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Regenerative Agriculture Helps Nepali Farms Bloom

iDE is powering farmers to protect the environment using natural remedies

21X9 Hero Kamala Nepal

“I plant marigold in rows around my tomato crops as an alternative to using insecticides,” says Kamala Khadkha.

Marigolds are cherished in Nepali culture as a symbol of energy, enthusiasm, and creativity. Local people welcome guests with garlands made from the bright orange blooms, which are also draped over doorways during Tihar, the annual Hindu festival of lights. But marigolds, known locally as sayapatri, also serve a utilitarian purpose for Nepali farmers, who use the flowers as a natural bug repellant. While beautiful, marigolds give off a musk-like odor that drives insects away from crops they might ordinarily feed on. “I plant marigold in rows around my tomato crops as an alternative to using insecticides,” says Kamala Khadkha, 52, who has been farming the hills near Pokhara in central Nepal for 16 years. A mother of three sons, she also makes a tidy profit selling the flowers to her neighbors during the festival. As well as intercropping marigolds, Kamala practices other regenerative techniques to increase soil fertility. For example, she is now producing biochar by heating organic material in an oxygen-starved pit in her garden. She spreads the charcoal-like substance into the soil to increase its water-holding capacity, prevent nutrient loss, and provide structure for microorganisms. “I’m optimistic about biochar. Soil health is very important. We should only use chemicals as a last resort,” says Kamala.

Biochar increases soil water-holding capacity, preventing nutrient loss, and providing structure for microorganisms.

Stewards of their lands as climate change takes effect

Integrating traditional ecological knowledge with modern agricultural practices is part of a growing trend in Nepal, casting farmers as stewards of their lands, which are being increasingly impacted by climate change, pests and diseases and harmful farming practices. In recent years, the agricultural sector in Nepal has been substantially impacted by infestations of fall armyworms and other pests, which threaten food security across the country by destroying staple crops. Scientists say higher temperatures, caused by climate change, can prolong infestations. With 80 percent of Nepal’s population engaged in agricultural production, and two fifths of the population living in poverty, iDE is powering smallholder farmers to gain access to the regenerative knowhow, products, and tools they need to be successful.

Moreover, to combat pests and disease, many farmers are choosing to return to traditional remedies, trading chemical pesticides and herbicides, which leave heavy metals, acid and other pollutants in the soil, for naturally occurring products and methods. In this article, we explain how iDE is assisting the switch, intervening at critical points within the agricultural market system, where we apply our expertise and resources, aiding small scale entrepreneurs to prosper on their own terms. In concert with government and community partners, iDE is promoting behavior change and powering low-income farmers such as Kamala to focus on topsoil nutrition and carbon sequestration, mitigating climate change and enabling alternative income streams. To ensure farmers successfully implement sustainable practices, we also provide training on regenerative technologies and facilitate last mile access to organic supplies needed for growing crops. 

Regenerative agriculture: How we're promoting it in Nepal

Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices aimed at increasing biodiversity, enriching soil, improving watersheds, and enhancing ecosystem services. These practices put soil life at the center of the farming system, capturing carbon in the soil and promoting above-ground biomass, creating an opportunity to mitigate and possibly reverse the impacts of climate change. At the same time, regenerative agriculture offers increased yields, boosting income streams for farming and ranching communities. Regenerative agriculture is about harnessing healthy soil systems to not only increase productivity, but also to protect lands, leading to sustainable and long-term functional food systems that put people and the planet first. Current and recent iDE projects include:

  • Procter & Gamble Alumni Grant: US$25,000. Empowering women by supporting vermicompost businesses, strengthening local economies. The project is assessing the impact of vermicompost and creating sustainable demand through solution-oriented research.

  • Feed the Future Integrated Pest Management: US$845,209. The project is strengthening Nepal's agriculture sector by mitigating risks to crop health, implementing pest control technologies within vegetable, rice, lentils, and maize value chains.

  • Biofertilizer Enterprises for Vegetable Production in Nepal (BEVPIN): US$100,000. The project's goal has improved economic growth, livelihoods, and food security for smallholder farmers in the Karnali province by establishing community-managed vermicompost fertilizer enterprises.

Sunil Pandey tests for a range of micronutrients, pH level, texture, and moisture.

