The shift from chemical fertilizers to organic fertilizers has been a much-debated topic ever since President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa banned the importation of chemical fertilizers in late April. While the politicos squabble about the feasibility and the cost of such a drastic change, a small village named Pokunutenna has already taken the initiative to make their own organic compost in time for the paddy cultivation season.
Eng. Lalith Seneviratne has made it his life’s mission to find sustainable solutions to issues that are making the lives of our farmers difficult. It was during one of his forays in search of such methods did he come across Pokunutenna, a quaint village that has come up with not one but two methods through which they can make organic compost in time for the season.
“Most of the issues we face in Sri Lanka have relatively straightforward solutions. My colleagues and I – all engineers – decided to come up with a few straightforward solutions for the current dilemmas faced by this country. And this is not a difficult task, because we only need to look as far as our past,” shared Seneviratne.
Organic vs. chemical
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, “composting is the natural process of the decomposition of organic materials by microorganisms under controlled conditions”. This includes raw organic material such as crop residue, animal waste, green manure, aquatic plants, industrial waste, city waste, food garbage, etc., which enhance their suitability for application to the soil as a fertilising resource, after undergoing the process of composting.
The end product of the process is compost or humus, which is of value in agriculture. “Chemical fertilisers, on the other hand, are fertilisers that have been made under controlled stages in order to ensure that the nutrients are in perfect balance. While this sounds like the better option, it is not necessarily so because once the chemical fertiliser is added to the soil, it absorbs the soil’s nutrients, making it only good enough for one crop,” Seneviratne pointed out.
Accordingly, using organic fertilisers adds to the richness of the soil, making it ready for the next crop and so on and so forth.
A land full of possibilities
Seneviratne said that for paddy cultivation, using organic fertilisers created by farmers themselves is the best method for a very prosperous yield.
“We have been invaded by all kinds of invasive plants and these plants can actually be made use of to make compost that is completely safe and will in turn also provide lasting nourishment to the soil,” he said.
The method in which to make fertiliser from invasive plants, moss, weed, and other organic items is easy enough, according to Seneviratne.
“We first collect all these discarded plants and organic items and let it sit under the sun and sky for several days before moving it to another area to start the process of making compost. This mixture will then be left as it is for about 15 days so that it will rot and combine before being readied for the next stage,” he explained.
He also added that plant by-products that remain after the first crop is taken can also be added to this mixture and be readied for the next crop. The mixture is then transported into large compost pits dug in soil and mixed about three times for a few months before the compost is ready to be used.
“This compost has to be added to the soil before the paddy is sown. That way, it will properly be absorbed into the soil, making it rich in natural compost for the next crop,” he said, adding that while most people make the mistake of adding compost after the fields are sown, a better yield can be obtained if the compost is already in the soil for the paddy to grow.
“You can make at least 1 kg of compost from 5 kg of the raw plant material. There will be no shortage of these plants because they are mainly weeds that grow easily and in any climate come rain or shine. So, there will be no shortage of compost either and our soil will be rich and sustainable for many years to come,” he said.
Bat guano as a fertiliser
We’ve heard of cow dung, horse dung, and other such animal excrements that make excellent sources of nutrition for the soil in terms of fertiliser. For those of us city-dwelling folk, the idea of using bat dung was a possibility that never occurred. However, bat dung – or guano, as it is better known in gardening terms – is an excellent fertiliser cum fungicide.
“Our ancestors had ample knowledge on how to make use of the natural resources we have been gifted. Before chemical fertilisers and artificial nutrient enhancers were introduced to our soil, our ancestors used pure organic material, and bat dung was one such magical solution,” Sneviratne noted.
Bat dung can be used as a soil conditioner which enriches the soil and improves the drainage and texture. This in particular is perfect for crops such as paddy. Bat dung also has the ability to control nematodes in the soil as well as to act as a natural fungicide. “Adding bat guano to the aforementioned compost pits will also speed up the decomposition process.”
Seneviratne said he came across an abandoned mud hut in the village of Pokunutenna that has been overtaken by bats. “The floor of the mud hut was full of compost made from bat excrements. The farmers used this compost in the past and they can use it today for their fields to be fertilised,” he added.
Recently, Minister of Agriculture Mahindananda Aluthgamage said the Government will pay a sum of Rs. 12,500 to farmers to produce carbonic fertilizer required for a hectare of farmland. The circular for this is yet to be released, but perhaps the farmers of Pokunutenna and the surrounding villages will be rewarded for their ingenuity.
Is there a fertiliser shortage?
Meanwhile, Aluthgamage assured there will be no shortage of fertilizer for the Yala harvesting season, in spite of the fact that there have been a number of farmers who claim to not have received the allocated quotas on time.
According to the Minister, fertilizer companies and the Fertilizer Secretariat have allegedly retained over 100,000 MT of fertiliser and have not released it to the market, thus causing the aforementioned shortage. He added that CIC had 21,000 MT, Baurs had 8,000 MT, and Hayleys had 28,000 MT that were not released to the market. However, these companies have been summoned and were instructed to release the fertilizer stocks to agrarian service centres within the week.
Aluthgamage also stated that the shortage of fertiliser is simply a myth and that many of the farmers who protested recently have already received their fertiliser.
While the Minister conceded that there was in fact a 4% shortage of fertiliser for the Medirigiriya area, he said that measures have been taken to address this and bring about a solution.
Accordingly, the government policy is to release 500 kg of compost fertiliser per hectare of paddy land; however, the macro-nutrients such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) are low in compost fertiliser. This is the reason Sri Lanka has to import nitrogen extracts. The Minister added that 35 kg of potassium will also be provided, in addition to approximately 10 litres of biofertiliser per hectare of paddy land.