Mumbai Workshop: Reviving Family Farms (12th February, 2017)

People with a new interest in organic farming (either because they inherited a family farm, or recently acquired one), often struggle with making them self-sustaining and profitable. The reasons for problems can be varied — limitations of time, constraints of capital, inability to find the right market, lack of knowledge or reliable manpower, high costs of inputs — and while solutions are achievable it takes time and experience to address them.

Through this (full-day) interactive workshop we help participants understand what they need to do to make their Family Farms sustainable and productive. This is NOT a session for kitchen gardeners, but for folks with a serious and active interest in running their own farms.

Note: Only 10 participants can be accommodated in this workshop.

The workshop will cover the following broad areas:
1. Farm management processes
2. Farm Design and Technical Growing Topics
3. Farm Business planning and marketing

Topics covered will also include:
– Biggest (and most expensive) mistakes new farmers make – poor farm management
– Organic farm case studies
– Soil improvement strategies and practices
– Planning of succession crops

Sign Up – http://imojo.in/6kkpt9

Pre-registration is compulsory for this session

Registration Fee is Rs. 4,000.00 per head (includes lunch and tea)
Call/SMS Yogita: +919960643245 OR
Email: yogitamehra@gmail.com to pre-register
When: Sunday, 12th February, 2017 from 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Where: At Beard Design, Mumbai Studio, Prabhadevi, Mumbai (contact for directions)

NOTE: Due to limited seats, NO REFUNDS on registration fee will be offered in case of cancellations for this session. 

Towards greener pastures (by Bharati Pawaskar)

By Bharati Pawaskar / The Goan

Hanish Khan, Chandu Rathod and Vipul Karanjawkar may not be the sons of this soil but they toil in the Goan farms to produce organic vegetables, fruits and crops that have an increasing demand in the local market.

“My father polishes marble in Goa for 18 years but after my 12th exam I chose to opt for organic farming,” says Hanish, 23 whose family owns ‘dhai beegha jameen’ at Mainpuri in UP which he wishes to revive making it a way of life.

Labour is not scarce as farmers from neighbouring states willingly move to Goa in search of farm jobs, whenever monsoons fail them. “I grow onions, cotton, kidney beans, ground nuts, moong, toor, sunflower, chilies and jowar in my farm and am now offering my labour to Goans. All I need is monthly salary and farm food,” says Chandu, a born farmer from Karnataka.

And young enthusiastic graduates like Vipul who have understood that organic is the mantra of the future, physical labour in the farm is equal to doing an expensive MBA course. Vipul plans to spend five years working in Goan farms. “My father is a goldsmith in Maharashtra but I chose to be in Goa to experiment in organic farming,” he shares.

Hanish and Vipul handwater saplings early in the morning

Hanish and Vipul handwater saplings early in the morning

For Christabel Pinto, the abandoned family farm at Taleigao turned out to be a boon since the time she revived it with the help of a catalyst couple – Yogita Mehra and Karan Manral who has been dedicatedly helping out those who wish to do organic farming in its various forms – paddy crops, fruits, vegetables, kitchen gardens, terrace gardens, herbal and spice plantations.

“Though the returns are not immediate and one has to keep pumping money in for the initial period till the soil condition is restored, but once the soil regains its original richness, we can expect golden harvest,” admits Christabel, an IT professional who is determined to give a new lease of life to the 200-year-old ancestral farmland of her in-laws.

“I have open budget for my farm,” affirms green messenger Vito Gomes who flies back every month to his ancestral farm at Taleigaon from whichever corner of the globe he is and this for the past 10 years.

People in Goa have been restoring their fallow farms by ‘green manuring’, a process of growing certain crops on land/garden in order to improve soil fertility. It consists of growing mainly leguminous crops that are known to fix nitrogen into the soil as they grow. In addition, other seeds are also grown so that they can add bio-mass into the soil, which on decomposing improves soil texture.

Cattle are scarce and so is cow dung in urban areas. Hence composting and green manuring are easier and cheaper ways of improving soil. “Remember, if you are growing organically then use more compost for productive and healthy plants,” advises Yogita while Karan offers valuable tips on composting, “Use garden waste (mix green and brown materials with panchagavya (cow dung slurry) in alternating layers or kitchen waste. Regularly manage the moisture and provide aeration by turning the pile over to avoid a bad smell. It can attract rodents, especially if there is non-veg waste.”

“The Goan soil is very receptive. It takes less time to turn fertile and gives good yield, ” agrees Yogita and Karan who began experiments with the Goan soil two years ago in Albertina Almeida’s ancestral farm at Taleigaon. This farm has remained as a base for their experimentation where Deer’s Tongue, Salad Bowl, Lettuce, Chinese Cabbage, Greeshma, Cluster Beans, Round Red Radish, Tomatoes, Brinjal, Carrots, Palak, Methi, Tambdi Bhaji, Radish etc are grown. The couple has been instrumental in initiating a successful organic movement in the state like Chorao Farmer’s Club and share free healthy tips with agro-growers for easy marketing.

By Bharati Pawaskar / The Goan

Grow what sells, Pre-sell what you grow

Farmers across India, are always chasing the market and choosing to grow crops for which there is “assured and broadbased” demand. Unfortunately, they are repeatedly thrown off track because they find that at harvest time the demand has vanished. This is because growing in a market supply-demand driven environment is always volatile. In a sense, by the time the government starts advising thousands of farmers to grow a “hit” commodity, they’ve already destroyed the market for it – and for marginal farmers its devastating.

