Intrigued by his variety, I stop by. He begins explaining the characteristics of his home-grown produce. As he wraps up, he points out to a sack lying in the corner and says, “You must try this. This is traditional komal sawl (soft rice). It does not have to be cooked, all you need to do is soak it for half an hour and it’s ready for breakfast.”
Rice for breakfast is not something I relate to, but for Kamala Kaman, it’s his regular morning meal. He is a farmer from Assam and hails from a place which is quite unique — it’s the island of Majauli, in River Brahmaputra, which disappears for many months. It was once considered the biggest river island in the world, but has now shrunk in size due to erosion. As I query him on his produce, we stray into a discussion on his method of farming. I ask him if he has ever been tempted to use pesticides. He laughs and says, “On my island, even if I carelessly throw the seeds, I get a bumper produce!” And, like a true Indian, goes on to add, “Mine is a land blessed by the Goddess.
She protects us and takes care of all our needs. We cannot poison her soil. I have no idea what pesticides look like; even manure is not required.” Handing me his visiting card, which simply reads, ‘Organic Farmer/Bamboo Hut Builder’, he smiles and says, “I extend an invitation to you. Do visit my island and experience our way of living.” I’m overwhelmed by the simplicity and honesty of the proceedings. I don’t know when I would be able to make my way to Majauli, but what I could do was taste the flavours of his island. I purchase the rice varieties he has brought. He uses the rustic tin measure and it almost feels as though I’m shopping at a village haat.
His rice was so ordinary to look at, but it has been among the most flavoursome I have cooked. It has the sweetness of pesticide-free food and every time I boil it, the house fills with its aroma.
Going the green way
Kamala Kaman was one of the many farmers I met at the 5th National Organic Farming Convention which drew enthusiastic participants from across the country, all driven by one passion: sustainable organic cultivation.
Among the teeming visitors at the convention, held in Chandigarh, was an eager college student Jashanpreet Singh. He was interested in purchasing ghiya or lauki (bottle gourd) seeds. He was not a city resident and had come from the village to study. So I presumed he wanted to buy seeds for his home. To my surprise he said, “I stay as a paying guest here. My landlady has a little green patch and I thought of growing a ghiya creeper. There’s nothing quite like fresh vegetables grown without pesticides.”
This was a narrative I heard from almost everyone who attended the convention. Apart from professional farmers, it was amateur growers, among them homemakers, students, entrepreneurs, retirees etc, who filled the venue. The majority was here to learn the art of organic cultivation and put those skills into practise in home gardens, purchase pesticide-free food stuff, stock up on green fertiliser and manure, and most importantly, source desi beej or open-pollinated seeds. As Jashanpreet had told me, “I could have bought the seeds from any store or plant nursery, but I’ve come here hoping I’ll find indigenous seeds.”
You reap what you sow is an idiom we’re all familiar with. Literally speaking, the food on your plate is all about that; no wonder then consumers are gravitating towards organic groceries.
What you sow all begins from the humble seed. The reason the seed is of utmost importance. “While organic farming is not wholly about the seed, as hybrid seeds are valid too, what’s worrying is in this race to get pest-resistant and high-yield varieties, we are limiting our seed base. As a result, we are losing our traditional open-pollinated seeds. That is why, as a mission, I distribute seeds wherever I go,” says Shankar Lal Poyem from Bastar, Chhattisgarh.
He echoes what Vijay Jardhari of Beej Bachao Andolan, Uttarakhand, had told me at an agricultural fair. He had picked up a handful of bean seeds hidden under a veil and told me to recognise them. I couldn’t go beyond the five usual suspects: six varieties of rajma (kidney beans), French beans, soya beans, lobia (black eye pea) and broad beans. Reassuringly, he said my score was better than average, but I had a lot more learning to do. With the flourish of a magician, he had lifted the veil to reveal over a hundred varieties of bean seeds.
“Do you know where these are from? The hills of Kumaon and Garhwal. Unfortunately, most village-folk too, leaving aside those in far-flung areas, have lost the talent of collecting wild seeds and cooking them. Like the city, they too buy what’s on the shelf of provision stores. We are losing our seeds. It’s a legacy we need to protect,” he had said in a grave tone, adding, “There is a war on seeds. Commercial interests are making international organisations alter the genetics of the seed. Farmers looking to better profits, and understandably so, are falling into the trap and buying and not preserving seeds. So vegetables and legumes are losing flavour and tastes are being altered.”
Sharing those thoughts, Tara Singh, a farmer from Gurdaspur district, Punjab, asks, “How many times have you heard NRIs tell you vegetables in India are tastier than what they have? Extensive organic farming is happening abroad, and aggressively so, but why are those luscious looking fruits and vegetables not flavoursome? It all goes down to the seed. The pedigree is paramount.”
