By Punya Srivatsava
Tired of eating poison-laced food in the name of chemical farming, a few good men and women decided to go back to the art of growing food in collaboration with nature, instead of exploiting it, says Punya Srivastava
“Ask me what are the joys associated with farming and you are likely to be at the receiving end of a verbal volley by an otherwise taciturn individual. I can go on endlessly telling you about watching a seed spring its ears, hearing the chatter of birds come to get their share of mulberry, catching a glimpse of the long-tailed pheasant crow alighting from a tree to settle around a bush to pick an insect, glancing at the early morning dew shining like pearls on the broad shoulders of a banana leaf, stepping barefoot on the moist grass of a November dawn, lying on my back on a January noon watching the clouds being chased in the cerulean skies…”
This lyrical passage is by Maharashtra-based blogger and organic farmer Hiraman on his blog www.sundayfarmer.wordpress.com. What an evocative picture he paints with his words – of a world so intimate with life… in every form. Picture yourself waking up to the birds chirping at your window, with a cool morning breeze enticing you out of your stupor. As your feet touch the mud-paved floor, a cold tingle invigorates your entire being. The sight of lush greenery all around, the aroma of farm-fresh produce sizzling on a wood-fired oven, the delicious fragrance of the greens, and the soothing coolness of the whole ambience – all of them vie for your attention. And you… you gently soak into each one of them in succession, revitalising yourself with every breath drawn. What a treat it would be to experience all this each day of your life!
However, living as a farmer is obviously not a cakewalk, as it includes uncertainties, back breaking hard work, perseverance, solitude, and selflessness. Add to it, organic farming, and the situation becomes even more fraught. “It indeed is a challenging and winding, but rewarding path,” admits Kolkata-based environmental author-editor-activist, Bharat Mansata.
India always had an indigenous organic way of farming with practices suitable for soil fertility and local environment. It was only when the country’s agriculture and economy fell into British hands that the chemical-induced downfall began. Organic farming further shifted to chemical farming in the 1960s when the Green Revolution became the government’s most important programme to sustain a rich and stable agricultural economy, and to provide food security to its ‘bursting at the seams’ population. Fifty years later, the repercussions are making their presence felt, and it is time to acknowledge our depleted soil and overwhelming dependence on chemicals, even as the incidence of cancer shoots through the roof. Fortunately, many are waking up, especially in the urban milieu. These heroes are our organic farmers – a new breed of individuals who were not disposed to be farmers but ultimately found their life’s calling in playing caretakers of the soil.
The organic revolution started in India roughly around two decades back but has only recently become a movement, that too amidst a niche group of people. Understandably, educated urbanites battling the double whammy of polluted environs, as well as toxin-infested food have had enough. A number of them are giving up their comfortable lives to give back to Mother Earth. Organic farming is knocking at the door.
When India lost its way
Bharat Mansata, who has authored books like The Great Agricultural Challenge and Organic Revolution, says, “Realising food’s value is one of the biggest motivations behind the surge in organic farming.” Mansata is also the founder of Earth Care Books – a Kolkata-based publishing house.
The appalling condition of food security in India that started 50 years back, though seemingly met on paper, has still not been appeased on ground. And those who have been unfortunate enough to partake of this chemically-laced food over the years have been going through chaotic health and lifestyle disorders. As Mansata points out, inorganic food is riddled with toxins, and is injecting the food chain with more chemicals at every cycle. If we are what we eat, then those of us who eat inorganic food are ticking bombs, unaware of the number of toxins leaching our blood.
The snowballing of the organic movement also gained impetus from the rapid soil degradation that took place within years of practising neo-farming or Western methods of farming.
This plundering of the soil’s richness in order to extract more and more to satiate our collective greed has damaged the planet beyond control. We have moved away from nature, brought machines into the sacred act of birthing food, banished other life forms from what was their share too, and driven away from the comforting lap of nature to the seemingly comfortable technology-driven lifestyle. A handful of food manufacturing giants have taken over the world’s food production and are dictating terms to nature.
