It’s time you met your annadatas (food providers)
The Taittiriya Upanishad* concludes with the wondrous declaration by the Self-realised seer on his state of oneness with Brahman or the cosmic principle, ie, with all beings, through the metaphor of ‘food’:
“I am food, I am food, I am food!”
“I am the eater of food, I am the eater of food, I am the eater of food!”
“I am the one who joins them together!”
The preceding chapters delve into the Koshas or the five sheaths of the Atman (soul) or Self, the food-borne layer or Annamaya Kosha† being the first layer we learn about in the quest for self-knowledge. The verses establish how gross material forms of all creatures originate, grow from and disappear into food (become someone else’s food or disintegrate into the Earth, the source of food itself). Hence, understanding the food-web of life—deriving the deep interdependence and interconnectedness of all beings and matter—is not only an essential part of unravelling the deep mysteries of existence, but also the dire need of the hour. Such is the glory of food!
DO WE REALLY KNOW WHERE OUR FOOD COMES FROM?
After all the running around and the hectic activity that we refer to as “work”, what matters at the end of the day is whether there is food on our table. But do we ever stop to find out where that vital, nourishing and satisfying food comes from and more importantly, how?
No, I am not referring to the likes of Swiggy, Zomato, etc, nor to the supermarkets with their smoke-and-mirrors marketing schemes. Ironically, while technology has managed to enthrall the fickle palates of urbanites like never before, the real food-giver, the Farmer, is still light years away from the Food Business!
OUR ORGANIC FARMERS: THE UNSUNG HEROES
There was a time when even the events of freedom struggle were planned as per farming calendars, and festivals were based primarily around harvest, whereas now the farmer is beholden to the whims and fancies of politicians and industrialists.
On parallel to the recurring theme of our celebrated soldiers, there is another, much neglected, overlooked army of people—our farmers—who frequently battle the whims of weather, the attacks of pests and the vicissitudes of markets, but yet are rarely recognised for their service to the nation. The slogan “Jai Jawan” is decidedly incomplete without its befitting counterpart “Jai Kisan”
Coinciding with the recent Pulwama attack and the resulting Indo-Pak face off, I happened to visit a few such farmers in the Fazilka district of Punjab, near the Indo-Pak border area. Tributes and praise flooded the media, and rightly so, for all the soldiers who choose to be in the line of fire.
But on parallel to this recurring theme of our celebrated soldiers, there is another, much neglected, overlooked army of people—our farmers—who frequently battle the whims of weather, the attacks of pests and the vicissitudes of markets, yet are rarely recognised for their service to the nation. The slogan “Jai Jawan”‡ is decidedly incomplete without its befitting counterpart “Jai Kisan”§.
MEET YOUR ANNADATAS (FOOD GIVERS)
My journey into buying and growing organic food and natural living started with health concerns and motherhood. As the path became clearer, the tremendous role of farmers in our lives dawned upon me and I realised a deep reverence towards these annadatas (food providers). Guided by the experience of a few dear souls, getting to know these farmers has now become my favourite preoccupation. Every holiday or family outing is now marked by one such trip to organic/natural¶ farms where the real action happens. I have put pen to paper on five such remarkable jaunts.
1] SARDAR INDER SINGH SIDHU of RAMPURA NATURAL FARMS
FARM LOCATION: RAMPURA, FAZILKA, PUNJAB
This passionate farmer’s natural farm has never been exposed to chemicals
Sardar Inder Singh Sidhu of Rampura Natural Farms in Rampura village, Fazilka district in Punjab, is fit and active at a youthful 90—easily the poster boy of natural farming.
Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM), the PGS-certifying (PGS stands for Participatory Guarantee Systems) authority in Punjab, describes him as ‘The Farmer who saw beyond the Green Revolution’.
