grains and oil seeds.   I mixed in a lot of other plants in between the trees such as gliricidia, pomgamia, amla, guava, jamon, lemon grass, curry leaf. Calotropis gigantea. Sometimes I put a row of gliricidia between the mango rows.  All plants are multi-storyed.  There is lemon grass, tulsi, curry leaf, moringa, crotaria, mimosa, all perennials interplanted with the trees,

A much pollarded moringa tree. Moringa trees are great because their pods are a vegetable called drum stick and also their leaves can be eaten.  There are highly nutritious, as well as nitrogen fixing.

A much pollarded moringa tree. Moringa trees are great because their pods are a vegetable called drum stick and also their leaves can be eaten. There are highly nutritious, as well as nitrogen fixing.

Other plants were  citrus (lemons), teak, mango, moringa, guava, curry leaf, custard apple, moringa, jack fruit, cashew, ber, .The  moringa we cut by pollarding (cutting trees off at the trunk at about 6 feet).  We have just built a building for workshops and we are using the teak from our land for the trim and doors.  We saved ourselves 5 lakh rupees  if we had  to purchase this..  We cut the teak trees down, we do not uproot it because it is not good for the land.  My soil is only 2 inches deep, because of the rocks.

For the first 3 years I planted sesbania grandiflora as a nurse plant, on the west side of the new saplings..   In the west after 1 o’clock, there is a lot of heat from the sun, so we use the biomass, as well as the root function of the sesbania plants.   Their roots go deep so they loosen the soil so the fruit plant roots will go deep to get the minerals and water that they need.

At the same time i got local mango, citrus, jamon, moringa, almond, mulberry, ber, sapota, and guava plants given to me by Dr.Venkert.  He gave saplings to many people.  He would eat a fruit and if he found it tasty he put the seeds in his pocket, and when he got home he planted it.   Besides the local women, Dr. Venkert taught me a lot about permaculture.

Charlotte:  Could you tell us about Dr. Venkat.

Narsanna:  Dr. Venkat was a medical doctor. We never called him doctor. He began as a medical practioner.  He was not happy with many things going on around him. He was treating many, poor people, They could not afford to go far away to hospitals or nursing home. Eventually he realized that what the people really needed was good food and he could accomplish this by feeding the soil, much more easily than with the medicines he gave. He saw that the root cause of their problems was wrong food.  So he stopped his medical practice and started agriculture. He wanted to choose a profession which is ethical.

He came to know about Bill Mollison.  In 1987 He invited him to India. And with Bill as the teacher he conducted a national level workshop as the first permaculture resource person in India. Consuming less energy was important to him.  He had knowledge of soils, including soil microbes, as well as trees. I met him in 1987 when he was doing a permaculture conference in Hyderabad.  I liked the way he was talking about sustainable living, ethical living, as well as consuming a lot less energy.    Out of his efforts to help the farmers  understand the soil and their own food habits, we started  DDS Pastapur.  That was the first model farm based on permaculture principles in India.   Many farmers used to come and see that farm and to learn how what we practiced there could be applied to their own  regions.  Farmers and women particularly helped us create a farming model that would transform farming from a chemically based monocropping system to a system which fed the soil and gave nutrient dense food.  Particularly we aimed at  food for marginal farmers, and  undernourished children and women.  We tried not to leave any stone unturned:    Vegetables in back yards, mixed cropping system, seed saving, healthy agriculture practices, single women owned lands, under-privleged societies in the region, food security and helping schools grow food, were all part of our mission.      Permaculture spread like anything.  Dr. Vinkert loved very much, growing seeds, distributing to the farmers as well as sharing his food. His garden was a  good example of a multistory cropping system.  He gave everyone a cup of tea and always gave them seeds as well.

Narsanna:  Our whole system relies on a lot of mulch to prevent the soil from drying up and to feed the plants.  There was a temple nearby, where coconuts including coconut coir and flowers were left over after offerings.   There was a banyan tree, with a lot of leaf litter  I would collect all this material with my oxen cart and bring for mulching my plants.  There was a section of the forest near me, where gliricidia trees deposited a lot of leaf litter and I raked that up and brought it home.

