Vermiculture--Indian experience and experiments
I am forwarding the following email on vermicomposting.
STOP HERE AND DELETE if worm compost does not interest you.
Date: Tue, 1 Jun 93 16:41:28 ITA
Reply-To: Preston Hardison <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"The Food and Agriculture Organization Library Bulletin Service AGRIS-L" <AGRIS-L%IRMFAO01.BITNET@vm.cnuce.cnr.it>
From: Preston Hardison <pdh@U.WASHINGTON.EDU>
Subject: Vermiculture--Indian experience and experiments
To: Multiple Recipients of <AGRIS-L%IRMFAO01.BITNET@vm.cnuce.cnr.it>
Date: Fri, 28 May 93 07:35:18+050
From: "Prof. Anil Gupta" <email@example.com>
I am enclosing a report prepared by Astad Pastakia, doctoral student working
with me at IIMA on sustainable Pest Management. He has met some of the
leading vermiculture practitioners in the country. This report will appear
in the next issue of Honey bee---a journal of farmers; innovation and
sustainable technologies and institutions brought from here.
Comments are welcome:
anil K Gupta
The Missing Link
A report on Vermiculture by Astad Pastakia
Hemangee Jambhekhar and her husband Abhay are among
the pioneers of the vermicompost industry in India.
Vermicomposting is the process of preparing compost from
organic waste with the help of earthworms. The Jambhekhars
believe that vermicompost is a natural product with the
potential of revolutionising Indian agriculture. The response
of early adopters among farmers has been equally
enthusiastic. The enterprise has received wide media
coverage. The Entrepreneurship Development Institute has
recognised Hemangee's efforts by including a write - up in
its recently published book on women entrepreneurs of India
It was Hemangee who during the course of her field
experiments for her dissertation, realised that vermi-
composting could be the missing link between chemical farming
and organic farming a la Fukuoka. Realising that the idea
could "fundamentally alter the basic concept of agriculture"
Abhay decided to join Hemangee in her effort to popularise
the idea. What follows is a brief account of the journey from
discovery and innovation to enterprise.
In 1973, both Abhay and Hemangee joined as "pracharaks"
in an institute for leadership development, called Nayana
Prabhodini, at Pune. The institute, founded in 1962 by
Dr.V.V.Pendse was based on the philosophy of Swami
Vivekananda. The institute had a department of Psychology
which conducted I.Q. tests in order to select outstanding
students for leadership training in its school. In order to
attain financial independence the institute had started a
factory for manufacturing electrical capacitors. The factory
had attained a turnover of about one crore rupees when
certain changes in the environment of the industry took
place. The institute's response was to invest in the
khandsari industry. As it turned out, this investment
resulted in losses with the collapse of khandsari industry.
Subsequently the business was wound up and a fabrication shop
was set up.This was handed over to an aluminous of the
institute to manage, with some arrangement for payment of
rent to the institute.
In 1984-85, Hemangee went to Punjab on behalf of the
institute for a project on national integration. She was
there for two years. Her analysis of the situation in Punjab
led her to believe that the social disturbance there could be
traced to economic disturbance. The cost of production in
green-revolution areas had shot up. This was one of the
factors for economic disturbance.
After returning from Punjab, Hemangee decided to do her
doctorate in the area of communication under Dr.Bhinde who
was the director of EMRC at Pune University. The latter was a
pioneer of several departments at the University. He
suggested five topics for her dissertation work. Hemangee
chose the one related to communication of earthworm
technology. The choice was guided partly by her academic
background (she had a post graduation in Chemistry) and
partly by her experience in Punjab.
Meanwhile Abhay had got involved in agriculture
through the farmer's movement led by Sharad Joshi during his
college days. In one of the meetings Abhay recalls
questioning the strategy of the movement, in lobbying for
remunerative prices. Given the fact that input expenses of
farmers were rising all the time, what could be achieved by
getting remunerative prices ? One should concentrate on
controlling input costs. "That will be the real magic."
Sharad Joshi asked him to come up with the alternatives . He
himself continued with the policy of lobbying for better
commodity prices. More recently, he too has turned round to
promoting "sita seti" -- the "do nothing" approach to
farming. Hence when Abhay completed his graduation in
commerce, he started showing interest in Hemangee's project.
Conceptual Breakthrough :
Hemangee realised that alternative agriculture as
proposed by Fukuoka in his "One Straw Revolution " (1978)
was not viable in Indian conditions. Japan enjoyed rains four
times a year. In India, except for few pockets, rains were
not so frequent. More than half of Indian agriculture was
practiced under dryland conditions. Hence an alternative
system of farming, different from the one proposed by Fukuoka
had to be evolved, which would be appropriate for Indian
Soil management was seen as the key to such a system
and "humus" formation as the key to good soil management.
