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Urban farming initiatives

Deborah Dutta


Urban spaces need to radically rethink their relationship with food in terms of production and consumption as climate change, land degradation due to industrialised farming present a serious challenge to food security. Community-based urban farming initiatives are proving to be an effective way to create sensitivity, critical awareness and connection with the land, farmers and ecosystems.


Diipti with a basketful of produce from her apartment garden

Half of the world’s population lives in cities. The unprecedented rate of urbanization in the past century is a significant contributor to the rapid degradation of the environment. The expanding urban environment has been linked to food insecurity, global warming, climate change, air pollution, over exploitation of water resources and decrease in forest cover, among other problems. Yet, given the trend of urbanisation, it is clear that the design of cities, and how we live in them will play a key role in facing the challenges of sustainability.

Urban farming, a platform for collective practice

Food security and production are intimately connected with urbanisation, and related ecological issues, but these connections are not readily visible. Urban spaces are usually far removed from the site of farming. Food is routinely transported thousands of kilometers through various intermediaries, a process that increases the cost as well as the ecological footprint of the food. This system of food procurement is exploitative for the farmers as well.

In recent years, an interesting counter-narrative has emerged. India is also seeing a small, but noticeable trend of people quitting their jobs in the corporate sector to pursue farming as a vocation. This is for a number of reasons, with food safety and ecological integrity being a prime focus. This trend is accompanied by a revival of, and search for, ecologically-sound methods of farming that were embedded in traditional practices. This article is about one such urban initiative, a community urban farm.

Dream Grove (DG) – A community-led urban farm
Dream grove is an urban community farming initiative within a 800 sq ft public park in Mumbai. The park’s earlier neglected condition prompted a local resident Marie Paul to convert it into a more welcoming space for the children and elderly in 2018. She formed a local neighborhood group to maintain the park on a voluntary basis. Two of the group members, Premila Martis and Diipti Jhangiani (see box 1) had prior experience growing edible plants as a volunteer with a city farming group called Urban Leaves.

Martis took initiative in getting everyone to collect fallen leaf litter, kitchen waste and, coconut husks from the neighbourhood and began composting them in heaps in the park using cattle dung and urine to aid the process (A process termed as making Amrit Mitti). The nutrient-rich soil organic matter was then used to grow organic fruits and vegetables. Initially, the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) was apprehensive of the idea, but the response of the locals and the physical transformation of the place prompted them to help with the upkeep of the park. Now, they also seem invested in the idea of such community-led food gardens.

According to Jhangiani, in the past two years, they have grown over 50 variety of edible plants including fruits, vegetables and herbs. Seasonal harvest include pineapples, bananas, yam, radishes, tomatoes, bitter gourd, chillies, and okras to name a few. Most importantly, Martis commented that people’s physical participation in activities like composting, tilling, plant-care etc., helped them attune themselves more closely to the process of growing food. The involvement of diverse age-group, ranging from 7 to 80 years, has led to new forms of intergenerational cohesion and dialogue. On an average, 20 DG volunteers visit the park on weekends to participate in sowing, planting, harvesting and watering activities. In her words, “… when you are personally involved, do you understand the importance of such an initiative. We’re not only growing plants, but we’re growing as human beings”.

Sensitisation of urban consumers based on community based experiences, can help garner the demand and support needed for sustainable farming initiatives.

The group expanded their sphere of activities to connect with a nearby weekend farmers’ market to procure organic seeds, and salvage the leftovers and waste at the end of the day for composting. Their increased interest and concern regarding the conditions of the food system led Premila to form a ‘Growers to Bandra Homes’ group during the lockdown, where she began to actively source and procure harvest directly from the farmers or farmer produce aggregators. Gradually, the network has been expanding as other members also began introducing more farmer produce in the group through friends or family.

Building a network of trust during the lockdown

Premila Martis had already been sourcing rice and grains from some organic farmers for the past few years. She took the initiative of forming an online WhatsApp group (Grower to Bandra Homes) where farmers could share about their produce. According to her, the details shared by the farmers helped build a sense of trust and connection with them. For instance, one of the farmers who sold their produce on the group is Susheel Borkar. Although a businessman by profession, he maintains that his heart lies in tending to the land, and he has been doing so every weekend for the past 30 years. He attributes his love for nature to his experiences of being part of a wildlife club at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) as a student. He doesn’t use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and is mindful of the evolving food ecosystem at the farm. He posted about his produce on the group as follows:

“We are pleased to advise you that we are planning delivery of our farm products this week. We follow Padmashri Subhash Palekar’s Natural Farming (SPNF) method, which promotes use of gobar-based Ghanamrut & Jivamrut. For preparing the same, we now have a total of 18 desi cattle (cows, bulls & young ones). And we do not milk the cows, by the way. All our products are farmed 100% SPNF (natural organic)”.

