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Mini-Memoire

Asif Sharif
CEO, Pedaver Pvt. Ltd., Lahore, Pakistan

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The journey that started back in 2007 is amazing. New avenues have opened and are continuing to open with fantastic and unbelievable results. SRI has formed the foundation for development, and we are moving toward an agriculture that is close to the natural processes of vegetation sustained through millions of years without any nutritional deficiency, disease or pest threats, and challenges to the environment and climate.

My mentor, Prof Norman Uphoff at Cornell University, once said that I am unique. In response I said that I believe everyone is unique. Some persons accept challenges and other don’t; I love to embark upon them. I could write several books about my life journey which is full of challenges and accomplishments. After my initial studies in Pakistan, I

wondered around the world a bit. In the early 70’s that I spent some time in North Carolina, a state in the southern US that is very close to the climate that we have in Punjab Pakistan, and we grow some similar crops. My stay in North Carolina exposed me to industrial agriculture as it was being followed in the US and the rest of the more developed countries.

 

I started my farming with barren land, about 140 hectares, that was purchased in 1958 at a place 120 miles from my home city of Lahore. Our land and the surrounding area were unproductive; canal water for irrigation was provided during the summertime only. So, most of the crops grown in the area were summer crops like rice, sorghum, and millet. The staple diet of people was bread made from sorghum or millet and boiled salted rice. In winter, there was no irrigation system, so farmers would plant wheat on just a small area that they could irrigate by a bullock-drawn well. Bread made from wheat was given only to very special guests or to sick elderly people who couldn’t digest bread made from sorghum or millet flour. People lived mostly in houses made out of mud and covered by straw roofs. The location of the land that we purchased was very good, however, right on a road leading to major towns.


I had little previous experience of farming, gained through visits to my grandfather in the late 50’s and early 60’s. In those days, a tractor was something extraordinary, but I was able to learn to drive one in my sixth grade, a great thrill. The challenge that was imposed on me when I took up farming was much bigger than my skillset and experience. The land was uneven, an old river basin, covered with wild growth. During my travels in developed countries, I was well-exposed to farming standards and the practices being followed.


My first task was to level the land and to make fields larger to ease mechanical operations. The farm was thus redesigned after a proper topography survey, and I was the first farmer in the province to practice precision leveling of fields. At the time, no machinery was available except for 50 HP tractors, a spring-tine cultivator, and a small trailer. Most of the machinery available was that used in developed countries, designed for more powerful tractors which were not suitable for our conditions. This difficulty got me started on modifying farm machines to make them suitable to our conditions. We started with soil scraper, fine levelers, disc plough, disc harrow, planters, weeders, spraying, and harvesting machines.


The industrial agriculture that we started in 1973 changed the landscape of the whole area and financially liberated farmers of every scale. Because of this showcase, farmers in surrounding areas were able to learn modern practices, and agriculture in the neighboring districts is the richest in Pakistan.


After decades of input-intensive farming, it could be observed that soil systems in the flood- irrigated areas of Pakistan, particularly in Punjab, are badly deteriorating caused by high salinity. Soils’ water absorption, retention and provisioning capacity had declined. Crops which used to demand irrigation only once every 3 to 4 weeks now need water after less than 10 days. Input-intensive farming that started with the Green Revolution in 1960s promoted repeated plowing to make the soil powdery, but it also became more susceptible to wind, water erosion and lower water absorption. Further, repeated use of tractor with spring-tine cultivator which has smearing action caused hardpan, as such water absorption roots development was only in top six/seven inch of layer. To exploit the full potential of improved seed varieties, it recommended high fertilizer dosing, numerous pesticide spraying, and excessive irrigations. By the middle of 1980s, yields increases stagnated. At this time, hybrid corn and improved cotton varieties (BT & others) were introduced. This gave a boost to crop yields and therefore intensive input practices continued. But within a few years, crop yield increases once again went into stagnation and declined. We started searching for causes and remedies.


While on visit to Brazil and passing through the Amazon, the question arose in my mind: how come these forests are so lush green and have been so for millions of years without any deficiency? I began to think that maybe what we have been doing in Punjab is wrong. One could see that there was abundant vegetation in upland areas where the soil is not inundated. Soon after rain, any excess water flows into the streams and rivers. There is no disturbance of soil, and the soil is covered with organic mulch. Many plant species grow and thrive together. Our industrial agriculture was the opposite to all this. In Pakistan and elsewhere we were going against the natural algorithm for soil fertility and growth of vegetation.


