When more and more urban professionals quit their 9-to-5 jobs and turn to a full-fledged farming career
By Sakshi Kaushik & Rashmi Rajagopal
IN A country where reverse migration is an exponentially growing concept, it’s no secret that young professionals are searching for a way to get out of the system. A system where long work hours, poor lifestyle choices and a high-stress existence is considered to be the markers of success.
If you’re looking to scrap the office politics and cramped cubicles for fresh air, take some advice from these urban farmers, who have picked up a shovel and started their own farms, from scratch. While Kochi has plenty of green fingers who think nothing of turning their rooftops or gardens into their own urban farming plots, there are those, not only from the city, but also from other parts of the country, like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru, who have decided to go back to basics and start life afresh as a farmer. These modern farmers are taking the help of apps to predict weather and soil conditions, social networking to sell their crops and rely on indigenous and heritage seed banks such as Navadanya, to realise their farming potential.
After being part of the corporate rat race in Europe and Dubai for 10 years, as a lawyer, Arati Venkat took the plunge in 2010 and set up her farm in a six-acre plot of land in Hesaraghatta, on returning to India. With over 2,500 varieties of trees at the property (she started with a lone honge mara — a species found in Karnataka), the farm is thriving today and even has an in-house bistro, specialising in Mediterranean cuisine. The ingredients, of course, plucked right off the farm. The inspiration struck when, on one of her trips to Turkey, she stopped by a roadside cafe for a meal. “After the meal, I wanted dessert, and the chef plucked a few oranges from a tree in the garden, diced it and served it to me garnished with mint leaves and drizzled with honey. It was so simple but so delicious,” she recalls.
Do your homework
It is easy to buy land in Karnataka and Kerala because of government subsidies. In Tamil Nadu, fringes of Coimbatore, Papanasam, the Western Ghats, Kodaikanal and Kutralam are prime areas to start out. In Karnataka, Bengaluru Rural, Kodagu and Chikkamagalur are some good options. In Maharashtra, Nashik offers many panchayat subsidies for agricultural activities. Do check on agricultural laws as they vary from state to state.
Per acre, it costs a minimum of `5 lakhs to buy anywhere in India, and you’ll need `8-`10 lakhs extra for livestock, maintenance and capital investments. But to lease, it’s only `20,000.
A year ago, if anyone had said I’ll be a farmer I wouldn’t have believed them. I grew up in a city and had only seen farm animals and fields from a car window,” begins Aparna Rajagopal, a trained lawyer who runs Beejom farm in Noida. It all started when she and her husband, Sai Krishna, had to find a home for a rescued horse. “We found a large tract of agricultural land on the banks of the Yamuna up for lease. Standing there, we decided to lease the whole piece of land and farm,” she shares. Most of what she knows today about farming is thanks to Google, through which she developed her own crop calendar. Today Aparna grows grains, legumes, millets, oil seeds along with seasonal vegetable and herbs. Traditionally, the farming she follows is called Baranaja, a method that ensures self sustainability, ensuring the farm keeps running even if a crop or two fails. The Rajagopals’ farm houses six horses, 25 cows and calves, 20 odd hens, roosters and chicks, 28 geese, 13 goats and five dogs – all free range animals and mostly rescued. The farm also makes its own pesticides with ingredients such as neem, chilli, garlic, and tobacco which are steeped in cow urine.
Gaytri Bhatia switched to farming three years ago after she found her job at the US Environmental Protection Agency unfulfilling. “I should have been making a change, but I felt like I was doing squat. And when I realised that there was no effect from the top-down, I decided to make a change from down-up,” says the 30-something, who now runs her organic Vrindavan Farm in Wada, near Mumbai, for organically-grown mangoes, with some papayas, bananas and custard apples thrown in for bio-diversity. “Be prepared for a really slow future!,” she laughs and tells us, suggesting that youngsters first try it out on one of India’s 217 WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) farms, an organisation started back in 1971 to allow people to try their hand at manual labour in exchange for food and accommodation on an organic farm. She recommends purchasing seeds from organically pollinated seed banks like Navdanya and Sahaja Seeds, using social media to market crops, “building a more personal relationship with clients and catering to more individual needs.”