Box 1: Volunteer Profiles

Premila Martis with an educational background in finance, took voluntary retirement from her job and joined a community city-farming group (Urban Leaves) in 2013. She participated in a workshop about kitchen gardening conducted by Urban Leaves.

Diipti Jhangiani with a background in journalism, took interest in recycling wastes. She regularly started composting at home, and later became a volunteer at Urban Leaves.

Our mangoes are available in three varieties : Hapoos (80% of our mango crop), Ratnaa (10%), Keshar (10%). Mangoes are harvested at the last minute, so as to allow them to tree-mature fully, and then, ripened in rice straw. The mangoes being delivered would be in ripe / semi-ripe condition. Minimum order quantity is 8 dozens. On mango size, pls be flexible +1 / -1.

Consumers also shared their own experience of buying and using food products from individual farmers, to help in popularizing or creating awareness regarding their use. According to Diipti, their experiences of seasonal patterns of fruiting in plants also allowed them to understand and appreciate what was available for a particular month.

Active participation in creating mechanisms to support local produce supplies
The group members also took on responsibilities of buying in bulk from farmers and dividing the produce at their end, so that the cost of trips from farms to cities could be minimised. Rather than being passive recipients, individuals also felt ownership for the produce and empathy for the farmers. For instance, the group got together to buy onions and fruits from different farmers, and sorted out the distribution amongst themselves.

This is not to say that all deliveries would go as planned, and sometimes managing the logistics or quality of the produce would be difficult. Yet, Premila found herself continuing to take the lead in connecting farmers or aggregators with consumers because she felt that she was learning about food diversity in much more detail. She commented that passing on such information to others in the group also helped them take an active interest in sourcing food.

Virtuous circles of feedback and empowerment

Constant dialogues and feedback from the farmers helped the group feel empowered through their choices and collective efforts.

“For those of us who bought onions, a big thank you to Amit for coordinating with Avi, the onion farmer and organising the delivery and distribution. FYI, Avi and his neighbour farmers had 6 tonnes of summer onions and refused to give in to low prices of traders and decided to supply to Mumbai personally. They did 1500 kgs last week. We were a small part at 100 kgs but it feels nice.”

The group’s support was also extended to extremely small-scale produce (such as coconuts, pickles etc), thereby creating hyper-local supply chains.

Amrit Mitti is made by decomposing dry bio-mass, comprising mostly of dry leaves, using an organic accelerator called Amrut-Jal, which is made from a mixture of water, cattle urine, cattle dung and organic black jaggery

A way forward: Supporting farmer produce through local initiatives

The narratives and examples indicate that group’s sustained participation in urban farming initiatives can help them empathise and appreciate the efforts put in by farmers. They were willing to accept discrepancies in amount or quality, with the understanding of how local climate can affect the produce. The regular feedback and dialogue enabled them to feel a sense of partnership with the farmers rather than just being passive consumers. Building a relationship of trust led both parties to be willing to go the extra mile to ensure the satisfaction of other (quality for consumers, and fair price for the farmers).

Sensitisation of urban consumers based on community based experiences, can help garner the demand and support needed for sustainable farming initiatives. Active collaborations between farmers’ markets and voluntary organisations could be a way of enabling hyper-local supply chains, and even forming alternative means of economic transactions through barter, volunteering time, resources etc. Enabling infrastructure or resources to encourage and sustain city-farming initiatives such as the concept of allotment gardens, should be part of policy recommendation for city-planning. City-based food gardens can play a crucial role in creating critical awareness and networks to actively support local farmers. Such initiatives should find a place in policies oriented towards city-planning.

References
Dutta, D., & Chandrasekharan, S. (2018). Doing to being: farming actions in a community coalesce into pro-environment motivations and values. Environmental Education Research,24(8), 1192-1210.

Parnell, S., Elmqvist, T., McPhearson, T., Nagendra, H., & Sörlin, S. (2018). Introduction: Situating knowledge and action for an urban planet. The urban planet: knowledge towards sustainable cities, 1-16.

Deborah Dutta
Senior Research Fellow
Living Farm Incomes Project
Institute of Rural Management Anand-388001
Email: deborah@irma.ac.in | debbiebornfree@gmail.com