Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Economics of organic farming

I promised to write about the economics of organic farming.

And I know that many people are curiously waiting for it.

I also know that many people will be disappointed to read this and a few others will be (gleefully) delighted!

My standard disclaimer: For me, "organic farming" is an umbrella term for organic/natural/forest/biodynamic/permaculture etc. I consider all of them different ways of organic farming. After all, it is about not using chemicals for farming. I don't believe in being a "militant" in pushing any particular kind of organic farming and being judgmental. Each of them have their own advantages and it should be left to the discretion and convenience of the individual farmer based on several parameters. I follow a mix of all of the above organic farming methods. (I have also written earlier about Organic v/s Natural farming).

First thing first. I will keep the emotional/philosophical/intangible aspects aside while busting the myth. There is no money in organic farming, much like any other kind of farming. I have already written in detail earlier about why organic food is expensive. Obviously it doesn't lead to more money in the farmer's pocket. There could be some spikes some time due to unexpected reasons and that most probably gets wiped out in the next season before you finish your celebrations. However in the long run (which is not less than 10 years) there are several benefits (and money), provided you are in a position to sustain that long and put in your efforts to "productize" your produce and sell it directly to the end customer. There are quite a few people known to me who have demonstrated this possibility and they have literally taken decades and slogged it out to reach there. There are also some "community farming" approaches and collaborating with other similar farmers to make it work for our own better, which again is a long drawn process.

Note: The above statement is applicable only if you are starting on empty land or in a farm which was following conventional farming which needs to be converted to organic. The durations can be shortened if you start off with an organic farm.

Then what is it that drives people like us and keeps us motivated to start/continue organic farming? It is purely the lure of growing our own healthy food. It may or may not lead to "better life", depending on your perspective on better life and your reference point for the same. This is one of the intangible aspects of organic farming. It is also based on the hope that there will be a day when there will be more people doing organic farming, which can lead to synergy with the nature and ecosystem. You can also have the satisfaction of leaving the land in a better shape that what it was a few years before.

The biggest, yet somewhat intangible benefit of organic farming comes only if you are carrying it out in a land owned by you (not in a leased/rented land). That is the appreciation of the land price, which for sure will continue to happen as long as you take care of your land properly and make it more fertile over the years through organic means. In the worst case if you want to run away from all the struggle, you will be able to sell the land off for a handsome money.

To summarize, organic farming is a long-term game and you should be prepared to play it for the rest of your life to make its economics work for you. Till then, keep digging into your savings!

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Six years as full-time farmer

As on Dec 2020, I have completed six "glorious" years as a full-time farmer. Of course, completing six years in this itself makes it "glorious", having known quite a few people who had moved to farming, only to get back to corporate life after a few years of struggle.

Before starting this article, let me state this clearly one more time. For me, "organic farming" is an umbrella term for organic/natural/forest/biodynamic/permaculture etc. I consider all of them different ways of organic farming. After all, it is about not using chemicals for farming. I don't believe in being a "militant" in pushing any particular kind of organic farming and being judgmental. Each of them have their own advantages and it should be left to the discretion and convenience of the individual farmer based on several parameters. I follow a mix of all of the above organic farming methods.

When I set off to do organic farming, there were very few inspiring examples to look up to. There were many people who kept on conducting classroom trainings/lectures on organic farming, including those wanted to sell their "organic" products. Unfortunately many of them were not hands-on and they didn't have any successful ventures to show in organic farming. There were other successful farms, which were not open to outsiders. For most of the farmers, seeing is believing, irrespective of any amount of powerpoint slides you show. This is when I decided that we should setup a farm which other farmers can see and emulate. I visited different farms to understand and emulate (if possible) their good practices over the past few year in the quest to adjust our farming practices. Even now I make it a point to regularly visit farms across the state and the country to see their practices and interact with the practitioners. 

What do we have now to show and explain to other farmers based on our experiments and experiences? All there may not be visible throughout the year, but we do have these systems working in the farm.