BOUNDARIES

Every year the government people who manage the forest burn the forest because of tendu leaves (beedi leaf ).   After burning new shoots come and when put up for auction they bring a good revenue.  Fire from that burn crossed my boundaries and damaged my plants.  Twice this happened.    90% of my plants died.

West boundary of the farm.

West boundary of the farm.

The following year, before they burned, i decided to plant good fire breaks, date palm, bamboo, even cactus.  3 rows on the boundary makes a great perennial firebreak and live fence.  Wild boar uprooted and damaged these fences because they like the rhizomes.  Every year I kept reinforcing the live fence.  I used vitex, bamboo, date palm, toddy palm lot of caesilpania   shikakai.  gliricidia, on the boundaries  for multiple functions, including fire break, leaf litter, wind break, pollination,  food, harvestable trees for wood,  legumes to enhance the soil, including water holding capacity.    We ended up with a border that the animals did not eat.   Other border plants are thorny perennials.    Lots of birds were attracted because of the protection of the thorns.

South and west boundary.  These directions on my farm and in this area often are the harsh directions, strong winds, west is heat, too much sun is not good.  Here there are south winds.  I planted in zigzag pattern with 6 rows of all sorts of plants, ficus, causerina, albazia , pongamia, neem, buchanania , bahunia purrperea, tarmanalia bellarica, teak.  Their functions included:  arresting the wind, affording me a lot of natural habitat for wild life,   When I ran short of biomass, I used to take biomass from western wind break. I call this my biomass bank.  On the west side I planted very tall species.  Heat and wind come from the west dropping and bending the plants towards the  east because of too strong sunlight.  After the wind breaks grew most of the energy of the plants is used for growth and not resisting the wind and heat.

North is neutral for wind, sun and heat so we were mainly wanted an animal barrier there.  Fencing plants are the bamboo.  For live fencing we can grow bamboo and glriicidia.

From the eastern direction in India we receive the best sun for plant growth.  Therefore we put in short growing plants such as bamboo, vitex, and gliricidia. I cut these bamboos whenever i want to use them and also for mulch. This is my bamboo bank.

The well at Aranya Farm was a source of water for many years.

The well at Aranya Farm was a source of water for many years.

I started by planting the 88 plants I had grown in my nursery.    A team of local women taught me what i needed to do. They guided me step by step.  They showed me what crops can be grown in what soil. They suggested the water from my well was not enough.

As in most of india, we later  had to dig a bore well to go deeper to get water. This open well no longer has water.  It is used now for a holding tank.

On their advice, I widened my well to 6 meters in diameter.  After I deepened the well, it collapsed, because of very loose soil.  When it started caving, i stopped digging.  I was told i needed cement.  I then noticed that in the southeast corner a lot of water was flowing north to east.  Instead of lining my well with cement, I made a small pond,(a water percolation tank).  Above the open well. I diverted rain water into this tank.  A lot of water ended up stored there.  With that water i could grow the southern side of the wind break.  I could fill the pitcher pots (oilas)  for my orchard.   These clay pots I buried next to the plants that needed water.   The well got recharged through the percolation tank.  The nursery and pitcher pots in the orchard both, were able to be watered with the help of this new water source.

Charlotte:  I know that you just got a way to pump water from your solar system and here I see that there is a hose that you are using to water young mango trees.   Why are you watering the trees this year when in the past you were using the pitcher pots.

Narsanna:  These mango trees were planted last year.   Survival rates we have observed at our farm:  Only 10% survival without any additional water.   With the pitcher pots we have a 30%  survival  but because of the rocks underlying my soil, it is difficult to  dig the hole.  By watering with the hose we get a 50% survival rate, or even better.

