Monday, May 28, 2018

Rammed earth farm house - Intro

Low foot print living

This year (2017-2018) I started construction of my farm house. Laterite stone blocks, portland cement and reinforced cement concrete (RCC) are popular building materials in this place now. All of them are playing havoc with the environment in different ways.

However, the picture was different few decades back. Traveling in the villages shows us the true picture of how the people built their homes. People were using locally available natural building materials. Buildings older than few decades are either cob or sun dried mud blocks (adobe bricks) with thatched roof or Mangalore tile (clay roofing tile) roof.

I am deeply committed to eco-friendly and sustainable life style. Therefore I wanted to build my home with locally available natural materials. I decided to make it a rammed earth structure. Load bearing rammed earth walls and clay roofing using Mangalore roofing tiles.

As famous Indian mud architect Laurie Baker says, house should go back to the earth after we stop living in them (meaning - after we stop maintaining them). Today's modern and fancy concrete buildings remain on earth for thousands of years after people stop living in them. Nature cannot easily destroy and recycle concrete. Unlike the concrete buildings, soil buildings will go back to earth if people stop maintaining them. Almost all the parts of the building will weather and go into the soil in few decades once the building is abandoned.

One important feature of soil buildings is - they use very little embodied energy and resources when compared to conventional structures (like wood, stone, or concrete). Bulk of the material used for the building (which is soil) is taken from the site or transported from nearby area if the soil in the site is not suitable for construction. Compared to this, a conventional structure fetches building material from distant quarries/forests causing large scale environmental destruction in the process and burns precious fossil fuel for transportation adding to the ecological destruction.

Thanks to my farm helpers, lot of heavy physical work has gone into the building. This is how the building looks now. It is not yet complete. I have lot of work to do. I will explain each part of the building in the coming days in a series of articles.

Rammed earth building under construction.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Monsoon season vegetables

Farmer should be self-sufficient. Food is a very important department of self-sufficiency. We are growing our staple food - paddy. Next in the list are vegetables. These are the vegetable crops we planted so far in this monsoon.

A female pumpkin flower
(a bee is busy pollinating the flower - click to see full size image)

Pumpkin (ಕುಂಬಳ/ಚೀನಿ ಕಾಯಿ) creeper
(a colocasia plant and a coconut
plant are seen in the background) 

Growing pumpkin with a smaller one in the background and buds
Colored cucumber creeper (ಮಗ್ಗೆ/ಮೊಗೆ/ಮಂಗಳೂರು ಸೌತೆ ಕಾಯಿ ) 

Large cucumber creeper (ದೊಡ್ಡ ಸೌತೆ/ಮುಳ್ಳು ಸೌತೆ)

Red pumpkin creeper (ಕೆಂಪು/ಗೋವೆ ಕುಂಬಳ)

Bitter gourd creeper (ಹಾಗಲ)

Flame flower/Purslane/Talinum (ನೆಲಬಸಳೆ)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Paddy cultivation

Last year I had written a detailed post about paddy cultivation. This year also we did almost the same - with one change. Decided to bring some old technologies. Brought in Bangarappa's (our farm neighbour and farm helper) traditional skills and his animals for ploughing the field. It is lot of hard work both for human and the animals. But it is far less destructive compared to machines - they burn so much fossil fuel, throw lot of carbon into the air and also over-till the ground damaging the soil biology.

Last year I had borrowed seeds from Bangarappa. I did completely natural farming - I did not use chemicals and fertilisers of any kind. My crop had got some diseases. Plants resisted diseases and grew well. I got one generation of seeds grown without chemicals. Hopefully this year they will improve further in disease resistance and adaptation to local environment.

I should have treated seeds with biological agents like pseudomonas. My bad - I missed it because of my bad planning. I will for sure do it in the next season. I have to wait for one more year for that though :-(

We sowed seeds on 30-Jun. Saplings were transplanted on 16-Jun. We ran out of saplings though because of a minor mistake. Our saplings were little younger than the usual age transplanting. Transplanting workers did not consider that. They planted usual thickness of plants - ending up planting one or two extra samplings in each group. Because of that we ran out of saplings when one small terrace was still to be planted. Thanks to Bangarappa - he borrowed some saplings from another farmer who had some excess saplings and completed the job.

