Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF)-Highly Profitable for Small Farmers

Dr. Rama Kant Sharma

Zero Budget Farming is a variation on natural farming developed in, and primarily practiced in southern India. It also called spiritual farming. The method involves mulching, intercropping, and the use of several preparations which include cow dung. These preparations, generated on-site, are central to the practice, and said to promote microbe and earthworm activity in the soil.
All inputs are to be locally resourced from in and around the village (or perhaps within the farm) in a symbiotic way. This is a dynamic system wherein outputs are likely to be inputs to at least one of the other outputs. More importantly, as none of, the inputs are sourced from outside the system then there is no cost, and it is this that is referred to as zero budget natural farming (ZBNF). The logic of the system is simple. If rainforests can have lush growth and also sustain animals then why cannot we propagate agriculture through lessons from nature without recourse to any chemicals and fertilizers. A call to nature where no external inputs need to be purchased is referred to as zero budget natural farming or naisargik kheti or jaivik kheti.
ZBNF is an agro ecological farming approach that promotes growing crops in harmony) with nature. The toolkit of ZBNF was developed by Subhash Palekar in the 1990’s. ZBNF has two major axes, one agronomic and the other structural. On the one hand, it is about improving soil fertility through a number of agro ecological principles, including diversification, nutrient recycling, increasing beneficial biological interactions, among others (Palekar2006). ZBNF opposes use of external inputs or synthetic fertilizers. On the other hand, ZBNF is about de-linking farmers from external inputs and credit markets to create autonomy by not purchasing anything from external actors and especially from corporations (sense Rosset and Martinez-Torres. 2012).
Need for ZBNF
Ensuring food security and producing more with less resources.
For building the resilience of smallholder farmers for creating a food-secure future.
ZBNF is the right solution to fight climate change and create resilient food systems.
Fighting drought is one of the main objectives of ZBNF.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN advocates environmentally-friendly
farming methods that can take us to a more sustainable future.
Importance for chemical free food consumption is growing rapidly.
Chemical farming has made food a poison and also has reduced the yield by making lands barren.
Farmers’ welfare and sustainable practices are vital for a sustainable and productive economy.
Features of ZBNF
It is a farming practice that believes in natural growth of crops without adding any chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
The four wheels of ZBNF are Bijamrita, Jiwamrita, Mulching and Waaphasa.
Bijamrita is a natural way of seed treatment using local cow urine and cow dung. Jiwamrita is made using water, local cow dung, local cow urine, jaggery, dal flour and soil. Waaphasa is the aeration in the soil.
ZBNF is different from organic fanning. Intercropping is an important feature of ZBNF.
Practicing composting on the farm itself, so that soil organic matter increases.
Storing water in the farm ponds for use in adverse conditions.
Insects and pests are managed using neem leaves, neem pulp and green chilies.
Establishing farmers’ federations and self-help groups, and placing farmers at the forefront of knowledge creation and dissemination.
Four pillars of ZBNF
This is a fermented microbial culture prepared from locally available natural resources for the purpose of being applied to the soils/plants at different stages of their growth. It is a form of bio-fertilizer, a catalytic agent, promoting microorganism and earthworm activity in the soil. The 48 hour fermentation process multiplies aerobic and anaerobic bacteria present in the cow dung and urine, as they eat up organic ingredients, and a handful of undisturbed soil acts as inoculate of native species of microbes and organisms. Its application acts as a preventive measure against fungal and bacterial diseases. It can be applied through irrigation water or through foliar spray. While transiting from conventional input-intensive agriculture, the application of Jeevamrutha to the soils and plants is required only for the first three years because after that the system becomes self-sustaining.
This is a concoction prepared from locally available natural resources for the propose of treatment for seeds, seedlings or any planting material. It reduces the possibility of seed infestation by pests and protects young roots from fungus, soil-borne diseases, and seed-borne diseases that generally affect the plants after monsoon. In the ingredients, the dung and urine from the indigenous breed cow act as a powerful fungicide, and anti-bacterial agent, respectively.
There are three types of mulching
“Soil mulching: It protects topsoil by avoiding tilling. It facilitates aeration, and promotes water retention. If not zero tillage, avoid deep ploughing.
“Straw/Biomass mulching: Application of dry organic matter (dead material of any living being) along with Jeevamrutha will lend to decomposition and humus formation that will improve soil fertility.
“Live mulching: This suggests inter-cropping or mixed-cropping by combining monocots (those seedlings with one seed leaf like rice and wheat) with dicots (these seedlings with two seed leaves like legumes) in the same plot of land. This will create a symbiotic relationship because monocots will supply elements like potash, phosphate, and sulphur, while dicots will work towards nitrogen-fixation.
This calls for an appropriate mix of water and air in the soil or the relevance of soil moisture. It questions the thinking that plants need more water and irrigation is the way out. Rather, it calls for a reduction in water usage and resonates with the saying “more crop per drop.”