Nithin Sagi, Hamsa V
For former software professionals Nithin Sagi and Hamsa V of Growing Greens, their tryst with plants started as a small set up from a balcony in his Hebbal apartment in 2012, which then expanded to a terrace and now to a proper 2,000 square feet space. The duo specialises in baby micro greens, leafy greens or herbs, grown through the method of hydroponics without soil. They currently grow 12 varieties including red amaranths, black mustard and pea shoots, apart from edible flowers like petunia and pansy. “Simple things like sowing and watering which is a daily activity has to be personally overseen every day because of the sensitivity of each plant,” shares Sagi, adding, “it has been a very challenging journey with lots of hurdles but it’s always a good feeling every time we cross the hurdle.”
To that end, they are slowly expanding to a farm setup on the outskirts of the city, where they plan to do polyhouse farming, a method of cultivating plants in sheltered conditions. “At the farm, where one of us is planning to be based, we want to take up polyhouse construction and have micro greens, salad leaves, bell peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes. All of them will be grown hydroponically and the focus is to eliminate usage of pesticides,” he reveals.
Vinu Kurian Njavallil
After 12 years in the banking industry, 40-year-old Vinu Kurian Njavallil gave it all up to start his own 12-acre Njallani cardamom farm. He started his farm in Vandanmedu Panchayat, about 170 km east of Kochi. “I had no time for my family and I was working extra hard for the same remuneration after the 2008 financial crisis. I always thought I’d take farming up upon retirement, but I guess that came a little sooner than I had expected!,” says Njavallil. Now describing himself as a fully-fledged farmer, Njavallil says “one must be prepared to bear the risks, and also take risks, which is why it’s so important to select a field and crop according to your own interests.” He believes pineapples and rambutan are particularly lucrative crops at the moment, but also says “do not put your money in one field or crop, because if you’re starting up, you’re going to make blunders.” He advises youngsters to take the help of consultants from government agricultural boards, and suggests using technology (“Andriod apps like WeatherBomb and Weather Underground are very accurate when predicting the weather!”) and their professional contacts to get their crops on the trading scene.
Fresh off the boat
So fresh and new it’s still not christened, Sonalee Mandke and Rahul Deshpande’s idea was to take on farming as an adventure which is ‘productive and satisfying’. Located near Belgaum, the duo was originally uncertain about leaving the city and their jobs (Deshpande was working in the corporate sector and Mandke was in design education) when they were confronted with land (belonging to Deshpande’s mother). “Without any previous experience, we had no idea about the cyclical nature of planting and harvesting apart from what we had read about. We are still starting out in a sense,” begins Mandke. Currently a small operation, Mandke explains that the farm uses no chemical products apart from those certified for organic use. “We aim to grow healthy food, rejuvenate the soil, reduce water consumption and actively try to use open-pollinated, native and non-GMO seeds,” she says. Right now, you’ll find toor dal and sesame, along with mangoes, coconuts, chillies and other vegetables.
Chennai-native Vinoth Kumar made the switch from sales-related jobs with Standard Chartered Bank, Groupon and Zoho in November 2014 to embrace traditional farming practices. “Organic farming is a lifestyle choice, and the choice to avoid pesticides should be a personal one for quality and health benefits,” says the 32-year-old, who’s now growing rice, ragi, a small vegetable garden and also herds a few cows on his Cheyyur Organic Farm in Kancheepuram. But before purchasing land, he recommends doing a six-month ‘apprenticeship’ to learn the basics of farming in places like Auroville. Rookies should check for land that comes with an Encumbrance Certificate to exempt them from electricity bills. But Kumar cautions that farming isn’t for everyone: “It requires a lot of patience and hard work – more than what people expect, and you must be prepared to know that you won’t be making immediate profits.”