Monday, February 23, 2009

This week's problem report:

All of our installations are complete now, which is good, since Anand and I were getting sick of peeling solvent cement off our hands at the end of each day, but it also means the glamorous part is over. Now things should be easy, right? Alas, it’s amazing how many different things can go wrong in this small corner of India. At least it keeps Anand and I busy.

First, filters. Since drip irrigation is rare in this part of India, we’ve had to do some searching to get enough filters in the right sizes. It’s a good thing we went through all that trouble: this week, we had two demonstrations of just how useful filters are.

Two filter models at the GEWP warehouse in Aurangabad

Our very first installation in Namaleri, at Mani’s farm, has had more than its fair share of problems, including several pump breakdowns. When we went to visit last Friday, it was great to see the pump working smoothly for a change. Then we realized no water was coming out of the drip lines. We checked the pump—still going strong—opened a valve in another field—plenty of water came out—and finally thought to ask Mani how long it had been since he washed the filter. A sheepish shrug confirmed that we’d found a likely solution. We unhooked the filter—quite exciting, since the pump was still going—and opened it up to find the mesh screen completely blocked. After a quick rinse, we plugged everything back together (another exciting experience—it’s a good thing it’s hot these days, considering how often I get drenched in an average day) and delighted that the water was now flowing smoothly.

Lesson #1: Always clean your filter regularly

Next we visited Durai’s farm in Kutchuwadi. He’s one of the last farmers we signed on, so he’d just gotten his field planted. We oohed and aahed over the little chili pepper seedlings (personally, I do think they’re more photogenic than tomato or eggplant seedlings), and were ready to leave when one of the women workers asked, a bit nervously, if we’d like to see the irrigation running. We said sure, and she started up the pump and filled the tank. We opened the main valve, heard the reassuring gurgle of moving water, and stepped into the field to see the first drops emerge. The first drops came… and then nothing else. Hm. After the adventure in Mani’s field, we checked the filter first. Funny, that: it was completely clogged with an odd grey substance that looked a bit like moldy tapioca. Or a bit more like pelleted DAP fertilizer. At this point, the woman confessed that it had seemed like a good idea, in order to get the fertilizer quickly and evenly to all the plants, to mix it into the main tank. And it is a good idea—it’s called fertigation, and it’s a very efficient way of getting water-soluble nutrients to plants. Note the water soluble part. While the nutrients are indeed soluble, pelleted DAP is not a good choice: we had another wet adventure getting as much of it into the field as possible (this involved Anand standing on the tank platform with a long bamboo pole, stirring steadily, while Durai’s workers and I shook the lines to keep the water flowing) and then giving tank, filter, and laterals a good rinse with clean water to get out the remaining chunks and insoluble binding agents. After a discussion about water-soluble fertilizers intended for drip, and how to pre-mix them in water before adding them to the tank, we continued on our rounds.

Lesson #2: If you want to try fertigation, invest in the right tools: a mixing tank and a fully soluble fertilizer.

Durai and Anand with what is not a mixing tank

Next we visited the Thambes: Chinna Thambe and Perya Thambe. We found no one at the house, so we walked out to the fields, and were a bit distressed to find that no progress had been made. The tanks were in place, the laterals all laid out, but the soil was dry and no seedlings had been planted. I was on my way to check the filter when Anand spotted Perya Thambe’s wife in the tomato field: she began explaining, at length, the source of their difficulties: since I’ve not yet learned any more Tamil language than “No, thank you, I’ve already eaten. What a beautiful motorcycle!” I waited patiently for the translation. I began to be alarmed, however, when the English word “hospital” seemed to be figuring prominently in the narrative. In bits and pieces, the translation came, with pauses, I think, for Perya Thambe’s wife to act out the interesting bits and comment on the upbringing and probable parentage of several people involved. It seems there is a tamarind tree in Nellukunde.

Exhibit A: A tamarind tree, though not the tamarind tree at the heart of the controversy

This tree was planted many years ago on a farm in Nellukunde, and when the farmer died, his land was divided between his sons. It so happened that this tree, squarely in the middle of the original parcel, was now in disputed territory. Both sons claimed ownership, and both, apparently, have persuasive arguments to back them up, because over time, many people in Nellukunde have also joined in the debate, which, though it began calmly enough, escalated last week to involve, as Anand reported, “Hitting, yes, kicking, yes, and tomato sticks hitting.” I eyed the pile of rather hefty tomato stakes at the edge of the field, each over six feet long and rather solid, and asked if we would be getting either of the Thambes back from the hospital? Perya Thambe’s wife assured us that he was not grievously injured, was expected to make a full recovery, that Chinna Thambe had not been involved in the fight but had accompanied his brother to the hospital for moral support, and that Perya Thambe was planning on planting watermelons. While this wasn’t our main concern at the moment, I was reassured that he was at least well enough to be planning his crops. Today on our way back from Denkanikottai, Anand spotted Perya Thambe near the bus stand, and we gave him a ride home; along the way we heard the full details of both the fight (14 men and 3 women involved, no life-threatening injuries) and the watermelons.

Lesson #3: I’m not sure what the lesson is here. Plan your children’s’ inheritance wisely and always plant more than one of each type of tree? Never pick fights near a pile of tomato stakes?

All the other problems our farmers have faced have been less unusual: electricity cuts, belated bullocks, leaky pipes, and late trucks. Luckily, no one in our pilot study has had elephant problems yet, though the forest herd has been as close as 60 ft from Mani’s house in Arsajul, looking for convenient stacks of harvested finger millet to munch on.