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ON a quiet morning in the mountains, the lowing of cattle fills the air. It is in harmony with the other sounds of Nature. The "moo" is essential, for all is well in this part of the world.
On a few coffee estates in the Western Ghats, and some tea estates in the Eastern Himalayas, the cow has become a pivotal element in plantation operations, and symbolises a whole new ethos in organic farming. Bio-dynamic agriculture has been making waves over the past decade in India, with the system slowly, but surely, winning converts as an ethical alternative to conventional farming methods. Its charm lies in the way it resonates with traditional Indian agricultural systems, and yet has strong scientific foundations, acknowledged by a devoted band of practitioners all over the world.
The origins of bio-dynamic agriculture can be traced back to a series of lectures delivered in 1924 by Austrian scientist and philosopher Dr. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), at the initiative of German farmers. In the early years of the 20th Century, Europe was already witnessing a degeneration in grain and other crop produce, and farmers sought to deal with the difficult issues of the production-oriented approach to agriculture that required constant, and ever increasing, chemical inputs to sustain output.
The series of eight lectures, known as "The Agriculture Course", became the basis of a holistic approach that is now recognised as a variant of organic farming, yet, in evolutionary terms, light years ahead. Key to the method is the fusion of the concepts in anthroposophy — Steiner's spiritual doctrine that focuses on the nature of mankind and human development — with agricultural practice, elevating farming from the material level, and giving it a mystical dimension. Steiner had acknowledged his influences from the Vedas, had studied Indian scriptures, and had written a treatise on the Bhagavad Gita. Indeed, many of the essential principles of bio-dynamic agriculture mesh seamlessly with Vedic agricultural practices: our farmers respond instinctively to the concept of the "planting calendar"; following the almanac, and knowledge of planetary and cosmic rhythms and their influence on plants is used to plan agricultural activities. And of course, there's the cow, integral to the farm and revered as such.
An ideal bio-dynamic farm is a self-sufficient unit, a closed ecosystem that produces its own compost, seeds and livestock. It operates within the larger context of the local community and the rhythms and relationship of nature and the cosmos.
When Sanjay Bansal's family took over the 966-hectare Ambootia tea estate in Darjeeling in the 1980s, the soil was found to be exhausted, and yields were alarmingly low. In 1994, with the assistance of Tadeu Caldas, a bio-dynamic consultant from the U.K., the estate was revitalised. Today, Ambootia, with a history of tea cultivation since 1861, is a signature label found in many exclusive stores all over the world, and has become a case study in organic farming circles. A Greenpeace publication, The Real Green Revolution — Organic and Agro-ecological farming in the South, by Nicholas Parrot and Terry Marsden of Cardiff University, features Ambootia — a testimony to its achievements. Marketed with panache, Ambootia teas are patronised by celebrities and by royalty.
Steiner called soil an organ of the agricultural body. Maintaining soil fertility and vitality requires compost, made from farmyard manure and plant material, as fertilizer. The ideal approach is to produce the compost on site, which is why the estate at Seethargundu in the Nelliyampathy area in Kerala, now with the family of Thomas Jacob, and a unit of the Poabs Group, chose to go in for fully integrated systems to support bio-dynamic agriculture. This 500-hectare estate grows tea and coffee, with inter-crops of pepper and cardamom. Poabs took to bio-dynamic agriculture from 2000; now into the third year, the estate is a veritable demonstration farm for bio-dynamic processes.
First opened in 1889, the Seethargundu estate went through several bad patches. Before the Jacob family acquired it in 1989, it had even been lying abandoned for 16 years. "We now consider Poabs as a model project," says Dr. A. Thimmaiah, of the New Delhi-based Natura Agrotechnologies, the bio-dynamic consultants who have supervised the processes. Adds Thomas Jacob, "We have seen a significant drop in the incidence of pest and disease attacks ever since we converted our farm to bio-dyanmic processes."
At Nandanvan Estate, in the Palani Hills near Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, small is beautiful. Here the farm concept is that of boutique — on an area of 28 acres, coffee is planted at an elevation of 4,500 feet along a steep hillside, picked, processed, roasted, ground and packed — entirely on-farm. A unit of the Mumbai-based Marson Holdings, Nandanvan is in the able hands of resident manager David Hogg, a walking-talking bio-dynamic expert. Contrary to apprehensions of a drop in yields when switching over to organic farming, Hogg claims instead a significant increase since 1997 when the farm went organic. Limited edition Nandanvan organic coffees have no trouble finding buyers — be they in Norway or Chennai, where up-scale coffee bars serve this high-grown arabica coffee, or at supermarkets in southern India.
In India there are about seven tea estates and five coffee estates that adhere to the prescribed on-farm processes and are: certified biodynamic", although some of the preparations are used in varying degrees on organic farms across India. As all bio-dynamic farms may not be able to develop the preparations on-site, Kurinji Organic Foods Pvt. Ltd., commercially prepares them. It is also located in the hills near Kodaikanal, and markets the formulations under the "Purple Hills" label. Spread over 600 hectares, Kurinji maintains fruit and herbal gardens alongside the facilities for the range of bio-dynamic preparations, ensuring a steady supply of organic farms in India and abroad.
"The trend now all over the world is for organic agriculture because people are increasingly aware of the impact of chemicals on soil, water and air, and of course, our food. The role of bio-dynamic preparations is to act as a catalyst to improve the soil. In a nutshell, the bio-dynamic management system actually makes organic farming work. In India, these processes work very well because of the warmth of Indian soils, with results and improvement in soil structure and plant growth seen in four to five months, as compared to temperate zones where the change takes somewhat longer due to the climate," says Peter Proctor, and internationally known bio-dynamic expert from New Zealand, who has worked on several projects across India over the past decade. Significantly, bio-dynamic agriculture has marked a fresh trajectory at every estate where these techniques have been adopted, much like reincarnation. The effects are visible in the richer soil and vegetation, increased bird-life and the better health of farm-workers: arguably, bio-dynamic estates epitomise sustainable agriculture in the most pristine form. Bio-dynamic agriculture is yielding some of the most distinctive single origin specialty coffees and teas from India — a unique cup, a unique story.
APARNA DATTA Aparna Datta is a consultant and writer based in Bangalore.
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