An Organic Farmer’s Diary
All about sustainable farming
Harsh Lohit, an organic farmer talks about what sustainable farming means to him and small land holding farmers
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 ideally 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 many ancient farming traditions and 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.
My organic farm applies each one of these appropriate methods, and some more.
Sustainable Farming and what it means
Sustainable farming, in its larger meaning of a society in communion with nature and humankind,extends beyond building healthy soil or growing healthy food. It also 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 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
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. We then have corporations growing thousands of hectares of organic produce using environmentally unsound methods to feed another ‘segment’ of this 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.
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 is by implementing a well thought out nationwide program for building handcrafted small industries that can be spread across villages; 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.
My Organic Farm
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. Every day I look forward to this 45 minute commute from Gurgaon, where I live. By serendipity, I am just 10 kilometers away from the village of Sihi from where my maternal peasant ancestors migrated to Meerut in 1860.
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) how a small holding 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.
My organic farm, 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. The farm and the people who work the farm, are maturing in knowledge and can widely broadcast and share our model of sustainable farming – good for each one of us and for the environment – for those who want to listen, and learn. We welcome your mindful visit.
Harsh Lohit farms at Aman Bagh, an orgainc farm based in Mangar village, Faridabad Haryana. They use only ‘farm yard manure’ for fertilization, from cow dung from my 10 head of cattle, mixed with leaf compost made from the 700 trees we grow. Aman Bagh provides employment to peasants and the landless from nearby villages, and has a happy combination of religions and castes working together re-discovering and experimenting our artisanal farming methods.