Cottolengo Brothers in Palluruthy is an exemplar of natural self-reliant agrarian living

Onam and Onasadya are still a little away in the minds of city folk but not so for the trio who runs Brothers of St. Joseph Cottolengo in Palluruthy. Brother Joseph, Unnikrishnan and Dr. Thomas Maliyakal are gearing up to cultivate vegetables that will be in hot demand, and ready for the festive season. This will be their second round of crops. Their first harvest won them the best ‘Project Based Cultivation in Institution (Private) under Vegetable Development Programme’ in Ernakulam District and though the men are thrilled to bits they have several other projects like dairy farming, rainwater harvesting, a bio-gas plant , open-land cultivation and a pigeon breeding centre on the property that brings them as much pride and satisfaction.

Cottolengo Brothers opened in 1984 on five acres of land by the water with an aim to provide boarding and healthcare to the mentally and physically challenged homeless people from the area. Today, there are 50 inmates who live on its quiet, green precincts. The management ventured into agriculture recently to augment the finances required to run the institution and has managed to set an example of a self-reliant agrarian life.

There are five main projects on the property that sustain each other. The cattle farm leads to bio-gas production that helps not only to burn kitchen fires but also run the motors to pump water collected through rainwater harvesting. The unused gas is piped to an adjacent home for sisters of the order. The milk is supplied to people in the locality and to Milk Market Fed (Milma) in Edakochi, which fetches them income. “Each project is interdependent,” says Unnikrishnan who lives close by.

“Agricultural activity plays a useful role in our case. Our inmates dedicate most of their time to agricultural work. We cultivate the land with seasonal vegetables, coconut, and fruit trees. A dairy farm with 25 cows is an integral part of our farm activity,” says Dr. Thomas who offers, along with medical services, his organisational skills to run the different projects. Their latest project, and a feather in their cap, is the installation and successful functioning of a one-of-its-kind high-tech poly house (480 square area metre), which was set up in August last year.

“Green house cultivation has many advantages over traditional farming, especially in yield and maintenance. Many types of vegetables can be cultivated in a limited space. As the temperature and humidity are controlled, the growth of the plants is faster and the quantity of water for irrigation is saved considerably. While many plants last for a single season in traditional farming, green house helps to maintain the same plants for three to five years, providing an almost continuous harvest. Pest control is easier and more effective in this cultivation,” explains Unnikrishnan, who is awaiting the soil test report to begin sowing. “We are sowing long beans or achinga for Onam. Our first achinga harvest was over 1,000 kilos. It costs over Rs. 50 a kilo,” he says.

The poly house with the latest systems in technology like drip irrigation, mist clouding apparatus, a slurry delivery system, and controlled atmospherics has after its successful maiden harvest received an order for saplings from the government.

A day at Cottolengo for Brother Joseph begins at three in the morning when he wakes up to bathe the cows. By four Unnikrishnan rides in on his bike and milks them. “The calves begin to moo when they hear me come,” he says. By six there is much activity on the premises as people line up for milk, sold at Rs. 40 a litre. Seventy five litres of milk is then sold at the Edakochi market.

A natural outcome of the cattle farm was the setting up of a bio-gas plant, which converts the kitchen garbage and the mulch from the fields into gas. It is piped to motors and burners where required. The slurry makes its way to the poly house. “This premises was sandy when we started the Institute. Now it is all green,” says Joseph pointing to the rain harvest plant that they have invested in.

“We collect 12 million litres of water from the 3,600 sq m roof of the buildings and store it in 16 bore wells for later use. We require 4 million litres annually,” says Dr. Thomas ready for the rainless January-to-May period.

On the open fields currently, the soil lies fallow, turned and tilled. Round, yellow brinjals hang from dried, brown plants. “They are for seeds,” points out Unnikrishnan. Cottolengo also uses farm hands from outside. Men come in by day and work till dusk. In the evening the place goes back to a silent quiet mode when dinner is served to the inmates and prayers are said. Everybody is dog-tired after working in the fields. “But everybody is satisfied. We are all very happy,” says the contented team of a priest, a doctor and a farmer, looking forward to their next batch of long beans.