This was because humus could affect the physical, chemical
and biological properties of soil. Hemangee therefore
concentrated her efforts on ways of improving humus
formation, for which surface earthworms became the natural
Humus formation " in situ" was not possible in Indian
rainfed conditions because of three reasons:
(i) uncertainty of rains,
(ii) heavy sunlight -- causing heavy losses of
(iii) lack of organic matter.
Hence addition of humus to the soil was essential --
particularly for dry lands and on farms where chemical
fertilization was being discontinued. Vermicompost offered a
promising way to fill this requirement of humus.
Earthworms work symbiotically with micro-organisms.
This greatly enhances the ability of the latter in reducing
raw organic matter into compost. The time needed to compost
agricultural waste is brought down from six months to one
The choice of earthworm is an important aspect in the
evolution of the technology. Out of 3000 known species of
earthworms, Hemangee selected two deep burrowing types and
two surface types of earthworms for her initial experiments.
After the first few trials she had settled for surface
earthworms. The technical considerations that led to this
choice are important and are discussed in a later section.
Hemangee received a scholarship to do her Ph.D.in
communications from a private firm called Western India
Enterprises. Mr. Avinach Waddekar the proprietor of of the
firm was interested in the earthworm technology for disposal
of lignitious and agro-industrial wastes. He encouraged
Hemangee to experiment on vermicomposting at his twenty-five
acre farm ,close to Pune.
In the compost application experiments, yield data of
vermicompost plots were compared with those plots where only
organic and only chemical methods were used. The data showed
that while yield of organic plots were supressed the yield of
vermicompost plots were almost the same as those of
chemically treated plots. For Hemangee this was a major break
through. It implied that farmers need not worry about
superssion of yields on discontinuance of chemical methods,
if they took care to apply vermicompost. This was the missing
link between chemical and organic farming that she was
The opportunity to test these ideas of the farmers'
fields came when members of the Maharashtra State Grape
Growers' Association approached her on hearing about her work
with earthworms. The grape farmers had problems of salinity
and waterlogging in their fields for which they were in
search for solutions. The Association sponsored on-farm
trials of vermicompost for three years. Seventy -two grape
vines were treated and data on soil, yield etc. was
systematically collected. The results were very encouraging.
Hemangee advised the grape growers to adopt the concept
and prepare vermicompost in a small portion of their farms.
However the latter wanted her to prepare compost for them, as
they did not have the time. It was perhaps around this time
that Hemangee and Abhay decided to set up an enterprise for
manufacture of vermicompost.
Technological Package :
Vermicompost has a triple action on the soil:
(i) it improves the physical structure of the soil
(ii) it improves the biological properties of the soil
( enrichment of micro-organisms, addition of growth hormones
such as auxins and gibrellic acid, addition of enzymes such
as phosphates, cellulase etc.) and
(iii) attraction of deep burrowing earthworms already
present in the soil.
The triple -action results in a host of inter-related
benefits to the soil, such as improved plant nutrient
availability, better water -holding capacity, better water
infiltration, soil -erosion control, improved aeration,
improved organic carbon content etc. All these improvements
contribute to dramatic improvement in soil health and
fertility. The crops grown on these soils are as a
consequence healthy too. They are naturally more resistant to
disease and pests .Food produced in this way is wholesome and
Over the years Hemangee studied the earthworm population
of various soils and found most soils (even saline and
alkaline ones) had their own stock of earthworms. Hence there
was no need to introduce earthworms from outside. (Besides
attempts to introduce earthworms exogenously had resulted in
failure on account of high mortality rates and inability of
the worms to adjust to the changed environment. Addition of
vermicompost activated the local earthworms and gave them the
chance to improve their activity.
The Jambhekhars caution that vermicompost should not
be seen as a substitute for external chemical inputs. Rather
it should be viewed as one component in a wholistic approach
to farming. In order to communicate this message to the
farmers in Maharashtra in a better way, they have coined the
four "Gas" (four Gs) viz. (i) Ganndul (earthworm ) (ii) Gai
(cow) (iii) Gavat (grasses ,herbs and weeds) (iv) Ganesh
The significance of cow in traditional Indian
agriculture is well known. Some grape farmers are known to
control mealy bugs in their crops by spraying 1% urine
solution, every fifteen days .Cow urine is added for
composting of lignitious material along with cow dung.
(Buffalo dung may also be used, but according to Hemangee cow
dung is better.)