Papaji, as he is lovingly called, does not remember when he last used urea or DAP** or any pesticide sprays on his land. At the helm of affairs, he oversees every stage of cultivation on his 17-acre farm, from seed to harvest. Even the contractor hired for the harvest of his over 1,000-tree guava orchard runs the risk of getting sacked if he veers ever so slightly from Papaji’s high quality standards. Although a veteran farmer well versed with crop rotation, biodiversity, intercropping, nitrogen-fixing plants and green manuring, he prefers not to use the term ‘organic’ for his farm.
In the 1960s, when ammonium sulphate was introduced as a wonder agent in India, and subsequently, other chemical fertilisers, weedicides and pesticides were touted as Davaai (medicines) instead of being recognised for the poisons they are, Sidhu sensed something was amiss. Guided by his intuition, he stuck to the traditional natural methods of his ancestors of using cow dung in natural fertilisers. Although almost everyone he knew, including his extended family, took to chemical farming, he resisted the temptation of bumper crops and bigger earnings.
Supporting him in his endeavours are his daughter-in-law, Madhumeet Kaur and son, Harjinder Pal S Sidhu. Not only do they work towards acquiring better markets for their produce but also they strive to offer people more variety by making value added products. Rich with traditional cookware and cooking devices, Kaur’s kitchen is a rustic dream where she churns up simple but mouth-watering Punjabi fare. Ethnic implements such as chulha, haara, madaani, kunda-sota, mitti de kujje and pittal handis†† hold an all-important status here amongst mod cons.
The Sidhus may or may not have perused such tenets of Taittiriya Upanishad as “Annam Brahma”‡‡ and “Atithi Devo Bhava”§§ but they surely live by them. According to Papaji, “a land owner does not really own the land. It is his moral obligation to share it with other beings.”
Their conviction and drive for natural farming have inspired many like-minded farmers, including farmhands and helpers, to ditch chemical-based practices and shift to natural farming. At the time of my visit, Kaur and her family were busy attending to graduates from an agricultural university, who had enrolled for a 40-day hands-on training on natural farming. Regaling the interns with witty anecdotes, the senior Sidhu deftly drove home the point that the onus to convert landholdings into natural farms falls upon large landowners.
2] RAVI DHINGRA of DHINGRA NATURAL FRUIT FARM
FARM LOCATION: MOHAMMED PEERA, FAZILKA, PUNJAB
Dhingra’s Garden of Eden boasts rich harvests of dragon fruit, guava, citrus, plum, apricot, loquat, dates and fig
The Sidhus’ passionate enthusiasm for natural farming rubbed off on friend and fellow farmer, Ravi Dhingra, who abandoned chemical-based farming in favour of natural farming methods such as composting, mulching, use of pheromone traps, etc, 5 years ago.
His lush Garden of Eden, Dhingra Natural Fruit Farm, in village Mohammed Peera of Fazilka, now yields abundant harvests of dragon fruit, guava, citrus, plum, apricot, loquat, dates and fig, bearing testimony to the bounty of Nature and natural farming. According to Dhingra’s son, the well balanced ecosystem of their orchards has created such a self regulating microclimate that “anything grows!”
3] SURINDER PAL SINGH of SIHAG ORGANIC FARM
FARM LOCATION: DHINGAWALI, PUNJAB
On Singh’s 115 organic acres he grows chemical free chana, bajra, til, moong, sarson and more
Adjoining Rampura, in village Dhingawali, which borders the Sri Ganganagar district of Rajasthan, resides another exemplary farmer family.
Surinder Pal Singh has nurtured acres of rainfed land, which have never been exposed to chemicals or mechanised irrigation and yet yields abundant crops of chana, bajra, til, moong, sarson¶¶ etc, depending upon volume of rainfall.
After years of disillusionment with the hollow promises of chemical farming, Singh decided to give it up altogether. In 1992, he embarked upon a step-by-step process to convert his entire land into a natural farm. By 2016, 80 acres of his land had acquired certified organic status with soil so rich in earthworm castings that it became difficult for scientists to collect test samples! At present, 35 more of his acres await organic certification.