  • Transition from chemical farming was the toughest part of the journey. It took us more than four years to complete the transition. We suffered significant losses due to reduced yield in the first three years. But we persisted and able to see the impact now. Classic example is with banana. From average 35kgs bunch (G9 variety) to we went down to 15kgs and now back to 25kgs average, with significant reduction in the input cost.
  • A full-fledged "Food Forest" spread across two acres, with more than 40 varieties of fruit trees, many of them already fruiting.
  • Interestingly we are now able to demonstrate the impact of Food Forest on the overall scheme of things. Less pest attack on our commercial crops noticed this year, despite excess and unseasonal rains.
  • Cow based Natural Farming with Desi cows. Jeevamrutha and vermicompost used extensively.
  • Multi cropping, Inter cropping, companion planting, agro-forestry
  • Multi-layer farming (three to six layers)
  • Mulching - green and dry mulch, resulting in less water requirement and less tilling.
  • Different types of traps - pheromone, solar and sticky - to control pests naturally.
  • Rain water harvesting mainly focused on ground water recharging. Ponds and percolation pits. We already saw one borewell becoming functional after being defunct for four years.
  • Rain-fed field crops. Varieties of crops like ragi, foxtail millet, mustard, sesame, niger seeds, jowar, toordal, green gram/moong dal, black gram/urad dal, alasande/karamani/lobia, avarekai/hyacinth beans, horse gram. This has resulted in less amount of Parthenium weeds.
  • Bio diversity improving over the years. Now we can see many more birds and many more varieties. Also more butterflies and honeybees and fireflies. And many more insects like ladybugs, spiders, etc and reptiles like lizards and snakes.
  • Visible improvement in the soil carbon/humus. Confirmed with soil testing. 0.3% in 2016 to 1.2% in 2019.
  • Very minimal inputs from outside. (Only neem cake is brought from outside). No outside feed for cows too. We grow our own feed - dry grass/hay from ragi and green grass

  • I know that I am painting a very rosy picture and it doesn't reflect reality. For most of the people, the only indicator of this "rosy picture" is whether we are able to make money. I will write more about that in another post. All I can say now is that it is a very long journey, which you should be able to sustain and pursue with passion and dedication and the efforts will start yielding better result and money in the long run. But the progress we have made confirms that we are in the right direction and situation is improving over the years, both for ourselves and for the surroundings. There are many other non-tangible benefits (like health) and some virtual benefits (like appreciating land price, etc).

    Tuesday, 2 February 2021

    When is the "Best Time" to visit Chiguru Farm?

    This is one of the most frequently asked questions and I find it quite amusing!

    There are different kind of visitors to Chiguru Farm.

    1. Those who want to understand and/or learn about organic farming.

    2. Those who want to know how their food is grown

    3. Those who want to pluck and taste fresh seasonal fruits/vegetables directly from the trees/plants

    4. Those who want to experience authentic, local, farm-fresh food

    5. Those who just want to get away from the city and breath fresh air

    6. Those who want to enjoy and explore the night sky without light pollution.

    7. Those who want to spend time with the farm animals/pets and observe the flora and fauna in the surroundings

    8. Those who want to get outdoors exploring unknown hikes or go on long cycling trails.

    9. Those who want to get hands-on experience with farming

    10. School children who want to see and experience whatever they have studied in the school as part of their syllabus.

    11. Families who want to relive their childhood memories and also expose their children to rural experiences.

    12. People who want to get away from the hustle-bustle of the city life, get away from their gadgets and soak into the nature.

    13. Get together with their loved ones simply chit-chatting, gossiping and giggling over homely food!

    14. Those who want to learn cooking local food.

    15. Those who want to do whatever they feel like OR just do NOTHING!

    Many of our guests fall into one or more of the above categories. With this, the answer to this frequently asked question is quite obvious!

    Nevertheless, let me try to elaborate a bit.

    Being a Natural Farm with a thriving "Food Forest" in the middle of the farm, we will always have some or the other fruit/vegetable to pluck and eat directly from the trees/plants. Of course most of the crops are seasonal although the seasons can keep changing. (For example, jackfruits season starts in May in this area, but we have them almost ready in Feb 2021!). 

    Summers (Apr-Jun) generally will have more fruits like mangoes, water apple, cashew, etc, but the outdoors can be quite sunny and hot. And the dryness is noticeable. There will be occasional rain cooling down the earth for couple of days.

    Monsoons (Jun-Sep) will have less number of fruits and veggies, but there will be more greenery all around. Nature will be at its best during this time. This is also the time of preparing the soil and sowing seeds of our staple food. It is also fun to just sit and watch the rain!

    Autumn/Winter (Oct-Jan) is the season for staple/field crops like grains (ragi/millets) and pulses (toordal, avarekayi, grams, etc). Apart from experiencing the fresh produce directly from the plants, this is also a good time to watch how they are harvested and processed. Days remain pleasant and nights quite cold, with mostly clear, magical skies.

    Spring (Feb-Mar) is the flowering season for many summer fruits and the aroma in the air can be intoxicating! Day starts to get hotter and sky continues to be clear and suitable for star gazing at night.

    In summary, it all depends on what is your objective of visiting Chiguru Farm and what interests you. My opinion is that each season/month is different and there is always something new/interesting to explore.

    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!"