Charlotte:  You say that no drops of water leave your farm.  Can you give us an overview of your water harvesting strategy:

Narsanna:   Water comes into the percolation tank through rain flow. Extra water goes into the well.  We have planted a lot of deep rooted nitrogen fixing plants and even more deep rooted nitrogen fixing trees that hold water in their root system.  The swales hold water giving the plant roots a long time to pick up the water.   I also made depressions between some of the trees in the rows.  These depressions also hold water and act like swales, holding the water until the plant roots pick up the water.  We now also have a bore well.  This helps to capture the water that goes down deep.

For the first 2 years I made basins around plant.  This is standard practice in these farming communities.   I found if I mulched around the plant, instead of making a basin raising the organic matter round the plants, the water will seep down very fast.  With the basin the rain water stays on the surface but does not penetrate.

Charlotte:  You have said that you do not take out everything that volunteers on your farm.  How do you decide what you will take out.

Narsanna:   If it is interfering with the main plant growth, i cut it, but as i said before i do not uproot it, because my soil is so shallow.  I basically take out nothing unless i know it does harm.

Thorny plants are often damaging to our hands.  Certain thorny plants like ber we like the fruit.  The birds like the protection of thorny plants.  Nothing in nature is without worth.  Partinium causes skin diseases and allergies and i am removing this.

Charlotte:  What can you tell me about your companion plants:

Narsanna:  We have seen that cow peas and lablab go well with maize, but not with sorghum.   Vegetables such as bringal, marigold, chilies, tomatoes and coriander all like to grow together.  Banana and sweet potatoes and tumeric do well together.  We plant pulses and cereals 50/50.    I plant together pearl millet, finger millet with horsegram, lablab purpuris (dolichoss) and cow pea.

Narsanna:  I planted curry leaf, tulsi, calotropis, lemon grass,  moringa, pomgamia, gliricidia, and subabul.  I did not feed the plants. I Instead i planted them together with nitrogen fixers and other plants we call dynamic accumulators.  That way the trees got fed naturally through the break down of the mulch.

I also introduced a lot of creepers and arial bulbs like diasporia alata, seed will be inside.  Common crotlaria, aloevera and antisnake , eclipta alba, tenospora,  sumifera seeded itself.

Rain-fed  cropping system at Aranya

Rain-fed cropping system at Aranya

Charlotte:  A lot of people think they have to water their cereals, pulses and oil seeds.  Why did you think they could grow them without water.

Narsanna:  Here in this part of India almost all cereals, pulses and oil seeds are rain fed.  I also did not have a way to water these plants.

Charlotte:  Do you get less yield from rain fed crops.

Narsanna:  These plants have their own behavior, yield is to satisfy whom?  The totality of yield is much more than one single yield.  Often people are pushing plants to yield and then they wear out their soil.  In the long run the yield is better by not pushing the plants.  As I said before we did not have a way to water the plants.  Our family has eaten well and we have fed as many as 500 guests a year on the produce from this land.  This is how we look at what nature is providing for us.

Charlotte:  What I see in the background looks like a mango orchard.  Trees are planted on a gentle curve, with wide spacing.  Right now I see a huge number of mangos on the trees.  There are wide alleys in between some of the tree rows.  There are gliricidia trees growing with the mangoes and calotropis gigantea.

Narsanna interview 14Charlotte:  Current agricultural practice teaches the farmers to use every bit of land for growing cash crops.  Can you say why you chose not to do that:

Narsanna:  We are addressing that with every topic here really. First of all the farmer should grow food for his family.  Buying food in a year when your crop fails is a recipe for starvation.

This year there has been a lot of wind.  In most mango orchards, a large number of mangoes are on the ground.  There are none of our mangoes on the ground because of our wind breaks.  Wind also causes drying out of the soil as does the heat of the sun.   Most commercial orchards use a lot of water to compensate for these drying effects. We have not had a water source for our trees, so we have had to use the strategies developed by Indians over the last 10,000 years to grow our trees.

India is now in a time where some farmers have enough water, most do not.  If all of us put up windbreaks, then we could grow our crops with a lot less water. The boundary plantings include food for humans, food for birds, leaf litter, wood and much more.   Birds then come and fertilize our plants. This year in this area is a bad year for mangoes.  There were rains at two major times that damaged the crops.  Our mango crop was not damaged, we do not know why, except that they are probably hardier than the commercial orchards.

