By Jekhan Aruliah
There is a recent precedent in Sri Lanka for suddenly ‘going organic’. The civil war in Sri Lanka saw years of economic blockades and embargoes in the North. Some items were banned completely, others were supplied in limited quantities. From women’s sanitary napkins and batteries to gasoline and cement, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, a lot was hard to come by. What circulated through informal channels was very expensive. In agriculture, the peoples of the North have turned to traditional organic methods. Cattle have become more than just a source of food. Cattle have become a source of fertilizer, pesticides and transportation. Luckily, I met a young man who had grown up during this time and who embarked on a career in agriculture.
I first met Selvin Ravindrakumar in early 2021 when I asked for help saving a tall, beautiful, shady tree in my garden in Jaffna. The tree, afflicted with a white fungus for over a year, regularly shed its leaves and failed to bloom flamboyantly as it once had. I stupidly waited too long, assuming that in time he would recover on his own. When it was alarmingly stripped of foliage and failed flowering for a second season, I made a Facebook cry for help. So Selvin was introduced to me by a friend of mine who had been his classmate. Show that it’s not just who you know, but who you know knows that matters.
After visiting to inspect my tree, Selvin took me to meet the head of the Thirunelvely Agricultural Research Station, on Palali Road a short drive from my home. In short, an officer from the station immediately came to inspect my tree and recommended treatment. Over the next few days, Selvin came and applied the medicine himself. He did this for the sake of the tree, refusing to pay. This resulted in the following weeks the tree regaining its greenery and producing a beautiful bloom of bright orange flowers for the first time in 2 years.
Selvin grew up in wartime Jaffna. He was born in 1992 in Ariyalai, the only son of a Jaffna Kachcheri staff member and science teacher at one of the main girls’ schools in Jaffna. Her mother, after successfully completing her A’Levels as a schoolgirl, was accepted to study medicine at Peradeniya University. But being an only child in wartime, her father didn’t want her to go. So she stayed in Jaffna to become a teacher.
Selvin had developed a great interest in agriculture as a small child helping his mother in her family garden, with her herbs, goats and chickens. From 1998 to 2002, to avoid fighting, Selvin stayed with his aunt in Uduvil, a few kilometers north of Jaffna town. Getting up at 4 a.m. to visit her rice fields before going to school further strengthened her connection to the land.
After completing his A’Levels at St Patrick’s College in Jaffna, Selvin obtained the NVQ Level 4 qualification in Agriculture and worked for 6 months at Thirunelvelly Agricultural Research Station. He then started a course at the University of Colombo. At the time of writing, Selvin is a 4e student in year of Special Agriculture License.
Back to the future
Selvin explained that to deal with wartime blockages, the methods of the past have been brought back. After the paddy harvest, grasses like Sunnell (Sun Hemp) were grown in the fields. The cows would then go to the fields to eat these weeds and grasses and poop their fertilizing droppings. Crops would be planted including cowpeas, green lentils and ulundu lentils. The crops were chosen for their nutritious harvest and for their nitrogen-fixing roots that were buried in the soil. This great chemical-free cycle has paved the way for the next paddy season.
Traditional home-produced fertilizers such as Panchakaviya have been used. Made by soaking some leaves, adding curd, milk, jaggery and cow urine and manure. After 21 to 30 days of brewing in clay pots, sometimes shaken, the concoction is ready to be spread in the fields. Neem oil, extracted from the seeds of the Neem tree (Margosa), diluted with water is an effective pesticide sprayed directly on insect infestations. The Neem tree is credited with several remarkable properties. In addition to agriculture, it is used in medicines and cosmetics. Grind the young Neem leaves into a paste and cut them for quick healing. Even the shade of the tree is precious. It is believed to provide cool, air-conditioned comfort, cooler than the shade of other trees. There are several Neems in and around my Jaffna garden, which stay surprisingly cool even during the midday sun. I can’t say for sure if the credit for cool goes to the Neem.
There are large agricultural areas which are a patchwork of small farms. Even on a farmer’s little estate, he’d have half an acre of this, half an acre of that, and an acre of something else. Farmers would cooperate to avoid planting the same crops in adjacent fields, which would reduce the risk of the plague spreading. What damages chili peppers cannot infect or infest and spread through an eggplant field. Having this patchwork of different cultures creates a brake on a wider contagion. Farmers would work together by planting Sevanthi, a type of chrysanthemum, along the borders of their fields. This vast Sevanthi scent network repels certain insects, reducing pests in an area beyond their own individual properties.
