Sunday, April 27, 2014

An Experiment with Azolla

Azolla? What's that? the question reverberated in my mind for quite some time before I actively started searching for answers.

AzollaThe government, as per the latest provisions under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), had included construction of 'Azolla' tanks along with cow sheds in villages. The search for answers led me to Google and then, some videos and blogs posted across the web. The Wikipedia suggested that Azolla (sc. name Azolla caroliniana), is a type of fern with very small leaves that is mostly found floating over still water bodies - lakes & ponds. Its nitrogen fixation properties make it useful as a bio fertilizer and fodder for animals. So that's where everything connected. Azolla tanks were to be constructed along with cow sheds to provide for additional fodder for the milch animals.
That cleared some air about what we were trying to do. Further exploration on the internet brought me across some videos (mostly from South India) about how to cultivate Azolla and a not so motivating paper on why such initiatives were not sustainable. According to the author, farmers mostly took up Azolla cultivation because they were provided with subsidies but did not find it beneficial and hence discontinued cultivation after some time. The situation seemed pretty similar to what we were faced with, but we anyways wanted to try it out once. Maybe we could just prove the paper wrong!
Now, with the concepts a bit clearer, it was time for some practicals. Cow sheds had already been constructed in many villages in the district and we were told that the Azolla tanks were lying unused as nobody had any idea about what was to be done with them. We selected a village Pachira, around 7 kms away from the district headquarters for our first experiment. 10 farmers in the village had been provided with cow sheds under NREGA, cows through loans under SGSY and were now to be provided with Azolla. Ideal convergence!
The veterinary department was contacted for Azolla seeds and a hands - on training for the farmers. The cynics there told us that a lot of farmers were provided with Azolla seeds in the past but it was never a success. We however managed to convince one of the veterinary doctors to carry out a training for the farmers in the village itself. What followed was a half an hour theoretical training on what is Azolla, its benefits and how to cultivate it. The farmers were probably as exasperated as we were!
However we were convinced to continue our efforts and by then, I myself knew exactly how Azolla was to be cultivated. The only thing lacking now was the seeds. Some exploration led us to another veterinary doctor who had some Azolla in his house and we managed to get the seeds from there. Armed with all the knowledge and the inputs, we reached the house of our first beneficiary. The tank was first filled with mud (around 20 kgs) and then about 5 kgs of cow dung slurry. It was then filled with water upto a height of 20 cms. and then the azolla seeds were spread out. I had found out that Azolla propogates really quickly and in about 15 days the entire tank would be filled. We had to keep the water level right and wait patiently!!
Even that proved to be a real challenge because the tank wasn't well constructed and had developed some leaks. The water dried out really quickly and the farmers' family wasn't as excited as us to carry 4 buckets of water from a nearby hand pump to fill the tank everyday. When we visited the house a week later, the tank had all but dried up and the Azolla had withered away. First hit! The tank was later cleaned by the farmer and everything had come back to null.
The experiment was dropped for sometime as other tasks gained preference. The farmers too never came back for guidance and it seemed even they weren't interested. So, the idea went into oblivion for quite some time when suddenly, one day out of the blue, we decided to make a trip to the veterinary hospital in a nearby district Koriya (around 40 kms away) to get some seed again. This time, we got half a sack full of Azolla and were determined to try out the experiment in at least a couple of households to increase the probability of success. The entire process was repeated again. We ourselves carried the mud, water and cow dung and prepared the tank. Cynics again told us that if the people were not interested, the experiment could never succeed. I still wanted to try out. To show the farmers that we had complete faith in the success of the initiative and were willing to work for it ourselves. It seems they did understand. One of the households had a well and a pump. Water wasn't a problem for them, the Azolla grew up really fast there and they have now begun feeding it to their buffaloes. The other household had to bring water from a nearby hand pump but thankfully, their tank did not have any leaks. The Azolla in their tank spread out in the first few weeks but dried up due to lack of water after some days due to the heat. We'll try it out with them again once the heat resides.
We now have constructed a dug out tank in our own office campus where the left over Azolla seeds were put. Even that has begun spreading and we should have our own tank full of Azolla soon. So then the first step completed, we need to make sure that the farmers realize its benefit and then scale the experiment up to other households and then to other villages. That should show us how subsidies can succeed!