Distraction Free Reading

Ways of Knowing: Lessons on Agroecological Transitions from a Pothwari Farm

Contemporary agroecological farming is a knowledge-intensive form of production that can maximize the productivity of energy flows, which are central to the productive forces. Cumulatively, it is suggested, the terms and conditions by which the contemporary agrarian question can be resolved is through an agroecological agrarian transition. (Haroon Akram-Lodhi, 2021)

I. Becoming

Three years ago, I started a farm in my village Tareel, which is located less than ten kilometers outside the metropolitan border of the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Tareel is in the rain-fed Pothwar plateau near the Himalayan foothills, and like many peri-urban areas in South Asia, is rapidly urbanizing and increasingly reliant on the nearby urban economy. The rain-fed nature of agriculture here makes it more prone to climatic risk and loss, and therefore less remunerative. As a researcher and self-identifying ‘citizen planner,’ I was curious if new methods of agriculture could make the sector remunerative enough to counter the desire to convert agricultural land into real estate.[1] Since I was familiar with the emerging significance of agroecology and regenerative agriculture  in climate adaptation, I was motivated to understand what it would take to help us transition towards practices closer to agroecology.[2]

In recent decades, agroecology has come to be seen as solution to the global agrarian and food crisis where farmers are not compensated equitably and food insecurity prevails among the masses. To ensure “power is distributed equitably and intersectionally among the direct producers and eaters” (Akram-Lodhi 2021, 687), it is necessary to integrate small farmers and prioritize their food sovereignty in a locally embedded, democratized food system. Relatedly, agroecology emphasizes the “art of farming” that reinvigorates indigenous methods of farming to improve soil fertility, minimize requirement of external inputs, and foster local knowledge-based problem solving (Akram-Lodhi 2021, 709). An agroecological approach requires developing an alternate paradigm of agrarian relations that organize small farmers to achieve “collective production on a national scale” and center knowledge as a force of production (Akram-Lodhi 2021, 690).

Unable to compete with high-intensity industrial agriculture in the irrigated plains of Punjab, agricultural production in rain-fed Pothwari villages such as Tareel is limited to growing wheat in the winter for local needs and summer fodder in a limited part of the land. Land would be left fallow for half a year, leading to soil erosion and degradation. A successful adoption of agroecology principles could drastically reduce reliance on heavy farm machinery, reduce other inputs such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and lead to higher or similar levels of yield as in a conventional system. This would significantly lower costs, stabilize earnings to be the same or higher, and farmers could make a net profit. By employing agroecology methods, I hoped to restore fertility to these degraded soils, shift to a more diverse cropping system to bring about greater biodiversity, and improve our farm’s output and resilience to drastic climatic changes.

II. Doing

I set an ambitious goal for my farm experiment. I wanted to develop a sustainable, profitable farm in a manner that is replicable and scalable for the average farmer of our village. It should not need heavy upfront investments, and it should be able to generate enough income to sustain at least one working class family.[3]

A collective of farmers developing regenerative techniques in Pakistan provided the simplest blueprint for how to transition from a conventional agricultural system to a regenerative one. Named Paidar Qudrat-e-Nizame Kashtkari[4] or PQNK for short, and spearheaded by agriculturalist Asif Shareef, the group provided guidance and platforms for sharing experiences.[5] Asif Sharif’s efforts included managing several WhatsApp groups with farmers, answering their questions, and sharing their success stories. This, I hoped, would be my farmer-to-farmer experience, similar to the National Association of Small Farmers and La Via Campesina’s  Campesina-o-Campesina (farmer to farmer) methodology of disseminating sustainable, agroecological farming practices.

I started by fencing our lands in June 2020, a non-customary practice but necessary to prevent the neighbors from assuming that the land was left for their goats to explore. Together with a farm supervisor, we planted our first crop of groundnut manually, and dived into the PQNK transition practices, which we would learn was going to be a painful transition.[6] For the first two years we rapidly tested several different crops, looking to understand why the village’s cropping pattern had become restricted to largely wheat and fodder. We tried everything from pulses to cow pea, cereals, and various high biomass cover crops. Punjab Agriculture Department’s recommendation was to focus on high value, low volume goods so we invested in a ground water well to grow vegetables on a small area. Given our challenges with sowing row crops in a zero-tillage system, we also experimented with planting orchards on part of the land.

Three years later, we have sowed many things but have rarely achieved a good crop stand. With time our germination rate worsened, and we never recovered a decent output comparable to the conventional system. What happened?

III. Learning

The process of trying to formulate a successful zero-tillage system in rain-fed Pothwar helped us identify some key challenges and lessons.

