Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Self Appraisal

It is not easy to get away from the "corporate culture" after getting immersed in it for many years! Only change is that I am doing it after a few years... And it is probably required because many people ask me where we are against the goals we set out for achieving.

Before I start appraising, I would like to give  a short background and the goals of Chiguru Farm.
- The farm is around 10 years old, whereas we bought it 6 years back.
- This Sankranthi, it will be 3 years since we launched Agri-Tourism at Chiguru Farm.
- Our objectives and goals have been consistent right from the beginning. However a few more got added over time and they are completely aligned with our original set of objectives.
- So here are the long-term goals we set out for:
   1) Start organic farming in order to grow healthy food for ourselves.
   2) Stay connected to nature
   3) Prove that chemical-free farming can be sustainable, so that more people are encouraged to take it up. Be an example for the farmers in the vicinity.
   4) Spread the knowledge of chemical-free farming among the locals and city-folks, school kids and families and sensitize them about what it takes to grow healthy food.
   5) Generate some local employment and trigger a "reverse-migration" from cities.
   6) Get integrated with the local village community and carry out activities that shall help them.

Having stated the objectives, I am not very keen on doing the self-appraisal the corporate way by listing out the status/progress/achievements against each of them. This is simply because one-to-one mapping is not really necessary and there are multiple mappings many times.

Here we go on the status/progress/achievements...
1) We started with a farm which was chemical-based and mainly with bananas. We let the farm run with status-quo for the first 2 years, with our focus on rain water harvesting. We spent all our time and energy on rain water harvesting during this period and the results have been wonderful. We expect to have a "natural" pond inside our farm (made out of our rain water harvesting pond) within next 5 years.
2) Next 4 years have been conversion to organic. We did this part-by-part and now we are completely organic.
3) Self-sustenance level in terms of food is around 60-70% now. This includes the food we cook for our guests.
Self-sustenance level on farming (i.e. avoiding external inputs) is around 80%. We started with 4 desi cows in 2016 and now we have 8.
 4) Local people have started noticing our efforts and some local farmers who had abandoned their own land have started cultivating again. A few farmers who had moved to Bangalore for work like driver, maid,etc have returned to the village. Some of them have started their own farming and a few others are now working in our farm.
5) A strange-but-true indication of the reverse migration is the number of cattle in the village. What we have heard is that around 10 years back there were close to 1000 cattle in the village. When we bought the farm 6 years back, the number had come down to 600 due to people selling their cattle and moving to city. Currently the cattle population stands at 800, an increase of 30%!
6) We have created a more bio-diverse farm now through multi-cropping (of 35+ varieties of fruit trees and few other forest trees) with the intention of making a food-forest where every living being can find food.
7) Local employment... we have 10 locals working in the farm full time and another 5 almost full time. Another 5-10 people work in our farm for at least 150 days in a year. These numbers exclude the indirect employment generated through our agri-tourism.
8) We believe that helping the local people in whatever way possible is our social responsibility. In 2017 we conducted free workshop for masons in constructing low-cost ferro-cement tanks which are very useful for farms. 8 masons benefited from this through the 3-days workshop. In 2018 we conducted free health checkup camp for villagers, with active participation from doctors from MS Ramaiah Hospital. More than 200 villagers took benefit of this.
9) For the first time we didn't spend money from our pockets. We did achieve break-even!!! Now that most of our horticulture plants are 10 years old, we expect the returns should improve further to show profit. Of course, agri-tourism and direct-selling are key factors in this.
10) Through agri-tourism we have managed to create a buzz around Bangalore through our unique initiatives as daytrips, camps, overnight stays. Our mango-picking event remains the hot favorite as we were the first to start such an event in India. Schools have started noticing the value add from our educational farm tours.
11) Where alcoholism is rampant and ruining families in the surrounding villages, our "no-alcohol" policy has been driving home the ill-effects of alcoholism, without any preaching.
12) Families have started preferring visiting and/or staying in farms instead of malls or resorts. There is keen interest in them to know what it takes to grow healthy food and lead a healthy life.
13) Last but not the least, we have triggered interest in many city folks to switch their profession to farming, soon or later.

