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Thursday, January 21, 2010

An Engineering Don & Gentleman Farmer: Vithu Patel

Tushar Bhatt

His eyes twinkled with mischief as his right hands shot up in greetings.The walking gait betrayed a bit of a problem in the leg but the man,clad in kurta and pyjama,moved forward to receive visitors,genuine pleasure writ large on the pock-marked ,bespectacled face.The enthusiasm, the warmth and the lively interest all effectively concealed the real age of the farmer, Vithal J.Patel,who has done pioneering experiments in agro-forestry for nearly two decades now in this corner of Saurashtra.
As he showed around the plantation ,he stopped at a straight-going tree,some 15-foot high."Look at this,it is a real gold mine.It is a red sandal wood tree,around two years and eight months old.In its life span,it will earn me around Rs.six lakhs.Remember,it has come up in an area where last monsoon we got hardly 14 inches of rainfall."The tree was not a solitary example;time and again,Vithalbhai would stop at a tree,pointing out its height,reeling off details about when it was planted,what it was given and how it has grown.The refrain was common;with an innovative outlook in agro-forestry,one could turn even a small field into a veritable money-spinner.The emphasis was so much on what even a small farm-holder could achieve and not so much on what corporate entities could grow.
Vithubhai, as he was commonly known, was a different kind of a gentleman farmer, who was fond of experimenting scientifically; his methods were so unconventional that they aroused ire in equal proportions among the forestry officials and environmentalists, although for different reasons. He had taken to agro-forestry in an aggressive manner, making his farm work like a factory, exercising strict on the various factors.
But,his most unconventional method was to plant saplings rather closely,making them struggle for survival. "We all know of the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest.We also know that struggle tends to make one sturdy and stronger.Vithubhai was for years away from farms and was known as Dr.V.J.Patel in his earlier avtar as a teacher. Formerly a professor in civil engineering,he was a noted expert on dam designs and earthquakes who took to farm forestry after leaving his teaching assignment some twenty years ago.
A man with scientific training and a scientific temper,he thought a lot about the survival of the fittest theory to come to a conclusion that for a healthy growth trees -- or, saplings must be made to struggle, and yet they should not be starved of nutrients so that they do not die out for want of enough food for all. He resorted to growing trees in closer proximity than what the forest officials would dream of, add generous doze of fertilisers and other nutrients and provide adequate water to make them bloom. Not only do they bloom,they go tall faster than the widely-spaced trees because each closely panted tree was racing upwards to receive as much sunshine as possible.
Foresters generally follow the precept that trees,if widely spaced when planted, develop better. In the experiments of close proximity plantation carried out at Surendrabag it was found that such trees grew faster than the ones grown along conventional lines; and the number of trees is also higher in closely planted places-- some three to five times more in numbers.
Said Vithubhai: " I am a farmer,earning my bread working on my farm. Many of us farmers live below the poverty line and struggle to survive ; one could not hope to make us invest money and time in the development of degraded land." That led to another poser: If the people living near these degraded land pieces were not ready for development who else would go and help in afforestation ? "The central question to which we need to address ourselves is this-- who will develop the degraded land which has poor fertility.We can rephrase the query-- can we interest the people to undertake afforestation on a degraded land?"
He himself came out with the obvious reply: " It is possible if it can be shown that high income could be generated from the development of wasteland.The productivity level of wasteland should be increased by using simple agro or silvi-cultural practices"
He set out in search of the answers to these and many related questions which form a part of the nation's search as well for a viable farm strategy that combines tree cultivation too.The search ,in the case of Vithubhai,took him on a dusty road that always kicked up some controversy or the other. In the late 1970s and early 80s,he ran foul of the environmentalists because of his experiments with eucalyptus. Instead of planting them widely spaced, he packed in as many as 10,000 saplings in an acre(or,25,000 trees a hectare),showing the small farmers how to reap bumper profits.But since eucalyptus was decried as devouring water resources, Vithubhai switched to other trees,and with equal success.
Apart from evolving viable practices for close proximity plantation,Vithubhai had also succeeded in shorterning the cutting period from five to three years so that the trees started paying off earlier than on a conventional plantation.