Will keep you posted about how it goes this year.

Monsoon time

It is the time of the year everybody in India is eagerly looking forward to - monsoon time. Monsoon not only brings lot of water; it also brings lot of interesting things (see below). It is the single biggest event of the year for farmers like me because it makes or breaks the plans for the next whole year. Everything gets delayed if monsoon is delayed. Year is ruined because of lack of water if monsoon is short. Lives and property lost if monsoon is in excess. Therefore, our lives hang in fine balance setup by monsoon!

So far (June-2017) monsoon had been disappointing for South India this year. Government statistics say our district (Shimoga district in Karnataka state) had 40% less rain this year compared to long term average. However, it has started raining well in last few days. Hopefully it will pick up now and cover up the shortage in rest of this monsoon season.

Some pictures of this monsoon:

One day came out of the house and found this beautiful orchid on a tree in front of the house. Such a beautiful creation of nature it is. See the close-up for more details of the compound flower. Pictures are not as good as I wanted them to be - continuous rain and less than satisfactory light conditions because of heavy cloud cover interfered with my efforts of taking better pictures.

Orchid in front of the house

Very wet conditions created by the monsoon bring up lot of hidden life to visibility. See some amazing fungi found in our farm and around house.

Near our home
White fungi on dead coconut tree in the farm
Red fungi on dead coconut tree in the farm
Monsoon brings in its share of misery too. Here is one example of it - a tree fell on a 11,000 V electricity line bringing down the poles and wires to the ground. Luckily nobody was hurt. Electric equipment in the nearby homes were burnt to charcoal when the 11,000 V line touched 230 V domestic supply lines. Building behind the fallen tree is a school. Kids were inside the school when the incident took place. You can imagine what kind of disaster it would have been if this happened when the kids were walking out of school.

Tree fallen on electric line

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Bhoomi Hunnime - day of earth worship

Bhoomi Hunnime is a festival for worshiping mother earth, say sorry for the digging and troubling her all round the year, offer delicacies to her and pray for a good harvest. For western people and people in cities it may look like a meaningless celebration. It is a natural thing and their own extension for people connected with the soil. Mother earth gives birth to us and supports our life in every way. That is why Indian farmers in our villages treat her as mother. This is the time when the crops are about to start flowering and producing grain. Therefore people treat earth as a pregnant lady. They worship her and offer many delicacies to her like we do in case of a pregnant lady. Some of these delicacies are buried in the soil and spread in the soil with the belief that it will satisfy pregnant mother earth's food craving. Even today many Indians don't look at earth as a 50x60 plot or a commodity to sell and buy. Earth is treated with greatest respect as a living being - which it is and it deserves that respect and royal treatment. No wonder, this festival is celebrated in India, the land where every living thing is treated as God. We are not at war with the nature like today's industrial farming, we are one with the nature and treat nature as God.

Mr. Satyanarayana Bhat (foreground) and his wife (background)
This year I got an opportunity to attend some of these celebrations. Some pictures of earth worship are here. See how environment friendly they are - everything is bio-degradable or becomes food for some animal. Even the lamp is made up of coconut shell. This is how we all were few years back. Plastics and chemicals have invaded our lives only in recent years. There is urgent need to reverse the clock and go back few decades. Only then can we live happy and fulfilling life like our ancestors did.

Mr. Kiran (foreground) and his son Tejas (background)

After the worship we ate in the farm and came back. This experience will remain in our memory for a long time.

Environment friendly lamp made from coconut shell

An example of environment conscience our ancestors had. Even the lamp is made from used coconut shell. People use lot of coconut to cook the delicacies for the celebration. One of those shells becomes the lamp :-)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Car shelter

My friend Rajesh recently moved to a village near our farm. Being a village there are not many rented homes available here. Therefore he had to take a small house vacant at the time he moved here. Covered car parking is not available in that house.

