When worms compost, why vermicompost?(Edit)

08 July 2006

In my infinte ignorance I had believed that plants need man-fed nutrition and set up a vermicomposting bed at a total cost of around 1500 rupees. I hired local women-workers to hunt earthworms and offered to pay them 50 rupees per kilo. Within a few days, they caught around 10 kilos of earthworms and I shelled out 500 rupees, congratulating myself on my social responsibility in providing local employment and my economic intelligence in buying worms at 1/6th the cost of what I have to pay if I bought from commercial vermicomposting units. I also bought semi-decomposed farmyard manure for 500 rupees and spent 500 rupees building a spacious thatched shed with bamboo and coconut leaves. This was around 4 months back. I was very happy to see the worms multiplying fast and also devouring the manure fast. I felt on top of the world that I am on the verge of mastering organic farming. Little did I realize the humbling lesson I was to get in a few weeks.

Last week, we irrigated our fields to prepare them for sowing of daincha. I went around my field trying to see how far the water had progressed, and I was pleasantly shocked to see that my field was not the hard and cracked clay bed that my neighbours' fields are, but it was soft as a bed to the touch and my feet went 6 inches or more inside the topsoil. I was ankle deep in soft clay. This was plain amazing! How can land that has been baked in the hot sun and left fallow for 3 months be so porous and soft? It ought to be cracked and hard. Then on closer look I found that there was a very rich eco-system in my topsoil. There were numerous plants (I dont like to call them weeds) that had grown of their own and mulched the ground and retained soil moisture. Innumerable insects were crawling all over the soil. Centipedes and ants were busy all over the place. Since my land was the only fallow land, all the village cattle had grazed there for 3 months and everywhere there were droppings of cows, goats and lots and lots of bird droppings.

I also saw several anthills and I was just admiring all this when the anthills didnt look like anthills. I bent down and saw that they were all castings of earthworms! I gently dug out some soil and I could see several large and small worms crawling in the few hundred grams of clay in my hand. Excited, I kept digging all over with my hands and wherever I dug I came up with earthworms! And then I realized that I am a complete idiot and I know nothing at all about farming. My composting bed made the labour of Sisyphys very meaningful!

Left to itself the soil is capable of repairing all damage we have caused to it - in a very short time. If we return all biomatter to the soil we need not do anything else to make the soil fertile. Earthworms are the real tillers of the soil. Actually the soil belongs to the worms and insects and the invisible micro-organisms. We should feel grateful to them for letting us grow our food out of their home.

Farming is more about knowing what not do than what all to do. With apologies to Thoreau I would like to say : "That farmer is best who farms least". We should submit ourselves completely to Nature and quietly enjoy the endless bounty that she bestows on us, untiringly. Nature's nature is to give endlessly. We should be ready to receive it thats all!

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