This is a new, pleasing trend – that of city folk, tired of eating chemical-laden food, turning to farming and growing their own food. Hiren Kumar Bose profiles some of these ‘farmer converts’ and deciphers their motive and zeal. It is hoped that this will have the potential to become more popular, inspire more citizens to turn to organic farming. Meanwhile, read their stories and get inspired!
Leaving ecological footprints, not carbon
For webmaster Anoop Rajan (31), taking to farming was doing the politically correct thing, doing one’s bit for the blighted planet. “I tried many life-changing approaches. I began with abstaining from taking meat, alcohol, cigarette and even looking at girls, and even bicycled to work so that I left less carbon footprints. I completed a biodiversity course at BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society) to understand the soil, plants and all other things connected with it, attended weekend urban farming course at Mumbai’s Nature Park, but it was my encounter with Deepak Suchde, the man who has pioneered organic techniques of regenerating the soil, that made me leave my job and go headlong into farming.”
Anoop Rajan at his farm in Kerala
When recession was at its peak, Anoop’s father lost his job and the family decided to move to its ancestral property in Kannur, Kerala, where the family had a 2.5 acre plot. “Once here I realised the horrific condition of cows in Kerala, as I was unable to get hold of good quality cowdung and urine, the main ingredients needed for soil regeneration. I bought a couple of Kasargod cows in order to put into practice what I had learnt,” says Anoop.
Being a farmer meant learning to become a coconut tree climber and harvesting the coconuts in order to avoid paying huge wages to labour, planting black pepper, milking the cows and even making ghee. “It took me three months to master the technique of climbing a coconut tree. The risks, fun and benefits, and pleasure are unimaginable. Just three to four hours of work, and I earn equivalent to what a gazetted officer earns,” says Anoop in jest.
A follower of traditional farming practices, Anoop who maintains a blog on an ecom portal (https://www.naturalfarmerskerala.com/shop/) says, “I feel we are the luckiest age group as most farmers are in their 60s and 70s. Once they are gone we are likely to lose all the traditional knowledge they had. I have been trying to document traditional practices related to crop pattern, soil conservation, animal husbandry, food preservation etc.”
From garment business to chikoo cultivation
The love for nature and the desire to live-off the land is inspiring scores of urbanites to become farmers. Thirty-seven-year old Prashant Brahme, a South Mumbai resident who runs a family-owned garment shop in Napean Sea Road, is one of them. “I have been wanting to grow my vegetables and fruits, free of chemical fertiliser and pesticides, since I realised the horrors of chemical farming, and thanks to the support from my family I acquired an orchard,” says Brahme who zeroed in on a ten and a half acre orchard in Gholvad, Maharashtra’s chikoo belt, in 2014, after hunting for a farm land for nearly four years.
A Commerce graduate, Brahme, who did a week-long course at Talegaon’s Horticulture Training Centre, sells his chikoos at Vashi’s APMC market, and also caters to orders received on his Facebook page. “Working alone late nights, I select the fruits and put them in boxes to keep them ready for the delivery boy next morning,” says Brahme, whose immediate plans include growing vegetables and settling in the farm, rather than do the four-hour-long train commutes on weekends to reach the farm.
