There are people who follow their passion, and then there are those who are passionate about disseminating their knowledge for the benefit of others, spending their own time and resources generously. Organic farmer Mahendra M. Manivaasan falls under both categories.
His love for organic farming began during a village stay, as an undergraduate student of agriculture, about two decades ago. Ever since, his passion has grown stronger, making him a strong proponent of organic farming. Not even the pandemic could stop him from reaching out to farmers.
For the 41-year-old, residing in Kurumbalur, Perambalur district, the lockdown was just a practical challenge, similar to any other in his field. He quickly found a way around, tapping into technology to continue his advocacy virtually.
For more than eight months now, Mr. Manivaasan, the managing director of a farmers’ producers’ company, WEFSA (an acronym signifying the five elements of Nature — water, earth, fire, sky and air), and advisor on organic agriculture to a dozen other FPOs, has been hosting virtual farm meets, through a cloud-based video communication app, almost every day.
He hit upon the idea after his weekly radio programmes, ‘ Unnaal Mudiyum Thozha ,’ on All India Radio, Tiruchi, and Coimbatore, based on field visits, had to be suspended for some time due to the pandemic. Regular listeners started missing it and soon he hit upon the idea of going online. “Whatever I did through the radio, I was able to do online. I even added video demonstrations. The response has been very good,” he said.
Since April 14 last year, Mr. Manivaasan has done over 220 such virtual meets, christened ‘ Velaan Muttram ,’ covering a range of topics such as soil enrichment, seed selection and treatment, planting techniques, pest and disease control, mechanisation and value addition.
“Typically, the one-hour programmes feature a talk by a special invitee or a progressive farmer who shares their experiences and best practices, followed by an interaction for 20 minutes when participants clarify doubts. On average, about 70 farmers from the State participate in every programme, which starts at 7 p.m. As soon as the meetings are over, the videos are uploaded on YouTube too. They have been watched by over 75,000 people so far,” he said. The topics are usually identified based on seasonal crops/issues and are circulated, in advance, through social media. “At times, the topics are based on farmers’ requests — they seek discussions on specific problems,” he said. He spends two to three hours, every day, for preparation — making slides, presentations and videos or referring to literature and text, taking inputs from scientists and successful farmers to provide “authentic information.”
Mr. Manivaasan also follows up on the interactions, visiting fields of farmers who seek his advice. “I render the service free and over 2,600 farmers are in regular touch with me,” he added.
A not-for-profit company run by him, VFarm Organic Foundation, metes out the expenditure incurred for his programmes. “We spend about ₹30,000 a month, including on the salaries of a couple of staff who help me in the preparatory work and hosting of the programmes,” he said. A Governor-nominated board member of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Mr. Manivaasan said farmers too were adapting well to the online medium.
Mr. Manivaasan, who is currently pursuing his doctoral research in the management of pests and diseases using organic inputs, also runs his own company, VFarm Plant Sciences Pvt Ltd., which manufactures organic farm inputs such as humic acid. He has undergone a leadership course at the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, Germany, and is also an advisor to the Malaysian government. Though he concedes there is scepticism over organic farming, he believes it is the way ahead for sustainable agriculture. “The problem is that farmers are not taught organic farming properly. The lack of research is the main drawback. We should come up with solutions to specific problems to gain credibility. If only we evolve and lay down the standard operating procedure for cultivating all major crops using organic farming techniques, more farmers will take to it. It is my mission to promote successful organic farming,” he said.