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A Healthier World Through Artisanal Farming

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April 13, 2015 at 1:15 PM  •  Posted in Grains, Flours & Rice by  •  0 Comments

Only a short drive from Delhi you arrive at the large white gate, and you feel like you are in another world. To get there from South Delhi, you drive south on crowded streets toward Faridabad, past unfinished skyscrapers and housing blocks, until these all fall away and you are on the road between Gurgaon and Faridabad, amidst red sandstone and hardy trees. A small turn off the highway, easy enough to miss, and a short drive, then all of a sudden the land opens up before you and you are staring down at a valley surrounded by sheer cliffs. Take the steep road into the valley, drive past the village and down a bit further, and there you are.

Sitting in the shade of the farmhouse, a former cowshed that still holds cows but has expanded into a beautiful, modest and intentionally traditional home, it’s hard to believe we are an hour away from Delhi. The farm’s name, which means “Orchard of Peace,” is overflowing with life, wheat fields surrounded by hundreds of fruit trees, a vegetable garden, chickens, cows, and dogs. Harsh Lohit, who started his organic farm in 2011 and his team have worked hard to wring this lush landscape from the dry valley, to meld the best of traditional Indian farming with a modern outlook on social relations to create a place built on sustainability and self-sufficiency.

The organic farm started from many places, but by the time Harsh Lohit first broke ground years of thought around family, health, and social injustice had been brewing for years. The story started with family. His “sympathies for the farmers” began with trips to his grandmother’s small farm in Western Uttar Pradesh, though as a child he was not thrilled to leave the bustle and bright lights of Delhi for the remoteness and moonlight of farm life. As he got older, he started wondering about his youthful desire for the city over the farm.

Health, whether it was physical, spiritual, or mental, has long been important for Harsh, and more and more the traditional methods of farming seemed to fit with that holistic approach to health. Things in the village, he says were “organic in many, many ways,” and he has learned lessons from what was best in the villages, especially the way they treated the soil. After a lifetime working successfully in information technology, it grew increasingly clear to Harsh that he should move in a radically different direction, back to the earth and the village life where he spent much of his childhood.

However, it was not until Harsh began to farm that the third idea, alleviating social injustice, truly became part of his practice. The farm is intentionally small, just under 6 acres, because about 80% of farmers in India work on this amount of land or less. Farmers can live on this sized plot, but they are not really able to advance beyond to farming commercially and furthering their socioeconomic status. His is not a commercial farm, and not meant to make a profit, because at this size it is unrealistic to do so. But it is meant to be the best possible farm.

Everything at the organic farm is as local as possible, and anything that isn’t is Desi, because a farm built around local people, local methods, and local animals is the best way to handle the weather, seasons, insects. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the return to Desi roots and the respect for heritage as the farm’s cows and bulls. Harsh has put much of his personal time and effort into animal husbandry to find cows that represent India’s true heritage, varieties that are beautiful and ancient but under threat from increasingly careless breeding. Harsh shows off his Sahiwal, Nagori and Haryana cows, beautiful and healthy creatures lolling under a banyan tree, with obvious affection. Like the plants at the farm, he raises and cares for his animals holistically, without modern medicine but rather based on respect for nature and their health. It is care with a mind for the best quality of life, not the highest pursuit of profit and production.

To be a farmer, you have to be an expert in the soil, in animal husbandry, in crop rotations, each of which takes a lifetime to learn, but Harsh has made a serious effort.

He’s taken inspiration from farmers across India, in person and through increasingly good online networks, and from books, like the work of Sir Albert Howard, a founding pioneer of organic agriculture who took his inspiration from Indian farmers. He’s also learned through trial and error, the best and only way to really learn firsthand the challenges of farming. But the most important factor in the success of the organic farm has been local knowledge from local people who know and understand the land, people who, like his farm manager, can tell there is rain coming on a hot and cloudless day.

The people who work the land at the farm are as important as the food it produces, and Harsh has worked hard to build a farm that takes the best from villages but tries to move beyond the crippling social, religious, and caste divisions that are deeply tied to rural life. The five people working on the farm are Jats, Brahmins, Muslims, Dalits, people from all walks of life, who live and work together harmoniously and each bring the best of their own knowledge to the larger project. The farm does not attempt to do the most with the least number of people, but rather to get the most from the same number of people. That is because the best possible farm is not just about “living together with nature,” says Harsh, it’s about “how you look after your animals, and how you look after each other.” This community building is a new tradition, but when combined with the old traditions of soil maintenance, it can wring wonders from the dry soil.

“Organic is a label, and you can mean so many things by it” says Harsh. To consumers who want to truly eat organic, he believes it’s important to look past aesthetically perfect food and to think holistically about what is truly sustainable. This means buying organic, but also making a serious effort to eat locally and seasonally. Likewise, he believes the current system from the farmer’s perspective, which is fixated on productivity, is wrong and self-defeating. Instead of doing everything to maximize productivity, we need to measure soil vitality, the health of the soil, of plants, of animals, of people, and the health of society. That’s why Harsh prefers to think of his farm as an artisanal farm, meaning a place that uses traditional methods, relies on human beings working primarily by hand, and, most important, is sustainable and self sufficient.

As the sun was falling, we finished our tour with still much more to see. Our hosts brought out big bowls of fresh picked noni, or mulberry, and guava from the orchards.  Earlier, while looking at the fields, Harsh said: “to my mind, it is as much of an organic, ideal farm as I could have possibly built.” Seeing it first hand, the cows, chickens, the wheat fields and the fruit trees, all organic, all sustainable, it’s hard to disagree.

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