What after all is considered in an economic analysis of an orchard.  Someone will one day do an economic analysis of how much it costs to make chemical fertilizer or even vermi-compost or cow manure, to buy it and transport it in quantities believed necessary to an orchard.  They will find that the small amount of land we use has saved us huge expense and given us quality that is not buyable.  There is more:   How long will we have the fuel resources to do this type of farming.

Oxen plowing the alleys in the orchard.

Oxen plowing the alleys in the orchard.

And another thing- we know that plants grown by feeding of the soil taste a lot better than chemically farmed orchard fair.  Partly this is because we have selected cultivars (varieties) that have taste rather than shipping ability.  We believe there is a correlation between nutrition and taste.  We believe our method of feeding the soil means there is more nutritional value in the plants.    This is how they have evolved to receive their nutrition and given these optimal conditions they will produce optimal nutrition.    The one indicator we have found for this is the brix refractometer reading. Carrots grown with chemicals or even organic nutrients to feed the plant rate a 5 on the brix scale and plants where the soil is fed rate as high as 30.  One day science might choose to look at all this and tell us what is really happening.  Living organisms are very complicated.  Meanwhile we experience in ourselves how much more filling and nutritious this kind of food is.

Charlotte:  There are wide alleys in between the trees.  What are you going to plant in these alleys.

Narsanna:  I plant the tall varieties of pulses, oil seed and cereals, like niger, pigeon pea, sesame in the alleys between the trees.  These do well here because they are taller.  Then I plant the shorter varieties in the open fields.

Wild area in the middle of the farm.

Wild area in the middle of the farm.

Charlotte:  One of my favorite places on the farm is in the middle what which looks like a wild area.  I can even see a wild bee hive there.

Narsanna:  When I was starting my nursery, because of the small amount of water, I kept changing the spot for the nursery.  For various reasons, some plants always escape the bags where we had the nursery a lot of plants will be growing.  There were a lot of plants here in the middle and I also started putting my germ plasm for the mango trees in that spot.  There was also a lot of wild life staying there.  In the traditional Indian plantings, they would always put their borders around 1, 2 or 3 acre areas.  Ours is a lot larger than that.  So we wanted a space for the pest predators, pollinators, etc. in the middle of the plot as well.

Charlotte:  I see open fields in one area of the farm.  What’s happening here?­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Narsanna:  I grow all the millets, (finger millet) pearl millet,  minor millet, sorghum, dry land rice, pulses (green gram, black gram, pigeon pea, lentil, lateris pea, chick pea, horsegram, and oil seeds — safflower, sesame, ground nut, sunflower, niger, linseed.

I have divided the open field into 3 separate plots.  One year I plant the pulses in one area, oil seed in another and grains in the 3rd.    Then I alternate for another year.

Charlotte:  I see you have solar panels.

Narsanna:  When I started my Training Empowering Centre.  I wanted to feed the visitors with vegetables.  We already have the vegetables from the moringa tree, but we wanted more variety.  I went for alternative solar energy for power for the well.  I had a bore well with no power to pump the water from it.    In my nursery there are plants you will not get in any commercial nursery.  Gliceridia, calitropis, banuc, shikokai are not available.   I want to raise and give to the people who are practicing these methods.  Every year I raise 15-20,000 saplings that I give away.    I need water for the kitchen, and nursery.  For the same money i could have spent on getting electrical power from the grid, I got  solar energy which is a rechargeable and renewal resource.  There was a onetime expense and no recurring expenses.  (for 25 years anyway)  I also wanted to support the people providing alternative energy resources.  Also with solar power there are no bursts of energy which damage our pump.

Narsanna interview 17Charlotte:   Another thing  is that stands out for me is when you were filling in the holes with your nursery plants you put in a pitcher pot, a glicidiia tree or another nurse plant,  but did not put in any manure or any other concentrated food for  the plants, can you tell me about this.