Everything looks rosy? Why not? As long as it brings a lot of joy and satisfaction, everything IS rosy!!!

Friday, 12 October 2018

Six years into farming

Six years since we took over Chiguru Farm which was already 4 years old, making it a 10-year old farm now. Six years is not a very long journey for a farmer. But it gives immense satisfaction to us tracing back the journey and the amount of transformation achieved during this time. Transformation on multiple aspects. From a banana-majority-horticulture-farm using chemical fertilizers to highly biodiverse organic farm having a mix of commercial crops, fruit trees to forest trees and field crops it sounds incredible. We now have more than 40 varieties of fruit trees - some of them being grown commercially and some others for our own use or for diversity or for agri-tourism purposes. Another 30+ varieties of forest trees and timber trees including teak, silver oak, banyan, hebbevu (melia dubia), neem, 30+ varieties of medicinal plants, grains and pulses like ragi, toordal, avarekayi, moong dal and urad dal, and different seasonal vegetables are growing and/or being cultivated at the farm. With cows & calves, sheep & goat in the farm, move towards sustainable living is slowly becoming a reality. This is definitely a proud moment for us!
This journey can be divided into 3 parts:
1) First 2 years of status-quo (as a chemical farm) when I was still a weekend-farmer! Nothing was moving and I used to come back from the farm empty handed. We wanted to focus on many other important things that normally get ignored by farmers. Spent time on rain water harvesting and building cowshed during this time.
2) Next 3 years of conversion to organic. We did take a hit in the revenue during the conversion process as the plants get confused. We also tried to grow rose organically which failed miserably and we ended up removing them completely in a year. Started multi-cropping and inter-cropping extensively.
3) Now the stabilization phase with steps towards self sustenance. Started growing some field crops also like toordal and avarekayi. As far as the food is concerned, we are at least 60% self-sustaining and expecting it to reach at least 75% by the end of the year. Also targeting the farm to be self-sustaining in a year or so without any external inputs and move towards natural farming.
Soon it is going to be 3 years into Agri-tourism. We knew that the disconnect from nature among the young generation is real, but we had never realized the severity of it. They cannot even recognize the common trees around us (like coconut, papaya, etc) and they don't know the importance of parts of the ecosystem like bees & insects, frogs, birds, snakes, etc. They don't know what is in season and what is not. It really looks like a sad state of affairs. We understood this magnitude of this problem only after we started conducting educational trips for school children. This is when I started feeling that there is more scope for such ventures in different directions of Bangalore. More and more farms should open themselves up and start inviting school kids. Other than school trips, we also have been conducting trips for families with the intention of spreading the farming knowledge. In general our target audience are kids in the range of 8-16 years. Unfortunately the kids in this range don't want to visit this kind of place and that is why during family visits we hear that their kids are back home staring at some gadget! Only younger kids and adults who have a nostalgia of their ancestral home that was abandoned long back end up visiting the farm. Even among the schools it is surprising to see the interest among montessory and small kids below 4th grade, in which case it serves a very limited purpose. I don't understand why schools think that farm visits are for small kids. Few schools which brought bigger kids have not realized the importance of these visits and have been very appreciative. 
People ask me what is the best time to visit the farm. They should understand that each season is different and the best time depends on their interests. For example, summer time will have varieties of fruits including mango and litchi, but it will be quite hot outside. Winter will be pleasant with lesser number of fruits. Monsoon time will be green with even lesser number of fruits. 
There are also people who ask whether we have a swimming pool, whether they can bring food from outside, why they can't bring alcohol and drink in the farm, etc. SMILE is the only answer!

Will write another blog post exclusively with the experience in farming...

Thursday, 7 December 2017

What is Agri-tourism?

