Sustainable farming is variously called organic, natural, biodynamic or permaculture; all of which are overlapping methods and systems to feed ourselves mindfully. Each system brings something for a farmer and consumer to understand, absorb and practice.
A sustainable agricultural life is lived on a self-sufficient and ‘local’ farm, where the farmer adds continually to the health of the soil by as closely mimicking the ways of the forest in nature, and minimising physical farming inputs from outside the farm. In India, sustainability methods include the many ancient farming traditions and farming systems from across our wonderfully varied ecosystems that enable us live the rhythm of an agrarian way of life using appropriate technology. ‘Appropriate’ includes, for example, rejecting or dramatically reducing the use of the tractor (minimising the use of fossil fuels) while applying drip technology (saving on scarce water in my arid surroundings); and the use of bullocks to plough the land as a non-polluting, very low cost source of energy. This includes an absence of factory produced chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and instead the use of cattle dung as manure; and the dung by-product methane from the ultimate in appropriate technology: the Gobar gas plant. Aman Bagh applies each one of these appropriate methods, and some more.
Sustainable farming, in its larger meaning of a society in communion with nature and humankind, extends beyond building healthy soil or growing healthy food as it includes the many intertwined issues of economic and social inequality in a poor agrarian nation like India and the ever expanding rural-urban divide. Economic and social exploitation have always been integral to farm size and land ownership, and what was a very wide divide even 50 years back in India has today become an impassable canyon due to even more unequal rural and urban access to land, livelihoods, education, health and technology.
To self-cultivating small farmers in India with less than 2 hectares (5 acres) of land, which are 80% of all agriculturists in India, sustainable farming had been their way of life since time immemorial – till the advent of the Green Revolution in the late 1960s. They were organic before this time and even today many in the hinterland remain organic due to the high cost of becoming chemical farmers. Their barrier to living a life of plenty was and remains uneconomic land holdings, or no holding at all, regressive social systems, and a debilitating urban bias in our development discourse and resource allocation.
Sustainable farming as a way of life – peasant cultivation, chemical free farms, bullock power – went out when industrial farming entered the rural areas in the 19th and 20th century, specially in the West, and the profit driven nature of corporate capitalism and the power of urban civilisation today is ensuring it will not return. Organic produce, however, is the fastest growing segment of consumer spending on food in Western societies, and in wealthier parts of urban India, as city dwellers fully realise the baleful aspects of modern life, with corporations growing thousands of hectares of organic produce using environmentally unsound methods to feed another ‘segment’ of the consumer. Commercial organic farming by large companies, for the most part, does not create sustainable ways to farm or brings new small holding farmer families to the land. Small farmer (or small farmer groups) produced organic crops using sustainable methods is the way forward in organic production and consumption, specially in India, where our average land holding is 1.2 acres and in the USA is over 400 acres. Each nation and society must find its own, unique ways to loosen the stranglehold of corporate control over their lives and their unsustainable food habits.
The long-term objective in India must be to have fewer people dependent on the farm, and more employed in rural non-farm jobs and urban manufacturing and services. The only way this can be done over the long term is to implement a well thought out nationwide program for building handcrafted small industries that can be spread across the villages in India, and not a few manufacturing jobs in proximity to large cities. Little of this is happening though, as we witness handloom, for example, being destroyed by automation. That however is a story for another dialogue.
So, where do I fit in, a well-to-do, urban Indian, as an unlikely small holding farmer?
In 2011, the software services company I had helped found was bought over by a larger company, and I thus found myself without having to work for a living that till then had been my consuming drive in life. This event made me question priorities and plans for the time I have left – could I take a path less travelled? I wanted a vigorous, challenging, and non-commercial occupation that aligned to my commitment to health, my political persuasion and the environment. Small farming was a hands-down winner, and I found the ideal location in a picturesque Aravali valley in Faridabad. This is one 45 minute commute from Gurgaon, where I live, that I look forward to every day. By serendipity, I am just 10 kilometers away from the village of Sihi from where my maternal peasant ancestors migrated to Meerut in 1860.
I have long been uneasy with the urban-rural chasm and the continuing urban elitist bias in India’s development discourse and practice. My family’s strong rural roots as well as vacations spent in my paternal village in Ghaziabad established conflicting feelings – an empathy for the sounds, smells and ways of the village of my childhood; disquiet about the endemic poverty and caste inequity within the village; and anger at the urban bias in India’s development. Throughout my city life, these anomalies festered – here now was an opportunity to dive deep within the reality. I grabbed it.
There are four specific reasons for my pursuing farming in the challenging, often inhospitable, environment of the Aravalis of Haryana. First, I hold well-defined ideas on lifestyle and health, ideas that have evolved over decades of reading, practice and experimentation on my mind and body. I now produce for my family and friends exactly what I think we should eat. Second, I consider myself a grassroots activist showcasing (by doing, not philosophising) how a smallholding peasant family can make a reasonable living growing chemical-free produce on close to 6 acres by following the ways of their ancestors; along with some new thinking on sustainable farming. Third, I’m an idealist and the farm provides me with a controlled environment to establish a community comprising different castes and religions; while keeping older farming traditions alive. Finally, there is nostalgia for a childhood spent often with my grandmother when I smell the upla burning, hear the sound of the cattle, sit next to the choolah and eat wholesome meals, and am lulled by the language and sounds of rural life.
Aman Bagh, with 5+ acres of land, provides a model for sustainable farming for other small farmers and for consumers wanting to understand what ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ means. Aman Bagh and the peasants who work the farm are maturing in knowledge and now have the confidence of success to share our model of sustainable farming for those who want to listen and learn. We welcome your mindful visit.
(A version of this blog post was written for www.isayorganic.com, thanks to some friendly nudging by Priyanka Chhabra)