I began to feel that our survival rests on being attuned to the natural processes of vegetation. But how can we do that? There were many hurdles. Seeds need pulverized soil to attain moisture for their germination; this is why plowing was felt necessary, to make firm contact between the soil and seeds. Our practice of flood irrigation that inundates flat land is also against nature. Pressurized-flow irrigation systems, which are costly to install and maintain, are not necessary in our flatland conditions. So how can we best supply water to plants? A next question was: how will we manage weeds? With natural vegetation, the soil is covered by thick organic mulch, and the ground is under shade of abundant biodiversity. Our agricultural practice favors concentrated monoculture so that crops are easy to harvest and replant.

In order to find answers and solutions for these problems, I started searching on the internet and came across SRI on the website maintained at Cornell University. SRI provided many insights and a realization of the fact that during transplantation, plants should not undergo trauma; root-hairs should not be broken; early transplanting can improve tillering; plant spacing is important to optimize, not minimize; the application of compost improves organic matter in the soil for better water absorption and retention. All around me, farmers were not practicing what SRI was proposing.


Rice was not a crop being grown on our farm, but I decided to plant rice using SRI fundamentals. There were many challenges to be dealt with. Soil and plants should not be kept inundated. So, we made raised beds with a specially-designed machine so that water could flow along the channels between the beds. Lateral water flow into and under the raised beds provided the moisture needed for plant growth. The field on which this first SRI trial was conducted was 45 acres (17.8 ha), much more than a typical ‘test plot.’


Rice plants should be transplanted within 10 to 15 days after germination, according to SRI experience. Normally in Punjab, rice seedlings are transplanted into muddy soil, with standing water on it. So, how could we transplant young seedlings on dry raised beds with the temperature over 50°C (122°F)? The roots of seedlings would dry out within a matter of minutes. To overcome this challenge, we developed a transplanting machine that could drive up and down the long raised beds making small holes spaced 22.5 cm apart between plants and between rows. The holes were 5 cm deep, and 7 cm across, and after each hole was punched in the soil it was filled with water (110 ml, or 3.7 fl. oz.). Labourers riding on the machine dropped a young 10-day seedling into each hole as the machine passed over the beds. The water put in the holes enabled the seedlings to survive in the heat until the beds could be flooded after transplanting was completed (in about 2 hours). This innovation in mechanical transplanting was a success as the young plants restarted their growth without their experiencing trauma.

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The next challenge was weed management. In the traditional system, seedlings more than a month old are transplanted into standing water. The tops of the seedlings are floating on the water. They require a few weeks to regain their turgor and stand upright, which is a loss of time. In standing water, weeds from the soil cannot grow, but with vigorous SRI rice plants, their growth can close the canopy, and shade will inhibit weeds from overriding the rice crop. Even if water is not standing, the crop can still grow well without much competition from weeds. However, there can be some weed growth initially, before the canopy closes. Our crop was on raised beds that could not be kept inundated. And for weedicides to be effective, inundation of the field for at least ten days beforehand is recommended, which was not part of our plan.


We decided to manage weeds mechanically. The area was too large (over 40 acres) for manual weeding, and there was no machine available in the world that could weed in between the rows planted at nine-inch row-to- row distance on raised beds. In my early days of farming, while I was customizing farm machinery by sitting in the shops of blacksmiths for days and weeks, I had learned machine designs, functions, working, and their fabrication. My skills were further enhanced during the 1980s and 1990s when I was selling farm machinery and managing tractor manufacturing. Machine designing had become my hobby, so we took another challenge: to design a machine that could weed and aerate crop plants, weeding and aerating the soil between precisely-planted rows. The time was very short, just two weeks. It can be appreciated that the development of a new machine takes time, even with best of resources.

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Weeder aerator designed to suppress weeds in rice

Our next step was to understand why establish some crops, especially rice, by transplantation. Thinking about this showed that 1) between the start of monsoon rains and the colder winter season, time was short for crop maturation; 2) if seed was broadcasted after the monsoons start, the seed won’t germinate in standing water; 3) weed management by transplanting in standing water was mostly a strategy to suppress weeds. With the modern means of mechanization, we could overcome these constraints. Now rice is direct-seeded on permanent raised beds covered with thick organic mulch, keeping the wide spacing of SRI.

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Rice seed planted in wheat residue with no-till precision planter

Our work didn’t stop here. We moved on to develop processes and machines for most of other crops, wheat, potatoes, maize, various vegetables, etc., keeping in view the desirability of crop rotation and transition from one crop to another. In our situation in Punjab, we can get three crops per acre per year. Many small farmers are following permaculture on permanent raised beds already for the last five years. We recommended to some farmers that they mix peas and radish. These farmers were able to take and sell 5 crops of radish between September and March, over a million radishes per acre (250,000 per harvest) by count, in addition to harvesting a good crop of green peas. This practice we called ‘circular production’ as the new seed is planted immediately after harvesting. With good space and time management, a farmer can earn over a million PKR per acre per year. This has resulted in poverty alleviation and low-cost production of food without contamination of toxins.