It rains around 2000 mm here during monsoon. As per normal rain pattern here it rains heavily between June and August. Car remains wet for approximately 3 months in that time. It is a recipe for rust to invade the metal body of the car! Therefore he needed a car shelter to keep the pouring rain water away from the car and allow it to dry up. It was not wise to spend lot of money for the planned car shelter to be constructed in the rented premises; he will have to leave it there whenever he decides to move out of the rented house.

Minimum cost of conventional car shelter is above 20,000 Rupees. Our search for lowering the cost did not lead to any major cost reduction. Solution was elsewhere - it was there in a plant nursery. I noticed a low cost poly tunnel in a nursery. It is in the form of a tunnel with polythene sheet covering on PVC pipe skeleton. We decided to replicate that poly tunnel and use it as car shelter.

Poly tunnel skeleton - notice bent PVC pipes.
A car and a scooter are parked inside for testing.
My friend's poly house car shelter consists of 20 ft. long PVC pipes bent in semi-circular or parabolic shape. Two ends of the pipe are buried in the ground to a depth of 1 ft. and secured there using cement concrete. We used 6 such bent pipes at 3 ft. distance making the total length of poly tunnel 15 ft. We ensured width of the tunnel is enough (around 11 ft.) to comfortably open the car door when the car is inside the shelter so that the driver can get in/out of the car when the car is in the shelter.

Completed poly tunnel car shelter
Heavy wind can cause strong lifting force on the pipes buried in the cement concrete footings poured into the pits dug in the soil. Smooth PVC pipe secured using cement concrete can pull out of the concrete holding it to the ground. To be on the safer side we decided to glue PVC T joints at the end of the pipes buried in cement concrete to make it difficult for the wind force to pull the pipe out.

After this we draped UV stabilized polythene sheet on the skeleton. It is important to use UV stabilized sheet to avoid the sheet crumbling to powder because of UV component in sun light. Oh yes, we tied one pipe at the top center line to ensure skeleton pipes don't move away from their position. This is how it looks after completion.

Cost? Approximately 5,500 Rupees (+ some elbow grease - we did not put a value to that as it was fun doing it). That translates to 82 USD @ 67 Rs. conversion rate as of today. Probably a car shelter can't get any cheaper than that!

Growing a grain - paddy

Though we acquired our farm last year, it was too late to start the activity of sowing. Therefore we left the paddy fields fallow. Being the fertile land it is, it has given an opportunity for all sorts of weeds to grow. This year we decided to grow paddy in a part of the field. It was not possible to plough the field using animals because of thick weed cover. Therefore we decided to use a tractor to plough the land deep and keep it ready before it starts raining heavily. I will document the subsequent process here. Don't go away, keep coming back to this post :-)

Paddy field ploughed and ready to go to next step
Next step is preparing the seedlings to be transplanted in the field when they grow for around 20 days. This is how we did it:
  • Select good quality rice seeds. We decided to take some seed (saved from the rice he had grown in last season) from our neighbor Mr. Bangarappa.
  • Ensure good quality using salt water: Mix salt in water until uncooked hen's egg put in the water floats. Put the rice seeds in that water and mix it. Good quality seeds sink to the bottom. Bad quality ones float on top. Remove the floating seeds. Drain out water. Rinse in fresh water and dry the seeds in shade.
    • We did not do salt water test because the seeds were good and germination rate was also very good. We knew it because Mr. Bangarappa had sowed the seeds in his field before us.
  • Soak the seeds in fresh water for 24 hours.
  • Take the seeds out of water. Wrap them in gunny bags and keep aside for germination. Another practice is spreading the seeds on wet floor and covering with gunny bags. Basically water soaked seeds should be kept wrapped with a wet cloth/bag to avoid water loss and be allowed to germinate.
  • In 3-4 days rice seeds start growing roots and a small spec of green shoot.
  • Make seedling beds in the field and sow them. Seedling bed making and sowing procedure is explained next.
We had decided to grow rice in approximately 3/4th of acre land. For that we need around 15kg seeds. For that much seed approximately 50ft X 50ft area of field is needed for making seedling beds. You will see Mr. Bangarappa mixing in the soil preparing to make the seedling beds.

