I enjoy gardening, and that’s an understatement. I tend to plonk almost any seed I get into the soil. “It’s a disorder of some type. You need to see a doctor or someone.” That is obviously Teenager. Grrrrrr!
By now, in the small terrace that we have in our house, we have managed to grow errr, well, a lot of things. Jowar (and I mean we managed to get cobs!), bajra, wheat, mung, soyabean, chana, spinach (this is omnipresent in my garden), methi (another of my omni-feats), coriander, amaranth (lal maath), tomatoes, potatoes, cluster beans (gawar), bitter gourds, turmeric, chillies, groundnut, mustard, and lemons. And all this in pots, big and small. And most of it using home-made compost as a fertilizer.
Almost every crop we’ve grown has some weird history to it. “It’s not the crop, it’s you, Manasi..strange things just happen around you,” said Hubby, rolling his eyes at me when I told him in panic that the capsicum seeds I’ve planted have sprouted into tomato plants. Our plants don’t behave…I really do have a crazy garden. For example, I decided two months ago that my garden lacks the fun element and got myself the touch-me-not plant just to pep up the humour quotient in the garden. The plant is called as “Lajalu” in Marathi, which literally translates into a “shy” plant. Well, after about 10 days in our garden, the plant obstinately refused to close its leaves on being ruffled. “It’s certainly not shy any more,” observed Teenager drily. “It has taken on the aggressive Phadke characteristics. It’s now Dheetalu Phadke,” he christened it with a snigger. Dheet means bold. Sigh!
And then, there is that famous story about Tomato Phadke, also recorded elsewhere on this blog. It so happened that my tomato plants were just not bearing fruit. Hubby told me that the plant is probably bored and needs me to sing to it while watering. I tried every sort of music on the damn thing- Hindustani classical, Ghazals, Bhajans, Pop, Jazz, Country…oh, I had also started a kind of a dance routine to it, much to the delight of my family. Still no fruit. And then Teenager, who was at that point in time not a Teenager, but a rather sweet little kid, told me wickedly that I might be singing the wrong stuff. “You’re old fashioned, Ma,” he declared and went up to the plant and sang, much to my horror, “Chaar bottle vodka, kaam mera roz kaa!” The plant flowered the very next day.
The only crop I have had real trouble with, is coriander. For some strange reason, coriander doesn’t like us Phadkes. I have tried every possible trick on the dhaniya seeds. Some farmers soak them in water overnight and then plant them. No use. Some of them break every seed carefully into two and then plant. Nope. Some just rough up the seeds between chappals, believe it or not. Ummm, I couldn’t quite do this though. The germs on the chappals alighting on the very same seeds which we eventually want to eat, was a bit too much for my highly hygienic soul. “But ALL the coriander we buy and eat has the same germs on it,” argued scientific and unhygienic Teenager Phadke. “Coriander seeds probably germinate in the presence of those very germs, Ma. Boot it, to boot it,” he laughed uncontrollably, feeling clever. I gave him the royal boot and shooed him away from my precious seeds.
It is not only my family, but also my research team which laughs at my urban farming experiments. Most of team members egg me on to post photos of my little farm on our Whatsapp Group and then make extremely rude remarks on the “Phadke farm” photos. I am also normally ragged quite heavily for trying to grow grapes and pomegranates in pots.
However, weird or otherwise, my garden has given me a helluva farming experience, as I discovered on a World Bank project recently.
The World Bank has financed a project in Maharashtra to help the farmers get more climate resilient. The project will run in districts in Marathwada and Vidarbha, which have been drought-prone areas of Maharashtra. There are several smaller components under the aegis of the project, but the soul of the project is to create water management models in the project area.
Water is the lifeline of agriculture, and there have been peculiar problems associated with water in Marathwada as well as Vidarbha. In Marathwada, the traditional cropping pattern was one of jowar and bajra, which are inherently climate resilient. These are tough and hardy seeds, which means that they tolerate a dry spell between two rains much better than seeds of other crops. The wells of the farmers were also worked only after September, since the monsoon rains used to suffice for these hardy crops. Thus, the basic agriculture in Marathwada was inherently climate resilient! How then, did we move away from this resilient framework?