What does Chiguru Farm offer under the banner of Agri-tourism? How is it different from a resort or a home-stay? Just trying to provide some clarity, although it is difficult to explain what you should experience yourself.
- Set in a fully functional, live farm, where you have the option to participate in the farm activities yourself.
- Experiential travel so that it remains etched in your memory for a very long time. It is not just another sight-seeing place. Chilling out is redefined here!
- Sustainable living as a top priority.
- Retained as natural as possible. 
- Minimally manicured with basic comforts in mind.
- Minimally sanitized from insects and other live things with basic comforts in mind again. Still having the options to keenly observe the nature's curios like plants & trees, animals & birds, honeybees & wasps, butterflies & moths, ants & spiders and other insects. Also understand their importance in the ecosystem and how they help us in growing our food.
- Wander around (or laze around!) at your own pace, relaxing and enjoying the fresh air from the surrounding greenery. 
- A place to slow down your life. 
- Pluck and taste the seasonal fruits, vegetables, etc.
- Experience farm-fresh food. 
- Feed the farm animals with your own hands.
- Get to know where your food comes from and what it takes to grow it.
- Interact with the farm labors and local villagers to get first-hand information on farming and rural life.
- Improve your knowledge on things like "how many bunches does a banana plant give", "importance of desi cows", "how to control pests without using chemicals", "what is the impact of chemicals on your health", etc. 

Some of the above may be possible in a resort or a home-stay, but not ALL of them!!!

Friday, 27 October 2017

Want to switch your profession to Agriculture? Read this first.

I get lot of queries from different people who want to shift from their cushy jobs to farming/agriculture. Here are some of my thoughts, which I intend to keep updating often.

Some notes and disclaimers to start with..
1) These are random thoughts, without any proper order. However, some of these were my forethoughts and some are after-thoughts based on learning over the last 5 years.
2) These points are very specific to India and some times applicable only in Karnataka.
3) I don't intend to discourage anyone from getting into farming, but I have noticed that many of them do it without thinking through and regret later. This post is targeted to avoid such situations.
4) Switching profession is different from retirement. If you are looking for retiring into farming, many of these points many not be applicable. If you are serious about taking it as a profession, you need to consider many variables mentioned below.
5) Feel free to provide your comments or suggestions to update this list.