Sorry, I don't have video or pictures of in-progress process as I had thick layer of mud on my hand. What is the point in being arm chair farmer? I better get into the mud and actively work. Therefore muddy hands did not allow me to shoot the process :-)

Sowing work in progress
After the beds are made we walk in the trenches between the beds and sow the seeds thinly and uniformly over the beds. We should be careful to avoid seeds falling into the trenches to reduce wastage.

You can notice first 2 beds towards left side are smoother and uniform. Those are prepared beds on which we were sowing at that time. You can notice there are no pockets of water on these beds. 2 beds towards right are not yet completely ready for sowing. They are uneven and have water pockets.

3 of us are sowing (for the first time I am showing up in my blog pictures and videos; thanks to my friend Rajesh for being cameraman). After few seconds you see Mr. Bangarappa smoothing next bed for sowing.

After one day
Seeds are doing fine one day after sowing. Birds are the challenge at this stage - they come in big groups and finish off the seeds. Luckily for us there were only two birds in the field for first day. Therefore no damage to the seedling beds. May be they have eaten some, but insignificant damage.

You see some green shoots at this stage.

After 2 days

Green shoots are clearly visible now. Still there is a chance of bird damage. We were lucky to have no birds around on 2nd day too. Other animals also did not damage them.

After 5 days

After 3 days when the shoots grow up we hold water in the seedling beds - only enough to submerge the seeds, but not the growing up shoots. Birds and other animals don't like to get into water. Therefore holding water at this stage is for protecting the seedlings from animal/bird damage.

However, this protection technique should be applied only during day time. We drain the water in the evening for the roots to get some air. Otherwise roots rot and the whole bed can die.

Out of sowing experience - a word of advise for people going to attempt farming newly: I had gone to the paddy field with gumboots to avoid stepping into mud. It does not work, boots get stuck in the mud and it becomes a hassle to drag them around. I finally threw them aside and stepped into the mud bare footed. It has one problem though. Mud can get into the gaps between toe nails and cause infection. Wash your feet cleanly with soap. Use old toothbrush to clean around toe nails. Then disinfect your toe nails with diluted hydrogen peroxide.

Now we have to wait for the seedlings to grow for around 20-25 days. After that we pull them out and transplant them in prepared paddy field. Wait ... wait ... that is why I have heard someone saying - If you want to get the patience of a saint you should become a farmer!

Today is 14-July. Transplantation is going to happen around 05-Aug.

We prepare the paddy field for transplanting when the seedlings are growing. Bunds between the terraces are tidied up and prepared to hold water (water is held on need basis).

Here you see 3 farm helpers working to tidy up the bunds.

Seedlings ready for transplant

One day before transplant seedlings are pulled out, bundled and kept ready for transplant.

Using a power tiller we stir up the soil and prepare it for transplanting. This is done on the day of transplanting so that soil is little sticky and soft for transplant.

After this we hire a team of workers to transplant the seedlings. 2-3 seedlings are put together as one group with 8-10 inch distance between them (just guess work - they may fall little closer or farther).

As planned we did transplantation 20 days after sowing the seeds; on 05-Aug.

Immediately after transplant
We hold at least 4 inches of water in the paddy field after transplant. 2 problems come up if we don't hold water: (a) weeds start growing vigorously if there is no water. Being submerged in water kills the weeds and does not give them a chance to come up. (b) Buoyancy of water lifts up the seedlings little bit and allows them to get upright and grow. Without water they are knocked off by the breeze  and die.

This is how the field looks little more than a month after transplant:

Little more than a month after transplant
There should have been some standing water in the field. Unfortunately we had close to 40% rain shortage. So much for excess rain forecast from all weather agencies. If situation continues like this for some more days I may have to switch on irrigation pump to water growing rice plants.