Conventional farming discourages grasses and weeds,
although intercropping with legumes is not looked down upon.
The practice of intercropping should be revived and grasses
should be encouraged. This will confer the twin benefits of
improved organic carbon along with other nutrients and
mulching of soil resulting in soil and soil- moisture
conservation. Grasses save the the soil from extremes of
temprature and moisture. (Excess moisture is known to create
Lord Ganesh is chosen as a symbol of nature. Farmers
are exhorted to work closely with nature and adopt natural
practices. Lord Ganesh has a very strong following in
Maharashtra and is considered the "vigna harta" or one who
delivers man from all kinds of difficulties. This Ga
emphasises the right attitude needed for sustainable farming.
The extension efforts of the Jambhekhars have begun to
make an impact. Some of the grape farmers are now beginning
to see the advantages of allowing grasses to grow in their
fields. Sugarcane farmers have started intercropping with
crops like sesbania, soyabean, stylo etc.
Surface versus deep Burrowing Earthworm technology
While Uday Bhawalkar, founder - director of Bhawalkar
Earthworm Research Institute, also in Pune,is actively
promoting "in situ" composting with the help of deep
borrowing earthworms, Hemangee has opted for the surface
variety. Her main arguments are summarised :
(i) Deep varieties do not take active part in humus
formation. Their feed consists of 90% soil and 10% nearly
degraded organic matter. On the other hand the feed of surface
varieties consists of 90% fresh organic matter and only 10%
soil. Their excreta is rich in humus.
(ii) Deep varieties cannot survive in the environment of
rapidly decomposing organic matter while surface varieties
thrive in such environments.
Hemangee got her sample earthworms from University of
Agricultural Sciences,Hebbal,Bangalore. The species she is
currently using is Eisenia foetida , an exotic species
introduced from California.
Hemangee's argument is for promotion of "humus formers"
rather than "humus feeders" --as is being done by Bhawalkar
The Vermicompost Enterprise :
Abhay was a member of a partnership firm which was in
the electronics business. With the backing of this group, the
Jambhekhars set up another partnership concern exclusively
for wormicompost business. It was registered as Maharashtra
Agricultural Bioteks, with head office in Pune. Subsequently
another firm "Parashar Biotecks Private Ltd." was set up to
take care of the expanding business in Gujarat state (mostly
Surat district). The private limited firm was preferable to
a partnership firm on account of better tax benefits. (This
factor however has once again tilted in favour of partnership
firm in the recently declared Union Budget.)
Creating a Market:
Hemangee recalls that in creating the market, "concept
selling" had to take precdence over "product selling". Once
again they decided to approach farmers directly. The contact
with sugarcane farmers was established at the annual meeting
of the Deccan Sugarcane Growers' Federation, where they had
distributed some literature on vermicomposting. Immediately
after this meeting, Mr.Kishore Desai of Sayan Sugar
Cooperative brought a group of 120 farmers to visit their
farm. The farmers decided to devote 50 acres of their land to
the vermicomposting method of farming during the first year.
At the end of the year the yield in these plots had increased
from between 10 - 15 tons/acre. More interestingly there was
a 0.6% increase in sugar recovery rate. Furthermore, plots
suffering from waterlogging and salinity were also benefited.
The salinity level came down from 1 mmhos/cm to 0.36
mmhos/cm. The following year the cooperative expanded the
area under the new technology to 500 acres.
News about Sayan Cooperative's sucess began to spread
through farmers' informal networks. Soon the Sugar
Cooperatives at Chalthan and Bardoli approached Hemangee with
requests for supply of vermicompost. Recently the company
successfully processed an order of 1200 tons for Gujarat
It is interesting to note that even as the volume of
transactions increased, Hemangee did not give up hr tradition
of experimentation. A visit by Dr.Gowarikar, chairman , Dept.
of Science and Tchnology, launched her into a project to
promote vermicompost technology in the rest of the country.
The problem of root wilt in coconut in Kerala state was taken
up for study and experimentation. This problem is associated
with low organic matter content in soil. (Coastal saline
soils are typically low in organic matter). After 18 months
of treatment with vermicompost the colour of the leaves of
affected plants is changing. The experiment is planned for a
period of three years. Hemangee was delighted to find
earthworm activity even in sea-water conditions. The fact
that earthworms are marine animals that have adopted to
inland conditions provided the impetus for the experiment.
Such experiments enable the company to explore new market
potentials and widen the scope of the technology.
The sucess at concept and product selling had to be
backed up simultaneously with a reliable production unit.
