By Satish Purohit
Intrepid city framers driven by ecological, health and economic concerns are growing food organically in smallest of domestic spaces
A wise soul once said that there is no place like here, no time like now and no person like one’s own self to begin a project that will change the world for the better. Urban farming enthusiasts appear to have taken the dictum to heart and with astounding results
At a time when the world is writhing under the increasingly untenable price of vegetables and fruits, and when there is more and more evidence of the destructive effect of chemical fertilisers and pesticides on the soil, water, air, animal and human life, these heroes are quietly working towards a radical but holistic solution that is cheap, clean and green.
Instead of following industrial methods of farming that are harming the eco system, are wasteful of water, do not support ecological diversity and rely heavily on chemicals, urban farmers are simply growing their own food. In the process, they have rediscovered the superior taste of organically grown food and found a viable solution to the horrific carbon footprint incurred during transportation and cold storage of common vegetables imported from across the country. In their own small way, each one of these pioneers is showing us that the solutions to the world’s towering problems lie in small, local efforts.
Bharati Motwani (66) grows her own karela (bittergourd), tomatoes, and water melon in her Mumbai home. She has such a rich harvest of chillies that she gifts what she does not need to her friends. Nirmala Thakkar (64) holds out a baby musk melon out for me to see, her face breaking into a wide smile, as she regards the orange-sized fruit. “Smell it,” she says. I do, and am overwhelmed by the strong fragrance.
Preeti Patil has a rich standing harvest of chillies, pudina, palak and she also grows several strong-smelling herbs like haldi, ginger and lemon grass. Her produce includes fruits like mangoes, guava, bananas and custard apples. Jyoti, a housewife, harvested around 15 cucumbers from just one vine earlier this year and has some rather voluptuous papayas hanging from a tree. She has also planted drumsticks, jackfruit, banana and jamun trees, as well as flowers like anant, passion flower, parijatak, bakul, sonchampa, ratrani and roses.
All of this is grown in small urban spaces like terraces, balconies, free patches of land in housing societies and even window sills of matchbox-size flats. While the growing tribe of urban farmers mentioned in the lines above are part of Prayog Parivar, an informal group of agricultural experimenters inspired by the ideas of mathematician and agricultural innovator, Shripad Dabholkar, there are several others who are
|You would be surprised at how much you can grow on the window sill of the smallest flat |
– Preeti Patil
making efforts in the same direction across the world. Dabholkar was the father of the concept of natueco farming, which uses the processes of nature to create fertile soil out of organic waste but does it in a way that speeds up the process considerably.
When politician, journalist and MP, Arun Shourie, finally decided to visit Dabholkar’s home in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, after planning it for over seven years, a big surprise awaited him. “I still remember my gasp of wonderment as we came out of the staircase and stepped on to the roof of Dabholkar’s modest house,” writes Shourie. “Vegetables in pots. On one side, corn stalks five feet high. In another, sugarcane. In one pot — just a small 12” pot — a mango plant with a mango larger than my hand. From a layer of soil made from vegetable-waste, from leaves and the rest, Dabholkar would lean down, and pluck from under the surface ginger, garlic and even potatoes. On one side, by the wall, standing high and erect in what seemed just a pile of the same sort of soil, a subabul tree — almost two-storeys high.”
Dabholkar’s achievements, of course, went way beyond pointing towards the potential of unused building terraces for growing food.
“At the time, few thought that grapes could be grown in drought-prone areas of Maharashtra. Dabholkar began with this precise fruit. Today the drought prone areas of Maharashtra – with annual rainfall of no more than 12” – produce grapes worth Rs 500 crores a year. Farmers that use his methods produce 16 tonnes of grapes to an acre, which has earned them several national awards for innovative practices and the yields they have secured,” Shourie elaborates.
Although this remarkable genius is no more, Dabholkar’s Prayog Parivar continues to work towards making sustainable agriculture possible for all, including those living in metropolitan cities like Chennai and Mumbai.
I met with one such group in Mumbai that goes by the name Urban Leaves. A part of The Vidya Varidhi Trust, a body that works towards empowering local communities so they become aware, healthy, self-reliant, self-sustaining and productive, Urban Leaves is experimenting with Dabholkar’s ideas in city settings. At the head of the group is Preeti Patil, a catering officer at the Mumbai Port Trust who tends to the institution’s 3,000 sq ft rooftop garden.
The central kitchen of the Mumbai Port Trust feeds approximately 3,000 employees daily, generating around 18 kg of organic waste every day. The terrace garden, which has over 150 plants, recycles 90 per cent of this waste. What is, in other contexts, mere garbage, produces vegetables and fruits thanks to the efforts of Preeti and her team at MbPT. Amidst the surprisingly lush tulsi and mint grow vegetables like spinach, okra, brinjal and cherry tomatoes and fruits like guava, mangoes, coconuts, custard apples and chikoos.
“Dabholkar outlined how a family of five can live a self-sufficient life on 10 gunthas (approximately 10,000 square feet) of land along with two cows with no extra inputs from outside except water,” explains Preeti, who believes one can practice urban farming even in a 1BHK flat in a crowded Indian city. “You would be surprised at how much you can grow on the window sill of the smallest flat. Quite a few of our members grow chillies, pudina, palak and tomatoes in their homes. The good thing is that these plants give a good yield and often you have more than you can use and some to gift as well,” says Preeti.
