Including growing vegetables on vines and using livestock on land, these farmers in coastal Tamil Nadu have figured out how to counter salinity caused by droughts and groundwater depletion.
Muthukrishnan remembers the time when he was a young boy who used to bring paddy seedlings from their nursery in Kumbakonam to his grandmother, who lived in the coastal town of Tharangambadi. He would help his grandmother plant them on her farm, which was on the coast of Bay of Bengal at a half kilometre from the sea, and return home.
At 56, he now observes the groundwater and soil are saline in his farmland even though it is 20km from the coast. He and a group of friends have a combined ownership over 20 acres of land in Kadagam village in Nannilam taluk of Tiruvarur district, Tamil Nadu.
Inadequate rains and droughts have been leading to groundwater depletion in many coastal villages in Tamil Nadu. This has led to seawater seeping in and increasing the salinity levels in water and soil. But the farmers are taking the problem on the chin by tackling it through organic agricultural practices and some innovative measures.
Ensuring soil health
The soil in Kadagam, and around Muthukrishnan’s farm, is clayey and officials of Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) admit that the salinity is making farming unsustainable.
“If electrical conductivity (EC), which is an indicator of soil salinity and hence its health, is more than four deciSiemens/meter (dS/m), it would be difficult to grow any crop,” said a KVK official.
With current soil health statistics unavailable, officials estimate EC to be around seven dS/m. Be that as it may, the farmers say they are growing crops successfully through organic practices.
To prepare a piece of land suffering from high EC, farmers advocate turning the farm into a livestock pen. Farmer Rajendran remembers this as a traditional practice when pastoral herders used agricultural fields as pens after crops had been harvested.
“We tie the goats in one section of the farm for a few days, then move them to another part of the land and so on, till the entire land is covered with the animals’ waste,” Muthukrishnan said. In places where no pastoralists visit, farmers tie their cows in the field.
Lessons from tsunami
When the tsunami hit the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu in 2004, the fields were filled with sea slush and caked with salt. Some farmers, guided by the late Nammalwar, an organic farming proponent, adopted organic practices and successfully reclaimed their land.
Farmers got started on the green manure practice only after the tsunami. While organic farmers generally grow dhaincha (Sesbania bispinosa) and sann hemp (Crotalaria juncea) and plough them into the soil when they flower, Muthukrishnan finds kolinji (Galega purpurea) most effective. “The other plants fix nitrogen and improve soil fertility, but kolinji removes salinity,” he said.
“Seeing the successful reversal of the situation after the tsunami, I decided to practise only organic agriculture,” Tamilselvan, a farmer from Karaikal, said. “Back then we learnt that plant waste and animal waste were the best solution to reclaim our land, and I am following the same practice.”
Tamilselvan digs trenches close to the bunds and fills them with leaf litter and pruned tree branches. “After the tsunami, we dug pits and filled the pits with the branches of fallen trees. Only then I learnt that it was a traditional practice to nurture the soil with palm fronds and the like,” he said.
Vines to the rescue
Muthukrishnan has also dug trenches in his farm, but uses them a little differently. He has set aside one acre to grow paddy and vine vegetables. The one-acre plot is lower by about three feet than the rest of the farm. “It is almost like a pond, but he has formed three-foot-high ridges at 12-foot centre-to-centre intervals in the dug-out area,” said Prem Anand, an alternative medicine practitioner who has turned to organic farming recently, said.
In the Karaikal area, the monsoon season lasts from around mid-August to mid-December, for about 120 days. In the trenches that fill up with rainwater, Muthukrishnan grows a 100-day traditional paddy variety. The water inundated in the trenches helps paddy cultivation along and counters salinity.
The weeds that grow on the ridges are ploughed back into the soil, after harvesting the paddy.
On a metal wire trellis across the plot where he grows paddy, Muthukrishnan grows vine vegetables such as ridge gourd, bitter gourd and snake gourd. “The ridges are spaced considering the length the vegetable vines grow to,” he added.
Preventing surface runoff
Farmers believe retaining rainwater where it falls can also help tackle salinity. In the 20-acre land, Muthukrishnan has five ponds to capture the rainwater. He has raised bunds on the perimeter of the land and also within the land, where sections are delineated according to crops and the level of water needed for irrigation.
“We grow turmeric and pulses such as black gram and green gram as bund crops,” Prem Anand said. “The bunds not only prevent surface runoff but also leaching of salts in case neighbouring farmers do not practise organic farming.”
Growing traditional varieties
Since paddy is well-suited for clayey soil, traditional varieties of paddy are ideal where soil and water have turned saline. Muthukrishnan grows kichili samba, seeraga samba, poongar, thooyamalli and karuppu kavuni, all traditional paddy varieties.
Muthukrishnan reiterated that soil characteristics can be changed and agriculture can be made sustainable through organic practices and retaining rainwater harvesting. “With the rise in sea levels and climate threats, soil salinity will always be a problem for those in coastal villages,” Rajendran said, adding, “only organic and traditional practices can see us through.”
To Read Our Daily News Updates, Please visit Inventiva or Subscribe Our Newsletter & Push.