Usha S, Manju M Nair and Devika A S
In the times of Covid pandemic, building immunity has gained much more importance than ever before. Farmers and citizens in Kerala have tried a number of initiatives at growing safe food in kitchen gardens and rooftops too, increasing their access to healthy and nutritious food.
Kerala is a fast urbanizing consumer state in the last 2-3 decades. In the last 10 – 15 years many groups including our organization Thanal has been trying to promote organic vegetable cultivation in Kerala. It did bring some change among urbanites and many health-conscious people to produce at least part of the vegetables for their own needs in their kitchen gardens and even on roof-tops. Many of them started to share and sell their produce with neighbours and weekly markets set up by like-minded people.
Covid 19 – a game changer
Covid 19 pandemic and lock down in a sense became a game changer.In order to be prepared in the face of uncertainties such as the lockdown, Kerala Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, made a call for ‘food self-sufficiency’ through local food production, especially vegetables and tubers. Director of Agriculture Dr K. Vasuki also pushed for a movement where food is grown at home, encouraging local farms and young volunteers. Inthe last three months, State started an Integrated Food Security project that encouraged farming in homes and also reviving fallow lands. This essentially meant farmingvegetables for individual consumption and maintaining livestock for one’s own use. Media, especially social media played a good part in encouraging people to start vegetable gardening and agriculture department started to supply vegetable seeds as well. Many groups working with farmers also started to distribute seeds locally. Though not natural farming, these plants are tended to with much care – the fertilisers (dried dung manure mainly) and pesticides (a concoction of herbs, neem oil, kanthari chilly, garlic and soap) are largely used. The produce was shared with neighbours also during the lockdown, and continues to be popular even as lockdown eases. People even started to plant chinese potato, colocasia, tapioca, elephant foot yam etc., in small plots in their back yard.
Fallow lands to food lands
As an organisation working with farmers for the last two decades, Thanal launched a programme called Project Food Scape in April. The project aimed at converting fallow land in rural areas to food land. The idea was to raise funds from people and give back the money as food materials when farmers harvested the crop.
Farmers and rural youth were supported by providing inputs like seeds and bio manures, training and handholding to manage pest and diseases using agroecological techniques and practices. In the last two months we have supported around 800 farmers by providing these inputs as well as by giving training on organic management of soil, pests and diseases. This included tribal communities in two districts, Attappady in Palakkad and Naranamoozhi in Pathanamthitta, where food production had come down drastically in the last 20-30 years due to various reasons.
We have been working in 19 villages in Attappady since 2019 on ‘Nutrition sufficiency through agroecology’ in collaboration with Scheduled Tribes Development Department. This pilot project aimed to revive their traditional agriculture called Panchakrishi and also revive their millet based food system. There was great enthusiasm among the elders, both men and women when we began. Many educated youngsters without a proper livelihood, got engaged in this project. Few of them got together and started to understand more about panchakrishi as well as the new Agroecology concept.They launched a pilot project to conserve the indigenous seeds and practices with the help of elders in their community. And they named it ‘Vedhe Valle’ meaning seed basket .
Once they heard about Community Managed Natural Farming in Andhra Pradesh, through our interaction, they wanted to try out. Many farmers offered their support to experiment. Suddenly everything got stuck due to Covid 19. During the first lock down we had intense interaction with the core team members.Once the total lock down was lifted, we launched Project Food Scape to support these youngsters and old farmers, who realised the importance of developing indigenous food and farming. They had all the enthusiasm and human resource, but lacked financial resources. They wanted Rs 5,000 per acre as an advance. Through the project Food scape, Thanal raised this money. Many friends and consumers came forward to put resources. Our offer was to return the money as food grains, pulses and vegetables. It was heartening to see that many people did not want anything in return.
Farmers have started to plough the land, sow seeds and our youth team is coordinating this project. They themselves have taken some land on lease and started organic vegetable production along with supporting other farmers. We conducted online training for the youth team on natural farming and agroecology, especially on pest and disease management and preparation of bio manures in 6 sessions. We also encouraged them to attend online courses on natural farming conducted by other organisations as well.
Another tribal community in Pathanamthitta district were not able to move out for work and there wasn’t much work available owing to Covid. Around 480 people were supported with 13 different kinds of vegetable seeds, bio inputs and a guideline about how to do organic vegetable cultivation. Because of heavy rains many of them could not start the work. Meanwhile, we are planning a training programme for selected people from this group.
