Navara was traditionally cultivated organically. Because of its poor yield and difficulties in controlling pests and diseases, conventional method of farming was adopted by farmers. As Navara is a medicinal rice, NEF decided to adopt only organic farming methods lest it might affect the medicinal properties. Moreover as Navara bran and root are also used in ayurvedic treatments and health rejuvenation therapies, any chemical or pesticide residue in the course of conventional farming might not yield the desired results. The expert opinion from the Ayurveda physicians and others in the field of Ayurveda was also to go for organic farming of Navara.

But conversion to organic farming in Navara rice turned out to be risky, laborious and costly.

The farm grows its own plants which are used for manure, along with green leaves obtained from the farm.

Pest control in organic Navara rice farming is a major challenge. NEF planted Tulsi [ocimum sanctum] and Marigold on the bunds of the paddy fields to repel pests. There was an instance when four acres of Navara crop was completelt damaged by pests. Following this, use of nets to catch the pests was introduced and the workers were trained in this.

Rats do extensive damage to the rice crop. Here also manpower is employed for control.

Thus Navara Eco Farm completely eliminated the usage of chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides in the farm. Hence all the products coming out of NEF are free of chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides.

Challenges in Navara Cultivation

(a) Challenges in cultivating ‘Navara’ rice

Navara rice is a seasonal crop and is cultivated only during the summer months. It is not possible to grow it in cooler season as the plant is very fragile and lodges (bending over of the stems near ground level of grain crops) even with dew. Therefore, effective production of this rice is only once in a year. Another crop is cultivated, essentially for the generation of seeds. The possibility of cultivating a third crop exists, depending on conducive weather conditions and availability of adequate water. So, though cultivation is carried out twice a year, or even three times, revenues accrue generally, only from one crop per year. It is also to be noted that the viability (germination) of the seed reduces after six months.

(b) Impact on the yield of Navara due to organic farming

To ensure that the intrinsic medicinal and nutritional properties of the Navara rice are retained, it is grown organically without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The organic method of cultivation contributes to ecosystem services such as conservation of biodiversity, conservation of ecology and water and environment protection contributing to mitigation of global warming. More importantly, it ensures that no chemical residues are left in the soil, water or in the food-chain. But conversion to organic farming in Navara rice turned out to be risky, laborious and costly. Organic farming specifically has these challenges:

(i) Low yield -The yield is very low if grown organically.

(ii) Labor intensive– Organic Navara rice cultivation is labor intensive. While it increases employment in the unskilled sector, it results in substantially higher cost of production. Additionally, in Kerala, availability of farm labor is quite uncertain and unpredictable, as they prefer to work in other areas fetching more wages with certainty of job round the year.

(c) Opportunity lost from not cultivating high yielding varieties

Farmers opting to cultivate ‘Navara’, lose revenues drastically compared to yield from other high yielding rice varieties. There is an opportunity cost lost due to this.

(d) Non availability of water

Shortage of water during the summer months in Kerala, when Navara rice cultivation is undertaken, poses a threat to its production.

(e) Poor financial viability

This has led to migration to other farming activities. Fragmentation of rice fields have put the rice farmers at a disadvantage as the holdings have become economically non-viable. While the cost of production of rice has increased multifold for the last five decades, the price of the end product has not risen in proportion.

(f) Vagaries of weather

For more than a decade now, the weather has become unpredictable. In Palakkad, the rice farming calendar was set based on the south-west and north-east monsoons. During the last decade, the onset of the south-west monsoon has been so unpredictable that all the activities of rice farmers based on the njattuvela (an ancient cycle of 13 1/2 days said to be calculated on the movement of stars) has gone haywire resulting in huge losses to rice farmers. The pattern of rain has also changed. In the past, there used to be steady rains for days together which helped the rice crop as well as raising the water table in the wells and ponds. This helped irrigation of rice fields after monsoon as well as enhance drinking water availability. Now a days, the pattern is one of unpredictable rainfall with heavy showers for a few hours (including cloud bursts) happening many times during the monsoon season causing floods

(g) Loss due to destruction by protected species

Starting from year 2006, peacocks and wild boars used to destroy crops (Fig. 19). As these are protected species, the farmers are helpless in controlling them. This has resulted in heavy losses to the farmers frequently.