Having treaded both paths (natural and chemical-based farming), Singh maintains that while the vagaries of nature and pest attacks are common to both a chemical-based and natural farmer, the former suffers more because of expensive chemical inputs, irrigation and mechanisation, as well as, the debts and the stress involved in the entire process.
Furthermore, he says, chemical pesticides don’t ensure freedom from pests. “We witnessed the worst pest attacks despite usage of pesticides and suffered huge crop failures in our chemically farmed land. Apart from that, my family complained how the natural aromas and flavours had vanished from the food,” he recalls.
Despite the challenges in conversion to organic farming, Singh never gave thought to reverting to chemical methods. He avers that while it is difficult for small landholders to let their land lie fallow in absence of a support system and other means of income to fall back upon, it is the large landowners who owe it to Mother Earth to convert at least part of their lands into organic/natural farms.
4] RENUKA MANN of MANN BAGH
FARM LOCATION: RAMBA, KARNAL, HARYANA
Mann has been fostering her 50-acre natural farm since 1996
With her husband away for most of the year in the Merchant Navy, the responsibility of managing their ancestral 50-acre farmland in Ramba village of Karnal, Haryana, fell upon Renuka Mann’s young shoulders in 1996 when her father-in-law was taken ill.
Witness to years of indiscriminate chemical abuse hurled upon the soil and food crops, she decided to take matters into her own hands. With guidance from a learned professor of the Punjab Agricultural University, in 2006, Mann made a foray into natural farming. Her family’s support and encouragement egged her on to pursue her aspirations. In 2012, she started selling her natural produce at an organic farmers’ market in New Delhi.
Mann shares, her biggest reward is when the elderly remark they’re transported to their childhoods after eating her farm produce.
5] DEEPAK UPADHYAY of AJAY SWAVALAMBAN KENDRA
FARM LOCATION: NAKRAUNDA, DEHRADUN, UTTARAKHAND
Upadhyay’s organic farm also features an organic farming school for would-be organic farmers
Trapped in the vicious circle of pests, crop disease and poisonous chemicals on his sugarcane fields, farmer Deepak Upadhyay desperately wanted out.
In 1994, he was exposed to the prospects of natural farming for the first time when his village was adopted under the then Uttar Pradesh government’s Jaivik Krishi scheme. Deeply influenced, he gradually converted his 3-acre land in Nakraunda village, into a certified organic farm within the next few years.
This torchbearer operates a Jaivik Krishi Pathshala (organic farming academy, which Upadhyay has christened Ajay Swavalamban Kendra) since 2011 to teach organic farming to interested fellow farmers. His farming school is one of 100 nationwide training centres under the government’s Gau-Adhaarit Prakrutik Kheti (Cow-Based Natural Farming) scheme based on agriculturist Subhash Palekar’s zero budget natural farming model.
Well equipped with a biogas plant, solar panels, vermicompost pits, a rainwater harvesting pond, as well as, biodiversity-rich with desi (indigenous) cows, goats, hens, ducks, rabbits, fish and birds, Upadhyay’s farm epitomises harmony with nature. He has discovered his ikigai*** in spreading awareness about the interdependence of indigenous cow conservation, water harvesting and sustainable farming.
THE NUMEROUS CHALLENGES OF NATURAL FARMERS
Unlike other enterprises, natural and organic farmers let their neighbours onto trade secrets not only as goodwill but also because they understand the benefits of cluster farming.
But alas, such farmers in North India are mostly standalone. Hence, maintaining an adequate buffer zone for a small landholding is a Goliathan challenge, as unavoidable contamination from air, groundwater and soil leachate can hamper the already tedious process of certification.
Although a buffer zone in the form of tall fodder crop or trees does provide protection against air-borne contamination from sprays and pests, groundwater contamination is ubiquitous, and can only be reduced and curbed by the state.
Furthermore, government agricultural policies and a majority of the scientific research taking place in agricultural universities, so far, have not been used for the betterment of the Indian farmer. The farmers believe the government is still rooting for chemical farming, MNC products, GMO seeds and other such anti-natural paraphernalia, and is merely paying lip service to the cause of natural and organic farming to keep up appearances.