- First and foremost thing to note is that it looks romantic from outside. Don't fall for it just like that. Try to understand the pain points before diving in, as you are neither going to sacrifice anything by getting into farming, nor you are going to do any social service through it. Unless you are passionate about farming, it's not your cup of tea.
- Shun idealism and think practically before making the decision to get into farming. You don't have to compromise on your ideals, but be assured that ideals may not feed you and your family. If it can, without any compromises with your ideals, go ahead and I envy you!!!
- Try it out as part time for an year or two before you are convinced that you can do it and you really want to do it. For this, keep the distance in mind as you have to balance between your regular job and farming.
- If possible, try to do something like an "internship" for a few months after taking a sabbatical from work so that you can get first-hand experience of farming.
- Learn from both traditional and progressive farmers. Make it a point to visit such farms regularly and get the best practices from them and implement as appropriate.
- Don't assume that the traditional farmers don't know anything and that is why they are suffering. At the same time, don't follow them blindly. Mix of traditional knowledge, new inventions, new practices and your own brainstorming is the best.
- Have backup plan in two parts. One - How do you feed yourself and your family in the initial years when you are still spending money on the farm. Two - What to do in case things don't go as planned. Keep in mind that it may not be easy to get back to your previous job or field unless you remain in touch with the field and keep updating your knowledge even after quitting.
- If you inherit the land, that is the best option for anybody as the land cost can be huge for buying.
- If you are buying land, keep the availability of water and workers in mind, apart from the soil type, distance from the market, main road, school, shops, wildlife and the threats from them, local populace, etc. Also look at the potential for the land value to appreciate because if everything goes wrong, you still have the option to sell the land and exit with reasonable amount of money.
- Safety from outsiders, cattle, wildlife(monkeys, elephants, wildboars, etc) are important points to consider.
- Consider the expenses for water sources like wells/borewells/ponds, pumpsets, rain water harvesting, labor quarters, fencing, etc. as appropriate.
- If you bought an empty land, plan and design the layout of your farm/field with accessibility for trucks, tractors, tillers and other farm equipments in mind. Even if you are buying a ready farm, check out these points before making a decision.
- Observe water flow during rains so that you channelize it in order to save water as much as possible.
- Be prepared to get your hands dirty. Old "jamindari" attitude doesn't work any more. Work along with your workforce or even alone.
- Don't get carried away by different claims of some people having made lot of money through farming. Most of the times they just got plain lucky at that point of time. All said and done, the weather and market conditions play a very important role and therefore the situation is not "reproducible" forever. Some times they just didn't get their accounts right!
- Think about what you want to grow and what is your long term objective of getting into it. Don't get into farming with a short term goal. For example, if you want to get into horticulture, be prepared to keep spending upto 7-8 years without getting any returns as most of the horticulture crops (like mango, coconut, etc) will take that much time to start giving reasonable yield.
- Ideal option is to have a mix of short-term(taking few months like vegetables, etc), medium-term (an year or so like banana), perennial, long-term and spanning generations (like timber wood) planting.
- Don't get confused by different farming practices like chemical, organic, natural, forest, permaculture, hydroponics, etc. If you are clear about what you want to achieve by farming and the timeline, you can make a decision based on that.
- Avoid herd mentality. Just because the market rates for some thing are very good this time, it doesn't mean that it will remain like that next time. Plan wisely and think 2-3 years ahead. Also time the planting if you have short-term crops.
- Too many variables (known and unknown) that can make your entire plan go wrong. Be prepared for that.
- Don't get into farming relying on subsidies. Yes, there are lots of subsidies available from the government, but you will end up spending lot of time running around for that. Even after that you can get it only if you have the right contacts and bribe different people. Also note that most of the items are prices higher with subsidy and lower without subsidy. Effectively it doesn't make too much difference with subsidy. You would rather spend more time on farming.
- Free electricity for agriculture is also farce. You will hardly get any electricity when you need it. Particularly during peak summer you will get it 2-3 hours in the wee hours (around 2-3pm)
- Those who come from the corporate world will tend to work with targets and deadlines in mind. Most of the times it doesn't work in farming and it gets very frustrating and demotivating. Be prepared to handle them with a deep breath! Rural life has its own ethics and rhythm and just get used to it! Also notice that there is so much importance to human relationships than anything else. Learn to appreciate this.
- One more caution for those from corporate background: Few things that we had ignored or taken for granted during our job years (like health insurance for our family)  suddenly become important.
- Be prepared to forego your annual (or more frequent) long vacations at least in the initial years.
- If and when you decide to take the plunge, go for an optimal sized farm - not too big, not too small. In my experience, minimum required area is 3-4 acres as the effort involved in smaller area will almost be the same. If the farm is too big (say more than 15 acres) it becomes difficult to manage. For example, if you chase the monkeys from one side they will come back from.another side because they can't imagine that it also belongs to the same person!
- Invest in tools and machines as much as possible, but step by step.

Before closing this post let me remind you this: "It is very easy to find hundred reasons for not doing something. But you just need to find one strong reason to do it!"

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Experience with Agri-tourism at Chiguru Farm

Last updated on 24th Oct 2018

Agri-Tourism or Farm Tourism is a niche market in India with lot of potential when more people start understanding what it is and more such ventures come up. Many people get confused between Resorts, Home Stays and Farm Tourism. Although there are some overlaps, they largely tend to be different. In one of my early blogs, I wrote about the difference between a Resort and a Farm where I explained about Farm Tourism (Here is the link).

