At the foothills of Datla mountain of Satpuda Valley in the Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh is located the picturesque village of Dhadaw. Located on the banks of Dudhi River that also defines the boundary of the district, Dhadaw falls in the district’s forest belt. Within the periphery of this village lies a world that has efficiently maintained the essence of traditional agricultural practices — a remarkable feat at a time when farmers are increasingly quitting this occupation across the country.
Known as utera cropping, six to seven types of crops are sown simultaneously in this type of cultivation. For example, seeds of urad, jawar, paddy, tilli, tuar, sama and kodo are mixed and then sown collectively. Sown in June, the crop is harvested at different times; urad is harvested first, followed by paddy, jawar and tuar.
Sixty-year-old Ganpat, busy harvesting the crop with his hansiya (reaping hook), shares: “Almost nothing or very less money is required for utera farming. With the combination of our hard work, labour of the bullocks and some help from the monsoon, our crops get ready for harvesting. Every year, we save some seeds for the following season, saving the cost of buying seeds. The bullocks also give us fertilisers which, in turn, nourish our soil.”
As he scales the scaffold to keep parrots and other birds away from the chickpea crop, he explains the significance of utera cropping in their lives. “Utera gives us the complete meal — dal, rice, wheat and oil. It fulfils our yearly requirements of pulses, oil seeds, and cereals. It gives cereals for human beings, stem, straw and fodder for animals, bio-fertilisers for soil and bio pesticide for crops.”
According to the District Gazetteer, people of this region earlier followed Milwan (mixed) farming, in which legumes are sown to maintain the fertility of the soil. Mixed crops are sown in various ratios. Birra was sown by mixing wheat and chana; tiwda and chana were also mixed; cotton, sesame, kodo and jawar were sown together.
Another benefit of sowing legumes along with other crops is that it lowers the need for additional nitrogen-based inputs. Farmers believe that if one crop fails in utera, other crops compensate for it — a sharp contrast to cash crops, where farmers suffer intensely if the crop is destroyed by insects or pests, or even by natural forces. In 2011, soybean crops were completely destroyed and three farmers committed suicide in Hoshangabad.
Ramkhyali Thakur, a farmer from Dhadaw, considers this cropping method to be better than chemical farming because of its low dependence on money and chemical fertilisers. Since every crop gets ready at different interval, family members usually suffice to carry out the harvest. This saves their limited financial resources that would otherwise go into hiring expensive farm labourers and harvester machines. In all, this traditional form of agricultural practice makes a multi-faceted contribution to food security, preservation of soil, live stock breeding, bio-diversity and environmental concerns.
A few years ago, every household had a kitchen garden in which utera crops were sown. Many green vegetables, seasonal fruits and cereals would be planted in the backyard of every house. Bhata, tomatoes, green chilli, ginger, ladies finger, semi (ballar), corn, jawar, among others, were planted. Munga, lemon, berries and guava from these kitchen gardens were a good source of nutrition for the children. Water from household chores would be recycled to feed these crops. Pity, this practice is limited to merely a handful of families.
The livelihood of the people of Dhadaw strongly depends on the traditional utera method and on the forest. The farm and forest duo gifts them everything they require for their daily lives. It also preserves biodiversity by preserving soil, water and the environment.
Utera and mixed cropping are not the only methods of traditional farming that have the potential to liberate us from the shackles of chemical farming. There are several other methods of traditional farming, depending on the climatic and environment conditions of a particular region; satgajra (seven grains), navdanya (nine pulses), and barah anaja (twelve cereals) are various forms of agricultural practices. Each has its own benefits: they resist pest invasion, help increase natural fertilisation of the soil and provides food security.
According to Chandrabhan, an ardent advocate of utera farming, “Chemical farming is burning the soil. It is killing the micro-organisms which help make the soil more fertile. Our fellow farmers need to get rid of their dependency on chemicals. It is up to us to turn the tide.”
Practising traditional utera methods has helped Dhadaw farmers keep away the harmful aspects of chemical farming