TURNING LAND DRY AS DUST INTO PASTURE
"After the rains of the first year, there was only sparse growth of grass. Before the rains of the second year, I had broadcasted 10 kilos of grass seeds. Within a month, the entire land looked like a grass field. The grasses stopped soil erosion during the rains and evaporation and cracking of mud during the summer. Within a span of four years, the topsoil had quadrupled and there was perennial moisture, allowing me to grow all cereals, pulses, vegetables and fruits throughout the year. All those around were amazed to see the luscious Alphonso mangoes, considered as king of mangoes, growing so well on the rocky land."
— Joseph Keve
Changing the impact of climate on the world's most vulnerable
Improving the lives of animals
"I could not have developed my farm without all its integral parts, and I would not have survived even a single night without the safety provided by Ginger, my devoted dog, who would go before me to check out the pathway before I ventured out."
— Joseph Keve
A plan of genius, no stone left unturned:
The Keve Farm
While visiting villages as the CEO of national and international NGOs, I often asked myself: “How can you experience the challenges faced by the poor without being part of their struggles?” That motivated me to step aside and take up the challenge of setting up a biodiverse, organic farm on a desolate piece of land right among the indigenous tribal community.
The experiment helped me to learn by doing and later teach by demonstrating. Attaining self-sufficiency by increasing the sources of income was the greatest challenge. That led me to leave no stones unturned: soil and water conservation, tree plantation, cultivating varieties of paddy, pulses, vegetables, oil seeds, fruits and herbs.
Once the systems were set up, income as well as their sources multiplied. The farm attracted local farmers who were struggling to break even; there was something for everyone to learn and take away. People came from across the region for seeds, saplings, hatching eggs, and herbal medicines. They wanted to learn the techniques for setting up a living fence and setting up a tree-nursery, of soil and water conservation, of making biofertilizers and pest repellants, of pruning, leering and grafting of fruit trees, seed preservation and humane and responsible care for animals and wildlife. They also wanted to learn to plan for their farm, to balance their income and expenditure and to plan for their families. With the dramatic changes in economic improvements brought to hundreds of small villages through the practices my farm taught them, it took me beyond all riches to a life of contentment and peace.
Joseph Keve is the Purpose Group International's director of international programs and arid agriculture. He is a former country direcctor for SwissAid, and former international executive director for the South Asia Partnership International, where he coordinated country offices in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, organized regional training and global research, and liaised with South Asian governments. He has trained over 7,000 farmers in all aspects of agriculture, and has conducted scores of training workshops in all countries of South Asia, including a recent workshop on arid agriculture in Nepal for government officials and local leaders.
The Living Fence
Fodder for cattle, fuel wood for cooking, leaves and tender branches for composting
Within days of buying a piece of land, I realized that without protection from predators and people, I had no chance of creating a farm. I had no money to invest in building a fence even with thorny plants. I and my dog spent numerous nights chasing animals, both wild and domestic. Then emerged my dream of a living fence.
For several months, I collected every type of tree seeds that I could lay my hands on: teak, rosewood, mahogany, several varieties of acacia, eucalyptus, neem, cashews, mangoes, custard apples, wood apples, of timber and fuel wood, of fodder, oil-seeds and medicines, those with thorns, those which grew large and those which remained as small bushes. I even got the children from the village to collect seeds for me in exchange for biscuits. Once I sat in the centre of the local market with a huge basket of ripe custard apples that I had bought, asking the children to eat the fruit and give me the seeds. Before the first rains came, I had 37 kilos of seeds.
I dug around my farm of nearly 3 hectares and laid the seeds along the shallow trenches that I had dug into the earth. Every morning, I took a walk and smiled at the little leaves that were emerging from the wet ground. I had to control my curiosity: the saplings were too feeble and small to be counted. I continued my seed collection and planting into the second and third years, taking extra care to fill in the gaps.
Towards the end of the rains of the third year, I counted my little and little-bigger trees. The tallest were about 3 feet. And there were 4,722 of them! I had to watch and nurture them for another two years. All through the year I would cut and prune to keep them in place. Finally, I had my own Living Fence! Other than the most-needed protection and wind-break, my fence provided fuel wood for cooking, leaves and tender branches for green manure and composting, certain seasonal green-leaf sprouts and flowers for soups and vegetables and certain barks, leaves and seeds for medicine.
Just watching the tall trees swaying in the winds washed away the aches and pains of an exhausting day. Whenever there was pruning and cutting, all the neighbours were happy to get the castaways to build their own fence or for fuel. By the end of the tenth year, if I wanted, I could sell the wood on my fence for a price equal to what I had paid for the land. The idea has caught on very fast and today there are hundreds of farmers in the area who have their living fences around their farms.
Soil and Water Conservation
Within a month, the land looked like a grass field
It did not take long for me to realize that I had bought a piece of land that was fit for blasting for granite than cultivating even paddy. On the best of patches, the soil was less than 6 inches deep, sitting on huge boulder stones with crevices that let little water to sink into the soil. Having marked out every bit of space that I needed for any non-agricultural operations, I dug half-moon-shaped shallow trenches against every bit of the natural slopes along the contours of the land. I could not stop all the water, but I could stop every grain of precious top-soil that came along with the waters.
After the rains of the first year, there was only sparse growth of grass. Before the rains of the second year, I had broadcasted 10 kilos of grass seeds. Within a month, the entire land looked like a grass field. The grasses stopped soil erosion during the rains and evaporation and cracking of mud during the summer. Within a span of four years, the topsoil had quadrupled and there was perennial moisture, allowing me to grow all cereals, pulses, vegetables and fruits throughout the year. All those around were amazed to see the luscious Alphonso mangoes, considered as king of mangoes, growing so well on the rocky land.
Collecting nitrogen from the atmosphere, transporting it to roots
Most farmers in the region spent nearly one-third of their gross income to buy urea, making it almost impossible to break even in agriculture. Urea kills all the beneficial micro-organisms in the soil like the earthworms, leading to the hardening of soil and aids faster evaporation of moisture. In my search for alternatives, I tried out several types of nitrogen-fixing plants. Finally, I came across Sesbania Cannabina, one of the best nitrogen-fixing plants in the world.
Whenever a portion of the land was idle, I would throw in these seeds and after the plants had grown to about 2 feet, plough them into the soil. This plant that can grow up to a height of 12 feet (in favourable circumstances), has a lifespan of six months. Some survive into a second or even a third season. All through its lifespan, it collects nitrogen from the atmosphere, transports it to its roots, and converts it into granules that are filled with natural nitrogen and supplies it to the soil. Gradually I realized that other than its nitrogen-fixing role, the plant can be used as support for several creepers like varieties of beans and gourds. With its fast growth, it is a wonderful shade tree for nurseries and newly planted saplings. Its leaves and even tender stem turn into green manure within days. Its bright yellow flowers attract all types of bees, butterflies and other insects that are critical for pollination in varieties of pulses, vegetables and fruit trees. There is also the larger variety of Sesbania called Sesbania Grandiflora that can survive up to ten years. Its tender leaves, flowers and pods are edible. In Orissa, those on long fasts munch on the protein-rich seeds to avoid fainting from exhaustion.