All through the bus journey back home, I dreamt of buying a piece of land to grow my own food. I would raise goats and cows and live amidst green fields and breathe pure air. I would lead a disease-free life and even give back something to society. Three days with Dr. G. Nammalvar had done this to me.
The 74-year-old agricultural scientist was part of a team led by environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva that was responsible for the European Patent Office revoking a U.S. firm’s claim to patent neem. An advocate of natural pesticides such as ‘Panchakavyam’ and ‘Amirtha Karaisal’, he assisted farmers in Nagapattinam district as well as in Indonesia to rehabilitate their land after the 2004 Tsunami.
He is well-known for his campaigns against chemical-free agriculture... but these are just a few instances from the life of a man who has dedicated his life to popularising natural farming practices.
I first saw him at the thatch-roofed enclosure of Vanagam, his 55-acre organic farm at Kadavur, a mountain village near Karur in Tamil Nadu. Seated on a mat, he was addressing some 20 people who had signed up for the three-day organic farming training camp. They came from various backgrounds. There was an engineering student who wanted to restore a polluted pond in his neighbourhood, an IT professional who wanted to become a farmer, a marketing executive who wanted to explore the commercial aspects of organic farming…There were also other farmers who were looking to step into organic farming.
Grow just enough
“Say you have 25 acres of land,” began Nammalvar. “Set aside just enough of it to produce food for you, your family and cattle and plant trees everywhere else. New leaves will grow every day; they will fall on the land and make it fertile. Your cattle can feed on the grass that grows between the trees; they will get to graze in an air-conditioned environment. Birds will sit in the branches and sing. There will be new songs and new colours every day. There will be food all through the year. Most importantly, you needn’t plough and till every day.”
As the afternoon wore on, the sky turned grey. There were heavy gusts of wind and it began to drizzle. For Nammalvar, with rain, came laughter and poetry.
“Look at the trees dancing. Even Bharathanatyam dancers cannot come close to their movements,” he said, grinning behind his white beard.
The next day, I stepped out at 5 a.m. and the cold air from the mountains chased away the remnants of sleep. I assumed it was just me and the roosters who were up at that hour. But, Nammalvar had already started work. He was carrying water for the newly planted saplings. He set the tone for the day; it was to be spent in the fields.
With the sun high in the sky, we planted millet seeds in an area under cultivation using the vatta paathi method. As the afternoon wore on, we watered the seeds. I revere those moments, for out there, we became the creators. Imagine how a farmer must feel at the time of harvest!
Discussions followed every activity during the workshop, that included documentary screenings, games, and lectures. Nammalvar managed to make even the shyest of students speak. We learnt that when fish waste is mixed with country sugar and set aside for 21 days, we get a harmless fertiliser that also helps plants fight drought. A mixture of coconut milk and sour buttermilk can stimulate plant growth. Senthil Ganesan, Ayyappan, Kannadasan and Jothi, the staff members of Vanagam, demonstrated how these mixtures, that were kind to the soil, were made.
We practised double digging, an organic farming technique where cultivation is done on a raised bed of soil. With just a few hours for the sun to set, we walked to the vegetable patch with sickles and seeds and sacks of mulch. We saw the field change before our very eyes — what was once flat and covered with grass was now well-turned and healthy looking with all the mulch and fresh dose of topsoil.
We dug out earth around the bed to make a walking path. This path gives you access, makes the ground firm and prevents you from stepping on the plants.
With Nammalvar around, even a mundane task as cutting grass becomes interesting. He is a storehouse of stories and working alongside him in the fields is the best way to hear them.
“This grass is for our two pregnant cows,” he said, as we cut grass. “We take the two aside before we feed them. Otherwise, the other cows will be disappointed if they are not given the same fodder.” ‘Periya Pasu’, he explained, was his favourite cow. “She is beautiful to look at. You should see the way she opens her mouth nice and wide when you feed her.”
Tired and dusty, we settled down to watch documentary films that evening. The last day was all about feedback, plans for the future and goodbyes. But more than all the talks, discussions, and hours of fieldwork, it is the experience of being around Nammalvar that makes Vanagam so special.
“Sometimes, trees talk to you,” he said one morning. “When you spread mulch at their base, the leaves will nod a thank-you. Cows bend their head low, in a gesture of gratitude when you feed them. They all speak, but not in Tamil.”
Learn to farm
Vanagam represents Nammalvar’s dream of teaching people natural farming the practical way. In 2009, he took up the land for organic farming. For nearly 40 years before that, farmers had tried and failed at cultivating anything there. Under his care, the land gradually woke up and today, millets, vegetables and greens are cultivated here using natural farming methods.
Nammalvar wants to create a model farm in every district. Ironically, many neighbouring farmers do not follow his practices. “Even Masanobu Fukuoka’s (Japanese farmer, philosopher and author of One Straw Revolution) neighbouring farmers didn’t change. It’s not easy for a person to switch over. He has to convince his kith and kin, people who work for him,” he says.
Nammalvar also wants to popularise organic gardens in the terraces of buildings. “We should set the pan to cook and then pluck vegetables from the garden.” He is also for turning waste from big cities into manure. “This will create a change in the Government’s policies, for corporations spend a lot for waste management.” At Vanagam, Nammalvar experiments with multi-cropping, harvests rainwater and attempts to apply all what he learned in organic farming over the years. Water is scarce in the area, there’s labour shortage as well. But Vanagam manages to survive — Nature’s way of expressing her gratitude, perhaps? To know more, visit www.vanagam.com.