Concepts and Experience in Sustainable Agriculture

The same philosophy of holism guides the approach of VK-NARDEP to sustainable agriculture also. Its approach is not piece-meal approach but a united approach to the problems of the farm as a whole and is particularly specific to the small farmers who are today facing the brunt of increasingly cost-intensive and energy-intensive ‘modern’ agriculture.

In sustainable agriculture, VK-NARDEP uses a five fold approach in developing the suitable technologies for the farmers. This consists of:

  • Effective harvesting of sunlight
  • Efficient Water Utilization
  • Integrated Nutrient management
  • Integrated Pest management
  • Promoting Biodiversity in and around the field

In tune with the above five principles, the following are the technologies VK-NARDEP has developed and propagated to the farming communities:

  1. Vermi compost
  2. Backyard Azolla cultivation as bio-feed and bio-fertilizer
  3. Biogas slurry based manure
  4. Multi-tier cropping system
  5. Pheromone and Light trap systems for pest management

Each of these technologies have been taken up by farming communities and round the year training camps have ensured that always NGOs and farmers’ associations, Cooperatives of marginal dairy farmers have received the technology training.

Backyard Azolla cultivation in particular needs special mention. In 1999 VK-NARDEP discovered the potential of Azolla as bio-feed and soon it developed a backyard Azolla cultivation technology package specially designed for small and marginal farmers.

In 2000, VK-NARDEP conducted the first workshop on Azolla bio-feed for the officials of MILMA Kerala sponsored by NDDB. The same year nutrient content of Azolla was published after a detailed study.  In 2001, we conducted Training programmes for NGO’s milk Co- operatives of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In Kerala, we trained many NGOs. The government of Kerala with the help of VK-NARDEP provided block-level training in the technology. The table below provides the list of NGOs and extent of technology dissemination done by VK-NARDEP.

1. Backyard Azolla cultivation technology propagated by us has indeed stirred a white revolution for the marginal dairy farmers of Kerala and has reached more than 50,000 farmers. Now the technology has spread to other states as well.

2. Equally important is the work on Biogas Slurry based Manure (BgM). This  technology package developed by VK-NARDEP is based on the philosophy of famous Gandhian economist J.C. Kumarappa, who was the first person to proclaim the importance of spent biogas slurry as nutrient rich organic manure. In order to disseminate biogas technology as a way of life of the farmer, VK-NARDEP has evolved a package that uses effectively the biogas slurry and develops many cost-effective backyard technologies for agricultural inputs.

3. In the village of Puliangudi, Tirunelveli district, where VK-NARDEP has installed biogas plants, the slurry usage for manure has made farmers give up chemical fertilizers and take up organic farming. Voluntarily biogas users of the farming community have formed the organic farmers club and are now providing the ‘do-how’ of organic farming techniques to neighbouring villages.

4. VK-NARDEP is also studying the use of bio-fuel from non-edible oil seeds. Already a 1 cu.m biogas plant is being trial run on Neem cake and a generator is being run on neem oil.

5. Low volume biogas plant innovation by VK-NARDEP has made it possible for even marginal dairy farmers to have biogas plant constructed.

Awareness & Training

VK-nardep regularly conducts awareness programmes about Bio-Methanation plant - Shakthi Surabhi. These awareness camps help lay public and interested people to get awareness about these technology. The awareness camps are also organized in villages and community halls. Apart from that one day training camps are also conducted in which interested people are given an in-depth study of Shakthi Surabhi technology and also hands-on-training. We also conduct meeting for users of the technology. In these regular meets users share their experiences from which methods for optimum use of technology as well as improvement of designs are evolved.

Awareness & Training 1
Awareness & Training 1
Awareness & Training 2
Awareness & Training 2

Biofarm Village : Concept & Implementation

"The celestials, human beings and demons, went to their Source. They sought the means to happiness. The Source through thunder spoke to them the syllable DA. 'Did you understand?' 'We understood,' the celestials said. 'You told us, "Be self-controlled (damyata)" 'Aum,' the Source said. 'You understood."

