Fellow Since 1998
This profile was prepared when Vijay Uttarwar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998.
Having restored the fertility of his own land through natural farming, Vijay Uttarwar is now successfully spreading his alternative method nationally.
The New Idea
Deeply frustrated with the lack of solutions to the financial and environmental crisis being faced by farmers in India, Vijay Uttarwar tackled the problem as a practicing farmer on his own 125-acre farm. Convinced of the importance of conserving and restoring soil ecology, Vijay worked, through trial and error, to re-build the fertility of his land. The resulting method for achieving environmental and ecological compatibility is based on the insight that factors now widely considered to be anti-agriculture (weeds, insects, lack of cultivation, etc.) are in fact energy conserving and naturally-regenerating forces that are necessary to improve and retain soil fertility. He presents a distinctly alternative approach in agriculture and crop management. For example, Vijay does not believe that there are any real "pests" in crop management, only "companions." He abhors the use of pesticides to control insects and prefers finding "companions" to solve the problem. The management of crop destroying insects, therefore, is not based on mechanical or chemical activity or the use of organic pesticide/insecticide, but rather the belief that each "pest" can be linked to a companion. Instead of destroying the crop, the insect actually saves it by multiple cropping, mixed cropping and relay cropping. The process of identifying the companion to a potential pest is one of trial and error and often is based on traditional wisdom and understanding of what kind of plant attracts a certain "pest" species and which of the species can effectively balance the other. For example, some vegetables have a problem with grasshoppers and cotton plants have a potential problem with bolworms. When cotton is grown along with the vegetable plant, the grasshoppers concentrate on eating the eggs of the bolworm and spare the vegetable plant. In addition, a type of moth that is attracted to cotton then controls the grasshopper. Through understanding and proper management of these and other aspects of permaculture and natural farming, Vijay is demonstrating to others that high technology agriculture can be replaced by his scientific "high design" methods without resulting in loss of productivity. Vijay's natural farming program has been spread among hundreds of tribal families covering 1,800 acres of forest and revenue land in Vidharba in South India. He has demonstrated that large numbers of farmers will embrace natural and sustainable farming when specific technical information is combined with use of creative marketing options that link value-added incentives to the business of natural farming. With this pilot experience behind him, Vijay now aims to introduce his approach nationally through a farmer's movement that begins in his own region.
In India, over 60 percent of the population is dependent on agriculture for its livelihood. However, farmers face ever-increasing environmental and financial problems. Production costs for their farming needs, such as power and water have risen while the fertility levels have decreased. Modern scientific agricultural practices have with their marked gains in crop yields, caused growing secondary problems, including severe drainage of the water table and the erosion of over 60 million tons of top soil. Permaculture, or organic and natural farming, is emerging as a viable alternative to petroleum-based agriculture all over the world. It has not been tried yet on a large-scale basis in India. Farmers, who have benefited from the increased yields of modern agriculture are understandably reluctant to go against established practices. There is little information on the long term damage to the environment caused by high tech agriculture. Agribusiness, which relies on these modern methods, is seen as the leading, profitable form of agriculture for a competitive, liberalized economy. It is promoted by the heavy marketing and advertising thrusts of multinational pesticide corporations. It is the implicit frame of reference for agricultural training institutions. And there is virtually no support for alternative, sustainable forms of agriculture.
Vijay is building a mass farmers' movement to convey the urgency of adapting natural farming practices by creating extensive and lasting networks that include farmers groups, watershed development programs, universities, government departments, political leaders and policy makers who advocate for the expanded use of natural farming techniques. His basic methods include providing incentives to farmers and forming a core of committed volunteers. His program responds to the problems of farmers and presents them with natural farming alternatives. Risky overnight changeover options are eschewed in favor of options that provide for a gradual changeover, offering consistency and continuity in yield and productivity and profit levels.Vijay acts as a bridge between the practicing farmer and the scientific community. When dealing with the farmer, who has an imminent crop survival problem, he uses the expertise of his "intelligence bank" at the Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use, like-minded agronomists, engineers, botanist, and entomologists to gather analysis and technically suitable solutions. Analyses obtained are matched with a particular farming problem and added to the set of options that a farmer can use. Because he is seeking to spread the concept of natural farming as a logical and holistic alternative, Vijay also deals with some of the larger related issues. For example, while he is working on teaching people about soil ecology and rebuilding soil fertility, he also interweaves messages about energy and resource conservation, self-sustainability, and the viability of natural farming practices. He works with over 250 farmers with over 800 acres of land in a tribal watershed program that provides conservation, reforestation, and economic livelihood options with the long-term goal of achieving acceptance and practice of non irrigation cultivation. He is convincing farmers to rebuild broken and faulty drainage systems. He is also working with research stations and agricultural universities to include these teachings in the curriculum provided to agricultural graduates.Recognizing that immediate economic returns from high tech agriculture have been a major impediment in earlier experiments in natural farming, Vijay has demonstrated a shrewd business strategy that links premium markets to natural and bio farm products. The initial success in increasing the income of 137 cotton growers by 35 percent with the adoption of bio cotton cultivation occurred at a time when the growers were facing a 70 percent decline in productivity levels over a five-year-period.Vijay uses a variety of communication platforms and methods including training workshops, farmers' conferences, brainstorming sessions, regular meetings, network newsletters and media outreach. These efforts have led to his collaboration with various groups of farmers, scientists, academicians, bureaucrats, politicians, and volunteer organizations in building a network that provides support systems and lobbying efforts to press for natural farming, while constantly upgrading and re-evaluating the intermediate, immediate and long-term solutions for the farmers.
As an agricultural school graduate, Vijay was convinced that the initial success he experienced using modern methods he learned at school would be temporary, unsustainable, and harmful to his land. Inspired by the principles and practices of natural farming, he used his family's land to search for an alternative and, within four years, had demonstrated the viability of creating soil fertility and restoring soil ecology. His brother now handles the farm's operations while he works on his mission of spreading natural agriculture.