Farm in the city
Have you always dreamt of owning a bit of farmland, far away from city lights, and growing your own fruits and vegetables? Till that little piece of paradise comes your way, why don’t you convert the space you live in into a green haven? Urban farming or city farming is a term increasingly being heard these days. It’s all about growing your own kitchen requirements at home, in your city.
Once upon a time, kitchen gardens meant growing greens in your backyard; but living in housing society apartments ruled that out. However, what it could not prohibit was the spirit of innovation and a passion to get things going. Take the example of Bangalore-based veteran B N Vishwanath, a pioneer in urban agriculture and author of A handbook of Organic Terrace Gardening. What he started as an experiment years back has developed into a full-fledged terrace garden. His success story and subsequent workshops on roof-top farming has been an inspiration for budding cultivators.
The best part is it’s not so difficult to get started (See box: Grow your own food). Gardening requires persistence. Failure of a crop should not be a deterrent. It’s said some persons are gifted with green fingers while others have to work hard. Not entirely true. For, if growing conditions are as required, the earth will blossom. I’m reminded of what a farmer in Majkhali, near Ranikhet, Uttarakhand, told me when I complimented him on his produce from a land that was once considered unproductive, “Dharti apne pe kabhi bojh nahi rakhti. Bas, hame unki pukar sunni hai aur woh sona ugle gi... Mother Earth never carries the baggage of not sprouting. All we need to do is tune into to her needs and She will give a bumper yield.”
Recent trends show that hotels and restaurants too are opting to grow their own food. Hyper-local organic ingredients have become the rage with customers, besides they are cost-effective and reduce carbon footprints. During a visit to Nubra Valley last summer, I opted to stay at Organic Retreat. The USP of the camp was they grew their own food. It was a treat for our group to savour a menu prepared with freshly plucked ingredients everyday in the middle of Ladakh. In fact, the chef would allow guests to roam around the kitchen garden and let them pick a choice of vegetable. Can it get better than this?
“With customers becoming health-conscious, restaurants need to come up with innovative ideas to prepare low-cal delicious meals. Freshly plucked veggies, picked from their roof-top or backyard gardens, come in handy,” says Chandigarh-based Chef Manav, a young restaurateur who grows his own micro-greens and uses them in salads and for plating.
Gardening is therapeutic, almost meditative. Those involved in it can spend hours attending to their greens and never feel the length of time involved or the sweat on the brow. The ultimate reward of many months’ labour — fresh home-grown organic produce — is joy unlimited and an inspiration to roll up the sleeves and start again.
Grow your own food
1. Small, narrow spaces, like driveway, balcony, or even window box grills (seen in flats) will work. A roof-top area is ideal.
2. Choose a spot where you will get at least 6-8 hrs of sunlight.
3. Initially, you don’t need to invest a lot in containers. Plastic crates, paint cans, old waste-paper bins, thick polythene bags, kitchen baskets or anything that is light and can hold soil will do. Most vegetable roots penetrate only up to one foot, so all you need to ensure is the pot is at least 10”-12” deep. In case you have no floor space, buy wall pots meant for vertical gardening and begin by growing herbs/leafy greens in them.
4. Layering of the container is most important. At the base, put a few broken pieces of terracotta pots/ tiles/ brick/ cut-up plastic bottles etc to allow drainage and aeration. Then cover it with soil that’s nutrient-rich. To achieve that, mix mud with manure (vermicompost/ dried and powdered cow dung/ well-rotted leaf compost etc). Add a small quantity of micro-nutrients and an additive like cocopeat which is coir dust made with coconut husk. Remember the soil should not be tightly packed. A test: if the soil is dark-brown and you can dig it with your fingers, you are on the right track.
5. Choose seeds according to the place and season and the amount of sunlight the variety needs. Do not over-water. Use organic fertiliser and pesticides. Have patience and remember plants too need a good measure of tender, loving care.
1. Be aware of the seeds you use. Your crop will depend on that.
2. Use open-pollinated seeds and avoid hybrid. If you buy chemically-treated seeds, wash them well before use.
3. Don’t throw away ripe seeds in a vegetable you are about to cook. Remove its seeds and leave them in a semi-sunny spot. Once hard and dry, they are ready to be used for potting.
4. Tubers and bulbous vegetables you buy from the market, for example, turmeric, garlic, colocasia (arbi), ginger etc can also be sown when they mature. One of the easiest to grow is potato. If it develops “eyes”, just cut a large portion and put it in a pot. Yes, potatoes can be grown in containers too!
5. Apart from sowing, make your own kitchen waste compost, begin rainwater harvesting, share seeds with friends and family, and encourage organic living.
Showing the way
Let these sites guide you:
Let these fertilisers andequipment aid you:
a Bio-culture compress blocks (www.syamantak.cfsites.org)
a Kitchen compost maker (www.dailydump.org/products/
a Coco/coir peat, coir pots and trays (www.coirboard.gov.in)
a One dozen vertical pots with stand, potting soil, varieties of seeds (www.facebook.com/
a Gardening tools