One of the important points of difference between sustainable agriculture and chemicalised agriculture is that while the former is biomass based the latter is yield based. The dominant thinking for almost the last five decades, has concentrated on the reductionist target of yield and this in turn has resulted in agriculture becoming more and more single crop oriented. Monoculture of the mind bred monoculture in agriculture. This in turn has made the agricultural fields highly vulnerable to external factors—from invigorated pest attacks to market forces violently unstable and unpredictable.

So what is the alternative?

System approach to a problem states that more the number of diverse elements in a system and more varied their interactions are, more stable the system will be. In the case of a farmer more diverse his field and more number of dynamic interactions between his farm elements, freer he will be from the vagaries of external factors. That is the theory. But can the theory work at the ground level?

Natural Resources Development Project of Vivekananda Kendra (VK-NARDEP) tried system’s approach to sustainable agriculture at a village in Kanyakumari district. The system principles did work successfully – though changing the mindset and the change itself are not as easy as it seems in theory.

Kozhikodupothai—a village in Kanyakumari district has been a silent epicentre of a change—a slow and steady and often not painless, transition from highly chemicalised rose cultivation to sustainable organic food crops and vegetable cultivation. Lure of one of South India’s largest flower market made the farmers of the village shift from paddy cultivation to chemicalised rose cultivation. Even as they discovered over the years that there is a decreasing return over increasing inputs they found themselves in a vicious cycle.

The basic philosophy of the system’s approach is that as we increase the farm level and homestead level diversity of subsystems (livestock units, poultry units, biogas, vermi compost etc) [web of life]

and link them intelligently in tune with the local ecological and economical context of the farmer, the external dependency of the farmer will reduce progressively over the years and his food security will increase. At the next level this shall empower the farming community to use and take care of the local common resources through coordinated people’s efforts. All it takes shall be patience, perseverance and suitable technologies which are eco-friendly, locally relevant and which are not capital and energy intensive.

Introducing backyard Azolla beds and poultry units goes hand in hand. Livestock is linked with biogas plants. Biogas slurry goes to Azolla bed and Vermi compost [Azolla in Field]

Azolla in Field

units, which in turn give their output to the livestock and the farm respectively. Azolla spilled into homestead vegetable garden and local physicians identified traditional herbs and herbal home gardens were established cutting down household medical expenses. This highly reduces the fertilizer cost of the farmer. The village which was once low on egg consumption is today not only self-sufficient but produces surplus eggs which are sold in the market. These changes essentially involved linking various subsystem of the farm. Each could have been highly unstable and hence short-lived in itself. But the interlinking of the subsystem through nodal points of alternative technological interventions helped stabilise the system. Thus Vivekananda Kendra ensured an expanding web of relations between the subsystems of a typical farm house. If all goes well then the web expands.

"The Source spoke to them the syllable DA. 'Did you understand?' 'We understood,' the humans said, 'You told us, "Share (datta)' “Aum”' the Source said, 'You understood.'"

The household level integration led the way to increased social interaction. Weekly meeting of the farmers engaged in sustainable agriculture was organised to discuss the problems, challenges, solutions and experiences of the farmers. The weekly meetings transformed into farmers’ association which in turn linked with NABARD. A common tools and services centre was created by the farmers’ association. One of the key features of weekly meetings is the high number of women participation. They underwent training in the preparation of herbal medicines from home herbal gardens and also livestock and local plant extracts based bio-liquid formulations like Panchgavga and tri-leaf extracts etc. These were essentially revival of local knowledge systems by VK-NARDEP with expert guidance. Women found that these skills and knowledge help them to participate in agriculture in a more empowered manner than just offering passive labour assistance to their menfolk.

With increased quantum of organic inputs soil organisms visibly increased in the fields. Soil analysis and tests also confirmed soil becoming healthier in terms of such vital parameters ranging from soil macro fauna to organic carbon content of the soil.

The bio-liquid formulations based on the cow popula [Liquid Fertilizer]

Liquid Fertilizer

tion were prepared by individual women and soon collective preparation was taken up by groups. VK-NARDEP provided labeled bottles and quality checking. The common service centre was upgraded into a agro-eco shop. Seminars on sustainable agricultural technologies are today being held at neighbouring villages.

