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 <pdh@u.washington.edu>
 "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
X-To:         agric-l%uga.BITNET@uwavm.u.washington.edu
X-cc:         agris-l%irmfao01.BITNET@uwavm.u.washington.edu
To:           Multiple Recipients of <AGRIS-L%IRMFAO01.BITNET@vm.cnuce.cnr.it>
Status: RO

Date: Fri, 28 May 93 07:35:18+050
From: "Prof. Anil Gupta" <anilg@iimahd.ernet.in>

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
            (Kanetkar, 1992).

                   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.
             Early Days

                  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
                         organic carbon,
                   (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
            looking for.

                  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
            (local deity).

                  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
            disease problems).

                  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
            and colleagues.

            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
            sugar cooperatives.

                  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
            laid out.
             (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
            horse urine.

                  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 -