In locations where the cropping pattern is one crop a year or a cash crop followed by a cover crop, there is sufficient time for crop residues to bio-digest before planting the next crop. In our situation, we only get a few days in between harvesting and planting of the next crop. Residues of rice, maize and sugarcane are thick and not brittle enough for machine tools to shred to cover that soil. This is why plant residues are put on fire at present, contaminating the atmosphere with smog, CO₂, and other pollutants. This problem is tackled now. We have developed low-cost machines to plant the next crop soon after harvest without burning the residue, planting the next crop’s seeds through the crop residue of previous crop.

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No-till precision planter is planting wheat in standing cotton

I am probably one of the few persons in the world who has gone through so many aspects of agricultural production, starting from hands-on farm development; crop production; open- pollinated and hybrid seed production; machinery customization and adaptation; dealing in agrochemicals, seeds, fuels and lubricants; alternate energy products; growing, refining and selling biofuels; marketing the entire range of farm machinery; constructing widespan buildings and silos; value addition and marketing of farm produce; manufacturing tractors; designing and fabricating conventional machines; processing machinery; running a seed processing plant; credit placement and recovery; bank management; information technologies; healthcare outreach; audio equipment assembly for automobiles; room air conditioners; security and traffic management systems; controlled atmosphere storage; advocacy on farm sector to policy makers; diplomacy as honorary consul; and back to farming again. This time I am developing processes rather than products. I have lived through the initially-optimistic but now debilitating phase, when crop yields rose but then stagnated, relying on improved seeds, the excessive use of agrochemicals, the overuse of water, and heavy tillage.


Further, realization of the perils of climate breakdown necessitated deeper study of natural processes of sustainability and adaptation of these in our production agriculture, farmers training, facilitation of improvement, and poverty alleviation. First-hand experience along the entire spectrum of agricultural enterprise makes me unique. More important is that I have never worked for anybody in my life. I was able to be an initiator throughout my practical life, and never accepted Government or donors funding for development or operation. Developers are neither sellers nor buyers, but they can be a resource. Fulfilment is the end goal, and thinkers provide direction and vision for developers. I like to think of myself as a thinker as well as a developer.


There are still many challenges, mainly to mechanize these processes as labour in the agricultural sector is becoming scarcer and more expensive as so many people in the villages move to the cities. Also, agricultural labour is a very demanding and often debilitating vocation. So, reducing the stress and strain as well as hazards of labour is desirable. I started with the ideas of SRI and Conservation Agriculture and organic farming, welding their principles together and adding elements to make them more effective and more profitable.


The composite set of practices wedding these practices together we call PQNK (pronounced as ‘picnic’). This acronym stands for Paedar Qudratti Nizam Kashatqari, an Urdu name which means Sustainable Natural Farming System. It can be adapted for the convenience of each category of farmer and each investment capacity. As seeds come in different sizes and shapes, they each require suitable conditions to become established and grow, most importantly, warmth and moisture to trigger germination. We try to make all practices malleable enough to suit different crops and situations, capitalizing on biological dynamics that have evolved over millennia.


Appropriate production systems for all crops and orchards in most combinations and rotations have been developed, tested, and are being accepted by thousands of farmers. The Facebook page reach for PQNK as of Dec 2021 had ten million. Achieving all this without tilling the soil and keeping it covered with thick organic mulch (see picture below) is challenging. Spacing, timing and other management practices are all more productive if optimized for the local conditions.

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The standard one-size-fits-all recommendations that farmers have become accustomed to receiving from extension teachers and advisors are likely to be sub-optimal for most farmers. Recognizing the variability of situations as well as the generality of the basic principles of agroecology, PQNK is aiming to refashion and reconstruct the agricultural sector in Pakistan, aligning it with the processes and potentials of nature. It has taken a good part of a lifetime for me to appreciate this. But there is no need for everyone to have to learn this over and over again. Those who have developed SRI, Conservation Agriculture, and natural farming have mapped out a path for agriculture that is more productive, more remunerative, and more sustainable.

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For more information on PQNK, view pictures, videos and farmers’ comments on

Facebook: www.facebook.com/Pedaver

YouTube: https://youtube.com/user/aasifsharif         

E-mail: pedaver@gmail.com               

The meaning of Pedaver is Transformative Producer.

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