Techniques like SRI and innovative steps like Ipomea compost (made from a biomass rich yet notorious water weed) are being practised by farmers who today experiment with such innovations and share their experience with the other farmers at the association meet.

"The Source spoke to them the syllable DA. 'Did you understand?' 'We understood,' the demons said, 'You told us, Be compassionate (dayadhvam), “Aum”' the Source said 'You understood.'"

VK-NARDEP witnessed the effect of SRI in Kozhikottupothai. The need to have skilled labour cost and also the high labour cost were the deterrents initially. However one farmer who was also a retired agricultural officer came forward to experiment SRI in his plot. Already for the last two years he and a group of 19 farmers have been practising various integrated organic techniques. This time (2006-2007) SRI was also added to the basket of interventions made. Clearly for the farmers the SRI provided a major saving on water usage. With also substantial increase in yield the practice has created a cascading effect on other farmers on the village and today many farmers are taking up SRI cultivation in the region resulting in very high saving on water – in rice cultivation.





Percentage decrease in water usage in paddy field




Percentage N




Available K




Soil macro-fauna




Once known only for high debt rate of its farmers and quarries in neighbouring hills, today the village stands transformed into a vibrant example of sustainable agriculture and social infrastructure building and connectivity. Thus at this hill locked village that immortal statement ‘Expansion is life’ stands vindicated– from soil biodiversity to social infrastructure.

Embedded in these eco-technological interventions is a philosophy as old as the Upanishads. The consumerist elite, the toiling farmers aiming at profit and the vested interests which the profit mongering created, all these three pursue an elusive happiness based on a reductionist idea of pleasure which in agricultural realm became an excessive fixation with yield alone. For this they destroy the web of life with chemical agriculture and poison the soil and food. Seldom they realise the wisdom that ‘what they do to the web of life they do to themselves.’ Ultimately they poison their own food chain. They go for cash crops and make themselves vulnerable to the push and pull of market forces that are not in their own control. But all that still impoverishes them and lands them in a vicious cycle.

On the other hand when they started practising sustainable agriculture, their farming became more kind and compassionate towards other animals. They shared their fields with all life forms. Insects and micro-organisms harmoniously shared the field with not just the crops but also other life forms including birds and snakes. A wonderful dynamic harmony of nature sets in the field and their own food security and self-reliance increased. And they changed their life style from aping the consumerist urban and western lifestyles to a life of conservation.


Sustainable Agriculture Technologies

Discovering the past and inventing the future of sustainable agriculture

One of the important achievements of VK-NARDEP in the field of sustainable agriculture is the realization of inter-connectivity between the different sub-systems in agro-eco system through effective cost-effective eco-technology. Thus backyard Azolla cultivation in silpauline sheet is a technology that VK-NARDEP has disseminated among lakhs of marginal dairy farmers. Apart from being an effective bio-feed that reduces feed expenditure and increases quality and quantity of milk yield, Azolla is also used as nitrogen fixing bio-fetilizer in paddy fields. Azolla also functions as weed suppressant. VK-NARDEP conducts training on Azolla-backyard cultivation technology for marginal and small farmers every month at Kanyakumari. Azolla cultuivation is also linked with two tier vermicompost. In this method Azolla bed becomes protection for earthworms from sunshine and predatory birds. Farming communities have also fed Azolla to earthworm in vermicompost pits. VK-NARDEP has also revived and standardized many traditional liquid bio-fertililzers, bio-pesticides and organic growth promoters.

This include

  • Azolla
  • Living water
  • Plant Extracts
  • Fish Amino and
  • Vermi wash

VK-NARDEP has also produced extension literature for the promotion of these bio-products in the rural areas. These pamphlets are produced in Tamil with good illustrations.VK-NARDEP also promotes field bio-diversity by encouraging inter-cropping and mixed cropping.It also revives the cultivation of traditional local rice varities which are often lost due to germplasm erosion as a result of HYV


Azolla backyard cultivation technology is a cost-effective sustainable technology that provides nutrients rich broad-spectrum feed for livestock, cattle and poultry. It also helps farmers to increase soil based nitrogen of their farms and suppress the weed. Vivekananda Kendra - nardep has been working in popularizing this wonderful technology innovated by Dr.Kamalasannan Pillai throughout the nation among livestock farmers.

