Monday, 17 September 2012

Arati Venkat’s Earth Kitchen


My friend (and senior from law school) Arati Venkat quit a corporate job and lifestyle in Dubai and moved to Bangalore to live on a farm and absorb the essence of simple pleasures rural India has to offer. Eighteen months after her move, we had a chat.

Arati, after having been a corporate lawyer and business consultant for over 13 years, you can now call yourself an organic farmer & social entrepreneur. What prompted this move?


There comes a time in everyone’s life when you take a moment to ponder and reflect on life’s achievements and future desires. Dubai gave me the opportunity of a lifetime where I not only worked with the who’s who of Dubai, but also was privileged to be part of building what the city has become today. But once you have done and re-done the tasks, the challenge seems less and less attractive (but the money sure gets better!). I had decided that returning to India (and more specifically Bangalore) meant I would not be part of the corporate rat race, which in turn meant I had to plan out my financial security before taking the flight home. Bangalore has had its share of development blows which I constantly observed. To match my dreams I had to break away from the norm and do something different, like I have always done – facing consequences as they come along. Dubai gave me a perspective on the glitz and glamour quotient life offers and it also made me realise that I did not want to be part of it. I wanted more – something more fulfilling, something more real and grounded and thus the transformation to being an organic farmer and social entrepreneur.

Tell us a bit more about your notion of an organic lifestyle.

Organic in all its essence combines mind, body and soul. The desire and action to be one with nature and bask in its infinite beauty is organic. To be at peace with oneself is perhaps the most sought after state of mind, which I feel reasonably confident of finding.

Why Bangalore? Why not Pune or Kochi or Chennai or Chandigarh?

I am glad you asked, because I did quiz myself on an alternate location and it may have turned out to be some picturesque place in the Himalayas. But Bangalore happened, it’s home and it’s where I had land and living on the fringes of the city provides me with a suitable balance - a comfortable distance away from urban mayhem but close enough to enjoy the amenities it has to offer.

How much land do you cultivate? Do you own it? If yes, did you buy it or was it inherited?


It is a generous gift from my mother (which we christened “Grassroots”). The 6 acres were purchased way back in 1984 with the intention of developing a farm. It didn’t materialise for my parents, but it worked out for me. I envisioned full-fledged agricultural lifestyle, but realities of finding farm hands made me curtail my activities and instead I planted 1200 trees to cover more than half the land. I left myself a generous 2 acres to try my hand at growing crops.

What plants or crops have you started with?

Excited to get started, I readied a small patch to grow vegetables and herbs. Fruits trees had been planted a few years earlier. My front and back flower garden took shape soon after. In the 18 months I have lived on the farm, I have harvested 3 rounds of vegetables, perennial herbs; fruits are regularly harvested and always there are flowers in bloom.

The vegetables I eat, I grow – mostly Indian vegetables like beans, okra, tomatoes, brinjal, gourds, carrot, radish, peppers, cucumber, onions, potatoes amongst others.

Capsicum, Chilli & Tomatoes


Beetroot

My palate enjoys salads and herbs and so on a small scale I have basil, rosemary, chives, mint, dill, oregano, thyme and 4 varieties of lettuce.

Basil in a pot

Lunch


Fruits are more seasonal, but I have harvested guava, sapota, fig, amla, musambi, pomelo, star fruit, papaya, banana, custard apple and mango. My other passion for colour and fragrance makes me a manic shopper for flowering plants – from tuber rose to roses, jasmine, lilies, geraniums, zinnia, marigolds – I try to include a vivid palette of colour.

Do you have any pets on your farm?

We are parents to a pair of handsome Tibetan Mastiffs (Zulu and Pasha).


They are our pride and joy and in fact we are known in the village by the 2 “bears” that live on land. They have made us proud by having won their Indian Championships when they were all of 15 months. Besides them, a family of cats have adopted our abode, not to mention a variety of birds that nest here – ones I am familiar with - Indian Roller, Bulbuls, Sunbirds, Sparrow, Kingfisher amongst others, all live alongside an assortment of snakes.

How do you sell your produce?

Having gained some confidence on growing, I launched Earth Kitchen in June 2012 which for me was a way of formalising my efforts. Agriculture has so many technicalities which you can read about but can only learn while practicing – I am still dabbling with soil conditioning, composting, plot size, yield, duration of yield, not to mention the most critical factor – rain - over which I have no control. At the moment I share my produce among friends and neighbours. Although at some point in time I will formalise an organic community and cater to them through Earth Kitchen.

Do you expect to make enough money to live off the land or will you be relying on your savings for some time to come?

Fortunately for me, we (my husband, Naved and I) have a couple of commercial assignments running in parallel that take care of the bills and allow us guilt free indulgence in our passions. Living on a farm has its share of expenses, but it is definitely cheaper than living in the city. At the scale at which I am farming, there is very little chance that I will grow rich growing beans and tomatoes. To make it commercially viable, you have to farm on an industrial scale or create cooperatives so there are economies of scale.

In other words, if you were a farmer with 2 acres of land and no other source of income, you would have a hand-to-mouth existence?

