The tiny plot is a 'suryamandal' - a circular plantation in which eight papaya trees and six banana trees are planted alternately with 16 small patches of vegetables to capture maximum sunlight. Vaishali Mali's figure of Rs 8,000 (US$1=Rs 42.2) annual income from this plot is impossible to swallow. Aren't farmers around Maharashtra committing suicide, unable to make that much out of a whole acre - that is 40 times as big?
But Vaislali, who is in her mid-thirties, has figures to back up her claim. "Each papaya tree yields 65-75 fruits a year, which I sell in the market for an average of Rs 15 each," she counts off briskly, "That comes more or less around Rs 7,000 per year. Each banana tree yields fruit worth Rs 300 to Rs 350 - so that's another Rs 1,800. Subtract Rs 1,000 for the fruit we eat ourselves. And I sell about half the vegetables, which I grow round the year in the other patches. Now you calculate."
If open-mouthed awe is your reaction, on this experimental farm in the Bhogaon village in Solapur district of Maharashtra, you are likely to get more of it. Three women - from various nomadic tribes - living on this farm, have been consistently, for the last eight years, been earning Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 annually, from as little as 12 'gunthas' (one 'guntha' is around 1,089 sq. ft., or one-fortieth of an acre) of land. These women grow a variety of crops - food as well as cash - in small quantities, and ensure excellent yields through various natural farming practices related to soil and water conservation, optimum sunlight harvesting and other natural yield-enhancing techniques. Apart from the above-mentioned cash income, the 12 'gunthas' of land also supply the three families with nearly all their food requirements throughout the year.
The farm was born in 1998 out of the vision of veteran activist couple Balakrishna and Sharada Renake - in their sixties - who were looking for ways to make small land-holdings sustainable to help nomadic tribes - who either don't own any land or very small holdings - settle down. "After working for the rights of nomadic tribes for 30 years, we realised that the only way their children can access education and better prospects is by settling down," says Sharada. "We also decided to recruit the women for the farming work, because among nomadic tribes, where there is land, women have traditionally looked after the farming."
The couple acquired 25 acres of highly degraded land in this water-starved district under their organisation, Timirbhed. Sharada started the work of building sustainable 12-'guntha' models with the help of the first three settlers, Lata Gaikwad, Vaishali Mali and Lakshmi More.
"Initially, I could not believe that I could make any kind of living in such conditions," says Lata, the first tenant farmer on the land. "The soil had all been scrapped up by brick kiln owners, leaving just bare 'murum' (thick gravel). And there was hardly any water to farm the land."
Eight years down the line, Lata, a divorcee in her mid-40's, is thinking of sending her daughter to college, and is convinced that very small quantities of land, water, inputs and labour can yield high returns, provided the farming is handled right.
According to Lata, the crop pattern is based on two principles - small is beautiful, and variety is of the essence. Each of the women cultivates grain, pulses and legumes, a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, spices, onion, rhizomes such as ginger and turmeric, and even medicinal herbs, animal fodder, trees yielding firewood, and flowers. No crop is grown on more than one 'guntha' of land, and crop rotation and inter-cropping are a must.
To ensure maximum yield, dry mulching and green composting is done frequently to keep the soil rich. Vermicompost and cow dung are added in rich quantities. "The layer of soil that you see on this land," says Lakshmi, who is in her 30s, "is something we have created, and we keep adding to it every few months."
This practice gives rich results in terms of yield. The yields of the two main crops on the farm - turmeric and ginger - are between two to two-and-a-half kilograms per square foot and the average income per 'guntha' is Rs 14,000. Even in case of cereal staples - 'jowar' and wheat - the yield is a whopping 80 to 90 kilograms for one 'guntha'. "The grain from two 'gunthas' is sufficient to sustain a family of five for six to eight months," says Lakshmi, who has three children, "The rest of the grain we buy from the sale of vegetables and fruits."
The three families are also self-sufficient in pulses - 'moong', 'urad', 'tur' and 'chana', as well as in onion, garlic, and spices such as mustard, chilly, fennel and aniseed. A variety of vegetables are also grown on the farms all year round, out of which about 50 per cent is consumed by the household and the rest is sold. "We do not need to buy any vegetables except for potatoes," says Lata, "In the city, we could never afford to have vegetables, but now we have sufficient vegetables at every meal." The women also grow around 10 varieties of fruit, of which there is enough left to eat after sales worth Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 per year.
There are other techniques to maximise yield. The fences on this farm are made of Ghaipat, a hard, thorny grass that can also be sold to rope-makers; bamboo; and Gillishidi, a fast-growing, abundantly leafy tree that yields fodder, fast-degrading biomass, and firewood. Where no fences are required, wooden frames are erected along the narrow footpaths between plots on which vines yielding medicines and vegetables are grown. Each of the women is maintaining one cow on the farm byproducts, and it is possible to also maintain four goats each on the green fodder they grow, they say.
The three mini-farms have never suffered any serious setback. The reason, explains Sharada, is the refusal to have a bumper crop of anything. "A small plot of land is easier to care for and protect from weather fluctuations. A variety of small crops coming at different times of the year ensure a year-round income, instead of just the once-a-year bumper thing that may very well turn into a disaster if the market turns hostile."
The concept of small crops round the year also cuts down on labour cost. On this farm, the three women perform all their cultivation activities, including sowing and harvesting, themselves, with help from each other and occasionally, from their families. "A family can eke out a decent livelihood and educate its children if the woman cultivates the land and her husband has a job," says Sharda, "This was our basic vision when we started this farm."
The Renakes plan to take the experiment further by helping more such families to settle down on this land. Sharada says, "Leaving out land for common resources, the remaining land can sustain around 25 - 30 families. If we can make this a success with those other families, this experiment can serve as a valuable model for settlement of nomadic tribes as well as an effective argument against the corporate argument that small farms are unsustainable."