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Pitcher pot, new sesbania glandiflora and pongamia tree gliricidia tree.  Piitcher pot is usually buried with only the lip showing but because of the rocks in our soil, it is not.

Narsanna:  We covered the area planted with a maximum of 4 inches of brown and green mulch.  i .do not like to put any manure down.  First of all putting it in the hole, it is too deep for the bacteria, fungi and other microbes that are needed to break it down.  What available nutrients are there will leach and be wasted from the standpoint of the plant.  In permaculture we like for each item to have multiple uses.  In the tropics the nutrients are all held in the plants above the soil.  If you try to do a soil test for NPK, values will be nill.  When you test the plants this is where you will find the NPK. When we feed the trees on the surface with this mulch, the soil organisms can chelate the minerals so it is available when it is needed it rather than leaching down.  This mulch that we use to feed the tree also holds the moisture in the soil, allowing the plant to take up the moisture it needs.

Charlotte:  Current agricultural practice advises that newly planted trees have to be fed food high in NPK (whether provided via chemicals or organically)  to insure that the tree starts a good growth cycle, to grow quickly and to ensure that there is a good base for a long fruiting life.    I can see from these trees that they have grown beautifully and have a huge amount of fruit on them.  You tell me they have never been pruned.  As a profession pruner i can say that they seem to have grown themselves in such a way as to not need pruning, plenty of light and air in your trees. Can you explain how this works.

Self-pruned tree (all trees are Aranya are self- prunted).

Self-pruned tree (all trees are Aranya are self- prunted).

Narsanna:  Current agriculture practice assumes that the plant can uptake these nutrient dense foods.   i do not believe this is true, or if the plant does uptake some of this nutrient dense food it does not serve the long term growth of the plant, specifically that nutrient dense foods cause increased water uptake that leads to insect and disease problems.     We believe in feeding the soil and not the plant.  We believe that such concentrated foods as vermicompost, manure, what to say chemical fertilizers, are not helping the soil and are mainly leaching through to the aquifers.

It takes three tons of fossil fuel to make one ton of chemical nitrogen.  It is sad that this chemical nitrogen not only goes down the drain so to speak but that as everything is connected, this leads to the aquifers being polluted, leading to the rivers being polluted and then the oceans are polluted.

Our job is to put organic matter onto the top of the soil.  At any given time some of it is totally decomposed, some is woody, some undecomposed and more is slowly decomposing.   This matter becomes available for whatever the plant requires.   Because of chelation when the microbes break these materials down they can be held in the soil and not leach out.   The plants have shown for thousands of years that they are clever enough to uptake what they need from the mulch that the forest puts down.  In permaculture we like to follow nature’s lead.

Charlotte:  When I walk on your farm the ground is spongy.  When I put my hands in your soil, I can come out with soil.   On other farms I visit I walk on hard ground and when I try to put my hand in the soil I cannot.  Can you explain this?

Narsanna:  You can see termite mounds all over.  Termites in the tropics do the job of the macro fauna to aerating the soil.  Earthworms do this job in the temperate regions.   We grow the mulch on the farm and feeding the mulch we are feeding the soil life.   Crop residues go back to the soil.  Also we do not use a tractor and compress our soil.

I see here a lemon tree.  I am surprised that you are growing lemon trees dry land.  Are these grafted trees from a nursery?  Are they specially bred to survive drought.

Narsanna:  Yes there are 2 varieties that we are using.  They are bred to for drought tolerance:   jamberi and rangapuri.

Charlotte:  I have to say that seeing what you have done at Aranya is a turning point in my life.  As you know i have traveled extensively and seen a lot of food forests.   I have never seen the end results of what we talk about in permaculture- that we can create a ecological system where the plants get all the fertilizer and water they need from the air, the microbes, the soil and from each other, just as they do in the forest.  We are all aiming at this but figure that first of all we need to make up for soil deficiencies by feeding the soils or the microbes and yes even feeding the plants until the soils are built up. This system that you have established here is just like a forest, 1000 years from now will still be producing food.  Witnessing this is inspiring for me.­­­­­