Society

The land they till

What is a day in the life of people who grow your food? November being Slow Food’s Thank a Farmer Month, we find out

Farmer S Jayaram sleeps well on some nights; but on nights he cannot find the new-born calf that went grazing, he sits wide-eyed on his front porch, waiting for it to come back. He cannot afford even a wink of sleep, for the little one, still unfamiliar with the terrain of the seven-acre farm, Devi Durai at Perur in Coimbatore, may fall into a 120-feet well on the premises. “I wait and wait,” says the 70-year-old.

The farm is not his own; Jayaram and his wife Parasakthi maintain it. They live in a tile-roofed house within, and have been tilling, sowing, harvesting vegetables, milking cows, feeding hens, cleaning up after the goats, shooing geese, and cooking for themselves and the dogs, for almost 20 years.

“Our land is in Theni (Tamil Nadu),” says Jayaram, settling down on the stone steps of his house, shirtless in a blue-bordered dhoti. “But we ran into debt, didn’t find enough people to work on the land, and rains failed us,” he says. Faced with family problems, Jayaram and his wife left for Tirupur and did odd jobs until they ended up on this patch of land.

It’s almost noon and he’s drinking ginger tea after his morning routine of checking on the cows, briefing the farm hand and opening his tubs of organic pesticides to give them a stir.

“It’s like taking care of a baby,” he says, discussing the crops. “Only, even a baby can sleep on an empty stomach if there’s no food at home, but a plant must be nurtured at any cost. Otherwise, it dies.”

The farm, which belongs to Coimbatore-based Sashi Chandran, is completely organic. It supplies tomatoes, onion, radish, cauliflower, bitter gourd, ridge gourd, and bottle gourd, to several shops in the area. Parasakthi also makes ghee to be sold.

After tea, Jayaram walks past the dogs towards a vegetable patch, chiding bickering hens and a rooster along the way. His wife follows suit, barefoot. We walk in a single file — on one side, are brinjal plants, and on the other, coconut trees.

A gigantic cobra slithers through the slush, and we jump, amusing the couple. “Snakes are my friends — they keep the rats in check,” Jayaram says. “There are so many here and I’ve stepped on them several times unintentionally. But they hiss and move on.”

Parasakthi darts into thick bushes and starts plucking brinjals. Soon, she has a handful. “Tomorrow, we have tractors coming to prepare the land for sowing,” says Jayaram. He heads toward cows grazing on a one-acre stretch of grass planted specifically for the purpose — there are 15 native cattle on the farm. He leads a chocolate-brown cow to the shed, and three calves there moo in greeting.

Au naturel

Cows play a crucial role in a farm. Their dung is like gold for a farmer. Jayaram makes panchakavya out of it. “I also make tholluyir, that I spray on the plants for good quality yield.” The natural fertiliser consists of dung, palm jaggery, liquorice root, and kadukkai. Jayaram opens various tubs of organic insecticides to show us. There’s mutta ammonia, made with 10 eggs and half-a-kilogram of palm jaggery; and another pungent neem-based insecticide.

Parasakthi announces lunch just then. We sit down for a meal of rice and mashed horse gram. “I made this early in the morning,” says the 65-year-old, her hair tied in a careless knot. “The kollu was roasted first, before introducing cut tomatoes, chillies, and water. Once cooked well, I use a wooden churn to make it into a paste, and temper it with mustard seeds, shallots, curry leaves, and cumin seeds,” She adds, “this goes so well with ragi kali.”

Back on her farm, Parasakthi says she used to head straight to the fields with a sickle, to cut grass for the cows, first thing in the morning. “We wouldn’t even brush or eat. Because we couldn’t work on a full stomach.” The women were back by noon, and had their first meal then. “We would pound millets soaked the previous evening, and make porridge out of it. This was dinner.”

It’s late afternoon, and the cats settle into snug corners to nap. The goats slow down their ambling and a breeze seems to lull the trees to sleep. Will Jayaram take a nap? He laughs and jumps to his feet. There’s work to do.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 2:00:56 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-land-they-till/article25505414.ece

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