BOGRA, Bangladesh – The cornstalks growing in Anzu Rani and Biren Mahato’s rented field are vibrant green. The leaves intermingle and the strong stalks fill the field.
“The corn looks great,” said Mokhlesur Rahman, administrator of Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) Research and Extension Activity Partners in Bogra. “I’ve hardly seen corn that good in Bangladesh.”
Rahman is especially pleased with the results because the Mahato family is benefiting from an MCC project that shows farmers how to produce their own compost, which increases soil health and crop yield. Farmers don’t need to buy as much chemical fertilizer when they use compost, so they save on production costs even as they earn more on their crops.
Anzu Rani, who surveys the crop with her son, Choton Mahato, on her hip, is pleased too. Without using compost, one-third acre of land typically yields about 20 mounds (one mound is 40 kg or slightly less than two bushels) of corn. By combining the compost with a reduced amount of fertilizer, she anticipates harvesting 30 to 40 mounds of corn. In addition, she said, insect infestation has lessened, and she believes the compost will lengthen the use of the land.
The Mahatos are using trichocompost, named after trichoderma, the beneficial fungus in the manure mixture. MCC also supports the production of vermicompost, made by worms – red wigglers – that effectively turn cow manure into compost.
To encourage both kinds of composting, MCC works with Bengali partner organizations, whose mission is to support small farmers.
“Ag is our historical expertise,” said Phillip Birkey, MCC socio-economic researcher from Bunker Hill, Ind. “By helping them help the farmers it’s a mutually beneficial thing to them and the farmers.”
In 2008, MCC introduced vermicomposting to its partner, Grameen Krishok Sohayak Sangstha (GKSS), which means Rural Farmer Assistance Organization. The two organizations worked together to test the worm composting idea with eight farmers who own less than one acre of land.
Each farmer was given at least one 12-inch high cement ring, readily available in Bangladesh as sewage pipes, and about 500 worms that would eat their way through the cow manure inside the circle in about 40 to 45 days. The worm excrement, combined with the worms that die, creates a concentrated compost that adds micro- and macronutrients to the topsoil.
“They (the farmers) found that the application of compost in the soil along with chemical fertilizer got better results than chemical fertilizer alone,” said Mohammed Akter Hossain, an MCC supervisor who works with GKSS. In Bangladesh, Hossain said, topsoil has less than 1 percent of organic matter in its soil, but for good production, soil needs at least 5 percent. Compost adds that organic matter.
The positive results encouraged GKSS to extend this information to more farmers. Over the next several years, MCC helped GKSS to make connections with governmental financing and technical support so that GKSS now has 1,500 cement rings, producing 35 to 40 tons of compost per month, both vermicomposting and trichoderma.
Many of those compost rings are tended by local farmers. GKSS buys the compost from the farmers for local prices and then resells it to larger markets. The organization, which used to have eight employees, now employs 82 people at a living wage.
Although vermicomposting is relatively inexpensive and simple to implement on a farm level, trichocomposting has, until recently, required access to a laboratory where the helpful fungus is processed.
MCC, however, has discovered that trichocompost – which includes cow and chicken manure, sawdust, corn powder, molasses, ash and water hyacinth treated with trichoderma – produces a leachate (runoff) that has the fungus in it. That leachate can be used repeatedly to turn a new mixture of manure into compost, making it possible for the ordinary farmer to produce her or his own trichocompost.
MCC is the first organization in Bangladesh to find and use this information to benefit individual farmers, Rahman said. He is pleased with this development because trichocompost has the added value, over vermicompost, of being a pesticide. It also works against bacterial wilt and soil-borne fungal diseases and adds calcium and magnesium to the soil, which strengthen the cell structure of the plant.
“Everybody notices the health of the plants,” said Dipali Mahato, a farmer from Beragir, who used trichocompost on her potato crop. Her crop yield increased from six mounds of potatoes to 10 mounds when she used the trichocompost. The yield might have been a bit higher if the neighbors hadn’t stolen some potatoes because the plants looked so healthy and the potatoes taste so good, she said.