Limits of machinery

My introduction to regenerative agriculture happened through resources coming out of North America.[7] While the American farmers wrestled with technologies that could help them manage hundreds and thousands of acres, I was dealing with a landholding of five acres split over two non-contiguous sections and individual farms carved out of uneven lands no larger than a few kanals each.[8]

Since zero tillage systems are uncommon and under-researched in Pakistan, especially in rain-fed conditions, the available machinery is simply unsuitable. Our zero-tillage seeder failed to achieve germination in a field with residue. Our crimper became irrelevant within one season given our failure to get a good crop stand, and our ridger’s use is in question since we may abandon raised beds in a system without irrigation. Three years of zero-tillage farming have largely been dedicated to researching the appropriate set of machines to develop a complete system.

The image shows a two dimensional view of land that is green and brown. There are white outlines around irregular shapes. "Zone 1" , "Zone 2," "Zone 3, "Zone 4" is inscribed inside the shapes.

A satellite image from Google Earth that shows the roughly five acres of discontinuous area being farmed by the author since June 2020 (Image and Markings by Author).

Your village is not my village: what works in irrigated contexts does not work in rain-fed contexts

The PQNK blueprint was developed and refined in an irrigated context. Permanent beds, for example, in such a context, are hugely beneficial in water saving since they allow the farmer to switch from flood irrigation to furrow irrigation. This also implies that the farmer can control germination and moisture in the initial transition phase of the soil. If the seeds do not germinate, the farmer can either irrigate and repair the damage, or sow again and irrigate. In a rain-fed context, moisture management is a watershed-wide effort. For fields higher up on the ridge, our soils were permanently dry and we experimented with swales to absorb and hold moisture. For our lower fields, water logging was an issue and significant effort went into developing good drainage. The effects of climate change becoming more obvious, we experienced long dry spells that are otherwise rare for our region. Given that this was an individual effort, our ability to plan the watershed was vastly constrained and we continued to deal with moisture management challenges.

Farming is a complex, technical, and multi-skilled endeavor

Farmers, especially small farmers, do not share a favorable reputation. Farming is considered unskilled, farmers are assumed to be illiterate, and small farms considered unproductive. As an inexperienced farmer, I faced the dual challenge of transitioning to a zero-tillage system and learning farming. I assumed that I should be able to trial and error my way through learning the basics by using the extensive resources available to farmers (such as Agriculture Department Extension Services, the internet, and fellow farmers). However, designing the farm proved challenging and I felt I needed multiple degrees to break this challenge. A farmer must be a hydrologist, a soil scientist, a climate reader, an agronomist, an expert of cropping systems, a landscape reader, a business manager—basically an all-in-one. The force of knowledge in a zero-tillage system is built on years of generational knowledge that gives the farmer the eyes to read everything on their lands, from the soil to the plants, insects, animals, and skies.

The image shows two pages from a notebook with drawings on one page and writing on the other page. The drawings outline irregular shapes in pink, with several number markings in black. The second page shows notes written in English with a black pen.

This page from the author’s notebook highlights how she used permaculture design manuals to split the lands into different zones and cultivate them according to their soil variety (Image by Author).

Capitalist agriculture has come at the cost of loss of the ‘art of farming’

Perhaps the most important challenge for me was to understand how to develop diverse, multi-cropping systems. While there are resources available on what crops go together and how complex intercropped vegetable patches can work, this required considerable customization to succeed. My father narrated stories of my great grandmother maintaining a diverse vegetable farm and growing crops such as cotton in my village, something that cannot be imagined today. In the generation between her and mine, we have lost the skills of subsistence agriculture as industrial processes have taken over. While villagers grow vegetables in home gardens for personal use, no vegetables are grown on a larger scale for sale.

“How should we plan our vegetable farm?” I’d ask my relatives.

“You have to make a dera (place to live for the labour to stay on-site), then you bring in an expert in vegetable farming from the plains of Punjab, and they will establish the vegetable farm for you,” was the response I received. They essentially admitted that local vegetable expertise was absent.

My best resource for replicating a more diverse, multi-cropped system was to harken back to the British Gazetteer of the Rawalpindi district from 1893-94, which meticulously recorded the agricultural practices from several generations ago.

The image shows a photo of a page from a book. There is a table with six columns and seven rows with text in black.

A page from the Rawalpindi Gazetteer provided the most detailed compilation of pre-industrial agricultural practices in my village. The table shown above highlights different varieties of grains that could be cultivated in different seasons in the region (Image by Author).

