K.M. Hilal believes in the natural way of life. As a man who is in the process of transforming rice cultivation in Kerala, he talks about the benefits of Zero-Budget Natural Farming

Prakash Venkataraman quit his job as Hardware Engineer in the U.S., took up a job in Bangalore, so that he could devote himself to agriculture in a four-acre plot in Wayanad that belongs to his wife’s family. Arun, an MPhil and PhD in Agricultural Management and teacher at a management college in Palakkad has taken the plunge into agriculture, something his family has been doing for generations. They are just two of the many youngsters who are being drawn to the Zero Budget Natural Farming system propagated by Subhash Palekar. This breed of new entrepreneurs are savvy professionals with a passion for agriculture.

And the man who popularised this system in the State, turning it into a movement, and becoming a trusted guide to many youngsters, is K. M. Hilal.

Student politics

A firebrand student activist, Hilal’s transformation into a farmer was more out of need than fascination. Born and brought up in the heart of Alappuzha town, agriculture was never on his mind. His college days in Kottayam saw him bloom into a responsible student leader. He graduated in Economics, was elevated as president of SFI, Kottayam district, but somewhere down the line, Hilal began thinking of a career.

In 1992, while Hilal was forced to go into hiding at Kalyanapetta, (Palakkad) following certain political issues, he came into contact with farmers and their way of life. That was when he developed an interest in farming, an urge to do something different, something wholesome.

“Later, in 1998, along with two friends, we took eight acres on lease in Marayoor. We got scientific assistance from Agricultural College, Mannuthy. We tried cultivating English vegetables and in the two years we did that we suffered a loss of over Rs. 8 lakhs, ending a dream,” recounts Hilal, running his fingers through his unkempt, flowing beard.

Life has been a roller-coaster ride for Hilal since then. He started a screen-printing unit in Kottayam with “hardly Rs. 410 as investment”. He got married to Biji, a student activist he had known from those days, started a graphics studio in Ernakulam and then found a job at the Coca Cola plant in Plachimada, Palakkad. “The factory closed down in 2004. I was there for hardly two years. It is in Chittoor taluk where there is a lot of agricultural activity. And my mind wandered to that again. I saw here the evils of pesticide, even in the factory where I worked. What I saw made me think of a way out of all this.”

Hilal was back in Ernakulam, with his wife and three children. Back to the city where there was no “clean air, clean water, clean food”. “I used to go to Koratty and get clean well water from there. I decided to do a study on organic and natural farming.”

The turning point came when he was staying with K. Basheer, (Retd. Deputy Director, Education) a friend, at Manarkkad. Despite having a house in a 14-acre plot Basheer had realised that farming with the available resources and systems was not going to be good. So he, along with Hilal, set up a health food restaurant but downed shutters a few months after they found it was not feasible. “That was when Palekarji (Subhash Palekar) came to Palakkad. I attended a workshop. This changed my perspective of agriculture. I visited a few of the farms in Karnataka and was convinced about the zero budget natural farming system. I was also convinced that organic farming was not going to work for farmers whose lives depended on this. It was basically a system for the moneyed that do farming as a serious hobby.”

Hilal was out on a mission—to spread the good word about the Palekar system and also to try it out himself. “I went in search of willing youngsters. I went to meetings, organisations, political and others, talking about the need to implement this system here. I found open, empty fields in plenty in Kerala but very few ready to make this a career. Most of the people who had given up agriculture were worried about marketing the produce. The basic problem was income security. I began working on these issues.”

Hilal formed a group of 21 youngsters with practically no organisational set up. This was a motley group of farmers, IT professionals who had quit their jobs, young graduates, and engineers. “We started off with rice at Kalettungara, near Irinjalakuda on a two-acre plot. A couple of schools in the neighbourhood also joined. The movement started off slowly and now we cultivate rice in 61 acres in different parts of the State. I have taken 31 acres on lease in Muthalamada panchayat, Palakkad with the help of workers.”

Rice cultivation was witnessing a transformation. “Some of those who began using fertilisers have been shunted out of the group,” he says.

Hilal has also been partly successful in marketing the produce. “This natural product will certainly cost more than the varieties you find in the market. Generally, people in Kerala are not willing to pay anything more for a farmer’s toil whereas they are ready to splurge on gold or automobiles. This attitude needs to change. We have resorted to a direct marketing system. We organise Rice Fairs where the farmer takes his yield and sells it directly to the consumer. We have organised four such events in different parts of the State, after the four harvests we have had since we began, and it has been a huge success.” Plans are afoot for newer marketing methods.

Hilal’s family is also fully into farming. His children do not go to school for Hilal believes in “deschooling and in training them to work close to Nature”. He also conducts classes for farmers and those interested in this system in Tirur every second Saturday.