Here again there were no prototypes to follow. Production was
started on a small scale of 1 ton/ month behind a cow shed.
After a short while this was shifted to the premises of a
pommegranade farmer who gave them three acres of land on
rental basis. The rent was linked to the sales turnover.
Within a short period of time the land owner was earning an
unreasonably high rent! Realising their mistake the green
entrepreneurs decided to shift their production facilities
This time the rent was fixed for a period of three years at
the rate of Rs. 10,000/ acre and a deed was signed to that
Production has now stabilised at around 200 tons/ acre.
However fluctuations in ordered quantities can be dealt with
by simply increasing or decreasing the number of compost
beds. Labor is hired on a daily wage basis at a rate of Rs
50/day. This adds to the flexibility of production facility.
Both Hemangee and Abhay supervise the production activity. In
case of a large order (such as thee 1200 ton order from
Gujarat ), their partners provide the necessary support.
Production activities can be summarised as follows:
(i) Procurement of cow -dung, leaf -litter, waste organic
matter, cow -urine etc.is organised.
(ii) Waste material is passed through a mechanical sieve
especially designed to remove non - biodegradable components
such as glass, plastic etc.
(iii) The clean material is laid on top of existing beds -
2 ft. high. The dimension of beds is about 10m. by 1m.
Earthworms usually burrow into the soil once the organic
matter is decomposed and emerge again when the new pile is
(iv) Beds are shaded in order to conserve moisture. Water
may be sprinkled from time to time as and when required.
(v) Technical parameters such as C:N ratio, available and
total N, moisture content and humus content are monitored
throughout the 30 day period of decomposition. Soon an
analytical facility will be established at the field itself -
with financial backing of the Grape Growers' Association.
(vi) The decomposed material is put together in a common
pile. The microbial activity and the heat generated by this
activity in the common pile ensures that any material left
undecomposed by the earthworms is taken care of.
(vii) The vermicompost is now packed in bags of 50 Kg.
each. The product is branded as "Bio - Fert". The storage
life is estimated to be two months .Hence production is
started only after receiving firm orders.
Two main problems being faced in the business are those
related to transport and quality.
Quality : The standards of quality are still in the process
of being evolved. Until this is done there is a chance that
unscrupulous elements will enter the business and give it a
bad name, there-by shaking the confidence of farmers in the
technology. Quality is also affected during storage. More
studies are needed to assess the nutrient losses and changes
in microbial population during storage.
Transport : Transport is a problem because of both, bulky
nature of the product as well as short shelf - life. Ideally
the technology should be decentralised and put in the hands
of the farmers. It is towards this end that Hemangee now
finds herself working.
Future Directions :
Hemangee's philosophical orientation as well as her
perception of the needs of the industry have led her to get
involved in training projects for farmers. In Goa she trained
fifty farmers. One of the farmers there makes 100 tons of
vermicompost per year for his 50 acres of grape farm. Within
a space of six years his yield has increased from 10 to 14
tons/acre. The C:N ratio has come down from 15 to 10, which
is considered the optimum for humus formation. The quality of
grapes produced is so high that well- wishers pray that it
will not be affected by the evil eye ("Najar na Lag Jay").
About 30% of the output is exported to England as organically
produced fruit, at an average price of Rs 50/ Kg. (During
Christmas time the price realised was Rs./100/Kg.) Hemangee
believes that 80% of the grape and pommegranade exporters
depend on vermicultiure.
The present thrust on extension activity is likely to
increase in intensity with Hemangee devoting more of her time
to it. A video film is being planned under the DST project. A
Research and Training Institute for Organic Farming is in
the process of being formed. Such an institute will also make
use of traditional knowledge by studying traditional texts
such as "Krushi Parashar" and " Krushi Samhita". Parashar,
the pioneer of traditional agriculture in India has also
written on earthworms. For knowledge about cow urine, the
institute will work closely with aruvedic veds (medicine
men). Horse urine is also useful. It is not commonly known
that the first growth promoting hormones were extracted from
As the vermicompost technology diffuses to farmer
level, the nature of enterprise is also expected to change.
After about 5 - 10 years Parashar Biotecks and her sister
concern are likely to concentrate on breeding and selling of
earthworms. Consultancy and selling of knowledge for bio -
waste management may be another area of growth. A sugar
factory in Nagar district is interested in utilising its
baggase and pressmud (PMC). Distilleries are also keen on
utilising spent wash, a waste product of their industry.
These factories will be charged fees on a commercial basis.
It is likely that Abhay and his partners may take greater
charge of the enterprise level activity as Hemangee gets more
involved with research and extension.
- end -