Putting nature back into farming

Corporate professionals are trying their hand at eco-farming, coaxing both health and value out of the soil

The joy of seeing a seed sprout, smelling freshly-watered soil or devouring the undulating greens with one’s eyes – all this may catch one’s fancy, for sure. But city folks are taking up farming for reasons that run deeper.

Agriculture is going through a major shift. Small farm land, mounting input costs (be it for fertilisers or pesticides), unpredictable monsoon as well as increasing labour costs have brought a lot of distress to traditional farmers, in recent times.

Here’s where the well-to-do believe they can step in and make a difference — armed with technology and market expertise. They are taking to farming to research and find new sustainable techniques that improve yield, try out technologies to manage issues and create market linkages to bring in food supply chain efficiencies.

Idea takes root

Many well-heeled have already taken the plunge. VP Nandakumar, MD and CEO of Mannapuram Finance, lives on his farm in Thrissur, Kerala, and tries out new ideas in eco-farming.

Likewise, AV George, managing Director of AVG Group in Kerala, has been pursuing natural farming while also actively volunteering for the cause of sustainable agriculture.

Others, such as Shibulal, co-founder and former CEO of Infosys, have set up foundations to promote organic farming.

Some have quit a corporate career to pursue their passion, for instance, Sandeep Saxena. Saxena, an alumnus of IIT Kanpur and IIM Lucknow who held senior positions at Indian Oil, Infosys, Cognizant, Amex and Franklin Templeton, started Big India Farms about 12 years ago. The farm uses a leasing model where land is taken on a 30-year lease to grow dense food forests that produce mono-floral honey, free roaming wild chicken, tur, forest millets, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. In return, owners get half the share of the revenue.

Kiruba Shankar, CEO, Businesses Blogging and farm owner, says that many professionals are hands-on, though they only visit the farm during weekends. The day-to-day activities are managed through hired local help.

There is also the popular passive model of leasing out land. Big India Farms manages 1,700 acres of leased land in various States, including Madhya Pradesh.

Likewise, G Natesan, who was formerly an income tax officer, manages leased farms for many city dwellers.

These farms, in Vedanthangal near Chennai, grow paddy, pulses, fruits and vegetables; they also have 50 cows to provide raw material for manure.

“The owners are not very involved in day-to-day activities but contribute in their own way. For example, when we had to lay a pipeline for irrigation, an engineer helped us,” he says.

As you sow

What draws people from the comforts of the city to toil on a farm land? The main reason is the realisation that food is not wholesome and is laden with harmful residues. Natesan says 10 cows died last year after eating the green of paddy from a farm that was sprayed with pesticide.

George uses rain water for watering plants, as the ground water has traces of chemicals from nearby fields.

The art of working with Nature has been lost over the last few generations, say farm enthusiasts. “One of the employees in the farm is over 50 years old and is an amazing repository on pests, soil and the art of watering plants,” notes Natesan. This is not something that is taught in books or courses.

Another motivating factor is trying new things and creating value. Saxena, for example, creates forests. “We produce pristine food by focusing on two key agents — bees and earth worms,” he says. The trees and plants are created to sustain bees while the soil management methods nurture earth worms.

His company is building a consumer network that relishes naturally grown products and also a modern supply chain with food processing technology and cold storage capabilities. He says that there is good demand for products such as unadulterated honey — neem honey, for instance, is available only in India and is a good anti-cancer agent.

There is also focus on newer technologies. CropIn, which uses data science to improve farm efficiencies, says it has many farmers, besides corporates, as its clients.

The involvement of those with deep pockets is the need of the hour to develop sustainable methods. “It might take 7-8 years to reach profitability. Only those with staying power can create natural food,” says Saxena.

On his farm, cows produce manure and plants such as marigold are used for pest control, neem tree for fungus management and vetiver to enrich micro-nutrients. in the soil

Natesan says that small farms are not sustainable as you need to invest on irrigation, digging wells, solar and pumpset. Maintaining a herd of cows also needs cash. There is hence a need to pool resources and take a long-term view.

Weeding out the non-serious

While there is a need for such practices, and good intentions too, some of the fervour may be misplaced, warns Saxena. Passion often ends up becoming an ego trip of owning land and taking pictures.

“Many want quick returns and throw money at the problem; you can cause a lot of harm to the natural ecosystems in a farm by using heavy machinery and questionable methods,” cautions Saxena.

He adds that often a sense of surrender is needed in pursuing farming as we do not have control over many ingredients. Letting go of what you know is needed to cross the boundary from the market-driven world we live in to the other side of natural world, he says.

Some are also taken in by get-rich-quick ponzi schemes. The current fad is for drumstick, touted for high in demand in the European countries due to its high Vitamin D content; two years ago, it was jatropha for bio-diesel and before that, the rush to buy farm land in Latin America and Africa.

Such short-term market frenzy often does not end well. When it does end well, it is really trading success, not farming, and does not benefit the grower.

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