“The ancients stole all our great ideas,” wrote American author and humorist Mark Twain in his autobiography. And he wasn’t wrong. Our ancestors’ knowledge in diverse fields – from mathematics to medical science and agriculture – is no less than a treasure trove.
The Green Revolution, with all its promises eventually wreaked havoc on human and soil health with pesticides and fertilizers. Fortunately, over the years, farmers and city-dwellers are raising awareness about organic farming, a practice that relies on natural principles of biodiversity and composting. While most of them are talking about its significance, there are a few who have taken the plunge to try it out themselves. Environmental analyst and entrepreneur Gaytri Bhatia of Vrindavan Farms, situated near Mumbai, is one of such city-dweller.
Bhatia traded her corporate job in the United States to return and run her family farm in Wada, Maharashtra, in 2009. “It wasn’t a planned decision but I couldn’t be more satisfied,” she tells Zee Zest. It was her love for the earth as well as her own health that motivated her to make the switch to a sustainable lifestyle and grow chemical-free food. The farmland that she returned to was predominantly a mango orchard but today, it has a variety of crops such as rice, millets, heirloom tomatoes, root vegetables and fruits, which are supplied to families in Mumbai upon harvesting. In an exclusive chat with Bhatia, we get her to speak about the joys of farming and things to keep in mind when starting an organic farm.
1. Why do you think there is a demand for organic farming today?
Our daily life has become extremely distant from the earth. In order to heal ourselves and our environment, I think we need to return to the land. When we are tactile and aware of the earth, we can share a symbiotic relationship.
2. What is the most rewarding part of farming?
There’s so much! There’s a symphony of forest around me and I am constantly surrounded by birds chirping and frogs croaking. The skies are magnificent and you get to learn a lot about human nature, and yourself. I have loved learning about the simple life of indigenous people and then, of course, eating amazing food! It’s all growing out there. You feel like eating a salad, you just go out, pick ingredients and put it all together.
3. Things to keep in mind if one wants to take up organic farming in our country today?
1. The Soil: Often when we see an insect on a plant, we think the plant needs help, but it’s actually the soil that does. It’s important to remember that the healing is in the soil. The earth is a magnificently surprising place and once you understand that, you don’t want to disturb it. And when you think like that, you are automatically learning to farm without attending any classes or visiting teachers. Just listening to the earth is enough.
2. Creating a Seed Bank: There’s mass contamination in seeds and such practices are cumulating in the earth and eventually, affecting our food, and making human health more vulnerable. If you go to a mandi (market) to buy seeds, they are by default hybrid or modified. The biggest challenge is finding open-pollinated seeds, which basically means seeds that farmers pass on through generations. Farmers in ancient times always sowed their crops and saved the best seeds to use the next year. Search for open-pollinated, indigenous seeds and once you’ve found those, commit to them, until death does you apart!
3. Cattle: Our land became more vibrant once the cows joined us. One of the most basic inputs in organic farming is having manure. You don’t have to do anything and just need to let them graze around freely. That’s fantastic for your land. And it’s not just cows, but also chickens. They act as insecticides since they peck around on the farm. Domestic animals complete the ecosystem that we’re trying to build.
4. Be Patient: A typical urban dweller works on a very tight clock but in farming the clock is really slow. It is the seasonal cycle that you’re looking at and your watch is the sunrise and sunset. If you learn something about a crop in this season, you only get to try it again next year. Be patient and keep at it. Every time you do, you’ll get better results.
5. Crop Rotation: There’s a lot of innate wisdom in tribal communities. If you’ll ask these farmers, they won’t know why they do what they do, but they sow rice and after the harvest, they sow lentils (dal). They were practicing crop rotation without being aware of it. It’s simple: rice takes away the nitrogen from the soil while growing. The dal takes nitrogen from the atmosphere and restores it in the soil so it is ready for the next batch of rice.
4. Organic farming is taking the younger generation to the fields. What is influencing them to turn agripreneurs?
I have no idea! But I can guess that maybe after so much technological advancement, there is a yearning to touch, feel and experience. I have noticed this in the younger community that I interact with. City life is so fast that, at some point, you want to just slow down. I have noticed that youngsters are not just getting into agriculture but other touch-feel experiences like baking, art and music.
Tips for aspiring agripreneurs
1. Enter with respect and humility
2. Be patient and willing to unlearn
3. Give it time
4. Listen to the earth