Imagine a fence around a farm which grows every day and protects the farmland from stray cattle and wild animals. It makes the crop resilient from pest attacks, helps maintain soil structure and prevents erosion during rains too.
That’s what Jagan Prahlad Bagade of Khaparwadi Budruk village in Akola district of Maharashtra did. He has raised a bio fence—entirely made of wildly grown cactus (locally known as nivdung)—which has now grown up to 12 ft and encircles his 30-acre farm.
Biofencing, also known as live fencing, is a line of trees or shrubs planted on farm or field boundaries. Less expensive and more useful than fences made of wood, barbed wire, or stone masonry, environmentalists consider them to be a biotic, environment-friendly method.
The cactus on the boundaries of Gagade’s fields is Euphorbia lactea, native to India, and an erect shrub of succulent branches with spiny ridges and short spines, which can grow up to 16ft in height.
Bagade (43) recalls, “When I started planting cactus cuttings on the edges of my farm people laughed at me. They called me a fool. To veda jhala aahe (He is mad), they said.” Seven years later he encircled his farm with cactus.
He is now known as the ‘cactus man’, often called upon by the local agricultural officers to address farmers’ meets on the merits and cost-effectiveness of bio fencing.
Realising the merits of Bagade’s bio fence some 30-odd farmers have already planted cacti on the boundaries of their farms. And as the word spread through messaging apps, farmers from different parts of the State visited him to learn about bio fencing and leave with cactus cuttings.
A multi-purpose fence
Being the taluka president of Punjabrao Deshmukh Biological Mission, Bagade took the initiative to involve villagers in the production of biological pesticides, the use of modern implements and water conservation activities. Acres of wasteland lying fallow for ages have been readied for cultivation with the help of the local agricultural department. Farmers have been skilled in tasks like contour bunding, compartment bunding, horizontal sowing on slopes, etc.
In May 2018, the villagers dug up 19 farm ponds, raising the total to 70; hollowed out 1km-long nullah, and completed contour bunding on 150 acres which have led to a rise in groundwater level to 10ft from the earlier 30 ft.
Most remarkably the brackish water has changed into potable water.
But ever since drinking water became more accessible in 2007 from the Wari Hanuman dam, a mere 35 km away, villagers feel that the population of wild animals has increased.
For years, farmers like Bagade had to contend with wild animals and often scared them off with firecrackers or air guns. This was until he came across a video on social media on growing cacti.
He explains, “I have kept a distance of one foot between the cuttings. With the thorny cactus in place, no wild animals have dared to enter the fields.”
Serving as a habitat for many birds and animals, the bio fences serves multiple purposes such as providing fodder, fertilizer and windbreakers, besides conserving biodiversity and absorbing climate-inducing gases such as carbon dioxide.
Bio fences work as windbreakers too. “Also, the fallen leaves act as mulch, conserving soil moisture,” he says, adding, “They are ideal windbreakers and my farm doesn’t lose moisture.”
He adds, “Initially, I had erected barbed wire fence on an acre which cost me Rs 40, 000 but soon realised that if I wanted to fence my entire farmland I would have to sell parts of it.”
Bagade attributes the bio fence to his success as a farmer and his record-breaking harvest. Last year he managed to harvest 33 quintals of horse gram (in one hectare), 8 quintals of soybean (one acre) and 12 quintals of cotton (one acre) — an achievement for which the district authorities felicitated him. “Over the years crop production has almost trebled,” says Bagade.
Cactus here grows wild on unclaimed land or common spaces. Bagade brought a tractor full and planted it around an acre. “I might have spent Rs 15,000 to plant the cacti, most of it was spent on labour,” he says.
Farmlands in Akot taluka are often at the mercy of wild pigs, nilgai, deer and monkeys raiding the farms and destroying standing crops. “The deer population has increased over the years. They are a big menace and raid the fields in groups, at times 25 to 30 of them,” says Bagade. “But now such incidents have become a thing of the past.”
About raising a cactus fence, Bagade advises that cuttings of a minimum of 2 ft height be planted and if fertilized properly in a year or two a height of 5 ft can be achieved.
Sushant Shinde, Akot taluka agriculture officer, says, “A progressive farmer who has taken the lead in activities like soil conservation and groundwater recharge and conservation, Bagade’s success with the bio fence has motivated other farmers in the taluka too.”
Bagade is pleased by the unintended benefit of a bio fence. He adds, “I can grow vegetables like bitter gourd, snake gourd and a variety of beans, thanks to the support offered by the cacti.”
Edited by Yoshita Rao