Captain Gorur Gopinath, 44, took up farming when he retired from the army in 1979. For six years he slept under canvas and tried unsuccessfully to eke out a living on 16 hectares (40 acres) of sparse brush obtained from the Indian government when his family’s lands in the Hassan district were submerged by a dam. After trying to farm bananas, cereals, vegetables and various crops, he turned to silkworm rearing in 1985, employing the usual techniques of farmers in his region.
A Healthier Approach
The dismal results led him to switch his approach radically in 1989 and adopt ecologically friendly methods. His past 40 harvests — one every 45 to 60 days — have all produced a profit. "After 15 years of living close to nature, observing and applying the ways of the forest to farming," says Gopinath, "I am convinced that in farming, management methods which are not environmentally benign and integrated will not be economical and sustainable." He plans now to establish an Ecological Centre to teach "farming with nature" to silk producers.
Gopinath, who now lives with his family in Bangalore — five hours’ drive from Hassan — and who spends four days a week on the farm, does not plough the land. Instead he covers it with a thick carpeting of mulch (compost and manure), adapting a Japanese system known as zero cultivation, promoted by agricultural scientist and fruit orchard farmer Masanabu Fukuoka.
Gopinath protects his silkworms without powdered disinfectants or fungicides. Since the workers normally live in the rearing houses as well as work there, this is healthier. To keep out rats, he installed a low electrified fence outside. Mosquito nets guard access to the rearing houses. Water channels prevent ants from invading the premises. Moreover, he adapted original Japanese techniques to local conditions. Instead of traditional trays, the worms are reared in cradle-like plastic nets which are easiest to disinfect after each harvest.
The Straw Solution
But his most ecologically innovative idea was to find a substitute for the bamboo trays used as cocoon montages where the silkworms spin cocoons. "On average, one acre of mulberry garden will need 15 bamboo montages," Gopinath points out. "This means a staggering 15 million bamboo montages are needed for the whole country." In order to avoid this arduous and wasteful approach, which also leads to extensive deforestation, Gopinath uses plain sun-dried paddy straw, which can be composted after use and spread on the soil as mulch and which is further enriched by droppings of silkworms. Platform rearing enabled him to reduce labour costs by 90 per cent, so that he could pay workers more.
Gopinath says that yields are lower in the first two to three years while the land recovers. But then they increase as mulberry trees become more productive and deaths among silkworms decline because of better, untreated leaves to feed on. By contrast, other farmers find their land becoming barren after five years, with frequent crop losses. The poor quality of leaves makes the silkworms susceptible to disease.
"Few of us realise the havoc that modern agricultural practices are wreaking on our countryside ... Farmers have forgotten that habits that support a wide variety of wildlife and countless variety of wild plants, flowers and trees are vital and essential for profitable and sustainable agriculture as well as for maintaining ecological balance of the planet," says Gopinath, who has not lost one silkworm crop.
Several farmers and specialists have visited Gopinath’s farm, which is bordered by a thick forest of diverse trees supporting a vast array of wildlife, and he has written articles for popular and scholarly journals. Through his Ecological Centre, which would provide demonstrations and produce videos and newsletters on organic agricultural practices, he hopes to transfer his insight and know-how to other farmers. He sees the centre as a forum for the exchange of ideas and experiences and as a way to help change local farmers’ agricultural attitudes and practices.
Published in 1996