The 70 plus-year-old Vithubhai was no crank to be brushed aside lightly. A leftist in his younger days,farming ran in his blood.His father,Jivrajbhai Patel, was awarded Udyan Pundit title by the union government,for his best ber (Zyiphus mauritiana Lamk); he was asked how did he manage to do so well,and answered with a characteristic wry humour that agriculture department of the government had still not discovered him to educate.
Vithubhai took to engineering studies,getting his doctorate in West Germany in 1957,and then teaching at a number of institutions such as Birla College,Pilani,the IIT,Kanpur and the government engineering college,Jabalpur.More than 70 papers of his on engineering subjects got published,many of them abroad.More than 40 of these were included in the Engineering Index, a digest on engineering research published in the U.S.
Vithubhai made several innovations in the cultivation of ber, applying newer methods of insect control and hormone regulation which led to a fruit free from insects of uniform size.
He ridiculed the idea of mere conservation of forest cover for the sake of green cover.His thrust is to arrive at a strategy that leads to man controlling the cycle of tree felling in such a way that while there is tree cover,he also gets enough timber and other wood.Vithubhai felt that newer methods,such as his high density cultivation strategy,helped by addition of nutrients and fertilisers in enough dosage and with just enough watering through drip irrigation c0uld help a farmer achieve wonders in tree cultivation even on his degraded or wasteland.He was not advocating a switch-away from all food crops to tree cultivation only,but to a judicious mix of the agriculture,horticulture and tree cultivation to help restore the lost ecological balance.The Surendrabad plantation had successfully grown trees such as teak (Tectonia grandis), Bakain neem (Melia azedarch), Indian cork tree(Millingtonia hortensis),Savan(Gmelina arborea), sandalwood and Red sanders at Jivdiv Agro-fofrestry Centre.
He said that in tree cultivation,there has been a shortcoming in strategy. "All our experiences in the past are based on the rain-fed forests where trees got water only during the monsoon,no fertiliser was given to them and thus they were starved of nutrients and water for a longer period of the year." What he did at Surendrabag was to bring about a situation where the growth of the life system of trees was in an environment which met adequately its needs for nutrients and water,preferably on a daily basis. Essentially,providing enough water and nutrients were two important lessons of the green revolution which had been applied to farm-forestry." Just as the irrigated wheat gives more output as compared to the rainfed crop,irrigated tree plantations should give five to ten times more growth.To this, if we add increased bio-mass in early stages due to increased population of trees, one will start realising that the earnings go up steeply", said Vithubhai.
The high density plantation that he tried out has several advantages over the conventional farm forestry,he said.These included: plant population that is three to ten times more ,growth in vertical direction of the trees because of close spacing,the sun rays do not fall on the ground because of this and the evaporation losses are cut down,leading to a better utilisation of irrigation through a drip,growth of weeds is reduced because of the absence of the sun at the ground level,the waiting period for the first cutting or thinning can be reduced from six years to three or four years.A farmer can plant ten to 15 rows of 1.2 metres by 0.6 metre or even less spacing along the border of his field,thus utilising borders that generally remain unused.A farmer,said Vithubhai, could go for mixed cropping in the fields completely given to tree cultivation in the initial years and grow horticultural crops such as ginger,termaric,amorphopholous,or yam and bananas.
He quoted figures of income over a period of two decades for a farmer from an acre of timber plantation of savan or teak.He was rated as a maverick by many,although they too grudgingly granted that he was a highly successful one in whatever he was doing. Some others pointed to his butterfly type interest; years ago,he was advoocating the eucalyptus and now he was talking teak,neem and other species.Vithubhai was unfazed by this criticism.He would simply shrug it off,saying nobody was being compelled to follow suit.Yet,hundreds of farmers were doing just that,with the Surendrabag plantation serving as a demonstration project.
The farm-forestry experiments which the gentleman farmer was been pursuing led to steady stream of nearly 10,000 visitors,mostly farmers from Gujarat and elsewhere in the country,makiing their way to his place,16 km from Bhavnagar.But what he was doing had nothing to do with the latest craze for corporate investment in agro-forestry.What he got as visitors were not investors in shares,but farmers who were pining to better their lot.

Temperamentally, he was a man in hurry. Hurry it was when a car he was driving from Bhavnagar to Jamnagar collided with a truck,cutting short a vibrant life when he was in his late 70s.

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