Biodynamic agripreneurs

A new organic farming approach that helps revive soil health is spreading across Nepal

Biodynamic compost made from cattle dung but adds the horns of dead livestock to enrich nutrients in the fertiliser. Photos: SUDARSHAN CHAUDHARY

Across Nepal, the organic matter content of the soil is falling due to erratic weather, poor farming practices and overuse of agro-chemicals. Ideally, a farm should have 5% organic content in the soil, but in most places it has fallen to less than 2%.

Spiral Farm House near the small town of Mahuli in Saptari district in the eastern Tarai is out to reverse this trend, and has become a learning centre to revive soil fertility and improve yields.

“I started this farm ten years ago for sustainable farming and conservation of soil and microorganisms,” explains Sudarshan Chaudhary of Spiral Farm House (pictured, right). “We make eight different types of biodynamic composts which not only help revive the soil but also give us wholesome food that helps maintain good health.”

Chaudhary says that intensive cropping, continuous application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, mechanised farming, among others have led to soil degradation in Nepal.

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But the composts at Spiral Farm House have been doing wonders for the farm, and Chaudhary says the nutrients in the soil are replenished organically with the compost, providing better harvests and yield.

Chaudhary not only makes manure and compost from cow dung, cattle horn, bone, silica, straw, twigs, dried leaves, and plants, but also makes liquid fertiliser and biopesticide from medicinal plants and locally available materials.

Biodynamic farming is a fancy name for going back to the basics of traditional farming. It emphasises the use of locally available raw material, particularly compost made from animal dung, herbs, and other raw materials, with the goal of achieving soil self-sustainability. The necessity to add extra sources of nutrients, such as cow dung, bones and straw is due to soil fertility in Nepal’s farms being sub-optimal.

Due to its reliance on organic inputs for soil fertility, biodynamic farming needs a holistic approach that incorporates crop rotation, crop-livestock integration, and seasonal farming cycles.

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In Chaudhary’s farm, cow horn manure, used for improving soil biodiversity, is made by burying fresh manure of pasture-fed cows in hollows of horns for six months. Horn silica, which is useful for plants to grow, is made from the sand buried in the horns of cattle. The other six varieties are medicinal plants used to improve the microbial population, which is necessary for soil fertility.

Biodynamic farming increases crop productivity and nutritional quality while also improving soil carbon sequestration by making these soil-enriching sources available. Microbes play a major role in carbon storage in the soil.

Encouraged by successful yields produced using biodynamic techniques, Chaudhary has also turned to mentoring and motivating the next generation of farmers in Saptari and surrounding districts.

“I teach youth why biodynamic farming is important and why we should adopt it for sustainability,” says Chaudhary, who learned the basics of biodynamic farming during a training in 2012. Since then, he has trained more than 200 other farmers from Sunsari, Morang, Saptari, Siraha and Chitwan districts.

Suman Kumari Mirdaha, a 24-year-old business management student, has been helping her parents grow rice, lentils, and vegetables after attending Chaudary’s training session on biodynamic farming and believes organic farming is the answer to the growing concerns, given the climate crisis.

Sukhi Lal Chaudhary and Lalit Chaudhary, both in their 50s from Saptari district, have also learned biodynamic farming from the Spiral Farm. Sukhi Lal has been growing biodynamic vegetables which he said fetch a better price than vegetables grown using chemical fertilisers. Lalit’s farm soil quality has improved due to biodynamic techniques.

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Despite this, the need to produce more to earn more is luring most farmers in Agnisair Krishna Sawaran Rural Municipality to increase the dose of chemical fertilisers every year, despite knowing that it is adversely affecting the soil. A 2019 survey showed that 39 of 40 farmers interviewed in the Rural Municipality used chemical fertilisers to boost production.

But Sukhi Lal Chaudhary says there is no need for chemicals and he has been getting regular yields as much as what farmers using chemical fertilisers and pesticides are getting. And he is not the only one. Mahendra Kumar Shrestha from Holy Green Agro Farm says that to create a healthy eco-friendly community, he engages local farmers to switch to organic and biodynamic agriculture, as well as explore ways of achieving a sustainable and humane economy.

Krishna Gurung's Kevin Rohan Memorial Eco Foundation, established in 2008 in Khokana in Kathmandu Valley, has also been  promoting biodynamic farming methods.

Currently, some 5,500 farmers are practicing biodynamic farming and more than 5,000 farms covering over 400,000 acres have been certified in 60 countries across the globe.

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According to a Cambridge University Press study, biodynamic farms ‘have better soil quality but lower crop yields and equal or higher net returns per hectare than conventional farming’. The study added that more research is needed to confirm the benefits of soil preparation and how it works.

Biodynamic farming focuses on producing necessary manures, compost, and nutrients on its own as much as possible. However, considerably small farms need to source fodder and additional food resources for animals from outside.

Biodynamic farming principles, developed by Austrian architect and social reformer Rudolf Steiner, incorporate elements of regenerative farming. But for Chaudhary, it is like returning to the farming practices of his forebears before the advent of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Biodynamic farming also includes crop rotation and intercropping which have been practiced by farmers for generations in Nepal’s southern plains. They generally sow flaxseed and lentils in the paddy fields before the paddy starts to ripen. When it is time to harvest paddy, they already have a standing crop of flaxseed and lentils in their fields. After harvesting the flaxseed and lentils, they would prepare the land for wheat cultivation.

“But climate change is resulting in unpredictable rainfall, heavy hailstorm, and random drought period occurring on a frequent basis which is affecting the overall farming and livestock rearing system,” says soil expert Sambat Ranabhat. “Biodynamic farming is a holistic approach through the integration of the different farming sectors. When climate change affects one of the components, then it will affect overall farming.”

In 2022, Sudarshan Chaudhary sold his biodynamic mangoes at Rs100/kg. However, before converting into biodynamic, his mangoes fetched just Rs30-40/kg. For his biodynamic vegetables, he charges Rs5 more than the regular produce being sold in the market.

“People here do not care much for organic and biodynamic products,” lamented Chaudhary. “We are planning to supply our produce to major cities, including Kathmandu where the consumers pay a premium for chemical-free produce.”

The need of the moment is to expand the biodynamic practice in the country and provide the products at reasonable prices, and Nepal’s pioneering ‘agripreneurs’ like Chaudhary, Shrestha and Gurung are at the frontlines of this transformation.

Reporting for this story was supported by Solutions Journalism Network through the 2022 LEDE Fellowship. 

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