Through years and generations of experience in their fields, farmers have learned how and where to best plant grapes, tobacco, chilli, rasavalli, tomato, ochra, eggplant, sesame and other crops adapted to the different soils of the North. They learned how to produce decent crops without chemicals, as chemicals were barely available during wartime embargoes.
Need for education
Selvin, who mingles with his undergraduate classmates from across Sri Lanka at the University of Colombo, said many have lost touch with traditional methods. Many have grown up without the experience of a vegetable garden, let alone a farm. Those who come from farming families have limited experience beyond reliance on chemical methods that Sri Lankan governments have subsidized since 1962. In 2019, the two main presidential candidates promised (but did not) not provided) 100% fertilizer subsidy, i.e. free fertilizer. Some farmers may think that if it’s cheap and a little is good, then more must be better! But this is not the case. What plants cannot absorb goes down into the soil and the water table with unintended consequences, Selvin observed.
Selvin is a holistic guy, who sees the food cycle run through farms and kitchens and human nature. He said there is a need for education of producers on their farms, and consumers in their homes. Farmers should be educated from childhood in traditional methods. How to produce and use homemade natural fertilizers and pesticides. How to use ‘nitrogen fixing’ plants, compost and manure that can revitalize the soil. How to produce their own animal feed from fast growing vegetation like Azolla and duckweed which has a higher protein content than store bought mash. How to breed high-yielding, disease-resistant chickens and goats that are less dependent on drugs and artificial supplements, such as Naked Neck chicken and Jamnapari and Saanen goats.
With 500,000 rupees, Selvin says that 20 perches (one eighth of an acre) of land can be set up with an herb garden and infrastructure for a few chickens and a few goats. Families who care for their mini-farms, enjoying their milk, eggs and home-produced vegetables, will understand the value of their own food waste that can be used to feed their livestock and greenery. According to a 2021 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations “The total daily solid waste generated in the Colombo City Council area is 706 tons of which 50 percent, approximately 353 tons, is food wasteâ. There is enormous potential to recycle this food waste back up the food chain, instead of letting it rot and stink in offensive piles and landfills.
I asked Selvin for a simple business idea. He proposed the establishment of a silage production system (animal feed). Planted land with rotating zones between legumes, sorghum, corn and grasses like CO2 / CO3 and Super Napier grass. The grasses would be planted every few weeks, to be ready to cut throughout the year on a staggered schedule. 2 acres planted this way would produce enough high-quality feed supplement for a herd of cows and goats. The manure of these animals returns to the meadows. These grasses don’t need a lot of water, so a drip irrigation system would be ideal for growing them during the many dry northern months. The demand for this silage would be huge, making it a business that can be sustainable, scalable and profitable.
War and peace
Consumers in war zones are different from those in peacetime. In a war zone, people are efficient at preparing and consuming food. Minimal waste during cooking. Minimal waste by throwing away uneaten food at the end of the meal. Less waste means less produce is needed by farms in times of war to feed people. Nationally, food is wasted not only through thoughtless preparation and careless disposal. Food is wasted due to damage caused by transporting produce in bags, trailers and trucks long distances throughout the supply chain from farm to wholesaler to retailer and consumer . Losses during storage in warehouses, on market floors, store shelves and kitchen refrigerators. Nationally, much more needs to be grown for human consumption than what is consumed by humans.
Solutions in wartime are seldom answers in peacetime. But the need for high efficiency and high impact during terrible times of conflict can provide clues for easier times of peace.
You can contact Selvin at [email protected]
(- Writer Jekhan Aruliah was born in Sri Lanka and moved with his family to the UK when he was two. Raised in London, he graduated from Cambridge University in 1986 with a degree in natural sciences. Jekhan then spent more than two decades in the IT industry, half of which was responsible for offshore software development for UK companies in Colombo and Gurgaon (India). In 2015, Jekhan decided to move to Jaffna where he is now involved in social and economic projects. Be contacted at [email protected] -)