Scientific precision vs. application

After struggling with poor germination and inadequate plant growth for two years, I invited a local scientist researching zero-till farming methods in my region to guide us. He visited the farm and zeroed our endeavors —“This dead grass is not mulch, it adds nothing to the ground’s organic matter” and “No zero-tillage seeder can sow in this kind of residue” among other observations. His recommendation was that we should shift to a minimum tillage system because the high temperatures in our region would not transfer organic matter to build in our soil. He also explained that Pothwari soil was difficult to sow because “sukhi tay loya, gilli tay goya (hard like iron when dry, and sticky like dung when wet).”

While the local scientist was telling us that a no-till system cannot work in our environments, cutting edge research on regenerative farming was finding that a conventional system can transition to a regenerative system in as little as two weeks given all the conditions for soil regeneration are met. Similarly, while practitioners at the frontier of regenerative agriculture science were developing techniques to do high frequency rapid soil sampling,[9] PQNK mentors were dismissive of our local soil laboratory results citing them as unreliable. They recommended that I just needed to observe the soil closely and notice changes in its texture and our plant growth. The gap between the science and its application remained unbridgeable for our amateur experiment.

Conclusion: Understanding Knowledge as a Societal Productive Force

In his article on the agrarian question, Lodhi argues that sustainable, small-farmer-appropriate agriculture requires generating alternative modes of production by “developing a post-capitalist agrarian- and non-agrarian alternative” (Akram-Lodhi 2021, 710). However, this transformation cannot occur at an individual level in an overwhelmingly capitalistic, industrial agricultural system “predicated upon the de-skilling of both farmers and rural-waged labour in production techniques” (Akram-Lodhi 2021, 697). A farm experiment like mine is a failing endeavor without engaging with the socio-ecological relationships and practices of land management and farming across the farm, village, and regional landscape.

Agroecological transformations have been successful in several scenarios where small farmers are organized on a large scale with substantial state support. This support is indispensable to transitioning to an agrarian system that prioritizes the development of knowledge as a key force of production. We have so far failed in our endeavor as an isolated island of experimentation on degraded lands surrounded by a hostile regime of production. I’ve learnt that progress is not possible without embedding research in a supportive ecosystem, which can transcend capitalist social-property relations and achieve a post-capitalist alternative. At the same time, this one little farm experiment reveals that ways of knowing and being a force in the world is contingent on human connections across generations and communities.


[1] I had prior experience working with the Punjab Agriculture and Extension Services department and utilized their resources extensively. With my farm experiment, I was also curious to learn how existing state resources could support the development of new forms of agriculture in our rain-fed regions.

[2] Regenerative agriculture is the term more commonly used in North America while agroecology is more widely used across the rest of the world. However, the practices and basic principles are similar in both constructions.

[3] A common rule of thumb in this area is that five acres of land can be adequately managed by one family.

[4] Alternatively named ‘Paradoxical Agriculture’ in English.

[5] The group recommends four foundational practices: (1) break the hard pan in the ground by chiseling; (2) stop all tillage; (3) plant everything on permanent raised beds; and (4) always keep a thick cover in the form of live or dead mulch.

[6] The standard PQNK advice was to start the transition to a regenerative system by doing a final land preparation by leveling, chiseling, ploughing, making permanent beds, and planting a cover crop. The cover crop can be crimped or terminated in field to create a thick mulch, within which the main crop can then be planted. The crop roots will create spaces for water to be absorbed on the permanent beds and encourage the restoration of soil biology. Over several cycles of crop cultivation, the beds will mature as the soil regenerates in a zero-tillage condition and regains its organic content.

[7] Some key academic resources that guided my learning process: Dr. Elaine Ingham’s lectures on soil microbiology and ecosystem; One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Farming, a book by a Japanese scientist Masanobu Fukoka; Grain by Grain by Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle (2019); and the regenerative agriculture podcast.

[8] A kanal is approximately five thousand square feet.

[9] Scientists are developing techniques to conduct rapid large-scale soil sampling since soil texture varies by place and time: soil will change every few meters and every day. Managing a farm requires being able to track these changes and take corrective actions. For us, soil testing was a multi-stage endeavor where we would take the samples, drive anan hour away to the city center, wait weeks for the results to come out, and then drive back collect the results from the laboratory. We found the process so challenging that we have only undertaken soil testing thrice in the last three years.


Akram-Lodhi, A. Haroon. 2021. “The ties that bind? Agroecology and the
agrarian question in the twenty-first century.” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 48:4, 687-714.

Fukuoka, Masanobu. 1985. The Natural Way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy. Japan Publications.

Quinn, Bob and Carlisle, Liz. 2019. Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food. Island Press Washington, DC.

Government of Punjab. 1895. Gazetteer of the Rawalpindi District 1893-94, Lahore Civil and Military Gazetteer Press.

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