Bhaskar Save, the Gandhi of Natural Farming

February 25, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

We are pleased to introduce our new Planet Local series, showcasing localization initiatives around the world. This blog is the first of three by authors from India to celebrate the occasion of our upcoming Economics of Happiness conference in Bangalore, March 15.

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On the 27th January, 2014, Bhaskar Save, aka Save-guruji – the acclaimed “Gandhi of Natural Farming” – turned 92 years old. He has inspired and mentored three generations of organic farmers. Masanobu Fukuoka, the legendary Japanese natural farmer, visited his farm in 1997, and described it as “the best in the world, even better than my own farm!” It is a veritable food forest and a net supplier of water, energy and fertility to the local eco-system, rather than a net consumer.

Save’s way of farming and teachings are rooted in his deep understanding of the symbiotic relationships in nature, which he is ever happy to share freely (and still very enthusiastically!) with anyone interested. In 2010, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) – the world-wide umbrella body of organic farmers and movements – honoured Save with the ‘One World Award for Lifetime Achievement’. Its jury declared, “He is one of the most outstanding personalities in the organic world.”

Bhaskar Save’s 14 acre orchard-farm, Kalpavruksha, is located on the Coastal Highway near village Dehri, District Valsad, in southernmost coastal Gujarat, a few km north of the Maharashtra-Gujarat border. About 10 acres are under a mixed natural orchard of mainly coconut and chikoo (sapota) with fewer numbers of other species. About 2 acres are under seasonal field crops cultivated organically in traditional rotation. Another 2 acres is for a nursery for raising coconut saplings that are in great demand. The farm yield – in all aspects of total quantity, nutritional quality, taste, biological diversity, ecological sustainability, water conservation, energy efficiency, and economic profitability – is superior to any farm using chemicals, while costs (mainly labour for harvesting) are minimal, and external inputs almost zero.

Natural farming and its fruit

Natural farming is holistic and bio-diverse organic farming in harmony with nature. It is low-intervention, ecological, sustainable and economically rewarding. In its purest advanced form, it is a ‘do-nothing’ way of farming, where nature does everything, or almost everything, and little needs to be done by the farmer. This can best be achieved in a progressive manner with tree crops. As Bhaskar Save explains, “When a tree sapling planted by a farmer is still young and tender, it needs some attention. But as it matures, it can look after itself, and then it looks after the farmer.”

With annual or seasonal field crops, more continuing attention and work by the farmer are needed, but even here, the work and input needed progressively diminishes as the soil regains its health and symbiotic biodiversity is re-integrated.

“Who planted the great, ancient forests? Who tilled the land? Who provided seed, manure, irrigation, or protection from pests?” asks Bhaskar Save. “In our forests, untended by man, the (human)food trees – like ber (jujube), jambul (jambolan), amba (mango), umbar (wild fig), mahua (butter tree), imli (tamarind), raini (‘jungle sapota’) – yield so abundantly in their season, that the branches sag with the weight of the fruit. The annual fruit yield per tree is commonly over a tonne, year after year, carried away by forest dwellers, including man. But the earth around each tree remains whole and undiminished. There is no gaping hole in the ground! If anything, the soil is richer. From where do the trees – including those on rocky mountains – get their water, their nitrogen, phosphorous, potash? Though stationary, Nature provides their needs right where they stand. But arrogant modern technology, with its blinkered, meddling itch, is blind to this.

Self-reliance and non-violent farming

“Gandhi believed in gram swaraj (or village self-governance),” says Save. “Central to his vision was complete self-reliance at the village level in all the basics needed for a healthy life. He had confidence in the strength of organic farming in this country… but we have strayed far from this path. Vinoba Bhave too pointed out that industries merely transform ‘raw materials’ sourced from Nature. They cannot create anew. Only Nature is truly creative and self-regenerating – through synergy with the fresh daily inflow of the sun’s energy.

“…modern technology, wedded to commerce – rather than compassion – has proved disastrous at all levels. We have despoiled and polluted the soil, water and air. We have wiped out most of our forests and killed its creatures. And relentlessly, modern farmers spray deadly poisons on their fields, massacring Nature’s jeev srushti, or micro-organisms and insects – the unpretentious, but tireless little fertility workers that maintain the vital, ventilated quality of the soil, recycling all life-ebbed biomass into nourishment for plants. The noxious chemicals also inevitably poison the water, and Nature’s prani srushti or animal kingdom, including humans.

"…Trying to increase Nature’s ‘productivity,’ is the fundamental blunder that highlights the arrogant ignorance of agricultural scientists. Nature, unspoiled by man, is already most abundant in her yield. When a grain of rice can reproduce a thousand-fold within months, where is the need to increase its productivity! What is required at most is to help ensure the necessary natural conditions for optimal, wholesome yield.

“In all the years a student spends for an M.Sc. or Ph.D. in agriculture, the only goal is short-term – and narrowly perceived – economic (rather than nutritional) ‘productivity’. For this, the farmer is urged to buy and do a hundred things, greatly increasing his costs. But not a thought is spared to what a farmer must never do so that the land remains unharmed for future generations and other creatures.”

Bhaskar Save’s plea for India’s agro-ecological resurgence

On 29th July, 2006, Bhaskar Save addressed a detailed 8 page Open Letter (along with six annexures) to M.S. Swaminathan, then chairman of the National Commission on Farmers. This was at a time of an unrelenting wave of farmer suicides in various parts of India, particularly Vidarbha and Andhra Pradesh, but also Punjab, the frontline state of India’s ‘green revolution’, now turned black.