The call of the land
Of late, India has become a hot destination for agri investments, as several foreign companies are looking to be a part of it. Additionally NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) are returning to become agripreneurs. In 2013, James Joseph, Director, Executive Engagement at Microsoft India, returned to his native town Aluva in Kerala to popularise jackfruits by setting up food processing factories in Kerala and Bangalore. He procures jackfruit and processes and sells the freeze-dried fruits in packets of his brand, Jackfruit 365. “Jackfruit can be mouth-watering, irrespective of cuisine type,” says Joseph, who has designed signature dining experiences for his clients with several internationally renowned chefs. His Facebook page has links to YouTube videos of interesting and unique jackfruit-infused recipes, namely, galouti kabab, biryani, masala dosa, kathi roll, panna cotta, and payasam, all made from dehydrated jackfruit! Like Joseph, another NRI, Madhuchandran S.C, a US-based software engineer returned to Mandya in Karnataka, in 2014, to become a farmer. (Read about Madhuchandan in the article in this issue titled A project called Mandya 2020)
WhatsApping away to a sustainable future
In recent years, agriculture has become a field vibrant with effective innovations, thanks to a growing number of young techie minds that make it happen. Across India, WhatsApp groups are not only connecting farmers to their customers in the virtual market; they’re creating a network of resources and support for the country’s farmers who need it the most. Like the farmer duo Santhosh Kittur and Abhijit Kamath of Karnataka’s Belagavi district who through their WhatsApp group created in August 2015, post updates from their farms, including photographs, as well as what produce is available. The group’s 80 members in Gokak town lap up their pesticide-free vegetables like bitter gourd, cucumbers, beans, cabbage, tomatoes, green chillies, red peppers, onions, and garlic every Thursday and Sunday of the week.
These WhatsApp groups not only include farmers and buyers, but experts too, who are a great help to farmers when addressing issues related to pest attack, deciding on companion planting or selecting hybrid fruit varieties suited to a region. Entomologist Shekhar Mehendale of Dapoli-based Konkan Krishi Vidyapeeth often receives queries from farmers about pest attacks and its remedies. “Each region is unique due to its agro-climatic parameters, and at times I have received queries from farmers in Vidarbha and have had to consult the local experts to address the queries,” says Dr. Mehendale.
Fruit orchards, millet farming and mango plantations
Hyderabad-based Madhu Reddy, who after having done an undergraduate in Business Management in California, worked for 16 years, returned to India and “travelled for five years, mainly discovered photography, wrote travel pieces and during the farm stays, developed an interest in farming.” Having convinced her parents to let her convert the family’s ancestral farm, 60 km from Hyderabad, into a non-chemical one, she prepared herself for her new venture by volunteering at Auroville’s Solitude Farm, undertook a course in Sustainable Management at Bhoomi College, met farmers who were walking the path of non-chemical farming, and topped it up with a 12-day-long Permaculture Design Course from Hyderabad-based Aranya Agricultural Alternatives, which according to her, “Helped me understand land and resource management from a very holistic viewpoint, about caring for the Earth, thinking about people and sharing the surplus.”
Madhu Reddy at her farm near Hyderabad
The business consultant veteran, elaborates: “After I took over, I converted about two acres into a multi-fruit orchard, and another two acres for growing millets, while leaving the rest for the mango orchard, which mom and dad had planted about two decades back.” Asked how difficult was the transition, from being a business consultant to becoming a farmer, Madhu says, “I found one has to work to understand the principles of what is good farming. The rest I think is more of listening and experimenting. It’s a tough sphere of work where the variables are sometimes not in your hand. The satisfaction is there, but then the struggle too.”
The weekend farmers
Concerned by increasing incidences of pesticide-laden vegetables and chemically ripened fruits, many are turning to farming as a hobby. They include people who want to balance farming with their professional lives. Then there are those who are not willing to be 24/7 farmers, but want to be weekend farmers and still enjoy the benefit of farm fresh products. For them help is at hand with start-ups like Hosachiguru – an agricultural asset management company based in Bengaluru. The trio behind Hosachiguru (meaning tender sprouts in Kannada), Ashok Jayanthi, Sriram Chitlur and Srinath Setty, all engineers, address the need of “individuals, especially urbanites who not only crave to re-live those wonderful moments of childhood, but wish their children to have similar experiences of yesteryears in their home towns.” Having already attracted a pilot project of about ` 4 crore of funding for protected cultivation, Hosachiguru presently manages around 500 acres in horticulture, timberland, protected cultivation and nursery, and hopes to expand to 1000 acres over the next couple of years. Sreevathsava Reddy of Hosachiguru says, “We wish to acquire technology through these partnerships and explore hi-tech and precision farming methods to produce yields that are at least 10 times more per square meter than that is being produced currently.”