Scientist tests for soil nutrients and acidity levels

Dressed in a white coat, government scientist Sunil Pandey runs soil samples through a battery of chemical tests in his laboratory. The samples come from farms across Gandaki Province in central Nepal, some collected by technicians and others delivered by farmers themselves. Sunil is testing for a range of micronutrients, pH level, texture, and moisture. But mostly he wants to know the parameters of the three key elements: nitrogen, needed for growth, phosphorus, required for grain formation, and potassium, needed to produce sugar. Without potassium, he says, plants cannot respire. But in recent decades, Sunil says, nutrients in soil across the province have been degraded. “Farmers have fewer animals because they don’t need oxen to pull plows anymore. We have less compaction and less compost application. Farmers today use chemical fertilizer, leading to acidity in the soil. That’s the problem.” Sunil provides technical support and oversight to iDE’s interventions in the region. Working alongside iDE, the government is also promoting the use of organic fertilizer such as vermicompost, as well as agricultural lime, which increases the pH level in the soil. While awareness about the benefits of compost is widespread, he said its availability needed to increase.

Farmers use pheromone traps to fool male bugs

As a lead farmer, Padam Bahadur Rana, 55, demonstrates how to deploy regenerative agriculture techniques, including the use of traps to control pests that feed on his crops. The traps are distributed around his crop rows, where he grows vegetables, and use pheromones to lure the bugs, such as fruit flies and leaf miners, to their demise. “The male insects think they are going to meet a female,” says Padam, “They get caught inside the trap and then they die. In the next generation, there are fewer males so they have difficulty breeding.” As much as 75 percent of cucumber crops can be destroyed if pest management practices are not deployed, says Padam. He was selected as a lead farmer after meeting with iDE staff who were running a research project to refine regenerative farming techniques. Padam is now sharing the tools and technologies developed by the project among a group of 75 farmers, who live near Nepalgunj, in Nepal’s south-west. He is teaching them about pest management, safe pesticides, the use of vermicompost and growing seedlings in plant nurseries.

16 9 Farmer Looking At Soil Nepal

Bal Bahadur Rokay says these days it's better to produce vermicompost than milk at his buffalo farm.

Buffalo dung becomes fertilizer and income stream

Not far from Lumbini, the historic birthplace of Buddha, Bal Bahadur Rokay, 66, runs a commercial buffalo farm, established to produce milk and breed calves. But when the dairy business began losing money, the association behind the farm started a new venture, producing vermicompost, an organic fertilizer made by treating manure with red earthworms. The compost, which resembles black dirt, provides a rich organic soil amendment, containing plant nutrients and beneficial microorganisms. “It’s easier and more profitable than producing milk,” says Bal, chairman of the association. “We’ve now reduced the amount of milk we produce and plan to get rid of the buffalos we no longer need.” To start the vermicompost business, iDE provided financing, helping the association build concrete pits where the compost is made from dung left behind by the association’s 85 buffalos. The fresh manure is collected in wheelbarrows from a barn where the buffaloes live, and then piled outside. Once partly dry, it is transferred into the pits before worms are added to the mix. The worms, also provided by iDE, eat the dry manure and excrete castings, which are gathered and sifted by hand, separating out unwanted organic matter. The remaining vermicast is shoveled into canvas bags, which are sealed with a hand-held sewing machine, also supplied by iDE, before the 5 and 25 kg bags are sold to farmers at a local market.

“Farmers want to use organic mechanisms to control pests and disease these days," says agrovet Bhagwan Parajuli.

Things are changing, says local agricultural input supplier

Bhagwan Parajuli sits at a cluttered desk in his agricultural supply store in Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city, at the foot of the Himalayas. After 20 years working from the store, the 56-year-old is surrounded by boxes, stacked on the floor, and shelves stocked with bottles and bags of fertilizer and insecticide. As well as the chemical products, Bhagwan sells organic products, which he says have become more popular in recent years. “Things are changing,” says Bhagwan. “Farmers want to use organic mechanisms to control pests and disease these days.” Taking down an item used to kill caterpillars, he explains it’s made from the neem tree, native to South Asia. Well known for its bulbous crown and medicinal properties, the tree is also used to make natural pesticides. Another bag contains Trichoderma, a fungus that protects crops from contracting root diseases, while another item is used to speed the decay of leaf litter and other organic matter, producing natural fertilizer. With some clients traveling to his store from distant villages, Bhagwan explains farmers prefer a wide variety of products, at affordable prices. “My clients believe in the quality of what I sell.” He also credits his success to referrals made by iDE-trained Farm Business Advisors, who make a commission selling his products door-to-door and promote organic items.

iDE strengthens farm sector at critical points

By intervening at critical entry points described above, iDE Nepal is working hard to promote the integration of traditional ecological knowledge with modern agricultural practices among last mile entrepreneurs and smallholder farmers. The farmers we partner with believe it is critical they return to their roots and act as stewards of their lands, not only to generate profit, but to ensure natural resources are protected and passed down to future generations. Working with local government, nonprofit and community partners, we are facilitating the provision of information, knowhow, supplies and technologies that Nepali farmers need to be successful, making sure small scale agricultural production remains a viable livelihood for many years to come.

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