The Earth warriors
Save’s way of natural farming is the most optimum way of living in harmony with nature. It supports minimal land tilling, focuses more on naturally growing the food grains, and devotes time in understanding the character of the soil, local climate, local fauna and microbes essential for soil fertility. In a way, it focuses on a greater yield of fruits, vegetables and herbs and less on food grains which ultimately get converted into refined foods, and impact the proper functioning of our digestive systems.
“Natural farming is the purest form of organic farming where after a certain period of time, human interference is not needed, and the land becomes a self-sufficient supplier of water, energy and fertility to the local eco-system, rather than a net consumer,” says Mansata.
Navadarshanam is another such initiative by a group of urban professionals who left city life and moved to 110 acres of land near Thally Reserve Forest in the Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu to form the Navadarshanam Trust in 1990. One of the aims of this group of concerned citizens was to “explore and adopt holistic and natural ways of fulfilling our outer and inner needs, and to give up the path of development which fans consumerism, profiteering and growth measured purely in material terms.”
Following the Gandhian philosophy of recognising love as the fundamental law from which all other laws are derived, the team of T S Ananthu and wife Jyoti Ananthu, Rama Pai, Dr Partap Aggarwal and wife Sudesh Aggarwal set the ball rolling on 35 acres of land. Rama Pai is a botanist turned farmer who gave up chemical farming after coming across Fukuoka’s famous book, One-Straw Revolution. Dr Partap Agarwal, who taught anthropology in Colgate University, America, came back to India and joined Friends Rural Center at Rasulia in Madhya Pradesh to work on Natural Farming. His motivation again was Fukuoka. Over the last 26 years, Navadarshanam has worked on various initiatives in the field of eco-restoration, organic and natural farming, food and health, and alternative technologies in the areas of housing, energy and cooking fuels. Today, it sells around 40 health foods, under the aegis of Navadarshanam Trust Self-Help Group, which mostly constitute their organic produce.
The Thally region is also witness to Vijay and Gracy’s initiative in restoring soil richness through their three-acre organic farm, Asta. Situated beside Hosur-Thally road in the Krishnagiri district, an acre of this farm land has been turned into a forested patch while most of the rest has been cropped. “The need to live an organic life turned us into organic farmers,” says Vijay Kundaji, a techie who charted this path in 2007. Environmental causes, considerations and movements through most of their lives influenced them, while their reading, exposure to practitioners and travel led them to believe in the virtues of ‘treading as lightly as possible’ on land. Organic farming – regenerating the soil and growing without chemicals or industrial inputs – was therefore a first step, when they obtained access to Vijay’s family land. “My sister Deepika has, over the last two decades, been a diligent seed saver and organic gardener based in Auroville, and her work has been an inspiration to us,” says Vijay.
Dr Sanjeev Kulkarni too left a seemingly comfortable city life – with a flourishing gynecology practice of 25 years – in order to lead a life of abundance in his 17-acre forest farm in the Dharwad district of Karnataka. “I find joy in communion with nature – what could be a better way of living than waking up to see a bud blossomed into a flower or different birds nesting in the trees every now and then?” he ponders. Though his family had been into conventional farming, Dr Kulkarni neither had the time nor the intention to farm as a youth. However, he took the plunge in 1996 by buying the land and converting it into a forest farm aptly named as Suman Sangam – confluence of flowers. “And also the confluence of good minds,” he says, adding, “In my ancestral land in north Karnataka, farmers were cultivating only sugarcane for high profits. I would argue with my father that this would harm the soil and the ground water level would deplete soon. I thought it better to run my own farm than to just criticise my family’s way of farming.”
As Mansata puts it, the most important reason for this ‘growing surge back to the land’ is the need many sensitive urban professionals feel for healing their relationship with earth and nature in a deeper, more holistic way, beyond buying organic food and eco-friendly products. Personal health and a simpler, more peaceful life for self and family are, of course, important factors too. Mansata too is part of an initiative called Van Vadi, started in 2005. Van Vadi is a 64-acre collective forest and organic farm, nestled in the foothills of the Sahyadris and maintained by a team of 24 like-minded individuals who have formed an ‘alternative community’ that aspires to meet its varied needs in harmony with nature and fellow humans.