Azolla 1
Azolla 2

Living water

Living water is a technology that increases the effective microbial population of the soil. Once ‘Living Water’ is applied within a week the soil can be teeming with effective micro-organisms. ‘Living Water’ can be ideally used for improving the soil which has been dead or degraded. When soil is lifeless and has lost all its beneficial micro-organisms, this technology helps us to re-establish effective micro-organisms. So ‘Living Water’ can be a good start for soil reclamation for sustainable agriculture. ‘Living Water’ can change both the electrical conductivity and pH in a way conducive for the crops. Apart from being a soil enricher, this formulation also helps in the active growth of the roots and hence helps in the overall health of the crops.

Plant Extracts

Plant extracts as pest repellents is a very effective method of pest control. The general principle of preparing such extracts is simple. Insect pests of paddy do not attack other plants. These wild plants have developed bio-chemicals arsenals in the long drawn evolutionary interactions against the insect pests. Hence any plant extract that is made from a plant that is locally available and which is found least attractive to pests can be used as a pest repellent in the crop.

General instruction for the optimal use of any plant extract:

  1. Usually the plant leaf extracts should be filtered with cotton cloth and 4 gram Khadhi soap' per litre of solution should be added for proper dispersion and then sprayed.
  2. If the plant extracts are sprayed just sometime before dawn and sometime after dusk, one can expect good results.
  3. Always the farmer should have an idea of the economic threshold level of insects in his field so as to calibrate the dosage against this level.
A combination of agronomic, mechanical and biological package rich from sowing can save the crop from incidence of pest. Proper pest surveillance and timely control measures can repel the pest and save the crop.
Plant Extracts
Plant Extracts

The main reason that these methods can gain popularity among farmers is that the items necessary for making them are easily available, not much investment is required to prepare them and lastly they have been found effective.

Fish Amino

Crops need more than 20 mineral nutrients, some like N.P.K, are required in large quantities the macro nutrients and others the micro nutrients which are required in very small quantities.  Like animals plants also needs a varieties of amino acids which cannot be synthesised or may not be synthesised in sufficient quantity in plants. This is also the case of amines, organic ring compounds and vitamines etc., which are very vital for better vegetative growth better flowering and productivity. These compounds which are required in very small quantities often become the limiting factor for the growth and the productivity of important crops. Many of these compounds which are available in the nature can influence the plant growth positively and increase the productivity substantially.  One such formulation that contains rare essential amino acids, chelated calcium, prosperous, and a variety of other nutrients is the Fish Amino. This formulation is suitable both as foliar spray and also for basal application.

Fish Amino 1
Fish Amino 2

Vermi wash

Vermiwash is a liquid that is collected after the passage of water through a column of worm action and is very useful as a foliar spray. It is a collection of excretory products and mucus secretion of earthworms along with micronutrients from the soil organic molecules. These are transported to the leaf, shoots and other parts of the plants in the natural ecosystem. Vermiwash, if collected properly, is a clear and transparent, pale yellow coloured fluid.

The basic principle of Vermi wash preparation is simple. Worm worked soils have burrows formed by the earthworms. Bacteria richly inhabit these burrows, also called as the drilospheres. Water passing through these passages washes the nutrients from these burrows to the roots to be absorbed by the plants. This principle is applied in the preparation of vermiwash. Vermiwash can be produced by allowing water to percolate through the tunnels made by the earthworms on the coconut leaf - cow dung substrate kept in a plastic barrel. Water is allowed to fall drop by drop from a pot hung above the barrel into the vermicomposting system. But barrels are not a must for Vermi wash preparation. Vermiwash units can be set up either in barrels or in buckets or even in small earthen pots.

Vermi wash
Vermi wash