Moong Over Microchips

It was just a couple of years back that I was working as Project Manager at IBM Bombay and had spent 16 years in the Information Technology business. Tired of the hectic schedules and not being able to live life to the fullest, I decided to quit the job and take up farming, which was very close to my heart, right from my childhood days. Today, I am an Organic Farmer with 4.5 acres of land in a remote village about 100 kilometers from the mega metropolis Mumbai.

Two months after quitting my job, we had finally found land that we liked through a land broker named Maru. We had no knowledge of farming. I was still reading books and trying to figure out what we could sow and how we should go about it. I had no idea what it was to sow and here Maru, our land broker, was asking us to plunge directly into it. He said the season was right for sowing green gram (moong). We felt that may be it made sense to sow something on the land rather than let it lie fallow. We admired the thinking of the villagers and how they thought of getting something out of the land. I made a quick trip to Surat and found the market for seeds there. I bought around 10 kilos of green gram. We arranged for a tractor to plough the land and quickly planted green gram or ‘moong’ all over the place. The idea was that even if we did not get any moong we would still have some green cover, which we could use to mulch back into the soil as green manure.

A few days later, we were overjoyed to see tiny saplings of green gram peering out of the soil. I had never seen green gram saplings before and was thrilled at the sight of the entire field filled with tiny saplings. It was the same thrill I had felt when I saw the first of the hibiscus blossom as a child on the tree I had planted.

The next thing Maru wanted to do was spray some pesticide on the plants. He claimed that it would give a higher yield. This was something we did not want to do. We were clear that we would not use any chemicals and tried to explain it to him. He reacted as if we had suggested ‘hara kiri’. It took a lot of convincing from us to ensure that Maru and his friends did not use any chemicals on the farm. They just could not understand how the crops would grow without help.

We tried our best to explain to them that nature would do her job even without us interfering with our poisonous chemicals. They just could not accept our explanation. There were moments when we felt that may be they were right, especially since we did not have any experience and were just following what we had read in books.

Contrary to what everyone told us, Nature was doing her job well and she needed no bribes to get work done. A few months later the moong had grown well. It was a joy to see the lush green fields with tiny pods of moong hanging from them. We arranged for some help from the village and cut the moong and harvested it. The harvest had yielded 300 kilos of moong after the cleaning and threshing. That was a lot of moong we had ever seen in our lives. The harvest was an unexpected one since we had not intended to sow at all. It also gave us a lot of confidence. One thing we were now sure of was that the land was fertile and the possibilities of getting a good crop were high. It also gave us the confidence that it was possible to harvest crops without chemicals. It was a major morale booster for us.

For us, it was great excitement as this was our first crop from our own land. This was even before we had actually paid for the land and got it transferred in our name. We had taken the plunge into agriculture and were now the proud owners of our first harvest. We distributed a large portion of the moong to friends, relatives, neighbors and any one who even remotely expressed a desire to eat the moong. Even after the massive distribution we were left with almost 200 kilos with us and there was no option but to sell it off in the market.

Once the moong had been harvested, it was time for the monsoon season. The village sowed rice using the traditional method of mother bed and transplanting of rice saplings. We did not have that kind of people to work on the farm nor the resources to afford outside help. I had read a lot of books on the ‘do nothing’ method of agriculture by Masanobu Fukuoka. I was convinced that the current practice of rice sowing was both labor intensive and also relied too much on external inputs.

It was an uphill task convincing the villagers and our help that we wanted to do things differently and try out new ideas. Besides we kept repeating that we would not use any chemicals at all on the farm. This was received with much amusement at the village and I would find strangers stopping me on the way and asking me if it was true. They seemed to derive some strange kind of amusement when I replied in the positive.

I had no idea when to sow rice and had missed the right time. I had to rush to the nearest agricultural institute in Kosbad and ask for advice. Unfortunately, the institute also promoted chemical farming and they clearly told me that they would not guarantee good yield using organic practices and it was my risk if it failed. They advised me to plant a particular variety of rice that would mature in 90 days which was faster than the normal varieties. By using this variety, I would manage to overcome the delay I had on hand.

I got the prescribed rice GR4 variety from a shop at Dahanu and dispersed it across the field. We had got the land ploughed using a traditional plough rather than using the tractor or tiller, which were expensive to use. There was no question of spraying any chemical or putting Urea in the field. I had a large number of visitors from the village who came to see the wonder rice, which would grow without any external input.

We harvested about 100 kilos, which was below average. We realised that we would have to fine tune the process next time. Obviously, we had done something wrong that we got such a low output. We decided to try and sell the rice we had harvested. Meena and me sent messages through our mobiles to all our friends. Within 3 days we were completely sold out. We suddenly realised that these were people who were interested in Organic produce and willing to buy it from us.

I also started planting vegetables around the farm. Everything was in small quantities though many people approached me with proposals to plant a single vegetable on all the land. We were clear that we would not opt for mono cropping, as it would be both a risk and a bad thing for the soil. I was even approached by an exporter from Bombay who proposed that he would buy all the produce from the farm and pay me 30% premium over the prevalent market rate. He was exporting the fruits and vegetables to New Zealand and Canada where there was a high demand for organically grown crops. It was a lucrative proposal but we just could not get around to agreeing to it. Somehow, we felt that it would not be right to send our resources out of the country while our own people starved. It was better if we could sell our produce locally so people ate well and were healthy.

Anyway, the quantity I produced on the farm was not so high that I could sell it in bulk. I was happier to barter the produce with the villagers around who gave me vegetables I did not have on the farm in return. It was a good arrangement as both got to eat a variety of vegetables. It was only a matter of time before we almost stopped buying from the market and were completely eating what we grew at the farm.

We also observed that after eating the fresh produce from the farm, our palates just did not accept the market vegetables. Most of the vegetables we could buy in Bombay were at least 3 days old since that was the time it took for them to reach the final consumer. It is a different joy to go to the vegetable patch every evening and look around wondering what our dinner would be. We plucked what we needed and cooked it immediately.

By the time we had completed our rice harvest, I had read a lot on Organic Farming and its benefits. I had a lot of book knowledge but still yearned to see some real fields that worked on the principle of Organic Farming. I made a trip to visit some farmers in the near by state of Madhya Pradesh. I also visited some famous farms around our area that were well known for not using chemicals on the farms. I made a fruitful trip to Tamilnadu to attend a training session with some farmers who had been practicing organic methods for years. It was a joy to see so many like-minded people who had switched over from chemical farming to organic farming. The trip increased my confidence that we had taken the right step in opting for organic farming and it would not be long before we would reap the benefits from our land. I also had the Honeybee magazine copies with me which were a treasure chest of solutions to numerous problem that arose at the farm regularly.

I was enjoying my farming experience. We were yet to generate any income from the farm. All we got was a lot of food to consume. These were grown organically and were extremely tasty. Our fruits too tasted different from the one we bought from the market.

Within a few months we had harvested ground nuts which we used to extract oil. Now our meals were completely made from the produce of the farm except for a few spices. We had our own rice, vegetables, curry leaves and even oil. My confidence that we could live off the produce from the farm was now at an all time high. I am encouraging Meena to quit her job and move to the village. I am sure that we could manage to live a healthy and sustainable life at the village.

Venkat Iyer

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