This article by Sanjib Chaudhary was originally published in Nepali Times and an edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.
Across Nepal, the soil has experienced a nutrient decline due to irregular climatic patterns, bad agricultural practices and the overuse of agrochemicals. Ideally, the organic content in the soil is expected to be at 5 percent, however, in most parts of the country, it has dropped below 2 percent.
Spiral Farm House located in the small town of Mahuli in the Saptari district in eastern Terai is looking to reverse this trend and is teaching others how 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. “We make eight different types of biodynamic composts which not only help revive the soil and give us wholesome food that helps maintain good health.”
Chaudhary notes that in Nepal, soil degradation is caused by practices such as intensive cropping, heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and mechanized farming.
The compost at Spiral Farm House has been doing wonders for the farm. Chaudhary says that his compost replenishes the soil nutrients organically, leading to better harvests and yield. In addition to the manure and compost from cow dung, cattle horn, bone, silica, straw, twigs, dried leaves, and plants, the farm also produces liquid fertilizers and biopesticides from medicinal plants and locally available materials.
What is biodynamic farming?
Biodynamic farming follows traditional farming practices and relies only on locally sourced raw materials to achieve soil self-sufficiency. The need for supplemental sources of nutrients, such as cow dung, bones, and straw, arises from the subpar soil fertility found in Nepal.
Due to its reliance on organic inputs for soil fertility, biodynamic farming requires a holistic approach that incorporates crop rotation, crop-livestock integration, and natural seasonal farming cycles.
In Chaudhary’s farm, cow horn manure is made by burying fresh manure of pasture-fed cows in hollowed-out animal horns for six months. Horn silica, which helps nourish plants, is made from the marrow 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, the process of revitalizing the soil. Microbes play a major role in carbon storage in the soil.
Inspiring an young generation of farmers
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 assisting her parents in growing rice, lentils, and vegetables since she attended Chaudhry's biodynamic farming training. She considers organic farming to be the solution to the increasing concerns related to the climate crisis.
Sukhi Lal and Lalit Chaudhary, both in their 50s and residing in the Saptari district, received training in biodynamic farming from Spiral Farm. Sukhi Lal cultivates biodynamic vegetables that he claims fetch a higher price compared to chemically fertilized crops. Lalit's farm has seen an improvement in soil quality as a result of utilizing biodynamic techniques.
Despite the adverse effects on soil, the drive to increase earnings is leading most farmers in Agnisair Krishna Sawaran Rural Municipality to use higher amounts of chemical fertilisers each year. A 2019 survey revealed that 39 out of 40 interviewed farmers in the Rural Municipality were using chemical fertilisers to enhance their yield.
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 isn't 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, founded in 2008 in Khokana in the Kathmandu Valley, is promoting biodynamic farming practices. At present, approximately 5,500 farmers are utilizing biodynamic methods and over 5,000 farms spanning 400,000 acres have received certification in 60 nations worldwide.
According to a study by Cambridge University Press, biodynamic farms have superior soil quality compared to conventional farming, but they may have lower crop yields and similar or higher net returns per hectare. The study noted that further research is required to fully understand the benefits of soil preparation in biodynamic farming.
In biodynamic farming, the goal is to generate as much of the necessary manure, compost, and nutrients as possible. However, smaller farms may need to obtain food resources for animals from external sources.
Biodynamic farming principles, which were developed by Austrian architect and social reformer Rudolf Steiner, integrate aspects of regenerative agriculture. However, for Chaudhary, it feels like a return to the traditional farming methods used by his ancestors prior to the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
In biodynamic farming, crop rotation and intercropping are practised, similar to the traditional farming methods used by farmers in the southern plains of Nepal. This involves planting flaxseed and lentils in the rice fields before the rice is ready for harvest so that when the rice is harvested, there is already a standing crop of flaxseed and lentils. The fields are then prepared for wheat cultivation after the flaxseed and lentils have been harvested.
In 2022, Sudarshan Chaudhary sold biodynamic mangoes for NPR 100 per kilogram, which is about 75 US cents. This price is significantly higher compared to the price of his conventional mangoes, which only fetched NPR 30–40 per kilogram (23–30 US cents) prior to his conversion to biodynamic farming. For his biodynamic vegetables, he charges a premium of NPR five more than the average price of regular products in the market.
The need of the moment is to broaden the adoption of biodynamic farming in Nepal and make its products more accessible. And Nepal’s pioneering “agripreneurs” like Chaudhary, Shrestha and Gurung are at the frontlines of this transformation.