Travelling through South India

Secrets of the soil: is natural the new organic?

The farm life   | Photo Credit: Keerthana Balaji

Pollachi is a familiar sight to those raised on a steady diet of Tamil and Malayalam films. This idyllic town near Coimbatore has been favoured by filmmakers from the South for decades, often when it comes to the picturisation of songs in lush fields or near waterfalls (Valparai) and wildlife sanctuaries (the Anaimalai range). But the taluk, with its cash crops and sweet tender coconut varieties, is seeing the rise of a different hero — the agricultural entrepreneur who is pushing for a sustainable system, choosing to stay small and give back to the community. On a recent visit, we meet stewards of the land, researchers and innovators, as they uphold contrasting farming practices and keep uppermost the need to nourish both people and planet.

Santhosh Farms

Who: Madhu Ramakrishnan

What: Organic-turned-natural farmer

Since: 2002

Farm size: 50 acres

Products: Cocoa, organic soaps and oils

Madhu Ramakrishnan at his farm

Madhu Ramakrishnan at his farm   | Photo Credit: Keerthana Balaji

It is a hot, humid morning when we drive past several farms to reach Madhu Ramakrishnan’s 50-acre ancestral property. Santhosh Farms is laden with coconut, cocoa and medicinal trees, and is noticeably cooler — he says it is because he has let “nature be”. A closer look at the tiers below the palms reveals nutmeg and papaya trees as well as tufts of vetiver. The papaya and vetiver go into the soaps that are made at the farm and sold in small batches locally. “I made the switch from organic farming to natural in 2002, after attending a workshop in Dehradun by Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, the author of the popular book, One-Straw Revolution. Mixed cropping/multi-layer farming is the way to go, as you can utilise every grain of soil, every drop of water, and every ray of the sun,” says Ramakrishnan, who uses jeevamrutham (a mix of cow urine and other products) as a fertiliser and neem leaf extracts as a pest repellent. These methods are also advocated by the government’s recent zero-budget natural farming (ZBNF) intervention, that is being criticised by farmers like Ramakrishnan because of its controversial ‘zero-budget’ tag. “Natural farming is minimum-budget, not zero,” says Ramakrishnan, who supplies 1.5 tonnes of dried cocoa beans (from his 1,150 cocoa plants) to Cadbury, Campco and other players every year.

Globally, the results of chemical farming haven’t been pretty, what with stagnation in productivity, and health and environment concerns. Natural farming requires patience, but pioneers like him swear by the increased yields after the first few years, which can be tough. His neighbours, however, prefer to go conventional or organic. “Sadly, we Indians tend to follow what’s fashionable in the West, rather than what’s native to us.”

Harish Manoj at his farm

Harish Manoj at his farm   | Photo Credit: Susanna Myrtle Lazarus


Who:Harish Manoj and Karthikeyan Palanisami

What: Natural farmers

Since: 2011

Farm size: 90 acres

Products: Chocolate

Another natural farming advocate, Harish Manoj, whose Soklet brand of chocolate has a following in many Indian cities (and also retails in the US, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany), observes that farmers are apprehensive about switching from chemical methods because they lack knowledge of the alternative and are afraid of low yields. Walking us through his 90-acre cocoa farm, Manoj admits that the switch to a natural farm seven years ago wasn’t easy, but worth the effort. “For the first couple of years, we didn’t see much of a difference. Initially, your production graph will dip. But if you stay at it and incorporate natural materials in a systematic and correct manner, the soil’s fertility will increase every year. Nothing has left our soil for the last 10 years. You just need to let nature take over,” says Manoj, who harvests more than a hundred pods per tree, per year — something that wasn’t possible with earlier farming practices. The change has them at ease with production, as the yield is no longer restricted to a particular season and is all year round. “Unlike chemically-farmed cocoa trees, our trees grow pods on the branches, too, and not just the trunk. There’s also a lot of insect and bird life coming back to the farm,” he says. Upcoming launches include cocoa powder, bars in flavours such as peanut and sea salt, toasted milk and pistachio, hibiscus and roasted pumpkin seeds, and chocolate minions (disks with fruits/nuts).