As soon as a crop (say vanilla) provides good returns, everyone starts growing it – which inevitably leads to a glut in the market that drives prices down. We’ve seen this for so many commodities – rubber, vanilla, turmeric etc over the last few years. And this has always been true. From a “marketers perspective” it makes sense to grow what others don’t – it helps differentiate and also creates a favourable supply-demand situation.

But the most useful and reliable method is (no surprise here) speaking to customers (especially cafes, restaurants and hotels) which are located close to where you grow. It always amazes me what serious chefs are looking for and open to buying if its really fresh.

Deciding what to grow

Deciding what to grow is an extremely difficult decision for us at the beginning of every season, because there are just so many choices available. However, if you are looking to grow things that you can actually use or sell commercially, then some hard choices need to be made. Fortunately there are several criteria that can help filter the choices for you.

Deciding to grow lettuce seems a no-brainer in hindsight

The most commonly consumed vegetables in most Indian households are potatoes, onions and tomatoes. Of these onions are a popular winter crop in Goa, while potatoes and tomatoes are not really grown by Goan farmers in large quantities. Onions take a while to grow and potatoes are a lot less exciting to grow than tomatoes, so the choice seems pretty simple — tomatoes. But decisions when you are taking a commercial approach is more difficult, and requires the application of selective filters.

a) If you are trying to play very safe the choices become simpler. You can either just grow what the local farmers have been growing for ages – in Taleigao that means mooli (radish), tambadi bhaji (red amaranth), kongi (sweet potato), baingan (brinjal or aubergine), mirchi (chilli), makai (corn), knol kohl (kohlrabi) and kanda (onion).

b) You can also play safe by growing low maintenance crops, some of which may be like weeds for your region because they need no tending to. For example alsane (or cowpea) or groundnuts need virtually no tending in Goa’s winter season since it uses residual moisture from the morning mist. Some millets like raagi or naachni can also be grown similarly.

c) If you want to be a little more adventurous or want to grow something different for your palate you can consider a wider set of Indian crops that are right for the season. For instance cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, peas, beans, potato, coriander, radish, turnip, mustard are commonly grown in cooler parts of India.

d) But if you want to really break the mould and are close to an urban centre, you can try offbeat crops that set you apart from local growers and appeal to a younger and urban audience that is quickly getting interested in more international foods (probably thanks to Master Chef on TV). That’s how we decided that lettuce would be a good thing to try growing in Goa ourselves.

What are the important farm tasks?

For new urban farmers, it can be a little difficult to anticipate the kind of tasks that go into the managing of their farm. This makes it difficult to plan time and resources required and to ‘manage’ the tasks efficiently.

Its difficult to come up with a management tool that can predict this for different models of farms, resources and management styles. But here is a basic checklist we use, that can hopefully help you get a sense of what may be needed. (This represents how we allocate tasks for our 800 sq mt Taleigao Farm).

A. Pre-season tasks

Preparing a growing plan                                      Yourself
Planning the beds                                                   Yourself
Sourcing the seeds                                                 Yourself
Sourcing the inputs                                                 Yourself

B. Critical farm tasks

Preparing the soil/beds                                         Outsource
Planting the seed                                                    Outsource/Yourself
Caring for saplings                                                  Outsource/Yourself
Transplanting the saplings                                    Outsource/Yourself
Watering the crops                                                 Outsource
Weeding the beds                                                   Outsource/Yourself
Pest management                                                   Outsource/Yourself
Setting up shade nets                                             Outsource
Harvesting, processing, packaging                       Outsource/Yourself
Marketing/sales of produce                                  Yourself
Accounting and finances                                        Yourself
Overall managing labour                                       Yourself

C. Other support tasks (might not apply to you)

Documentation                                                        Yourself
Photography and videos                                        Yourself
Assorted research and visits                                 Yourself
Conducting workshops                                           Yourself
Managing guests                                                     Yourself
Making produce deliveries                                    Yourself

Getting good seeds

Getting their hands on seeds that work well is one of the key concerns for any farmer, and the failure of seed to germinate can be very damaging to a season’s growing plan.

Having seeds in time for the best planting window is especially important when you are trying to grow ‘cool weather’ crops like cabbage and cauliflower in a relatively warm place like Goa. But there are varying views on which sources and varieties of seeds are best for a particular place, and whether one should experiment with seeds that are not ‘native’ to your growing area.

Sticking to native, local or heritage seeds is a great idea, because the are usually well adapted to the climatic conditions – and have a higher resistance to local pests. The taste of these varieties is also an advantage since they are usually very popular with local customers. But local seeds are getting harder to find and farmers can be quite selective about who they are willing to share their seeds with too.

The primary source for seeds in most places is the local agriculture department outlet or the KVK (Krishi Vigyan Kendra) outlets — like Ela Farms (Old Goa) or Duler Farms (Mapusa). Their seeds are sourced from approved vendors, and usually have pretty good germination results. The problem is that the variety of seeds available is often limited and often arrives a little late if you are preparing for an early planting. They are also most likely “treated” for preservation for longer periods.

We’ve experimented from many diverse sources of seed from different parts of the country, such as:

  1. Agricultural universities and research institutions in various parts of India – both the north and the south. They usually promote hybrid varieties developed for pest resistance and better yield
  2. NGOs that promote seed sovereignty and organic seeds like Navdanya, The Pebble Garden, Vanastree and Annadana. They usually have unusual local and exotic varieties which are not easy to find.
  3. Private seed sellers who deal in both agricultural and garden scale seed and who seem to focus mainly on hybrid varieties. Their seeds are a mix of open-pollinated and hybrid varieties which are almost always “treated” with chemicals.
  4. Local varieties of saved seed from local farmers which are largely organic, untreated and open pollinated.