Palekar claims that the urine and dung from one cow are enough for farming 30 acres of land, and so cow ownership by each individual farmer is not necessary. In places where local cows are not available, other alternatives of other animals like buffalos or even human urine can be used, but Palekar claims that indigenous cow breeds have the most and best microbes and are preferable. Native cow breeds are less input intensive and easier to manage for resource-poor farmers, but their populations have dropped significantly (Balaraju, 2017).
In AP, the state government has provided support to farmers to access dung and urine of cows. We visited a traditional pastoralist who had a special urine collection shed constructed via government support under ZBNF. He was collecting the dung and urine and selling these to neighboring ZBNF farmer groups. Palekar claims that up to 90% of water use can reduced through ZBNF practices making it ideal for rain-fed farming (Palekar-2006).
Palekar also prescribes a number of natural fungicides and pesticides made from locally sourced ingredients like neem leaves, chilies, garlic, tobacco, sour buttermilk, etc. Increasing functional diversity is a critical principal of ZBNF; a number of crop combinations, with a view of increasing functional bio-diversity is proposed by Palekar. He rejects any external additions, including vermicompost made by exotic worm species and instead supports the growth of local earthworms in situ. In terms of farm design, Palekar’s most popular model is what he calls the five-layer model; a type of agroforestry model which integrates trees with various levels of plant canopies, each layer at an optimum level to harvest the sunlight it needs. He proposes various crop and tree combinations, including living fences on the edges, and trenches for water harvesting.
Other important principles of ZBNF and points to note

  1. Intercropping – This is primarily how ZBNF gets its “Zero Budget” name. It doesn’t mean that the farmer is going to have no costs at all, but rather that any costs will be compensated for by income from intercrops, making farming a close to zero budget activity.
  2. Contours and bunds – To preserve rain water, Palekar explains in detail how to make the contours and bunds, which promote maximum efficacy for different crops.
  3. Local species of earthworms- Palekar opposes the use of vermicompost. He claims that the revival of local deep soil earthworms through increased organic matter is most recommended.
  4. Cowdung – According to Palekar, dung from the Bos indicus (humped cow) is most beneficial and has the highest concentrations of micro-organisms as compared to European cow breeds such as Holstein. The entire ZBNF method is centred on the Indian cow, which historically has been part of Indian rural life.
    Further, depending on the nature and type of insect/pest attack, zero budget natural farming has come up with different formulations (neemastra, agniastra, and bramhastra among others) from locally available resources that work as bio-pesticides.
    Besides reduced input cost, farmers practicing ZBNF gets higher yields.
    Elimination of chemical pesticides and promotion of good agronomic practices.
    Promote regenerative agriculture, improve soil biodiversity and productivity.
    Ensure decent livelihoods to smallholder farmers.
    Restore ecosystem health through diverse, multi-layered cropping systems.
    Anyone who is having half an acre of land can start ZBNF.
    Using ZBNF techniques, one can convert even the most infertile land into a fertile one.
    Women’s empowerment and nutrition.
    Natural Farming works not just in agronomic terms, but also brings about a variety of social and economic benefits. A majority of respondents reported that by adopting ZBNF, over time they saw improvements in yield, soil conservation, seed diversity, and quality of produce, household food autonomy, income, and health. Most experienced reduced farm expenses and a reduced need for credit, one of the major problems plaguing India farmers.
    In conclusion, savings on the cost of seeds, fertilizers and plants protection chemicals has been substantial. The new system has freed the farmers from the debt trap and has instilled in them a renewed sense of confidence to make farming an economically viable venture.
    (The author is Retd. Deputy Director Agriculture).
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