3 weeks after transplant rice crop was attacked by some insects. They did some damage by cutting the leaves. Soon after that some birds showed up in the field and ate the insects. Damage control happened naturally.

7 weeks after transplant I see some symptoms of rice blast disease (a fungal disease). Neighboring fields have major damage. I am hoping this disease also is controlled naturally somehow. Have to wait and watch what happens.

Update: 26-Sep-2016

Some plants affected by rice blast disease (I believe it is rice blast, please comment if you are sure it is not rice blast). Some traditional farmers suggested me to spray chemicals for treating the disease. I decided not to spray and let the nature take care of it.

In hind sight certain environment friendly seed treatments could have avoided it or reduced it considerably. I will try it for the next crop (if I grow rice again).

Update: 12-Oct-2016

Nature did its job. Blast disease went away without doing anything :-) Conventional farmers don't have the patience to wait and also they have lost faith in nature. They start throwing chemicals at the slightest indication of a disease - thereby polluting the environment and poisoning their food.

Update: 23-Oct-2016

Rice grains - baby steps
It is great feeling when I see the rice grains on the plants in the field. Finally we are not depending on others for food - talk about "food security" ;-)

Harvesting is another month and half away. I have to wait .. wait .. wait!

Update: 14-Nov-2016

Growing rice grains
Grains are growing well. In the beginning grain sacs have milky substance inside - which grows and hardens to become rice grain. Now they have hardened and look like rice when we open the husk. Harvesting is another month away.

Update: 07-Dec-2016
Cut paddy kept in the field for drying

Finally harvest day arrives. Mr. Bangarappa (our farm helper) and team came to the field, cut the paddy grass and laid it on the ground to dry. It will be in the field for few days. After that we will move the stuff to flat clean ground for threshing and winnowing. Keep tuned for the last stage ...

I am few days away from eating 100% naturally grown food, grown by myself!

Paddy tied up for carrying to threshing yard
Update: 12-Dec-2016

Mr. Bangarappa moved harvested paddy to threshing yard today. Threshing is done in 2 different ways: (a) holding the base of the cut straw bunch and hitting the grain side against a hard surface. Grains fall down leaving only the straw in hand. (b) spreading the paddy in the threshing yard and running bullocks/cattle/tractor on them for some time. This separates grains from the straw. We took easy path of using a tractor to separate the grains from straw.

Update: 14-Dec-2016

Unfortunately a cyclonic storm named Varda threw major challenge for harvesting work. This cyclone hit Tamilnadu coast and became a depression causing continuous drizzle for a day in our area. We had just separated the grains from the straw. We could not carry them to a place safe from rain. We covered paddy in the threshing yard with plastic sheets. Straw was left in the open to soak up the rain! Hopefully very soon sun will show up and dry them before they rot down because of wet conditions. We need this straw for our cattle - it is their main food.

Such unpredictable weather is a major challenge for farmers. A farmer depending only on crops for the livelihood of whole year will be in major problem when such unfavorable weather events occur. Luckily for me I can tide through such situations even when there is 100% crop loss. Farmers have to change their farming practices to include some crops which are not so much dependent on weather or impacted so much by weather.

Update: 18-Dec-2016

Luckily there was no crop loss or damage because of un-seasonal/un-expected rains. Our farm help Mr. Bangarappa covered the crop with plastic sheets to protect them from rain. Today I received almost a tonne of paddy and a big pile of hay. This much paddy is enough for several years for my family of 3. Therefore I have decided to share it with friends and family so that people around me can taste pesticide free and chemical free food.

With total expenditure of approximately 8,000 Rs. I got paddy worth at least 12,000 Rs. and hay worth at least 3,000 Rs. Almost 100% profit margin - for those who look at everything from ROI perspective. However, chemical free food for us (and also for my cows) is invaluable. Health benefits of such chemical free food is worth lot more than straight forward ROI can calculate. Therefore look at it from any angle - farming is really worth the time, effort and money one spends on it :-)