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Did COVID-19 make you consider urban farming?

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By: Shreya Nath, Sanjana Alex, Shilpa Swaraj

During this lockdown, one thing that was made abundantly clear is that global pandemics wreak havoc on supply chains. One of the most critical supply chains that exist in urban India is that of food. Most people experienced variations in price, and availability of various fruits and vegetables during the lockdown period. Strict restrictions placed on transportation along with the sudden disappearance of local food markets and street hawkers led to changes in normal food supply chains. In addition, with commercial activities being suspended many daily wage workers lost their incomes, making access to affordable food increasingly difficult for the urban poor.

Urban farming can help residents of the city navigate shocks in the food system; while simultaneously offering various health and environmental benefits. It can help reduce temperatures and mitigate the urban heat island effect, increase biodiversity, and yield chemical-free super fresh and nutritious produce. By reducing food miles, urban farming reduces emissions from transportation and storage as well as post-harvest losses. As a matter of fact, some residents have been catering to all their fresh vegetable needs through their own terrace farms.

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Plants from the rooftop of Mr. M N Natraj

Mr. M N Nataraj, the vice president of Banashankari 6th stage Resident Welfare Association, has been planting trees, vegetables, and rearing stingless bees in his home, ever since he retired in 2008. He is an active member of the “BSK 6” gardening group which brings residents together through their collective love for urban gardening. Mr. Nataraj grows a variety of plants in his home, including local greens, fruit trees, medicinal plants, and some flowering plants to encourage biodiversity. He says that his hobby has proved to be a real lifesaver during the Covid crisis.

“Our roof grown produce really came in handy during this lockdown period. All our fresh vegetable needs were catered to, complemented by staples that were kept at home, we stayed safe and did not need to leave our home during this time. I also got my daily dose of fresh air and exercise by tending to plants on the terrace.”

When asked how he felt about surviving off his produce during the lockdown he responded by saying

“Lockdown or no lockdown. Nature seems to correct us. Bees and earthworms have been instrumental to maintaining a healthy garden and so it is my passion to protect and promote them in the interest of mankind. All the fertilizer used in my garden is made from kitchen waste through vermicomposting, and all the water used for gardening is got through rainwater harvesting or from reusing the RO discharge water. It doesn’t take a lot of money to start becoming self sufficient, just a little dedication and ingenuity! For example, to reuse the RO discharge water we connected a levelling tube, for Rs.50 to a bucket, when the bucket fills up it overflows onto the ground where is naturally finds its way to a nearby plant bed”

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Vermicomposting, and re-using RO water for watering the plants- from the rooftop of Mr. M N Natraj

How do we make terrace farming more sustainable

Mr. Nataraj’s story highlights the importance of ensuring that we make urban farming more sustainable by creating circular resource systems and encouraging biodiversity. It demonstrates how maintaining a composting system can not only make good use of your kitchen waste but with minimal effort, it can yield very good nutritional content of your plants.

One critique of urban gardening is that it uses large amounts of freshwater. Richer households who already have good access to piped Cauvery supply, use more, lowering pressure and water availability in poorer neighborhoods. Therefore, making careful decisions when selecting water sources for gardening is equally important.

A recent study conducted by the World Resources Institute and Aqueduct found that India ranked at №13 in the topmost water-stressed countries in the world. India’s groundwater resources are severely overdrawn, largely for irrigation. In the urban context, a large percentage of the population is dependent on tanker water and borewells for freshwater. A report by the NITI Ayog found that 21 cities in India including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad already have critically low levels of groundwater. Without proper intervention, we run the risk of running out of groundwater.

Ensuring that you do not use groundwater or freshwater from your utility supplier for nonpotable uses such as gardening can help avoid placing additional stress on an already stressed water supply system. For compact gardens, small changes like reusing RO discharge water and water used for soaking rice, grains, and washing vegetables can help to eliminate the need for freshwater in your garden altogether. For those with larger gardens, rainwater harvesting can be used to supplement your water needs.

What to keep in mind before you start?

We’ve put together a small chart to help you decide the best way to get started on your urban farming journey.

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Getting help setting up your urban farm

If setting up a farm/edible garden on your own seems too daunting a task, perhaps you can have one of the several new innovative farming companies help you get started.

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Hydroponic Rooftop farm from Wolly.io

Woolly.io

Woolly.io is an award-winning startup, has a unique model where it sets up hydroponic farms in privately owned idle spaces such as terraces and unused grounds, converting them into woolly-enabled food production centers. As explained by Bushair A. P., the company’s Co-founder & CEO,

“In the residential context, the homeowner pays for the initial set up, post which Woolly facilitates a collaboration between the homeowners and woolly-enabled urban farmers to oversee the maintenance of their farm for a period of 10 years. This way the homeowner gets to enjoy the benefits such as reduced internal temperatures and reduced benzene emissions as well as freshly harvested vegetables. In return for this service, Woolly takes about half the farms produce and sells it to its consumers.”

When asked whether the company has seen growth in its customer base during the lockdowns this is what he had to say

“Woolly has seen over a 1000 new consumers in the first 21 days of the lockdown. Normally we spend a lot of time on educating people about the benefits of urban farming. However, in light of the lockdowns people have educated themselves and they are approaching us due to need. What we find especially interesting is that we have seen a large increase in interest for installation of rooftop farms since people want to become more self-sufficient and resilient to shocks. This makes us believe that there will be a sustained interest in urban farming continuing well beyond the lockdowns.”

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Madhavi Farms organic farm

Growing produce locally has not been limited to residential spaces alone. When done at scale it can feed multiple people and help to generate and sustain employment.

Madhavi Farms

Madhavi Farms is a 20-acre organic estate located in Bannerghatta, Bangalore. Once a barren plot of land, it is now a thriving, biodiverse, ecosystem with thousands of native plants and trees, grain fields, plantations and fruit orchards. It also houses India’s first commercial aquaponic farm. The farm also hosts a dairy facility for the protection and proliferation of Indigenous zebu cattle breeds. According to Rohan Menon, the CEO of Madhavi Farms:

“We have seen twice as much demand for fresh greens and vegetables during the lockdown period. Our mission has been to make the oldest supply chain in the world a cleaner one, one vegetable at a time. When that supply chain was broken by the lockdowns we have seen sales in our produce rise. On our farm we harness the power of the sun and make every single drop of water count. There is a lake adjoining our property which we have taken on lease from the lake authority which supplies the bulk of our water for farming. We clean and use this water and also release the fish from our aquaponic units back into the lake when they are too large for the tanks. The remaining water is drawn from wells and the corporation water supply. Around 75 people are employed in our farm, out of which 75% are women. We see a large number of repeat customers as the city’s residents are happy with our produce.”

If you’re interested in getting a farm started on your own rooftop or balcony, find the list of companies who can help you below.

Click Here

Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation

Turning environmental research into action

Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation

Written by

We turn environmental research into impact on the ground

Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation

We work on issues related to the environment and focus on citizen action and/or market-based approaches to solving these problems. Based in Bangalore, India. Find out more: https://www.csei.org/

Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation

Written by

We turn environmental research into impact on the ground

Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation

We work on issues related to the environment and focus on citizen action and/or market-based approaches to solving these problems. Based in Bangalore, India. Find out more: https://www.csei.org/

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