Well maybe not, but it would surely need intensive work and dedication to make enough money from 2 acres of land to lead a comfortable life. Agriculture is hard work and the results are not always guaranteed. Choosing the right crop(s) to optimise yield and returns stems from knowledge - which if I were a “farmer” in the traditional sense, I may not have access to. The supply chain for agricultural produce is not accessible to all – like cold storage, prices, auctions etc. Growing low return on investment crops like ragi doesn’t help in improving a farmer’s bottom line and also soil enhancement is critical and needs attention. Further the entire issue of pesticides and its impact on soil has to be addressed. If one uses pesticides, soil will show deterioration, sooner or later. There are a few dynamic farmers I know who have commercialised the seedling business, learnt from bio-technologists and have dabbled with high value crops like vanilla, agarwood, arecanut etc. To answer your question more specifically – I would utilise resources to optimise yield and value. I would grow cash crops, medicinal plants and even perhaps lease a portion of land to a corporate willing to invest and pay me my costs. I would keep my knowledge radar on, to absorb information available. It surely is more than a 9 – 5 job, but its fulfilling especially when you see the results of your sweat.

Are you on your own on your farm or do you have any help?

I started off by saying I had to curtail my dream due to a scarcity of farm hands and it always made me wonder how a populous country like ours could face such a problem. Not to mention the recent outburst by Thackeray on inter-state labour migration, all I can say is if it wasn’t for inter-state migration, there would be no farm hands and other casual labour available. I have a family from Jharkhand living with me and a few local ladies who support me in sustaining my lifestyle.

Are you in touch with similar people who have eschewed a corporate lifestyle and have gone ‘organic’?

Yes and no. There are informal organic farming groups I am in touch with and have come across people from social networking connections who are intrigued by what I do. But I don’t want to get bogged down by a linear chain of thought or practice. I want the “One Straw Revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka way of thinking and practice to guide me and bring me closer to nature. I have interacted with “weekend” guests at the Taj Kuteeram (my neighbour) who philosophise too much on how life should be. When we landed in India back in July 2010, we had no (detailed) idea how things would turn out, but I guess you just have to take a risk if you want something different from life.

What’s your typical day on the farm like? Do you wake up at five in the morning and head off to work?

Well actually, I do! We have 2 gorgeous Tibetan Mastiffs waiting to be exercised at dawn, after which I attend to the garden taking notes on how to keep improving and watch my tomatoes turn red. Rounds and assigning tasks take me till about 9 am after which I get some time to rummage through my emails and to do lists. A hearty lunch (produce from the farm whatever available) followed by a short siesta and 4 pm onwards the second shift begins. Oversee the irrigation and attend to the simplest but must-do tasks like weeding, seed collecting, pruning, while keeping an eye on the neighbouring farm kids who come to me for English tuition and school homework. By 6 pm we are ready to walk the dogs again or let them free on the land, enjoy a cup of coffee and watch the city lights take over the night. It’s early to bed only to awaken fresh to relive my dream.

Tell me about an instance or an event which made you happiest since you started your new venture?

There are many, but one in particular that puts a smile on my face is when I harvested in excess of 100 kgs of potatoes last winter. I know it sounds like a lot, but my farmer friend was not impressed, as he apparently got a yield 10 times that of mine. The justification however I had was that it was “organic” and I did let the insects share the bounty. For me it was a moment of pride and delight as I was able to cook and share my produce, and it made its rounds for almost 6 months. I am so looking forward to breaking my own record this winter.

Were there any sad moments or major disappointments?


None personally, although I do feel sad about the fact that villagers, due to want of knowledge and organizations, are abandoning farming and getting sucked into the lure of city life. This converts farming communities into hordes of landless labourers and does them no good – in fact, most of the time, their standard of living goes down and they suffer all the ills of being at the bottom rung of the urban jungle.

Would you advise a youngster who has just finished college to take up farming rather than go in for a regular office job?

Farming is tough and often thankless – ask those farming families whose bread winners have committed suicide, a very common occurrence in India now. What people living in cities take for granted – food, in all its varied forms – needs the farmer’s blood, sweat and tears to produce. And what does he get in return for feeding the world? Mostly, not even enough to feed himself.

Farming needs to be backed up by financial security. Living off the land is fine, but you need to have enough for the initial investment, setbacks and unforeseen circumstances. Farming is surely an amazing life changing choice at say 40 (although I can proudly say I did it at 38). It can surely run in parallel as a hobby - a few people I know practice it, but to make a living out of it is not easy. Farming needs vision and patience – you can’t have instant trees or tomatoes and your soil, if never cultivated before, needs oodles of nurturing before it responds. But if you can build your life around it, it will surely be worthwhile to wake up every morning to a new sunrise.

Is there anything the government could do to make life easier for Indian farmers?

I don’t think the government has the capacity – or interest – to improve the life of farmers. I believe the best way to improve the lives of Indian farmers is to replicate in other agricultural sectors what Dr. Varghese Kurien did for dairy farmers. Only when farmers join hands can they achieve prosperity.

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