Major Challenges of Organic Farming

(a) Manure for organic farming Manure for organic farming was not easily available. Hence, NEF started growing plants for green manure, along with green leaves obtained from the farm. (b) Pest control (i) Use of cards: Pest control in organic Navara rice farming is a major challenge. Trichogramma cards are used to control leaf roller (Fig. 20) and stem borer attacks in the organic Navara crop. (ii) Tulsi and Marigold : These were grown on the bunds of the paddy fields to repel pests, including the rice pest -rice bug (Leptocoriza acuta). These pests attack the crop from the flowering stage (ear head) of the rice to the grain-formation stage. These pests have two piercing/sucking mouth parts (horn like/needle like). The food of these pests is the juice in the rice during the grain formation. These pests use horn-like arms to suck the juice formed during the transformation of flowers to the rice grains. The rice bugs multiply into thousands in a period of a week to ten days. So, initially for the 15 cents and later, up to 2 acres of the Navara crop, NEF has grown tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) and marigold (Tagetis spp) (Fig. 21) on the ridges to control these pests as these plants have a pest repellent property and thus, NEF was able to control pests to a certain extent.

Pest Control-Trichogramma Card

(iii) Use of nets to control rice bug: Although NEF followed the same methodology of planting marigold and tulsi, as described above, to control rice bugs, these pests multiplied so fast in numbers and it was observed that the entire crop of 4 acres was totally destroyed. Seeing the failure, they were looking for some other organic methods to control rice bugs in larger areas of rice cultivation. For this, NEF devised a cotton net of conical shape (Fig. 22), which was fitted to an aluminium round frame with a handle. NEF then had to train their work force to use this device. This activity was required to be done in two shifts, one in the morning (from 06.30 to 09.30 am) and the second one in the evening (from 03.30 to 06.00 pm) when the pests fed on the juice.

Pest Control using Marigold and Tulsi
Using Nets for Pest Control

iv) Rodents Menace: Rodents do extensive damage to the crop. Rats tend to have burrows on the bunds. Once grain formation starts, rats shred the plants and take the grains for storage and consumption in their burrows. Rats tend to multiply rapidly and hence represent a strong risk of damage to plants. NEF workers methodically identify these burrows using hoes and eliminate the problem at source. Here also manpower is employed for control.

(c) Mechanization NEF initiated mechanization in rice cultivation (apart from using tractors for ploughing, which they were using from 1970s) in year 2000. This was in the areas of transplanting and harvesting. The Government of Kerala agency, Kerala Agro Machinery Corporation (KAMCO), which did machine transplanting to the farm, suggested that NEF should go only for a small area (25 cents or 50 cents) as a pilot project and then use larger area during the next season, as they were also new in implementing the technology. However, NEF decided to go for the entire area of 8 acres in one go and KAMCO agreed to the proposal. Raising mat nursery for transplanting (Fig. 23), methodology of transplanting using the machine, were all a new experience to us and our workers. On the day of the transplanting, KAMCO arranged a meeting at our farm where their officials, the local panchayat President, agriculture officer and farmers participated. Almost all the farmers who had come to witness the process on the first day were curious about this. Many farmer friends and neighbors came to see the machine. All of them, without exception, expressed their opinion that the spacing of 30 cms between rows and 20 cms between seedlings will drastically reduce yield and this experiment will lead to a huge financial loss. When NEF saw the transplanted field, we were apprehensive about results on the production volume. But the KAMCO officials were confident about results. As we watched the rice plants grow, we could see that the harvest would be good. When it was time for harvest, we decided to use combined harvesters. This was also a novelty in our area. There were negative comments that machine harvested paddy will not have a ready market and will fetch only lower prices and that this paddy cannot be used for seeds. These apprehensions were also out of place as we were offered 10 per cent more for machine harvested paddy as it was bagged from the machine itself, it was stoneless and clean. The seed from the machine harvested paddy was also very good.

This experiment was successful in Palakkadan Matta and NEF continued this till 2001. NEF started focusing on the work on Navara in 2001 in a big way. The farm tried to mechanized Navara cultivation also. But, while transplanting Navara using machines, it was found that, being weak, the seedlings of Navara were too fragile for the fingers of the machine to hold them. So, machine transplanting was unsuccessful, and NEF switched to direct sowing. Combined Harvester was also tried for harvesting of Navara. However, it was difficult to harvest the lodged crop. In the circumstances, NEF had to employ its work force for harvesting Navara and discontinued machine transplanting and use of combined harvesters for some time. But after more experimentation and by changing the crop calendar for harvest and trying different methods for preparing mat nursery for Navara, machine transplanting and harvesting using combined harvester was made possible from 2019 onwards. Mechanization was introduced for weeding also. Wherever possible, NEF is using modern technologies in processes and methods in the work of conserving traditional seeds and plants.