For a region that depends on farming, Bundelkhand has some of the most erratic weather patterns in the country. Prem Singh decided to solve some of the problems, and donned a lab coat for a few years. Today, he spreads his learning through the Kisan Vidyapeeth or Farmer’s School.
Kisan at the blackboard
In Bundelkhand, a school run by a farmer helps his peers reap success and joy from their work
on the land
For over a decade, Prem Singh was more scientist than farmer. It wasn’t easy battling nature in what is one of India’s most challenging regions for farming. But he persisted, and is today one of the more successful farmers in Bundelkhand. Now he has set up the Kisan Vidyapeeth, or farmers’ school, so that others too can reap success and joy from their work on the land and more youngsters are drawn to farming.
Barely a few months old, the school is located at Singh’s farmhouse in Badokhar Khurd, about six km from Banda town in Uttar Pradesh. A philosophy graduate, Singh joined his family’s farming profession in 1987 only to realise that the output fell way short of the input in that region.
“I dabbled in different things and suffered losses for three years. My grandfather thought I was going to ruin the family tradition,” he says with a smile, as he settles down comfortably on a charpoy (string cot), with a cup of chai in hand. “I realised that natural resources were running dry due to bad farming practices. Around 40 years ago, we used to have three crops a year in the Bundelkhand region, while today we just about manage one. We were giving up our traditional practices, and the water problem we face today is a direct consequence of that,” he says.
The past decade has seen Bundelkhand grapple with droughts in the summer, delayed monsoons followed by inadequate rainfall and, to make things worse, unseasonal rain and hailstorm in the winter, which affected the rabi crop.
Singh advocates the aavartansheel kheti, or periodic proportionate farming, based on the principles of the periodic ratio-based economics conceptualised by the late A Nagraj, a resident of Amarkantak in Madhya Pradesh. It essentially involves using a cyclic agricultural process, one that maintains nature’s equilibrium.
The main features of this method are: Allocating one-third of the landholding for a forest or a garden, which will not only provide produce at a fraction of cost and labour, but will also generate dry wood for fuel and act as a catalyst for rainfall; cow breeding — the dung and urine will supplant artificial fertilisers in the farm; a part of the land must be set aside as grazing ground for the cows; over the years, the land used to grow crops must be rotated with that used for grazing, to help maintain soil fertility; and, lastly, the use of local seeds must be encouraged. The idea is to customise farm practices to suit local conditions.
“Machinery and artificial fertilisers and seeds eat up almost 60 per cent of the profits. Additionally, they harm the soil. We must stick to the basics. The cow, which was once integral to farming, has lost its importance due to a scarcity of grazing grounds. A lot of people are quitting farming for these reasons,” Singh says. He hopes to use his school to share whatever he’s learnt over the years and enthuse other people to return to farming.
So far, around 300 people have visited the Humane Agrarian Centre — a classroom-cum-farmers’ museum at the school, which explains the philosophy and practical aspects of farming. Singh insists that the focus is on learning, rather than teaching.
Most of the school’s visitors are farmers from the surrounding regions, but there is also a large number of youngsters — either students of agriculture or those hoping to take up farming in the future. Finding the classroom teaching outdated elsewhere, they head to Singh’s farm to gain practical insights about various techniques.
“We want to see if natural farming can be viable in the long run, especially if we blend traditional techniques with modern tools. Visiting the school helps us understand some of the things we read in books,” says Vivek Singh, a student of the Banda Agriculture University. The two-year course at Kisan Vidyapeeth will include theoretical and practical sessions. For a whole year, students will practise their classroom learning on a farm under the guidance of a farmer.
During the second year, they will work on individual projects in addition to taking part in a group project to analyse the costs involved in setting up a virtual farm using aavartansheel kheti. The next step for Singh is an online curriculum to make the course freely available to farmers anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, the first batch at his school started classes in the first week of May.
Singh and Johan D’Hulster, a Belgian farmer from Schriek and the founder-director of the biodynamic farm Akelei, will be available to chat online at designated times to take questions from students.
Singh is aware that apart from lessons, what farmers need during the crucial fledgling years is a financial support system.
“We need to start off with making farming sustainable, instead of chasing big profits and competition… we need a shift in thinking. I hope this school can make a difference in the future,” he says.