The best accidents are the happy ones. They come as surprises, but instead of delivering misfortune they bring opportunity.
That’s what happened years ago on my farm, when we discovered what is now called the Saguna Regenerative Technique—a method of agriculture that started out as a new way to cultivate rice, but whose broad lessons are starting to improve crop production across India.
In the 1990s, I became interested in solving a problem with rice farming. We need to produce enormous amounts of rice, which about half of the world’s people eat daily. Yet the production of this staple crop involves so much hardship and humiliation that lots of people refuse to engage in it. In today’s practice of paddy cultivation they do not have an option to get rid of plowing, puddling, transplanting, and ditching in the process.
One of the goals of my farm is to restore dignity to agriculture—and I will not rest till I find a way to help rice farmers grow food with pride.
Then came my happy accident.
In 2011, on my farm which is south of Mumbai in the Raigad district of Maharashtra, I had set aside a large plot of land for groundnuts, known as “peanuts,” elsewhere. We planted them in an area with raised beds and drip irrigation, but about three-quarters of the way through the job my seed was exhausted. I was hesitant to leave the remaining beds empty and barren, but my only easy option was to plant rice to make it look good and green.
Passers-by laughed at me for the side-by-side planting of two crops. Rice needed a lot of water which was detrimental to groundnuts. To them, it was senseless.
But then an astonishing thing happened: Both crops did well and that included a higher yield in the rice also.
Scientists know that the validity of their experiments depends on whether others can replicate them—and so I tried to confirm this new technique on multiple plots on my farm in 2012. The results were promising, and I encouraged nearby farmers to try it out. I guaranteed these farmers I would compensate them if they suffered losses in yield.
Fortunately, everyone got much higher yields than they had expected. The Saguna Rice Technique (SRT), as we came to call it, was a proven concept.
One of the main benefits of SRT is that it’s a no-till method. Because we have removed the atrocity of tillage, our soil stays in place rather than erodes. The soil also is healthier, as it encourages the natural production of earthworms and increases the organic carbon in the soil. This allows roots to thrive and crops to prosper.
And very importantly, it eliminates the drudgery that surrounds traditional paddy rice farming: No more ploughing, no more puddling, and no more of the manual transplantations that have made rice farming an unattractive way to make a living.
Through innovation, we had returned dignity to farmers.
We didn’t stop there. From the beginning, we applied the no-till methods of SRT to other crops on our farm: pulses, vegetables, corn, and more. It worked for them as well.
Cotton and soybeans posed a challenge, however, because they often struggle in soils with lots of clay and poor drainage. Then, in 2019, an officer who was in charge of the “Project on Climate Resilient Agriculture (PoCRA)” from the World Bank brought growers from a drought-prone district to our farm. He wanted to introduce them to SRT, but most of our guest farmers were skeptical.
One courageous farmer decided to take a chance. He used SRT on his cotton crop—and achieved excellent results. In 2020, about 30 of his neighbors adopted the method as well. The next year, 300 tried it and this year the number has grown to more than 1,000. All of this new change took place without big supportive monetary attractions. Seeing the success of SRT was the only motivation they needed, and now successful farmers are helping their needy neighbors.
The biggest attractions to the farmers are the cost of cultivation dropping drastically, their dependence on labor reduced, and seeing the increased natural earthworm presence in their land for the first time confirming improved health of the motherly land along with enhanced biodiversity. They are also noticing a marked drop in the pest and disease attacks on their crops, delivering the visible impact on productivity which is at least 30% increased and sometimes double as compared to their traditional counterparts.
As we watched SRT spread beyond rice farming, we realized that we couldn’t keep calling it the “Saguna Rice Technique.” That’s why it was recently renamed the “Saguna Regenerative Technique,” which emphasizes its adaptability to multiple crops as well as the way it boosts biodiversity, conservation, and sustainability.
SRT is now on the threshold of becoming a major movement in agriculture and has precisely addressed the needs of the smallholder farmer—and it all started with a happy accident in India.