Policies are drafted without taking into account farmers’ counsel, as well as, soil conditions, the climate or the state of water tables. Fast-growing and water-intensive crops are pushed, leading to further decline in groundwater. The chemical-based farmer falls for the assurance of MSPs (minimum support prices) and government procurement of wheat and rice, along with the promise of mechanised harvesting at his own peril, with the ill result that biodiversity and crop rotation are discouraged. Quantity has become paramount, with absolutely no emphasis on quality or sustainability.
TAKING CARE OF MOTHER EARTH GIVES THEM SATISFACTION
Despite all the challenges, however, natural and organic farmers’ love for Mother Earth, their crops and other living organisms keeps them going. Unlike urbanites, enjoying good health is only a secondary benefit for them. For instance, while their neighbours burn crop residue, the natural farmers mindfully save it for straw, fodder, mulching and composting. Such is their sense of responsibility towards nature. Singh of Sihag Organic Farm even plays an active role in the upkeep of public facilities in his community, including the government primary school in his village.
Any query put forth to these gentle custodians of soil regarding earnings and profits always begets a reply steeped in the profound but simple truths of life. They maintain that while natural farming is highly unpredictable and yields may turn out to be less or more than expected, the satisfaction derived is incomparable.
NEED OF THE HOUR: BUY DIRECTLY FROM FARMERS
Anyone who has ever tried to grow anything without the crutch of chemicals would agree that natural farming is labour-intensive. Even after months of toiling in the fields and getting a good yield, a significant percentage of the crop may be lost post-production as no chemicals are used.
Direct consumer-to-farmer interaction (minus middlemen, aggregators or brokers) has become the need of the hour, as it rewards both consumers and farmers with fresh chemical free food and fair wages, respectively. To an extent, this need is being fulfilled by the various farmers’ markets that have sprung up in urban cities, but they only cater for a handful of farmers and are not cost effective for farmers in remote locations as they can’t afford expensive cartage of their stock. Therefore, consumers need to directly contact farmers in their general vicinities and arrange for monthly or fortnightly deliveries of farm produce
This is particularly discouraging for a farmer who aspires to avoid middlemen. In the absence of bulk transportation, storage and processing facilities, he is forced to sell his precious produce at the local mandi (market) in order to minimise losses, and sometimes at pitiably low rates.
Therefore, direct consumer-to-farmer interaction (minus any middlemen, aggregators or brokers) has become the need of the hour, as it rewards both consumers and farmers with fresh chemical free food and fair wages, respectively.
To an extent, this need is being fulfilled by the various farmers’ markets that have sprung up in urban cities, but they only cater for a handful of farmers and are not cost effective for farmers in remote locations as they can’t afford expensive cartage. Consumers need to directly contact farmers in their general vicinities and arrange for monthly or fortnightly deliveries of farm produce.
My dear reader, through this article this author has attempted to vicariously acquaint you with our modern day heroes and their contributions.
It is now your turn to go ahead, meet and support them!
*A vedic-era Sanskrit text comprising three chapters.
†The first kosha is Annamaya, the physical body.
‡“Hail the soldier”.
§“Hail the farmer”.
¶The term ‘natural’ in the context of farms or farming indicates that the farm is organic but is without organic certification. Often, ‘natural’ is used to refer to both organic and natural farmers.
**Diammonium phosphate or DAP is a chemical fertiliser, exposure to which can cause a host of health issues including cancer, blood disorders and birth defects.
††Earthen stove, earth oven, wooden churner, mortar-pestle, clay utensils and brass woks.
‡‡“Food is God”.
§§“Guest is God”.
¶¶Bengal gram, pearl millet, sesame, green gram, mustard.
***A Japanese word that means ‘a reason for being’.
The author is a dermatologist in Delhi NCR and is a proponent of natural living.