Homes and gardens

How to be your own farmer

Many of us dream of living on a farm someday. A small house overlooking a pond, land where you grow your own food, no traffic jams and no deadlines to meet. While most just dwell on it, techie-turned-farmer, Venkat Iyer, made it happen. We have heard his story: he quit IBM in 2003 and moved to Peth, a village near Mumbai, a year later. “Farming was a new skill that I had to learn from scratch and, unlike software or hardware, there were no manuals or help buttons to guide me,” he says. Fifteen years and many harvests later, Iyer reveals what it takes to make the switch in his recently-released book, Moong Over Microchips. He shares with Weekend his step-by-step guide to being your own farmer:

1. Search for soil

The first thing to look for is land, says Iyer, who was lucky within a few months of his search. “Check the soil. Is it clayey or loamy? That will determine the kind of crops you can grow. There is no point in having a thin layer of soil on top and a rocky ground underneath. All you will get are a few weeds.”

2. Water woes

Next on the checklist is water. In Iyer’s case, his land’s location was a huge blessing. “The river was flowing so close to my land that all I had to do was pump it to irrigate my fields.” When buying a farm, it is important to look at the source of water. “Ask these questions,” he says, “If you’re depending on a river or lake, how far is it? Will you be able to bring the water to the land? Is it enough for what you want to do?”

How to be your own farmer

3. Power play

Soil and water might get priority but without power, you cannot do much. “You have to draw and pump water to irrigate your crops.” The problem does not end with getting the electricity connection; you have to deal with fluctuation and erratic supply. “Alternate energy sources are still not a viable option,” says Iyer, explaining how the initial investment for a solar plant is pretty high and they play no role during the monsoon. “When I wanted to switch the lights and fans to solar a few years ago, the estimate was ₹45,000, which was not possible on my budget.”

4. Market meter

Once you are done setting up the basics, it is time to understand the logistics of marketing. In his chapter, Market Initiatives, Iyer explains supply chain issues and his attempt at direct marketing. “You need to look at it logically. The farmer cannot sell directly to the consumer as the farms are far away. So if we want to remove the middlemen, we need another model,” he says. While groups such as Bio Basics and Kaatu Unavu (in Coimbatore) are experimenting with various marketing models across the country, Iyer is yet to come across one that can be applied pan-India. “We have to continue working with the existing model involving wholesale vendors. Smaller vendors buy from the market and, at every stage, a few rupees are added to the costs, leaving the farmer at the bottom of the chain,” explains Iyer, adding how he was offered ₹4 for a kilo of his organic okra when it was selling for ₹20 a kilo in Mumbai.

  • Going local
  • Iyer documents his hunt for a traditional rice in the book and describes at length how he finally found the seeds of Kasbai, the variety he now grows. There are about eight-10 varieties of rice such as Kala Karjat, Judai, Dangi, Kolam, and Abrubachat that are still being grown, but a majority have switched over to hybrids. “The problem with the latter is that the farmer cannot save seeds for the next season and are at the mercy of seed companies,” he says. A company that visited his farm a few years ago sold a hybrid rice variety (30 kg for ₹300). That year, many opted out of growing the local variety and the following year, they did nothave seeds for either. “When they went back to the company, a 20 kg bag cost ₹1,800. They had no choice but to pay up,” says Iyer.
  • It is the same with vegetables. Local varieties like galka (sponge gourd), valpapdi
  • (field beans), dangar (pumpkin), kakdi (cucumber), suran (yam) and tuber roots aren’t finding takers to save their seeds. “At one point, I wanted to grow a specific variety of brinjal but couldn’t find the seeds here. After a lot of searching, I got them from Puducherry,” says Iyer, who is disappointed that the government is pushing for the hybridisation of vegetable seeds. “In a 2012 seminar organised by FICCI, the Maharashtra government announced that it had achieved 90% hybridisation. It’s nothing to be proud of, to say you have wiped out local varieties.”
  • He agrees that there is more awareness of traditional grains and vegetables, with restaurants beginning to showcase them as well. “This does help increase awareness, but more people have to start demanding traditional varieties for more farmers to save the seeds and grow them,” he says.

5. To grease or not

Iyer’s book made waves for his account of dealings with corrupt officials. “The only way is to be patient and persevere,” he says, adding, “They cannot refuse you a permit. You will get it eventually but it will take time.” Iyer went to Dahanu (a coastal town) 26 times for a permit and probably spent more money than the official was asking for. “That doesn’t matter. It’s the principle that does.”

6. Building relations

For those keen to tap into the local knowledge bank, establishing a connect with the rural community is a must. “It takes time,” he says, “but I cannot emphasise how essential it is. Once you have established a bond, they will help with labour, advice, seeds…”

How to be your own farmer

7. Patience is key

Everything about organic farming takes time. “You need patience,” says Iyer. It takes five years before the fruit first appears, and that is assuming all has gone well in the interim. There is a lot one has to get used to: from housework and repairs to weeding, watering and dealing with snakes and insects. It is doable, provided you have the 5Cs: courage, commitment, conviction, cooperation and capital. Family support is essential. “A friend from Mumbai bought a farm but did not have the support of his friends and family. Eventually, he had to sell the land and move back to the city,” he adds. A few years into organic farming, Iyer found a variety of insects, birds, and reptiles around his farm. “I have always loved the outdoors and enjoyed going on treks and bird watching trips. Now I don’t have to go anywhere now. This afternoon, for instance, there was a birdcall that we had never heard before and we’re trying to identify the species.”

8. Money matters

Before you take the plunge, be aware that farming will not generate large amounts of money that most people associate with a ‘satisfied’ life. Iyer’s return on investment is approximately ₹60,000 a year. This, of course, could vary depending on the yield, which in turn depends on climatic conditions. He stresses on reduced purchasing power and the need for careful spending. An extract from the book reads: “The fact that we now lead healthier lives is in itself a major return.”

Published by Penguin, Moong Over Microchips hit the shelves on March 19. ₹499 on amazon.in, flipkart.com.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2020 7:40:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/homes-and-gardens/in-conversation-with-venkat-iyer/article23390134.ece

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