Life as a farmer
Speaking about the experience extraordinaire, Vijay says, “Being able to see the whole life cycle from seed to produce to food-on-the-table and back again into the land is itself most engrossing and can completely absorb you.”
Vijay describes how Asta is home, playground and feeding ground for many delighted species of birds, raptors, rodents, reptiles and other creatures including visiting ‘toddy cats’, slender lorises (belonging to the monkey family) and, “in the crop season, until a few years ago, invading wild boar. This is itself a great source of pleasure.”
Dighe, planning to make her farm a fruit orchard, has already grown 20 types of fruit trees – mango, chikoo, guava, custard apple, pineapple, papaya, coconut, amla, and jackfruit. “My land is dry but I am hoping that after three years, I will be able to turn it green. Moreover, if you are biodiverse, you are more sustainable. I have got 100 per cent survival, which means that all the trees are safe and healthy. I grow vegetables, pulses and herbs for self-consumption, while following the two principles of farming by my two gurus – Fukuoka’s Natural Farming and Bill Morrison’s Permaculture,” she says. Ask her what keeps her motivated and this gutsy woman answers, “Everything happens when you are motivated. One needs to be in touch with his or her instincts and question the status quo.”
Speaking about his long journey as an organic farmer, Dr Kulkarni says, “Every one considered me to be an oddball doing crazy things in my farm. They would sneer and ask me about my annual income. I realised quite early that I must get out of this framework of quantifying everything in terms of money. Farm gives you more and beyond money. I get a variety of food, enriched soil, clean air and cool atmosphere, a peaceful space for meditation. I started with the motivation of building a farm which was ecofriendly in as many ways as possible. That is how I built five to six rainwater harvesting ponds. Slowly, I developed a network of like-minded people who come to the farm and teach us things like bee-keeping, grafting, making a pond, or a tank.” Elaborating upon how he learnt patience, dignity of labour and found joy every day in the diversity of his farm, he says, “Something new happens everyday in some or the other corner.”
Doubtless, it can get lonely at long stretches of time if you don’t have the kindred company of friends or family around. However, these warriors who have left behind a certain ‘type’ of lifestyle, have turned this loneliness into a soothing cocoon of solitude with perfect little windows of time and space to reflect upon and grow in awareness. “I had already been working out of the city for long stretches – in rural parts of Kutch, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh since 2001 before I took up farming. Hence, I had grown used to living in solitude. I enjoy my space and my own company,” says Dighe, who built herself a little cob house in her farm and spends around eight to ten months there a year, in total. Her Facebook page is filled with photographs of ‘Chimantara – the Wonky Tonky Cottage’, with friends and relatives expressing the ardent wish to spend some time in her beautiful and cozy house.
Fears and challenges
According to Bharat Mansata, economics don’t really favours farmers, and have never done so for those into organic farming. “For organic farming to flourish, government should do away with all the subsidies provided for chemical farming,” suggests Mansata.
He further explains how the learning curve is steep for those transitioning from conventional farming to organic, and it is steeper for non-farmers. Another big hurdle that these farmers face is increasing and then maintaining the quality of their farm soil which usually takes three to four years.
Another challenge in the early phase is to explain one’s approach to one’s neighbouring farming community, a fact vouched for by Dr Kulkarni and Vijay Kundaji unanimously. “Explaining my philosophy behind this organic endeavour to the labourers and neighbouring farmers and villagers was a challenging task,” says Dr Kulkarni as Vijay explains how answering questions from commercial farmers who are used to felling all trees in order to crop, is a tedious task. “They asked questions like why we were busy foresting parts of our land; or why we were not growing cash crops like sugar cane, or doing floriculture, and why we were not irrigating our fields using borewell water,” says Vijay.
Dighe also points out at how sometimes one’s faith gets shaken too because nothing happens for a long time, when farming. “But the process of learning continues. Since 2000, I had been learning and taking lessons through various courses – sanitation, plantation, indigenous trees. I also joined Urban Food Growers group, worked for an NGO called GreenSouls. The learning curve is fun and it keeps life interesting,” adds Dighe.
