Homegrown harvests – Bringing food security to an educational campus

Urban spaces can be innovatively used for food production. They can help city dwellers rethink their connection with food ecosystems and land in the process. Educational institutions provide a unique opportunity conducive to integrating food security as part of its curriculum as well as outreach activities. The IIT Gandhinagar organic farm is a testament to the possibilities of community-driven and locally supported farming in urban and peri-urban places.

 ‘These are kohlrabi (ganth gobi) vegetables, these are fenugreek, in between there is spinach, coriander. Look these are red carrots, those are turnips and those are beetroots…’ went on Shantu Pindoriya while walking across the farm. To say that Shantu Pindoriya knows every plant on the farm, would not be an exaggeration. I was walking behind her as she went around the space, describing everything that was growing in the area.

We were introduced to Shantu over an email, as someone growing edibles inside the IIT Gandhinagar campus. We were curious to see the space. Reaching there on a sunny Saturday winter morning, where most of the natural, roadside foliage has turned brown, I was astounded to see rows of green, leafy vegetables interspersed between fruit trees and flowering shrubs.  The Moringa trees were loaded with tender drumsticks, with the bees and birds, buzzing amidst its flowers. I wanted to know how this organic farm began.

Modest beginnings

Ms Shantu Pindoriya did not have any formal educational experience in farming. As a spouse of a faculty member at IIT Gandhinagar, she was always interested in social ventures and outdoor activities. In 2016, when the campus was being built, the erstwhile Director was keen on having some garden space with edible plants on campus. A number of informal discussions ensued, and eventually she was requested to take up the initiative on a small scale.

It was a casual talk… some of the faculty members knew that I am passionate about kitchen gardening, flowering plants etc., and asked me to try something in a small scale and see if it worked. So, it all started in a small space of 30 feet by 30 feet.’ says Shantu Pindoriya.

Shantu initially started growing plants such as brinjal, chillies, and tomatoes that could tolerate the local semi-arid and relatively hot climate. She referred to many videos and tutorials available online. She   also visited local Krishi melas (farmer fairs) to learn about farming techniques, organic inputs, seed quality and other such logistics, which she had not considered before. She recalled that very few farmers in the nearby areas practiced organic farming. Therefore, she relied on reading and seeking advice from expert practitioners and trainers from other states.

The farm in the institute was started in 2016. The institute supported her by providing the initial funding to clear construction debris, level the land, and prepare the soil. The institute also hired a few helpers from local nurseries to help her with various activities like tilling, sowing, transplanting, weeding, and harvesting.

Shantu wanted to make the farm as sustainable as possible. So, she decided to prepare most inputs from materials available on the farm itself. She explained, ‘…..we are using plants from this locality and make medicines for pest control. Mostly, we use Jivamrut and Dasaparni. We also make Beejamrut (See Box 1). There is liquid from waste compost. We use that as well for spraying. We use Jivamrut for nutrition and proteins for the plants, to ward off insects we use Dasaparni, for fungal we use buttermilk. For flowering, we spray mixture of milk and jaggery… once in three years, we add a layer of dried cow dung to the land. That is the only major expense’.

In the first six months or so, they spent around Rs 40000 for various activities on the farm. Vegetables worth Rs 3000-4000 were sold to the staff members on campus.

Growing food, creating communities

With its humble beginnings, the farm in 2022 now spans nearly eight acres. Four acres are devoted to vegetables and medicinal plants, while the rest is being used to grow fruiting trees. Shantu works with seven helpers to cultivate and maintain the land.

Box 1: Organic inputs

Jeevamrut is a liquid microbial fertilizer. It is made by mixing water, dung and urine from cows, some soil and jaggery to accelerate the growth of microbes.

Dasaparni is an organic pesticide made by fermenting 10 types of leaves such as Neem, papaya, chilli, tobacco etc in cow urine

Bijamrut is a treatment for plants, seedlings or any planting material. It is made in a manner similar to Jeevamrut.

Shantu follows multi-level cropping to use the space optimally, with spaces between trees to grow short-duration plants, along with mixed cropping techniques. She describes, ‘We have mangoes, custard apple, purple berries, naseberry (chiku), sweet lime (mausambi), orange, black plum (jamun), dragon fruit, berries, lemon, avocado, all these trees we have planted. Totally, we have around 1400 fruit trees.’

The harvest is sold within the campus through a stall that operates three days a week. They also sell some value-added products such as pickles and fruit candy from fruits obtained from older trees on the campus to supplement their income during lean months.  Presently, the farm produce earns Rs 25,000 – 30,000 per month.

According to her, the farm has shaped up as a community-supported space with many people informally volunteering along with younger children. The institution has also made use of the space by allotting it as part of awareness sessions and community-service for students in their first year. This has also helped students gain exposure to the farm, learn a little about where their food comes from, and enjoy some of the fresh harvest.

A pandemic-ridden opportunity

Shantu’s initiatives spurred a lot of interest among other residents, some of whom started with composting and planting a few edibles at their home. However, Shantu felt the value of being able to grow edibles at home was really felt during the initial pandemic lockdown.