Home Stay and Farm Stay have more in common in the sense that many Home Stays outside cities are located in farms. But the major difference is that the Home Stay doesn't focus on and showcase the farm, thus making it more of a stay inside a house.That is where the ideas of environment, sustainable and responsible living, reduce/reuse/recycle, health, co-existence,  conservation,  pollution, waste management, urban-rural divide, etc. get clarity. Gained more clarity on this aspect after visiting a Home Stay near Sakleshpur in Karnataka recently. Although it is in the midst of a coffee estate and surrounded by many more such estates, nobody in the Home Stay even talks about the estate(s) and none of the visitors is keen on seeing them. It is like the owners are too busy with their business and the guests just want a nice setting to carry out their "fun activities" like drinking, etc. No concern about the environment and sustainable living from either the hosts or guests as visible in the use of plastics and other single-use items. Any such mention is simply dismissed without any response. And the result was seen in the nature's fury during the recent floods in Coorg/Sakleshpur/Kerala.
Many people living in the cities have an experience and perspective on sustatinable living, but they get to see them from a different angle in a different context and setting in a Farm Stay. There is so much to learn from such guests. Many others, particularly those who were born and brought up in a farm, but having moved to cities will simply travel back in time and soak into good old days. There are also people who want to visit the farm to "do nothing" and simply relax in fresh air. There are others who are already into farming visiting the farm to learn our"good practices" and share their "good practices" resulting in lot of brainstorming and exchange of ideas. Whatever it may be, it is true that Agri-tourism needs a different mindset and only those inclined to it will arrive at the farm. And there is no denying that the visit triggers a new thought process in the visitor's mind. This is where the contrast between Home Stay and Farm Tourism is stark because there is a long-term impact on most of the Farm Tourists. None of these is a hollow claim as they are based on my personal experiences and I can substantiate them with simple incidents and anecdotes. For example, among a group of school kids who spent 4-5 hours farm, 20% of them said that they were inspired to do farming. It makes the host fill with immense satisfaction about the job. Even if 10% of that 20% really takes up farming (need not be full-time) this world will be a different place to live in! It is also true that a visit to Chiguru Farm has made quite a few people start thinking about getting into farming and a few of them have even started doing it.

Our main objective of Agri-Tourism has been to educate kids and families about farming and make them understand where their food comes from. Sprinkle a little bit of fun, activities and games to keep the people engaged, or else this can get boring. But we make sure that the focus on education is not lost. Of course, the freshly prepared authentic local food has its own charm.  We insist on our guests to trace the roots of at least one of their staples after going back home and find out where it comes from and how it is grown. This will be life-changing. We also insist on our guests to slow down their lives as long as they are in the farm and soak into greenery.  It is very interesting to note that most of the guests visit the farm for a different experience instead of simply visiting another place. Many of them are repeat customers as they love the experience. People have started realizing that it is more important to focus on "experiences" instead of "places" during travel and that is why they have started experimenting with different types of travel. 

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime".

I understand the context and the broad category of the above quote and I completely agree with it. But my experience of one year in Agri-tourism, that is being on the "other side" of "travel" has some times made me wonder how far this is true. I have come across some avid travelers with prejudice and narrow-mindedness and they refuse to budge from it! Take the example of a family which, after discussing in detail about the farm and understanding what to expect there and browsing through our website, says that they didn't have to travel so much to see trees and plants and start negotiating the price at the end of the trip! Or take the example of a teacher who offers gratuitous but naive advise that Indian farmers should follow the Israeli model without knowing the ground realities and differences. There also people who are happy to take away farm produce as freebies, without even asking permission. Some others come and start asking "where is the TV", "where is the swimming pool", etc. There are others who think that a "farm house" is a gateway to different illegal activities. Many others, mainly corporates ask me whether they can bring food from outside, which I counter by telling that they should rather picnic at Cubbon Park! According to me, farm food is part of the farm experience and refusing to eat it is disrespecting the farm and the farmer. 
There are also people who think that a farmer has a lot of free time or his time is not much valuable. I would rather dismiss such experiences as aberrations as most of my experience with Agri-Tourism has been wonderful, cheerful, joyful, memorable and encouraging. 

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Favorite and Useful weblinks and apps for a farmer






AgriApp from Criyagen
Kisan Suvidha
Krishi Mitra
https://play.google.com/store/apps/developer?id=Jayalaxmi+AgroTech (multiple apps)
http://www.krishikannada.com/mobileapps/ (multiple apps)

YouTube Channels
agrarian tv

Facebook Groups/Pages/Resource Persons
Shivananjaiah Balekayi

Farm journey of two years

I officially started as a full-time farmer from 1st Jan 2015 and the two-years journey has been memorable. Learning the nitty-gritties of the farm life has opened my eyes.