Bhaskar Save’s Open Letter – widely circulated and translated all over the world – presented a devastating critique of the government’s agricultural policies favouring chemical farming, while making an eloquent plea for urgent and fundamental reorientation. Save states, “I say with conviction that only by mixed organic farming in harmony with Nature, can India sustainably provide abundant wholesome food and meet every basic need of all – to live in health, dignity and peace.”

Swaminathan wrote back to Save, “I have long admired your work and am grateful to you for the detailed suggestions… valuable comments and recommendations. We shall take them into consideration in our final report.”

A further independent Open Letter from Bhaskar Save, dated 1st November, 2006, was sent to the Prime Minister. Save asks in his letter, “In this vast nation, does any government agricultural department or university have a single farm run on modern methods, which is a net supplier of water, energy and fertility to the local eco-system, rather than a net consumer? But where there is undisturbed synergy of Nature, this is a reality! By all criteria of ecological audit, my farm has only a positive contribution to the health of the environment. Economically too, I get a manifold higher income than ‘modern’ farmers.”

The success demonstrated by Bhaskar Save in decreasing and eliminating external fertility inputs while achieving high productivity, is thus a model for promoting food security; and his method of tree-cropping – integrating short lifespan, medium lifespan and long lifespan species – has been hailed as potentially revolutionary for wasteland regeneration, while also offering sustainable and rewarding livelihoods to large numbers of people.

Image RemovedNatural abundance at Kalpavruksha

About twenty steps inside the gate of Bhaskar Save’s farm is a sign that says: “Co-operation is the fundamental Law of Nature.” – A simple and concise introduction to the philosophy and practice of natural farming! Further inside the farm are numerous other signs that attract attention with brief, thought-provoking sutras or aphorisms. These pithy sayings contain all the distilled wisdom on nature, farming, health, culture and spirituality, Bhaskarbhai has gathered over the years, apart from his extraordinary harvest of food!

If you ask this farmer where he learnt his way of natural farming, he might tell you – quite humbly — “my university is my farm.” His farm has now become a sacred university for many, as every Saturday (Visitors’ Day) brings numerous people. These have included farmers from all over India, as also agricultural scientists, students, senior government officials, city folk, and occasional travellers from distant lands, who have read or heard of Bhaskar Save’s work.

Kalpavruksha compels attention for its high yield easily out-performs any modern farm using chemicals. This is readily visible at all times. The number of coconuts per tree is perhaps the highest in the country. A few of the palms yield over 400 coconuts each year, while the average is closer to 350. The crop of chikoo (sapota) – largely planted more than forty-five years ago – is similarly abundant, providing about 300 kg of delicious fruit per tree each year.

Also growing in the orchard are numerous bananas, papayas, areca-nuts, and a few trees of date-palm, drumstick, mango, jackfruit, toddy palm, custard apple, jambul, guava, pomegranate, lime, pomelo, mahua, tamarind, neem, audumber; apart from some bamboo and various under-storey shrubs like kadipatta (curry leaves), crotons, tulsi; and vines like pepper, betel leaf, passion-fruit, etc.

Nawabi Kolam, a tall, delicious and high-yielding native variety of rice, several kinds of pulses, winter wheat and some vegetables and tubers too are grown in seasonal rotation on about two acres of land. These provide enough for this self-sustained farmer’s immediate family and occasional guests. In most years, there is some surplus of rice, which is gifted to relatives or friends, who appreciate its superior flavour and quality.

Small, diverse, ecological farms produce not only more, but much better, food

Excluding the two acres under coconut nursery, and another two acres of paddy field, the remaining ten acres of orchard have consistently yielded an average food yield of over 15,000 kg per acre per annum! (This has declined in the past 15-20 years following pollution from progressive industrialization of the area.) In nutritional value, this is many times superior to an equivalent weight of food grown with the intensive use of toxic chemicals, as in Punjab, Haryana and many other parts of India.

Consequently, pleads Bhaskar Save — if we truly seek to regain ecological harmony, the very first principle we must learn to follow is, "Live and let live."

“The variety of plants in nature is amazing, and there is no end to learning in the university of the natural farm or forest,” says Bhaskar Save.

Fundamental principles of natural farming

“The four fundamental principles of natural farming are quite simple!” declares Bhaskar Save. “The first is, “all living creatures have an equal right to live.” To respect such right, farming must be non-violent. The second principle recognizes that “everything in Nature is useful and serves a purpose in the web of life.”

“The third principle is: farming is a dharma, a sacred path of serving Nature and fellow creatures; it must not degenerate into a pure dhandha or money-oriented business. Short-sighted greed to earn more – ignoring Nature’s laws – is the root of the ever-mounting problems we face.

“Fourth is the principle of perennial fertility regeneration. It observes that we humans have a right to only the fruits and seeds of the crops we grow. These constitute 5% to 15% of the plants’ biomass yield. The balance 85% to 95% of the biomass, the crop residue, must go back to the soil to renew its fertility, either directly as mulch, or as the manure of farm animals. If this is religiously followed, nothing is needed from outside; the fertility of the land will not decline.”

Bharat Mansata is an author, editor, activist, and co-founder of Earthcare Books (Kolkata) and has been involved in environmental and sustainability issues for over two decades. He most recently authored The Great Agricultural Challenge, Organic Revolution and The Vision of Natural Farming, a book on Bhaskar Save. Alex Jensen is Project Coordinator at the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC)


Tags: India, natural farming, organic farming