‘When I started one of my friends asked me the method of making the compost, how to grow, from where to get good seeds etc. Few of my friends started growing creepers like bottle gourd (lauki) and green gourd (turai), and a few other vegetables. They began making their own kitchen compost. This way, there are almost 90 smaller kitchen gardens on the campus. During the lockdown, we distributed seeds and manure, and almost every patch with soil had something growing, and someone tending to it. I did not have any helpers at that time, and many people pitched in as volunteers. The effort was appreciated, as our target was to become self-sufficient as far as vegetables were concerned. Everyone got together and learnt to grow something’

Many common spaces in the campus have edibles growing in it, and the produce is shared among the volunteers working in those areas. The appreciation and understanding of consuming seasonal edibles in the community has grown through direct experience and sustained interaction with the farm spaces.

The appreciation and understanding of consuming seasonal edibles in the community has grown through direct experience and sustained interaction with the farm spaces

Learning something everyday

There have been many challenges along the way, especially from monkeys, wild pigs and rodents destroying the crops, but Shantu and her team have learnt to manage and accept these issues through digging trenches and keeping a close eye on the farm. ‘This land belonged to forest department earlier, so I suppose the animals also deserve a share of the harvests’, explains Shantu with a laugh, while shooing away a langur that had been feasting on some tomatoes while we talked.  She continues, ‘Every day, I experience or discover something new on the farm, either an insect or fruiting, pest, flowering… farming is all about observation and patience, I feel.’ Shantu has plans of expanding the farm space and aims to be able to supply fresh harvest to the IIT Gandhinagar student mess eventually.

 Experiencing interdependence at the farm

Such thriving ecosystems can be part of living classrooms for the immediate community, ones which provide valuable lessons in systemic thinking while nourishing their bodies. Edible food gardens are hotspots for local biodiversity, and provide an experiential understanding of pollinators, pest-prey relationships, soil ecosystems and the interdependence of plant health and root microbial communities. As if on cue, Shantu plucked a cabbage head and showed me the vigorous roots that supported the plant. ‘Taste and health are not separate’ she says, ‘eating these vegetables reminds me of my childhood when everything was grown through organic farming. You don’t get that taste from the market vegetables now. I want my children to experience and remember this taste.’ Many children on the campus are regular visitors to the farm, and according to Shantu, have become very conscious about not wasting food after seeing first hand, the time and efforts that go into growing it. They are also curious to try everything that they have seen growing on the farm, and this has led to occasional cooking sessions too.

Drawing lessons for kickstarting similar initiatives

The IIT Gandhinagar organic farm is a testament to the possibilities of community-driven and locally supported farming in urban and peri-urban places. Educational institutions are uniquely suited to act as outreach hubs and experimental spaces to grow food gardens owing to availability of safe space, access to water, and a ready customer base. It can provide a much-needed space for building stewardship and affinity towards the land, and help people develop skills to grow food in their immediate environment. The farm space itself can become a hotspot for biodiversity and contribute to the well-being of the larger ecosystem. Listening to Shantu’s experience, we found the following points worth reflecting on –

  • The need for administrative support: Such an idea required the explicit support of institutional authorities. Once this was provided, it facilitated mobilising initial funds and fulfilling administrative requirements to start creating the space.
  • Starting small, and building on results: The idea of starting in a limited space allowed her to show some initial tangible results in terms of harvest and gain the skills required to expand. Starting in a bigger area immediately with limited resources at hand may have been intimidating and difficult for her, and an abstract concept for the community members.
  • Planning for financial sustenance: Selling the produce at a fair price by understanding the preferences of local customers helped in covering the costs of running the farm. Except the salaries of the workers which are paid as per central government scale, all other costs of maintaining the farm are covered by the sale of produce.
  • Carving out some space for experimentation: Every year, new crops, variations in methods, farming inputs, etc. have helped her in gaining new knowledge while customising for local weather, geographical conditions and adequate sales to achieve business sustainability.
  • Building collective ownership: Opening the space for volunteering allowed residents to actively connect with the space and support the initiative in various ways. The campus residents are not just passive customers but have a stake in the initiative through supporting the sale of harvest, providing feedback, bringing seeds from other states, assisting with smaller tasks on the farm and so on.
  • Iterative learning and feedback: The growth of the farm is a result of continuous cycles of learning and feedback, through close observation of the plants and the conditions that contribute to their growth. Understanding that this is a continuous process is an important part of sustaining such initiatives.

Such urban farm community spaces serve multiple purposes – they provide access to fresh food and the opportunity to children and adults alike to get their hands dirty while also playing a vital role in the first-hand understanding of the delicate balances that sustain our ecosystem. From seed to farm to table, how food reaches us today is a nuanced lesson integrating the natural sciences, social sciences, economics, and business. Thus, finding ways to include urban farms as part of our community spaces and educational curricula is a worthwhile pursuit.

The authors thank Dr Sharmistha Majumdar and Dr Anirban Dasgupta for connecting the authors with the IIT Gandhinagar campus farm.

Deborah Dutta and Amrita B Hazra

Dr Deborah Dutta,

Senior Research Fellow, Living Farm Incomes Project

Institute of Rural Management Anand-388001

Gujarat, India

Email: deborah@irma.ac.in

Dr Amrita B Hazra,

Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry, Biology

Affiliate Faculty, Center for Water Research

Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Pune,

Dr. Homi Bhabha Road, Pune – 411008

Maharashtra, India

Email: amrita@iiserpune.ac.in



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