I had multiple goals for the first year in front of me...

First and foremost goal being that to prove that farming can be profitable, which failed miserably as we were not yet prepared for that. We realized that the horticulture crops need at least 8-10 years to reach a reasonable level of yield and we need to keep spending on them till that stage is reached. However there is tangible improvement in the situation as our expenses are getting under control and losses are reducing. The intention of proving farming profitable is to encourage rural youth to stay put in their villages and get into farming instead of migrating to cities. I am confident that the day of achieving this goal is not far. In any case it gives immense satisfaction that quite a few local people have found almost regular job at Chiguru Farm and thus are staying put in the village, who otherwise would have migrated to Bangalore.

Second goal was to work on converting the farm into organic continued with more areas under this plan. Achieved partial success in the sense that 90% of the farm is now converted to Organic. Only regret is that we are not able to make the rose patch organic. Although we started off with it as organic, but the rose plants refused to come up and we had switch to the popular tactics.
(Update from June 2017: We removed the rose plants completely and using the space for growing vegetables. This makes Chiguru Farm completely organic now).

There was a need to speed up the agri-tourism infrastructure setup. This got ready in an year's time and we successfully launched agri-tourism on Jan 1, 2016. The experiences in this sector definitely qualify an exclusive blogpost which will come soon. 😀

Started off 2015 with harvesting a good lot of banana bunches on Day1, when the prices were reasonably good. Sitting in front of a pile of green banana bunches - some of them weighing upto 65kgs - was a sight to behold and the excitement and feeling of satisfaction cannot be explained. Mango and litchi trees had started flowering by then and the aroma of those flowers was intoxicating. A few months later the banana price crashed to an extent where cutting them and selling became more expensive than leaving them to monkeys. Coconut price also remained at the ground level for more than one year. Reasons were vague and non-comprehensible. And there were untimely rains in Apr/May 2015 impacting the mango crop although we celebrated that our rain-water-harvesting ponds overflew!!! Later in Nov 2015 Chennai floods once again our rain-water-harvesting ponds overflew and the farm was resembling Malnad region of Karnataka. Then suddenly there was no rain for several months after that, resulting in a drought year in 2016. We hardly had 3 decent rains in the year.  Many times it was frustrating not being able to water the plants due to non-availability of power despite having sufficient water, as some of the trees started drying up. (This can happen only in India as the central govt. is about to declare availability of surplus power in India, but most of the farmers are suffering from load-shedding). I started understanding the ground realities of farming and what leads farmers to distress.

Visits to organic, non-organic and natural farms in last two years helped me understand the differences in techniques and good and bad things about each of them both from farmer and consumer perspective. Worth mentioning are Sukrushi Farm of Greenpath (near Nelamangala), Navadarshanam, Mr. Santhanam's Sankarshan Farm at Therubeedi (close to Chiguru Farm) and Savayava Krishi Parivar's head office near Tirthahalli. Each of them has loads of tales to tell and picking-and-choosing good and suitable practices was real fun. Experiments with organic farming with different approaches, practices, manures, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. go on and on and on. Some things worth mentioning here are vermicomposting, honeybee boxes, jeevamrutha, navamrutha, percolation pits and mulching.

Timing and long-term planning is extremely critical for farming, particularly in a horticulture farm. If we need certain kind of income after 5 years, we need to plan for it now and implement it at the right time. The right time could be either the time of monsoon or the time at which the market price will be better or something else. Marketing itself is another aspect which is crucial, which most of the farmers ignore and many of them can't even afford.

The natural surroundings, clean air, greenery, birds, animals and insects, the hard work involved, the joy of each plant flowering and fruiting - everything is unique and unparalleled in a farm. Add the long-term socio-economic changes it would bring into the local lives. Irrespective of the returns it offers, farming indeed is a fulfilling experience in itself.