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Back to farming

Women who lost control over food production in Kerala are now coming back to farming, using simple organic, locally adapted methods. Getting interested in this ecosystem approach, many farmer groups and organizations are learning how to enrich agricultural biodiversity.

Sasikala, a natural farmer
Sasikala, a natural farmer

Kerala lost its culture of  diversity based farming, including homestead farming, owing to proliferation of plantations of coconut, rubber, cocoa, coffee etc . One of the major impacts of this was on women who lost control over their food system as well as natural practices of health care. Women, despite owning lands, started to depend on markets for their food.  This trend actually led the State and the families to food insecurity, in terms of quality and diversity.

People in Vizhinjam and Venganoor panchayaths  in Trivandrum district in Kerala, apart from tourism industry,  depend mostly on agriculture and fisheries for their livelihoods. Most of the conventional farmers in these two panchayaths  are men and depend on chemical inputs for producing vegetables, banana and tapioca which are the main crops cultivated. Majority of the farmers are not sensitive to the issues of chemicals, soil health or long term sustainability of agriculture. It was in the year 2002 that Thanal, a voluntary organization working on environmental issues, human health and livelihoods, based in Thiruvananthapuram, started to work with women farmers in these two village panchayaths.

Thanal as part of its work in Kovalam, got involved with local women groups to understand their lives and livelihoods. They found that women were organized as self help groups by the panchayath, but were not doing any productive economic activity. Apart from earning through daily wage work, women were not at all thinking about sustainable livelihood options. After discussions with the panchayath, Thanal started several training programmes. This included training on coconut shell products, paper products, products from cloth discards, jute etc.  However,  two groups were interested  in farming, especially vegetable production. But many of the women in these groups did not own land.

A study done in Thirunelly panchayath in  Waynad district recently showed that local women have a knowledge about 100 uncultivated edible plants which are naturally grown in the  agriculture land , especially organic paddy lands. 

To help these women, some leaders in the village met some land owners who had vacant land to spare and got formal agreements done to start vegetable cultivation. These lands were coconut gardens, basically monocultures, with lots of space in between. The soil was not good, water availability was low and the green manures or organic manures were not available.

The women were given training on biodiversity, organic management of soil and crops. In an year’s time, the coconut garden became a biodiverse garden with different vegetables, tubers and bananas. Women took care of the garden so well that even coconut production started increasing and the land owner was very happy to see this change. It was a great beginning and many other farmers and land owners started visiting these gardens to see the result.

Initially, the women farmers started to share their produce with their neighbours. Slowly, the production increased  and some of them started selling the produce in the local market . However, the local markets were really de-motivating for women. They wanted a separate market for their produce, wanted consumers to appreciate their produce and buy them. Thus began organic bazaar, one of the first organic outlets in Thiruvananthapuram .

Sasikala living in veganoor panchayat  has been interested in  farming from an young age. After her marriage,  she started helping her husband in the farming activities. It was conventional farming then, where fertilizer use was common. She started to learn more about organic farming by attending training programmes conducted by organizations like Thanal, Gandhi Smaraka Nidhi etc. She started cultivating ornamental plants like orchids and anthurium organically with the subsidy support provided by Krishi Bhavan. She was successful in cultivating ornamental plants and spread this among her neighbours.

In 2005-06, one of her friends who visited her gave some brinjal seeds. Sasikala cultivated brinjal using those seeds, organically, and got a very good yield.  She realized the taste of organically grown vegetables and this satisfaction motivated her to take up organic vegetable cultivation seriously.

She started collecting traditional vegetable seeds from friends and from different places.  She started spending more time in farming and her family members also supported her. She is also one of the main suppliers to Trivandrum Organic Bazaar.  With her success, she was selected as the best natural farmer by the Venganoor panchayath and Gandhi Smaraka Nidhi.

She tells that she started organic farming not only for an income, but to provide safe food for her family.   Sasikala produces organic vegetables on 30 cents of land and also on the terrace. Almost all the vegetables are grown – lady’s finger, brinjal, tomato, chilly, ivy gourd, colocasia, winged beans, moringa, curry leaves, papaya, cabbage, cauliflower, ginger, turmeric, amaranthus etc. She uses water very carefully.  She uses open well water for irrigation purpose and also does soil mulching so that it can retain moisture content. She follows the method of mixed cropping and crop rotation. She also says that there are many beneficial insects now in the farm and she need not spray organic pest repellants too. It is a self sustaining farm and her 30 cents is a beautiful diverse garden.

When Sasikala started organic vegetable cultivation, she was earning Rs.1000 per month.  Now, she earns Rs 4000 per month by selling organic vegetables after the house hold consumption. She shares her experience of farming and healthy food with other farmers, friends and relatives. Also she shares traditional seeds. She also trains many in organic vegetable cultivation. In her opinion, “if we love and take care of plants, they will never cheat us and show their happiness in the form of fruits”.

Model for adoption

Women in Kerala are now coming back to farming and food production. Most of them follow a low external input agriculture or simple locally adapted organic farming. They find a lot of advantages by doing this. They get poison-free food for home consumption. They can manage the cultivation without any external dependence,  develop knowledge and share it. Also, they bring additional income without disrupting their household responsibilities. Women take pride in their new found knowledge and capacities. Some of them have become trainers too.

The organic farming trials with diverse crops and low external input in these two panchayaths have become models, adopted in different parts of the State. Many panchayaths and agriculture departments now  support  such projects, especially with landless farmers and small and marginal farmers. Many farmer groups and organizations are getting interested in this ecosystem approach and have learnt how to enrich the agricultural biodiversity responsive to their food and nutrition needs.

Usha S
OD-3, Jawahar Nagar,
Kawdiar P.O, Thiruvananthapuram,
Kerala – 695 003
E-mail: ushathanal@gmail.com