For Vijay and Gracy, it had been difficult to completely unplug from the ‘money economy’. “A small farm can provide enough food, fuel and perhaps even enough material for simple shelters. But how do you deal with the needs of health care, transport, increasing costs of labour, formal education for kids, without a supplementary source of income? This has been a challenge for us – as we have not entirely monetised our farm,” shares Vijay. This environmentally sensitised couple chose not to over-exploit water, for instance, to grow cash crops or extract multiple harvests through the year. “This seems especially important to us, given the dry bio-geographic area where our land is located,” he adds.
Another hurdle is posed by urban centers next to these areas which exert tremendous pressures on the latter by triggering large-scale migration of people into the city in order to access the money economy. Understandably, there is very little incentive or
interest to do land work or live in the middle of nowhere.
The future is organic
According to a four-year detailed study by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, chemical farming is not an option anymore. Ground water levels across the country are getting prodigiously depleted, thus making it an absolute necessity to make organic and natural farming a mainstream method.
Khan too predicts a progression in this scenario, “People will have to move in this direction in order to create their own food and water. The way things have shaped up in the past few decades, and the way India is going through the ‘cancerous’ growth model, the day is not far when there would be no option left other than growing your own food.”
Khan has come out with a book titled The Third Curve: The end of growth as we know it, which is his comprehensive take on the the impossibility of wanting infinite growth in a finite planet. According to him, this trend of urbanites moving to rural area is going to be a mass reality soon. “And if that does not happen, then at least every building will have its own terrace farm,” he says.
Can organic farming be the main source of sustenance? Dighe says that we have not yet reached that stage; people today combine organic farming with eco-tourism or eco-stays to stay afloat. “Though a family of four can live off the produce of a one-acre land; the farm would give you food but it won’t get you a plane ticket. Organic farming seeks change in one’s lifestyle, especially from city dwellers,” she says, suggesting that one must have at least sustenance back up for the first five years.
Mansata too maintains that one shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations from this lifestyle shift, definitely not for the first few years, as the cost of living as compared to the return cost on the produce takes time in getting aligned. In order to have a monetary cushion, Khan suggests having a long-term plan in mind, and working accordingly. “The first and foremost step to take is not to get into debts. Resist the temptation to buy frivolously. Make smart choices and save money,” he says.
Slowing down from fraught, urban-consumerist ways of living, enjoying the intricate flow of life on the land and living off it for basic needs – all of these help create a sense of security about life and the world. Large sections of our population in India, by virtue of not having had the opportunity to integrate into the modern industrial economy, have the knowhow, skills and abilities to live and function in a non-oil/fossil fuel, or post-oil/fossil-fuel economy. “So just in case that is the way the world is headed, I would say that today’s ‘losers shall inherit the Earth’,” concludes Vijay, echoing the Gospels.
Moreover, success and failure are relative terms dependent on one’s perspective. As Dighe points out, “In the end, you just need to have the courage.”
Organic farming: Baby steps
- There are certainly ways to live relatively ‘more’ sustainably even without going back to the land or doing farming. That should perhaps be the first port-of-call for all of us – being conscious of consumption, being aware of the ‘embedded’ energy in all forms of goods and services used in daily life, careful choice of modes of transport, choosing foods that are locally grown over those transported over large distances, eating food ‘in season’ rather than foods that necessitate a cold chain for preservation.
- If one does decide to try farming – it might be meaningful to start by looking at volunteering for extended periods of time on a farm, to understand what it entails and the challenges, before committing to acquiring land. Those who find their calling in this kind of work can then think about acquiring.
- Most importantly, ‘sustainable’ farming cannot support an urban consumerist lifestyle. Some bio-geographic regions which are richer in water and other resources can support greater surpluses than others, but the level of excess and surplus that a fossil fuel-based, industrial economy can create, is not possible to achieve. Sustainable farming can, however, support a very meaningful, fulfilling and enjoyable life. This is perhaps the first tradeoff to internalise.
– Vijay Kundaji
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