A local vegetable market we frequent in Chennai, India

A Wild Foray into Agro-Ecology

A few years ago, while I was looking for something to read, I stumbled upon a book called The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It, by John Seymour — the father of what’s called the back-to-basics movement. The notion of owning land, raising livestock, growing food and living with nature was so far-fetched that, after drooling over glossy images of farm designs, I shelved the idea and the book all together.

I work a predominantly desk-based job. I own no acreage of land. I don’t have the faintest idea of farming. Milk, meat, vegetables and fruits — cartoned, frozen, shrink wrapped and diced — in my mind, are essentially the products of a supermarket. I don’t know what it means (in practice) to grow food. Our disconnect from those who produce food is very real. Tending to soil, farming and food production, we think, is ‘their’ (the farmer’s) job, not our’s.

I have always lived a city life — from Chennai to Pune and New Delhi to Helsinki. I am not entirely sure when/how farming started fascinating me. Maybe it was when my neighbor’s paal-kaar (milk-man) told me about the cows he milked every morning in Chennai. Or when the local vegetable seller asserted the freshness of her vegetables, to me and my grandmother, through stories of the farmers who produced it. Maybe it was when my mother told us about my dad’s interest for owning farm land. Or when my classmates conducted an ethnographic study about agriculture in Maharashtra. Maybe it was when I visited my friend’s farm near Nashik, walked tens of acres, ate fresh produce and saw the way his family lived. Nevertheless, fascinated I was. And fascinated I am.

I never really set out on a mission to learn about Agro-Ecology* right from the start. I hadn’t thought much about agriculture either. If asked about farming a few years back, I would have said that growing some vegetables on a patch of land was a nice hobby, a recreational activity at best. A couple of years back I would have day-dreamed about managing a commercial vegetable farm. A year ago, I would have painted a picture of farm robots going about their business on fully automated farm lands. And a mere six months back I would have made you believe that Hydroponics was the only way the urban world might avoid going permanently hungry. Parallel realities that might work harmoniously to feed the world? Maybe.

But it wasn’t until I started reading John Thackara’s ‘How to Thrive in the Next Economy’ followed by Masanobu Fukuoka’s ‘The One Straw Revolution’, did the importance of water harvesting, soil preservation and natural farming** really hit me. More importantly, it made me act on this realization. Since then, over the last four months, I have been on a wild foray into Agro-Ecology, casually researching pioneers like Geoff Lawton & Bill Mollison from Australia to Nammalvar & Bhaskar Save in India. I would wake up reading and rereading the principles of Permaculture***. I would go to sleep binge watching The Natural Farmer. I would spend my weekends listing books I should read, listening to stories about farmers who transitioned to sustainable practices and the change-makers who helped them do that. A few weeks into this routine and a self-sufficient farm based life seemed less ridiculous than it did when I first picked up that book.

I think I have gone through a small perspective shift since I first began on this journey. Studying agro-ecology (in theory) has helped me realize that the world is full of people making positive change. With communities. At the grassroots level. Contrary to what your average news channels might suggest. Funny that I needed to take this path to realize this, considering that my closest friends do exactly that. But I’d have to thank Thackara for spelling this out for me. Now I am looking for ways to be a part of this change more actively, engage with these communities, learn from them and contribute in my own way.

After some asking around, I have signed up for a short volunteering stint at Navdanya’s Biodiversity Farm in Uttarakhand, India. A forty-something-acre piece of land centered around the preservation of organic seeds, facilitating local seed exchange and educating local farmers about sustainable agricultural practices. I look forward to the experience at the farm, documenting my learnings and writing about it in the coming months.


Until then, I’ll leave you with this assortment of information I have found useful and collected along the way.

Books

  1. How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today — by John Thackara
  2. The One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming — by Masanobu Fukuoka
  3. Transition to Agro-Ecology: For a Food Secure World — by Jelleke De Nooy Van Tol
  4. An Agricultural Testament — by Sir Albert Howard

For a more exhaustive list of books I have collected, head over to this bookshelf.

Change Makers

  1. Vandana Shiva — Indian scholar, environmental activist and author of more than 20 books.
  2. Bhaskar Save — acclaimed ‘Gandhi of Natural Farming’.
  3. Bharat Mansata — author, editor and environmental activist.
  4. Dr. G. Nammalvar — green crusader and organic farming expert.
  5. Geoff Lawton — permaculture designer, teacher and speaker.
  6. Bill Mollison — the ‘father of permaculture’.
  7. K. Jagganath — The Natural Farmer.

Organizations/Initiatives

  1. Amrita Serve — agricultural initiatives in India helping local farmers transition to natural farming practices.
  2. Bhoomi College — creating and empowering learning environments that address challenges in education and sustainable living.
  3. Navdanya — An organization that helps spread ecological awareness and educates local farmers in seed preservation and natural farming practices (amongst other things).
  4. Thanal — Nature enthusiasts turned environmental activists. Involved in running programs and campaigns around sustainable practices.

P.S. I’ll probably make a more exhaustive (location specific) resource list on natural farming/permaculture soon.


I know I have used some of these words interchangeably. But here are a few short definitions :

*Agro-Ecology is the study of ecological processes applied to agricultural production systems. Agro-ecologists study a variety of agro-ecosystems, and the field of agro-ecology is not associated with any one particular method of farming.

**Natural Farming is a sustainable farming practice, popularized by Masanobu Fukuoka, that involves as little human intervention on a farm land as possible. Principles of Natural Farming involve no tillage, no fertilizer, no pesticide, no weeding and no pruning.

***Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered on simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems. Permaculture was developed, and the term coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978.

Organic Farming is an alternative farming method designed to allow the use of naturally occurring substances while prohibiting or strictly limiting the synthetic substances. For example fertilizers of organic origin such as compost, manure and bone meal are permitted while the use of genetically modified seeds, nano-materials, plant growth regulators and antibiotics are prohibited.