Biolaya

Biolaya Organic Garden

Biolaya Organic Garden

When I first arrived in Kullu in 1999 I naively assumed that the Himalayan foothills would be an organic paradise. Sadly, this was far from the truth. In fact, quite the opposite: lurking under the surface is a rather shocking cocktail of chemicals.

The extent of the problem was highlighted by the difficulty we had in finding suitable farms to grow certified organic herbs. The Kullu Valley itself is dominated by apple orchards that are heavily sprayed with chemicals (mostly fungicides and some insecticides). In our search for organic land we ended up working with farmers in some very remote areas, including the Mayar Valley in Lahaul (about as remote as it gets). But even there, at over 3000m altitude, an organic inspector still managed to find an empty herbicide tin in the irrigation channel half a kilometre above the farm. There seemed to be no escape from chemicals.

The situation wasn’t much better back at Biolaya HQ. The path from the village was often littered with a few empty fungicide packs and at certain times of year the air would carry a toxic smell of chemicals from all the spraying in the orchards.

In many ways, being in the heart of apple-growing country, Deushar was a perfect place to create an organic research and demonstration garden. The garden was on a busy path used by every family in the village for collecting firewood and taking their cows for grazing in the forest. Nobody could avoid passing it without showing at least some curiosity about what we were doing.

The Biolaya garden consisted of about two acres of land, including a small apple orchard and different areas for growing medicinal plants, vegetables, traditional grains and tree seedlings. Although not directly related to our herb business, to us the apples, vegetables, grains and trees were equally important in the context of researching and promoting sustainable farming systems (not to mention essential for feeding ourselves fresh organic food). Our intention was to promote diverse agroecosystems in which medicinal plants were just one part.

In our first year in Deushar – for our own benefit as much as the local farmers – we arranged a series of training workshops led by Dr Thimmaiah, an expert in organic and biodynamic farming. It turned out that the locals were much more interested than the discarded packets of fungicide had led me to believe. Many of them wanted to stop using chemicals – they just didn’t believe it was possible without a significant drop in yields and income.

Dr Thimmaiah’s argument, shared by many other proponents of organic farming, especially in the developing world, was that any initial drop in yield can be compensated by lower costs of inputs. And in the longer term, crops grown in healthy soil in a diverse ecosystem will eventually out-perform any monocrop grown in soil devoid of biological activity and organic matter.

This made sense to us. And if the farmers were still dubious, we were willing to put theory into practice and hope that the results would speak for themselves. So, beyond basic organic principles such as crop rotations, intercropping etc., much of our work in the garden focused on creating low-cost inputs made from locally available resources. We made giant compost heaps, liquid manures, vermiwash, cow-pat pits, panchagavya and many other concoctions, all designed to optimise crop productivity and resilience at minimal cost.

A biodynamic compost heap made during Dr Thimmaiah's training
Adding lime to one of the many layers of the biodynamic sandwich
Preparing the ingredients for a Cow Pat Pit
Surie and Sarah with a system for capturing vermiwash (earthworm slime)

Apart from a few cases of stubborn tomato blight and some sooty blotch on the apples, the results of our trials in Deushar were a success. It was hard to narrow down exactly which methods were having the most effect as we mixed them all together in a slightly random, unscientific manner. But the main thing was that we were able to demonstrate that most pests and diseases could be controlled without chemicals and that we were still able to get good yields.

A few of the farmers, inspired by Dr Thimmaiah’s training, embraced the philosophy of using low cost inputs and replicated them on their own land. Vermicompost, in particular, was a big success. For many though (especially the more wealthy apple growers), the inputs – although cheap to make – involved too much time and effort. They were used to quick and easy solutions, and preferred the idea of buying ready-made organic inputs from the market.

At the time, ready-made organic inputs weren’t easily available. They also worked out more expensive than their chemical counterparts, which meant that the only way to maintain the same level of income would be to sell the produce at a higher price. The problem with that was that there wasn’t yet an established local market for organic produce. It also led to the question of whether to go down the route of 3rd party certification, and how to tap into (often distant) high-value markets.

We soon realised that to make a real impact, not only did we need to introduce organic practices, we also needed to explore ways of creating new markets. One option we explored was to create a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) – a low-cost alternative to 3rd party certification based on trust and social control, and designed more for the local market.

We spent quite a lot of time working on a concept for a PGS in Kullu (download our draft PGS manual), and for a while worked closely with a local NGO, Jagriti, in an attempt to train farmers in the Lag Valley and connect them to organic customers in Kullu. But it was clear that this was going to be a major undertaking, and ultimately there was only so much we could do. We had to make a choice between focusing on organic farming or medicinal plants, and – although at times it was tempting to steer away from our original mission – ultimately we chose to stick with the herbs.

As Biolaya grew and we became busier with other projects, we also struggled to find time to prepare all of our own inputs. We experimented with buying ready-made bio-pesticides and fungicides, hoping we might find easier solutions. Some proved to be very effective, but simply replacing chemical inputs with organic inputs just didn’t seem right. Why focus so much time and energy on trying to fix the symptoms rather than address the underlying cause?

Having experimented with many different crops, I personally felt that the main issue was not so much how to treat pests and diseases, it was more the suitability of the crops that were being grown. The most lucrative and therefore most widely grown cash crops, such as cabbages and apples, were also the most susceptible and required the most toxic treatments. The traditional crops, on the other hand, having been bred locally for centuries, were perfectly adapted to the environment and barely suffered any problems from pests and diseases. They were also far more nutritious, providing vitamin-packed leaves during the summer months and protein-filled grains for the winter. So why weren’t more people growing and eating these crops?

One of the reasons, as we found out for ourselves, is that they require a lot of hard work (especially in dehulling). And also because tastes seemed to have changed. Traditional grains such as millet, amaranth, buckwheat and chenopods are perceived by many of the locals to be ‘poor man’s food’, grown and eaten by their forefathers before they had the choice available today. People now prefer to eat flour and rice from the market – for many, the whiter it is the better. And when you can sell a kilo of apples for up to 20 rupees, you can buy a lot of flour and rice.

As a result, traditional crop varieties are dying out; nowadays they are only grown in the most remote villages where they still make up an important part of their diet. Like many of the medicinal plant species we were working with, these crops are becoming increasingly rare. But unlike wild herbs, which thrive in the absence of people, traditional grains rely on farmers to propagate their long-term survival.

For us in Deushar, unimpeded by the economic pressures of earning a living from the land, shifting our focus to more pest-resistant traditional crop varieties was an easy and logical decision. But for local farmers, especially those who have no other source of income, sacrificing any amount of income for long-term environmental (and health) benefits is much less likely.

In reality, any significant shift from conventional to organic farming will require a combination of all the different strategies described above; for some farmers creating their own low-cost inputs may be the only solution they need. Others will find ways of compensating for the higher costs of purchasing organic inputs by selling organic produce at a premium. And hopefully, any notion of traditional grains being ‘backward’ will be turned on its head as people realise their value, and production may rise again with the introduction of appropriate technology to help with post-harvest processing.

For the farmers, awareness and education will always play an important role, but ultimately – as with our medicinal plant cultivation project – large-scale change in relatively poor communities will be driven primarily by economic incentives. Organisations such as Jagriti and Navdanya are leading the way by creating value-added products, supporting farmers by offering a decent price for produce that has been grown sustainably, thereby encouraging sustainable farming systems and helping to preserve traditional crop varieties.

But ultimately change always has to start with ourselves. Whether it involves buying organic producing or creating an organic garden as we did in Deushar, the most effective approach is to be the change you want to see in the world. Everything else will follow from there.