'Look at the difference in our papayas,' says Jaya devi as she squats at the edge of the pit. Like most village women in Rajasthan in northwest India, she tugs the edge of her sari over her forehead as she speaks. But she has so much to show and say that it keeps slipping back.
She digs both her hands into the dark mulch in the pit and pulls out a mass of wriggling worms. 'Who would have believed that these could be so useful? she asks. 'People thought we were wasting money when we took out a loan to build these pits. But fertiliser is becoming so expensive, so we wanted to try other ways.'
She points at two papaya trees standing near the pits. 'I used the vermicompost on this one with the bigger fruit. We've already saved on five 50-kilogram bags of urea, which would have cost us 2,500 rupees (31 [pounds sterling]),' she says. 'After the pits are built and you add the worms, they can eat any organic waste to make the compost.'
As Jaya devi speaks, a man approaches the pits with an empty rice sack and starts digging up worms and mulch. He's one of her neighbours, and one of several who have asked her and her husband to show them how to make vermicompost. 'When people see the results, of course they want to do the same,' she says.
Water and fertile soil are essential for farmers everywhere, but in much of the developing world, one or both is often in short supply. For this reason, many development organisations are focusing on ways to improve water access and soil fertility for rural families, with some notable successes.
Based in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is a non-profit, nonpolitical organisation that conducts agricultural research for development in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, primarily working on drought-tolerant crops and sustainable land-management systems.
Suhas Wani, the principal scientist leading the institute's watershed-management programme, has been working with the Indian government, local NGOs, farm research centres and, most importantly, the villagers themselves for the past 30 years. His work has shown that an integrated approach that can take in everything from building dams and gullies to conserve rainwater and replenish groundwater to providing training on vermicomposting and strengthening women's self-help groups, can have a significant impact on crop yields and, consequently, household incomes.
Wani's research on micronutrient addition to smallholder fields has provided benefits for some 3.5 million families in eight states of India. 'While farmers know about the need for phosphate and nitrogen, few realise the importance of micronutrients such as zinc and boron for plant growth,' he explains. 'We train local farm centres to analyse the soil samples so that farmers are supported locally to manage their soil health in the long term.'
THE RIGHT BALANCE
'I learnt how to test my own soil with a simple kit,' says Niruji, from nearby Sharam village. 'The sample was sent to the local farm support centre, where it was tested, and then the researchers explained the results to me. They said that soil health is like human health. If we humans don't eat the right nutrients, we don't grow well: we aren't healthy. So it was like a health check-up for my land.
'The soil sample was lacking in many things, such as zinc, boron and sulphur,' she continues. 'They helped me to get these ingredients so that I could see how these would improve my harvest. Not only does my turmeric now mature faster, I get much more yield.' Niruji now sells her turmeric to one of India's largest spice companies, after the village was linked to them by a local NGO.
Wani's research also led to the resizing of the packs of micronutrients. In the past, they were only sold in bulk, making them unaffordable for small farming families, but fertiliser companies are now testing smaller packaging appropriate for one-acre (0. …