Nirmala, who is part of the same group as Preeti, says she wishes she had taken up urban farming earlier in life. “When I told my family that I was planning to grow vegetables at home, they raised a small storm. I told them that they could do with the flat what they wished but I owned the balcony. Today, I grow musk melons, brinjals, ajwain and mint on my own. I have seven tomato plants and there are over seven big lovelies growing on each of them. Chillies and tomatoes, we eat as much as we can and sometimes I have enough to give away as well,” Nirmala says.
Urban farming worldwide
Michael Levenston of www.city-farmer.info, a popular site on urban farming, puts the number of people engaged in urban agriculture across the world at 20 million. Half of Latin American cities and 40 per cent of African cities grow their own food. Seventy-two per cent of urban households in Russia and 14 largest cities in China produce 85 per cent of all their vegetables through urban farming in places like unused terraces and empty sites, unbuilt areas and parks.
Victory gardens were early precursors of contemporary urban farming efforts. Also referred to as war gardens, victory gardens were herb, vegetable and fruit patches created on home properties and public parks in the US, UK, Germany and Canada during the two world wars to make up for the shortage of food.
However, the biggest and most successful urban organic farming experiment happened in Cuba, whose uber-industrialised, capital-intensive agricultural system collapsed in 1989 when the Soviet Union crumbled into pieces. Cuba, which remains a villain in US eyes, lost 85 per cent of its foreign trade with the collapse of its principle business and military ally. Faced with a crippling US embargo that did not allow any US business to export any product or service to Cuba, including agricultural products, petroleum and medicine, the island nation had to do some serious rethinking. With its food supply dangerously curtailed, Cuba decided to go organic. That it did not depend on imported chemical fertilisers, and was therefore cheaper helped the government arrive at the decision. Once it became clear that organic was the way to go, the best scientific minds in the country began to focus on organic methods and urbanites were mobilised for the farming efforts that soon emerged as indispensible sources for food in Cuba.
The success of the Cuban urban farming experiment has important lessons for India. Just the city of Havana alone had more than 8,000 patches of organic produce that began producing a million ton of food annually. The savings in transportation costs and fuel were considerable and city dwellers were happy that they had access to fresh affordable organic produce that was harvested in front of their eyes. Cuba’s organic gardens come in different sizes: from a few meters to several hectares. They employ anywhere from one to 75 people. The Cubans employ several traditional organic practices that mirror methods used in India like the use of worm compost made from kitchen leftovers that can be manufactured fast and is usually higher in nitrogen than regular compost.
The Cubans also practice co-planting or planting of diverse crops that go well with each other and also have ancillary benefits like keeping at bay harmful pests that tend to attack stretches of farmland that have a single crop. The farms also address the shortage of medicines in Cuba thanks to the all-encompassing trade embargo that makes the growing of ‘green medicine’ in urban gardens a necessity. For Indians, Cuba shows what can be accomplished when a government puts its force behind holistic, sustainable and profitable initiatives.
|Healthy banana produce in an urban home|
I visited the Urban Leaves group at Mahim Nature Park in Mumbai one Sunday morning. There were about nine members – retirees, housewives in their late 40s, some youngsters, one enthusiast in her early 20s. “In Mumbai, our group is experimenting with urban farming on two locations: Mahim Nature Park and Nana Naani Park,” explained Preeti. “We grow a variety of fruits and vegetables though not enough to sell or even support a population of any size. However, we consider our efforts to be a part of the process of gradual experimentation that is bound to yield positive results in the years to come. We are, after all, people with full-time jobs who do this in our spare time.”
Urban Leaves is working towards increasing its volunteer base through handholding workshops and regular informal meetings where practitioners discuss their problems, offer solutions and bond. “We are clear that we are not consultants who sell their services for a fee. We gladly share what we have learnt so far, so newer enthusiasts don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” says Preeti. “The novelty of Dabholkar’s methods is that he taught people to create light-weight but extremely fertile soil (they call it amrut mitti) from organic waste. One can take as much as one year to create enough amrut mitti but once it is done, you will be amazed at how much you can grow on it,” she adds.
The way ahead
Dr BN Vishwanath of Bangalore, author of A Handbook of Organic Terrace Gardening, who conducts one-day training programmes on organic terrace gardening, shared in an interview with a leading publication that a 600 sq ft rooftop garden can grow 10 kg of organic vegetables every week. The garden not only takes care of all organic waste through composting, it also ensures that it takes care of over half the vegetable requirement of a family of four and requires less than an hour of work every day.
|Banana and papaya trees grown by Mr. Ashok M. Nair, in his miniscule front porch, a triumph in space-crunched Mumbai|
Videos of Vishwanath’s workshops have been uploaded on popular video websites like YouTube for the benefit of those who do not find it convenient to attend his programmes.
It is, however, clear that despite the efforts being made in our cities for creating a more productive urban farming culture, a lot remains to be done. There are, for instance, vast terraces in high-rises in cities like New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore that can be used by entrepreneurs to grow vegetables, herbs and spices. There are also concepts like vertical farming that allow one to grow on surfaces like walls that have not been explored in India.
With techniques like amrut mitti, composting, drip and sprinkle irrigation and co-planting, there are business as well as social opportunities that are emerging. Urban farming should also take care to a great extent of the organic waste in the city, of which, Mumbai alone produces around 4,000 tonnes in a day. There is also a rising breed of customers who do not mind paying a substantial premium for organic produce. With the emergence of such aware buyers, locally grown organic produce flies very fast off the shelf. It does not have to be stored, it is healthy, cheap and it also allows city-dwellers to connect to the earth and its regenerative processes.
The time is ripe for you to discover the green thumb in you, irrespective of the size of your terrace/balcony. Are you ready?
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