The problems started in the early nineties, when climate patterns started to change visibly. Marathwada had been no stranger to dry spells, but the time-period between two rain spells started becoming longer. Monsoons also started arriving late, thereby affecting the sowing patterns in the area. And in the same time frame, the soyabean revolution shook Marathwada. The soya-craze in Marathwada seems to have started around 1995-96. What is so special about the soya crop? Well, it fetches great money, for starters! Soyabean was touted as the global solution to plant-based protein and the dry climatic conditions of Marathwada were seen to be ideal for the crop. Farmers, in their desperation to make more money, switched indiscriminately to soyabean.
There is another underlying current to the soya-story, which I would like to highlight here. The soyabean bio-mass is INEDIBLE, in bold, read, capital letters. That means that not even goats, who have taken to even plastics happily, like to eat the soyabean leaves and stalk. Thus, once the crop is harvested, the rest of the bio-mass pretty much has to be burnt, or buried, since it does not tie up with animal husbandry at all. Now, such is not the case with the jowar or bajra crops. After the cobs are harvested, cows, buffaloes, sheep, goat absolutely devour the rest of the bio-mass. Hence, not only was the jowar system climate resilient, but it also did its bit towards enhancing the supplementary income of the farmer. Now, with the animals turning up their noses at soya, animal feed became terribly expensive. In fact, animal husbandry itself became more and more expensive. One finds interestingly, that in the same time period as farmers adopted soyabean, the livestock in Marathwada reduced rather rapidly. And this has created problems for the farmer. When the rains fail, and they have failed rather alarmingly in the past decade, the farmer can prop up his income based on livestock. But the farmer in Marathwada today does not own livestock, and that makes him extremely vulnerable to downside risks. If it rains, the soya performs and he gets his money. If it does not rain, the crop doesn’t do well and he does not maintain enough livestock which can give him some support in the bad times.
The other problem with soyabean is that of procurement. However, this is not a soya-issue, it is a general PDS issue. Procurement by the Government has largely been concentrated in wheat and paddy, and hence, soya-growing farmers often have not been covered under the procurement program of the Government. Last year, the MSP offered for Soyabean was Rs.3050 per quintal. This implies that the Government would procure the harvest at a minimum of Rs.3050 per quintal. Hopefully, the farmers would get more than that. But in most parts of Osmanabad (huge soya cultivation), there was simply no procurement of soyabean! When the soyabean was harvested just before Diwali, the farmers were forced to sell in the open market at a price dictated by traders. Since the Government was not in the procurement program at all, most farmers were forced to sell at prices as low as Rs.2200 per quintal.
Our chats with farmers, activists and Government officials helped us to construct these details about the farming patterns in Osmanabad. A Government officer, who was rather enthusiastic about his work, accompanied us on all site visits. He was also a bit of a quiz master and on getting into a field, used to ask us importantly, “Madam, guess which crop is this?” “Potato!” I replied even without thinking, thanks to my troublesome potato plant in Pune, with my entire team rolling their eyes at me. They could not quite handle my rapid transformation into Hermione Granger. Heehee!
On meeting a farmer growing tomatoes, I asked him what he does to prevent the white aphids. “I have been having major trouble with aphids,” I told the Agriculture Officer, who was by now regarding me with some curiosity. On meeting the pomegranate farmers, preceded by the usual stern “Which tree is this, Madam?”, I shared with the farmers how I had fertilized my pomegranate tree too early and how it had dropped leaves immediately thereafter. The farmer laughed and said that I shouldn’t have even looked at the tree in the first one and a half years, forget fertilizing it. We had quite an interesting time with the jowar farmers, who shared with us how new methods of transplanting might make a difference to the size of cobs. “Oh! My jowar cob was really small!” I replied instinctively. The kindly farmer immediately gave me some details on growing the sapling in a tray and then transplanting it. “I will definitely try this,” I thanked the farmer for his tip.
The Agriculture Officer, who had been walking with us and taking us across to all farmers, asked me where I stay. “In Pune!” I said enthusiastically. “Interesting! And, where is your farm?” he asked me with a lot of interest. “You must be owning at least 50 acres Madam, with your Jowar fields and tomato and pomegranate trees!” With my entire team grinning at me and me squirming uncomfortably, I told him that I do not own any land at all. “No land! But then, how did you grow pomegranates?” There was no way of breaking the news gently. “I only own 20 pots in a small terrace, Sir.”