A peek into Pollachi’s agri-industries
  • The town’s total geographical area is a massive 12,21,551 acres
  • Of this, coconut crop covers 67,026 acres
  • The town’s flavourful jaggery is traded in Erode’s Chittode and Kavunthampadi markets.
  • At Pollachi’s maatu sandhai, (cattle market), spot native breeds like the sturdy Kangayam
  • The town is home to 600 coir fibre industries; valued at ₹657 crore


Who: R Mahendran

What: Organic farmer

Since: 1994

Farm size: 90 acres

Products: Vanilla

Dr R Mahendran and his products

Dr R Mahendran and his products   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Dr R Mahendran of Expovan, a pioneer of vanilla cultivation in the country, tells us of his early days in the sector when he had returned to India after studying medicine in the US. “We were struggling to make a net income of say ₹10,000-₹20,000 per acre, per year. I studied how to make agriculture economically viable: the right mixture of crops to use to maximise income from a unit area of land.”

Aiming to make ₹1 lakh per acre as net profit, he tried various crops (banana, cocoa, etc) that suited Pollachi’s climate and water availability. “The two that did exceedingly well were nutmeg and vanilla, and I began their cultivation in 1994, as an intercrop with coconut,” says the 56-year-old. He is now working on shade house cultivation methods of vanilla, something we get to see first-hand at one of his farms.

There have been global concerns about organic farming, with studies showing increased greenhouse emissions and decreased yields. Drawing from Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug’s school of thought, Mahendran says, “If the entire world were to switch to organic farming today, there would be more starvation as total food production would go down.” Yet he chooses to follow this method. He says, “A plant cannot differentiate whether nitrogen is from cow dung or urea. Adding nutrients to crops (to improve productivity) is a big scientific breakthrough that we must use, but judiciously. Every farmer needs to use organic matter, whether he adds inorganic nutrients or follows any other farming method.”

Tell him how many of his peers feel that coconut isn’t native to the region, and he counters, “If a non-native crop is suitable to the land, why not? For instance, chillies are native to Mexico, but today, India produces 25% of the world’s chillies.” Mahendran goes on to explain that coconut farmers need to assess how much water they have, not land. “A young coconut plant probably requires about 20 litres of water a day, but in three years it will need around 120 litres,” he says.

(left to right) Neera tapping, M Dhanabal and fresh neera

(left to right) Neera tapping, M Dhanabal and fresh neera   | Photo Credit: Susanna Myrtle Lazarus

Anaimalai Coconut Farmers Producers Company

Who: M Dhanabal

What: Organic farmer


Farm size:20 acres


After quitting a 15-year career in banking in 2013, M Dhanabal moved back to Pollachi to pursue his family profession. “I wanted to work in the agricultural sector and create value-added products,” says the director of the Anaimalai Coconut Farmers Producers Company, who practises organic methods to ensure adequate cultivation of coconut. In 2018, he was awarded a license to set up a packaging unit for neera (padhaneer in Tamil) by the State Government. “The government had banned neera tapping and was apprehensive about giving out licenses as the drink, once fermented, turns into toddy and can be misused by liquor manufacturing firms. We’ve worked on a chemical and preservative-free cold-chain production process (stopping fermentation by regulating temperature) and were successful in convincing the ruling government on its many benefits,” explains Dhanabal, who met with Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami in 2017, and later demonstrated viable by-products such as sugar, bread, chocolate and ice cream that could be created with neera.

In a bid to ensure the process is not privatised, he worked on getting rules in place for like-minded entrepreneurs. The result? “A company with a minimum of 1,000 members qualifies for neera tapping and each farmer has an upper limit of 50 trees. This ensures equal opportunities,” he says, adding that his firm began with 350 farmers. Today, they have 1,650 on board, with 200 farmers joining every quarter. “Each member earns ₹30,000-₹45,000 a month (at ₹30 per litre),” says Dhanabal, who also educates farmers and tappers on the benefits of being a part of a farmer producing company.

He now retails the drink via dispensers in select points, including some Kovai Pazhamudir Nilayam outlets in Chennai. But packaged palm nectar will take time, due to production costs. “As we don’t use any preservatives such as limestone, and use ice to keep it cool, it has a short shelf life. It’ll take us six months to a year to roll it out,” he says.

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 10:01:12 AM |

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