Sunday, August 18, 2013

Climate Smart Family Farm

 Family farms are small farms or homesteads wherein all the farming activities are undertaken by the family members. The size of these farms can vary from a fraction of a hectare upto 2 hectares. Some of the international development organizations define family farms, whose size is less than 2 hectares.  Globally there are about 500 million small farms and more than 85% of them are in Asian region. The major Asian countries with large number of small farms are China (193 million), India (93 million) and Bangladesh (17 million).  In addition to food security, these small farms play a very important role in ecosystem management, biodiversity conservation, climate change, youth development, gender inclusion, empowerment of the poor and urban migration. Looking into the importance of the small farms in rural development and poverty alleviation, the United Nations General Assembly has declared 2014 to be the 'International Year for Family Farming'.
Family Farm in Bhutan

The common notion is that the large industrial farms as the major source of food for the growing population which is not fully true. In many developing countries small farms contribute significantly to the food security. In India alone more than 80% of the farms are less than 2 hectares and contribute to more than 50% to farm output. Studies across the globe have shown an inverse relationship between farm size and productivity. Smaller the size of the farm more attention is given to cultural practices, selection of seeds or planting materials and crop care.  In addition the family members contribute their own labour and produce on-farm inputs which keeps them employed throughout the year. Interestingly the general trend in these family farms is the diversity of crops that are being cultivated. 

Every region has its own requirement for specific crops depending on the food choices, culture and heritage. For instance, cherry tomatoes are preferred over the hybrid tomatoes which are generally found in the markets. Likewise many lesser known vegetables are cultivated in these gardens. Moreover a majority of the crops are grown using open pollinated seeds or heirloom seeds which have an inherent diverse gene pool than the modern hybrids. The heirloom or native seeds are more resilient to the vagaries of weather vulnerabilities and are resistant to the pests, diseases, drought and water logging stresses. In other words these local seeds or vegetables assure them of food and nutritional security. Even now these farmers continue the tradition of seed sharing which is a scientific way of seed conservation and utilization of biodiversity.

Amongst the family farms most of them are of the size of a tennis court approximately 1/10th of an acre which is about 400 square metres. The question is; can a family comprising of 4 members meet their food requirements in such a small piece of land? If the land is optimally designed utilizing the available natural resources, it can produce enough food to meet the requirements of a family. There is a need to rethink on what to grow, how to grow using the concepts of deep sustainability. We hear about sustainability so often in its shallow understanding, which to a large extent emphasises on doing ‘things right’ so that our actions do not dwindle the opportunities for the future generations. They are more addressed towards solving pollution problems, mining of natural resources, recycling, reuse and other approaches to address the symptoms of the problem. We need to move further in doing ‘right things’ which has deeper sustainability connotation.

Small kitchen gardens or homesteads can be transformed into a food producing landscapes if we consider 3 important parameters; weather patterns or climatic conditions of the region, choice of right crops and farm design. Mono-cropping or cultivating of one crop would nullify the concept of family gardens. A good mix of diversity apt for the regional agro-climatic conditions would do the trick.  Our global food system unfortunately focuses on grains, few tubers, oilseeds and beans. About 15 crops meet more than 75% of the calorie requirement of the world population. However, in nature there are 7000 plants which are edible and can be used as food. Most of these plants do not require intensive care for its production.  Let’s now see how to make a small farm sustainable and productive.

Perennial crops:
Tamarillo Plant
Perennial crops are very important for small farms. These are the plants which survive for atleast one to three years or more which are grown for their edible parts like; leaves, stem, flowers, fruits, and roots. Planting these perennials would reduce lot of farming work like ploughing the land which requires manual labour or machines which does add on to the cost of production. Also there is no need to sow seeds every season, planting has to be done once while the crop needs to be tended with regular manuring and irrigation. It would also reduce the cost and time on managing weeds as there would be less weed growth.
Tamarillo fruits

In addition to reduce the drudgery and cost of production these perennial crops help to reduce the carbon emissions by building up the soil organic carbon. The deep root systems help to recharge the ground water. Some of the  perennial vegetables that can be cultivated are Tree tomato or tamarillos (Solanum betaceum), tree brinjal, Drumstick (Moringa oleifera) Curry leaf,( Murraya koenigii ), Indian Perrenial Cucumber or Miniature Cucumber or Ivy Gourd or Scarlet Gourd (Coccinia grandis, Coccinia indica), Jack fruit (Artocarpus heterophylla).

Colocasia tubers
Choice of Crops with high yielding potential:
Colocasia plants
It’s important to choose crops which can yield more from a minimal area. There are many crops which has an innate potential to produce more food that fits into the family farms or homesteads. Wise choice should be of those crops that require minimal care and maintenance. 

Cassava or Tapioca
Some of such crops are Colocasia (Colocasia esculenta) wherein the leaves and the tubers are used as food. In one hectare of land Colocasia produces 15 to 30 tons of tubers which can be  stored for a couple of months.  

Cassava or Tapioca (Manihot esculenta)is another crop which yields about 20-40 tons per hectare. Each Cassava plant in 8-9 months yields 8-12 kilograms with minimal care. Cuttings are used for planting. The nutrient rich cassava leaves can be used a a good animal fodder. Care should be taken that the leaves should be wilted in sun before feeding to animals to lower the potential cyanide toxicity and also to reduce the free tanin levels.

White Chayote
Green Chayote
Another interesting creeper which yields more is Chouchou or Chayote (Sechium edule) which yields atleast 100 fruits in a single vine. Each fruit weight 300 to 500 grams. In Bhutan and Nepal Chayote is known as 'Iskhus' There are many such high yielding potential crops apt for a particular agro-climatic region which needs to be identified and planted in homesteads.

Sustainable Farming:
Sustainable farming practices are vital to the success of family farms. Whatever biodegradable wastes that are available in the farm can be transformed into manure. The weeds and crop residues of the farm can be easily composted by using earthworms or by aerobic methods. The resulting product, compost can be used for providing crop nutrition to plants which inturn builds soil fertility. Moreover the problem of waste management can be addressed at home itself.  I would keep the surroundings green and clean.

Seed sharing event in Costa Rica
Farmers can produce their own seeds by continuing the ancient wisdom of seed sharing with the fellow farmers which would maintain the seed vigour and avoid inbreeding depression.  With simple training programs, farmers can be trained in seed production of heirloom or open pollinated varieties so that there is no mixing of unique characteristics of a particular plant due to cross pollination. Moreover the heirloom seeds are resilient to the climate change and biotic stress.

Similarly pest management measures can be designed based on the species that are available in the locality. Most of the weeds which have a strong odour can be used as bio-pesticides. Some of the herbs like mint, rosemary, thyme can also be fermented and used as sprays to repel insects and manage plant diseases.
Bhutanese women farmer selling local veggies
Family farming is very important in the present scenario wherein the arable land is dwindling and there is a global rush for land by private organizations and governments. The development of industries and housing are encroaching the fertile farming fields and displacing the farming communities. Agriculture is a sector which not only provides employment to more than 70% of the world’s population but also provides many environmental services for the very sustenance of human population. Studies reveal by 2050 about two third of the world’s population will be staying in cities. How to accomplish the food requirement of the burgeoning population? Who would provide employment to the exodus of rural populace to the cities? Many such macro-economic and geo-political questions need to be answered in the years to come. Family farms can be a solution for these global problems.

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