Beginning of organic vegetable cultivation by Thanal
We began working with farmers in the year 2001 in two panchayaths in Trivandrum district. This was a pilot project on organic farming with women farmers near Kovalam. Kerala was going through an intense debate on pesticides generally and Endosulfan specifically in which Thanal played a key role in bringing information about the pesticide. This project was to show that it is possible to do farming without chemical pesticides. Discussion on food production and becoming self-sufficient in food always was critiqued by many including scientists and the main argument was Kerala’s small land holding size is a problem to achieve this. This was seen as a limiting factor and one of the objectives of our project was to show how much can be produced from small holdings and how small holders can get in to sufficient vegetable production. Kerala has good climate and soil which is suitable for fruits and vegetable cultivation. We started with 3 self help groups of women who did not own much land. In an year’s time they showed great success and the panchayath invited us to help them in planning for organic vegetable and banana production. Later this helped Thanal in working with the state government to develop organic farming policy for the state.
Having understood the value of local food production, all the panchayaths in Kerala started community kitchens during the lock down. We started to work with Karakulam panchayath in Trivandrum, which is close to the city but still has lots of small and marginal farmers.The panchayath was very enthusiastic to associate with us.
Around 130 farmers, many of them women, were supported with a farming kit containing different varieties of vegetable seeds and bio inputs to start the soil improvement. Two trainings were given to some selected farmers on organic vegetable cultivation.With the restrictions on movement by the government in the last month owing to Covid, it became difficult to reach out directly to all the farmers who had registered and taken the seeds from us. But they have started cultivation and we plan to run a mobile organic agro clinic service in this panchayath.
My Food Garden Challenge
The pandemic was causing a lot of confusion among our team and also among the farmers closely associated with us because they were not able to move out, finish some of the work, meet farmers, document etc. To engage them and make use of their expertise in organic farming, we launched ‘My Food Garden Challenge’ to get all of them into serious farming. We formed a WhatsApp group and shared pictures of farming and issues in handling some pests, soil management, space problem etc. It became so interesting and meaningful that every body had stories of success and hope to share. Here are a couple of examples.
“My stint with organic vegetable gardening started when I joined Thanal 12 years back. Last year, I shifted to a new locality and there too, I started growing vegetables on the roof top. I shared the growbags and seeds which I received from Thanal with a few of my neighbours to encourage them into growing vegetables. I grow ladies finger, chillies, brinjal, bottle gourd etc.We now share seeds, saplings and harvest and have become a closer community. Having experience in farming earlier and with advice fromArun,Programme Officer at Thanal, I am able to give them tips on bio pest control and bio manures. As the next step, I am thinking of expanding our farming circle by arranging a training class by Thanal mobile agri clinic team in our community. I am waiting for this pandemic situation to change so that we add more people to our farming community and become self-sufficient” says Pramila from Vellar village near Kovalam.
Deepak, the Manager at Organic Bazaarsays “Seven of us have leased 1.5 acres of land from an organic farmer friend and have started this venture called ‘Venad Organic Farms’. The main crops are banana, ginger, turmeric, yam, taro, sweet potatoes, vegetables like tomato, chilli, brinjal, bitter gourd, ivy gourd, pumpkin and ash gourd. We are trying to attain self sufficiency without incurring any cost on inputs which means that we do the entire farm work ourselves, we grow saplings from in-house seeds, make our own bio manures, bio pest repellants and potting soil, rear fishes in the pond and this water when changed becomes the manure for plants and use water from the canal across the plot for watering. Intercropping pattern is followed by planting yam and taro between banana plants along with brinjal and cucumber. Turmeric and ginger are planted interspersed keeping in mind their pest control properties. Having realised the importance of mulching, we use jute sacks and dry leaves. Our focus is to grow bananas and those vegetables which are scarce in Organic Bazaar. We have also started selling our potting mixture which has helped us recover a part of cost incurred. All of us make it a point to work for atleast 3 hours daily morning in the plot. Though all of us have been active in farming for many years, working with nature on early morning gives us a big adrenalin rush and keeps us active and smart for the whole day. Our health and energy levels have also vastly improved”.
This is a welcome trend in Kerala because building immunity has become an important health concern among people. Consuming nutritious food, especially fruits and vegetables is very important for leading a healthy life. Kerala’s topography and soils are suitable for fruits and vegetable cultivation. Agriculture department has identified around 1 lakh hectares of fallow land which can be put to food production in the state. It is interesting and hopeful to see many educated young people talking about ‘my food my responsibility’‘.
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