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City mouse meets country mouse

It is important for the farming community in the deep interiors of the country to interact with their counterparts from the cities. Photo: Special Arrangement

It is important for the farming community in the deep interiors of the country to interact with their counterparts from the cities. Photo: Special Arrangement  

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Working lunches are much in vogue but here is a learning lunch that connects the urban consumer with the food producer in a unique agro-tourism initiative

How do you get your wonderful lunch? Is it because you can afford it or because somebody worked to produce it? Where do you think your food comes from, and from where it will continue to come in the future? Far from intimidating, such questions attract hundreds of weekend tourists to Saguna Baug — the agro-tourism hub located in Karjat taluk in Maharashtra, a little over two hours from Mumbai and Pune.

Ever since it shot into the limelight almost two decades ago, the 50-acre farm has been getting a steady stream of about 400 city-dwellers every weekend in the quest to understand the multi-functionality of farming — combining leisure with learning. A team of over 60 youngsters, drawn from nearby villages, provide back-up services to the hordes of men, women and children who descend on the farm week after week.

Once known for the variety of captured snakes that attracted the first set of visitors to the farm, Chandrasekhar Bhadsavle has since transformed the barren landscape into a learning laboratory. Over the years, it has emerged as a platform where leisure, learning and amusement merge to create a rural-urban interface. “Saguna Baug combines the tangible (farm produce) with the intangible (rural environment) as a unique payment for environmental services model,” explains Bhadsavle. From bird watching to water sports and from catching fish to learning farming, visitors not only learn the intricacies of food production, but are also exposed to external pressures which demean farming as a vocation.  

To reverse the continuing decline in agriculture, restoring farmers’ confidence in farming and a turnaround in rural-urban migration is crucial. A visit to Saguna Baug works in two ways. While bringing visitors close to nature, the interactive discussions help the farmers earn appreciation from unrelated quarters as well. “Appreciation not only ignites confidence but restores dignity too,” says Bhadsavle. Restoring the dignity of farming as a vocation has been the key behind setting up the farm as an agro-tourism hub. Saguna Baug has been able to uplift the social status of farming, which in the recent past has taken a beating.

Saguna Baug has demonstrated that methods and approaches for participatory learning and action can help re-connect farmers and citizens with the biodiversity that sustains their livelihoods and culture. It further reflects that not only can sustainable agriculture practices be promoted by engaging farmers in extension activities, its economic value can be enhanced through eco-tourism as well. Agro-tourism’s share in total income at Saguna Baug is 40 per cent.

Converting degraded ancestral land into a productive landscape was daunting for Bhadsavle, a U.S.-trained food technologist. Trained to produce potato chips in the U.S. for soldiers in the frontline during the 1970s may have been easy, recalls Chandrashekhar, but the social reality that considered farming a lowly profession had opened up an altogether different front back home. Transforming a 50 acre patch of land, later named Saguna Baug, into a hub of productive agriculture was daunting.     

Not only was money scarce, poor conditions did not evoke any confidence either. Initial attempts at rearing milch cattle and enhancing canopy cover had met with limited success. Improving agronomic practices for cultivating food crops had proved ineffective on account of poor soil fertility.

Though options were fast running out after seven non-productive years, Chandrashekhar was nevertheless determined to go the distance to transform his dismal situation. Opportunity came knocking in the most bizarre form when some villagers requested him to help catch a poisonous snake. Much to the dislike of his family, catching snakes and selling venom soon became a profitable vocation at the farm. “At one time,” says Chandrashekhar, “I had no less than a thousand snakes of varied species to meet the growing demand for venom.” Since the original plan was to uplift the social status of farming, profit from venom sales was ploughed back into the farm. Creating ponds for holding rainwater and improving canopy cover during the late 1980s were to become the foundation on which Saguna Baug rests today.

It is important for the farming community in the deep interiors of the country to interact with their counterparts from the cities. Agro-tourism offers the best platform for this interaction. The farmers at Saguna Baug double up in tourism work over the weekend, leaving a good amount of time for farm development during the week. The farmer thus has a change in his routine hard work, something to look forward to over the weekend. And, by directly engaging with farmers, urbanites learn how food is produced and in turn re-shape their own eating habits. Their involvement ranges from direct purchases at the farm, to talking with farmers about what to produce and how, to providing inputs such as labour, knowledge or finance.

Having established its niche in agro-tourism, Saguna Baug is now moving to the next stage of its engagement with urban tourists. An innovative new concept ‘Find Farmer Friend’ (3F) has been launched, enthusing interested visitors to connect with farmers. It is a fresh start to building a new rural-urban relationship and for a learning lunch between city and farm dwellers.

Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma, from works at The Ecological Foundation, New Delhi, India and researches and writes on agriculture and related development issues. email: sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com. For more on Saguna Baug, visit www.sagunabaug.com

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Printable version | Aug 18, 2018 2:31:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/saguna-baug-in-maharashtra-is-an-agrotourism-hub/article7593659.ece