Sugarcane, unlike most crops, yields not one, but two or even more harvests. The first one is the cane that grows from the seed (basically stem cuttings or “setts”), which is planted and harvested in about 12 months. But there is also a “ratoon” crop that sprouts from the leftover stubble of the harvested “plant-cane” and matures earlier within 11 months. In Uttar Pradesh, farmers take one ratoon in addition to the regular plant-cane, while their Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu counterparts generally harvest up to two ratoons.
Viyagappa Antony Samy from Puliyangudi in Sivagiri taluk of Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district is an extraordinary farmer. The 1943-born fourth-standard pass claims to have grown 17 ratoons – including the crop now in the field – from the ‘Co 86032’ sugarcane variety that he originally planted on a seven-acre plot in 2003. Further, his average cane yields, at 62 tonnes per acre, is way above the corresponding 30 tonnes figure for all-India and 42 tonnes of Tamil Nadu. And he is a 100 per cent organic agriculturist to boot.
“Seventeen ratoons are not impossible. The main challenge is weed infestation. If that can be controlled, you can technically take any number of ratoon crops from the same plant cane,” notes Bakshi Ram, director of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s Sugarcane Breeding Institute at Coimbatore.
Antony Samy explains how he takes care of weeds: “I use the green tops and trash (dried leaves) of sugarcane to cover the spaces between the planted rows. The thick mulch layer suppresses the weeds and also conserves soil moisture (by reducing evaporation losses)”. Moreover, the trash, on decomposition, releases nutrients that help improve soil fertility. “Mulching also brings down the soil temperature by around 4 degrees Celsius and raises humidity, which checks the early shoot borer and other insect pests,” he states.
What’s the secret behind his yields?
“I maintain a six-foot distance between two sugarcane rows and sow dhaincha (a green manure crop) in that space. It is grown as an intercrop along with the cane for 45 days, before being ploughed and incorporated into the soil. I also apply jeevamrutha organic fertiliser, made by mixing 10 kg of cow dung with 10 litres of cow urine and adding 2 kg each of molasses and urad (black gram) flour. The increased spacing (which allows the crop to get more sunlight and air, and hence produce extra tillers/shoots), together with trash mulching, green manuring and jeevamrutha biofertiliser application, is what has boosted my yields,” Antony Samy tells The Indian Express.
He further quantifies this: “My field has roughly 3,600 plants per acre. Each plant has 8-14 tillers, of which 10 or so would grow into millable canes with average 2 kg weight. The total yield, then, comes to 72 tonnes per acre. Even if the plant, tillers or millable cane numbers are less, the yield will not fall below 60 tonnes”.
Antony Samy took to organic farming in 1991. Initially, his cane yields were hardly 17 tonnes and rose progressively, as the organic carbon content in his soil went up from a mere 0.8 per cent to 1.4 per cent. Higher soil organic matter and fertility has also promoted moisture absorption and retention. That, along with adoption of drip instead of flood irrigation, has resulted in significant water savings.
The septuagenarian farmer, who drives around in a Mahindra Bolero SUV, cultivates cane in 20 acres spread over two plots. Besides, he grows paddy on 25 acres, lemon on 100 acres and assorted crops – from coconuts, mango and amla to red sanders trees – on the rest of his total 300-acres holding.
“I grow nine varieties of paddy, of which seven are traditional 6-7 feet tall (‘Seeraga Samba’, ‘Karthigai Samba’, ‘Mappillai Samba’, ‘Thooyamalli’, ‘Kattuyanam’, ‘Periyavari’ and ‘Kandasel’) and two are high-yielding 3-feet dwarf (‘TRY 1’ and ‘CR 1009’). My average yields are 20 quintals per acre for the former and 25-30 quintals in the latter. All this is again without using any chemical fertilisers or pesticides,” he points out. In lemon, too, the 100-odd trees per acre in his orchard yield 6,000-8,000 fruits each annually – from a variety he has himself developed, by grafting scions of high-quality plants onto locally available drought-tolerant wild citrus rootstock – as against 2,000-3,000 for most farmers.
Higher yields apart, Antony Samy’s produce fetches better than normal rates. One reason for it is the premium attached to organic. Also, Antony Samy does not sell his sugarcane to mills. Rather, he converts it into jaggery (one quintal from every tonne of cane) and sells it under his own Anto’s Nature’s Gift brand. Likewise, he gets his organic paddy milled and processed into branded aval (flattened rice flakes).
Antony Samy has even got his farm registered by the Tamil Nadu Organic Certification Department, in addition to obtaining test reports from the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore, showing the jaggery produced by him to have “below detection limits” of organochlorine pesticide, lead, cadmium and arsenic residues, and sucrose content much above the minimum 80 gram/100 gram specification.
“All this enables me to sell my jaggery at Rs 95 per kg, which is more than twice the market rate for normal jaggery. Farmers should sell their crop not as wholesale produce, but branded product,” he advises, while adding that his farm is “open to anybody who wants to come and learn”.
Antony Samy’s biggest challenge is labour, required not just in cultivation, but also for preparation of jeevamrutha. “I rear 250 indigenous cows solely for their dung and urine to make jeevamrutha. For sugarcane alone, half a kg of it is needed for every plant, which works out to 1,800 kg or nearly two tonnes per acre. My total labour requirement for sugarcane is 350 workers per acre per year, which is over thrice that for cultivation using chemical fertilisers, pesticides and weedicides. The labour rates here are Rs 250 for women and Rs 400 for men working 5.5 hours daily. I have three mini-trucks to transport both produce and labour,” he says.
The one thing clearly emerging from this is that organic farming isn’t easy at all. Not every farmer can afford to keep cows that can produce the requisite quantity of biofertiliser; it is far cheaper and simpler for them to buy urea or di-ammonium phosphate manufactured in factories. Nor can the ordinary farmer employ so many labourers to aggregate cow dung and urine, or cut, spread and incorporate cane trash into the soil.
“The balance against organic farming is further tilted because subsidy is given only on chemical fertilisers. The government should ideally provide all farmers a fixed sum of money per acre, which they can use either to buy chemical-based inputs or to engage the extra labour required for organic agricultural operations. There should be no discrimination; let the farmer choose between organic and non-organic,” feels Ashok Gulati, economist and former chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices.