Leaving fat salaries, secure jobs and cushy environments behind, several Indians are trading the corporate world for greener pastures and taking up farming full-time. Here are some such stories.
Starting at 50
Suneet Salvi had always been passionate about nature and wanted to do something in the field of agriculture, but it wasn’t until he turned 50 years old in 2014 that he seriously thought of giving it a shot. “I was looking at what I wanted to do for the next 10-15 years of my life. This was when I decided to break away from my regular routine to do something that matters and would give me satisfaction,” says the 53-year-old Mumbai resident, who ran a furniture business in the city.
However, it took some time for him to digest the fact that he would be leaving a life of air-conditioned comfort and literally getting his hands dirty. “Once I made up my mind, it was just a matter of talking to my family and selling my stake in the furniture business,” he says.
While winding up his business, he started to do the ground work. By sheer chance, he came in touch with Pratik Dhanmer, a young architect who lived with his family in Murbad, a tiny tribal belt in the Dahanu area of coastal Maharashtra. “We realised that we had common goals and aspirations in the fields of agriculture, community service and ecology,” Salvi says.
Together, they started looking for land around Mumbai. One day while driving to Murbad, Dhanmer’s village, Salvi noticed that the agricultural land all around was fallow. “On enquiring, I discovered a sad reality. Tribal farmers cultivated rice for their consumption only during the monsoon season, after which the land remained fallow for the rest of the year,” says Salvi, adding, “There were many reasons for this—shortage of funds, lack of confidence among farmers about where they could sell their produce, etc. It was then that we decided to work with tribal communities to help them restart farming in a sustainable way.”
After about eight months of building trust among farmers, Salvi and Dhanmer finally started farming on a four-acre piece of land, which they bought in Murbad in January last year.
However, since the land was barren and unused, Salvi and his team had to put in a lot of hard work to make it cultivable. “In our kind of regenerative agro-ecology, we have to take care of all stakeholders. My major work is improving the soil biology and healing the ecology,” he says.
While improving soil biology and fertility, Salvi has tried to grow different vegetables, fruits and crops in small quantities on a trial basis. “We have grown vegetables like tomato, brinjal, cluster bean, okra, pumpkin, cabbage, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, fenugreek, sweet potato, potato, onion, radish, ginger, white turmeric, etc. We have a trellis on which we have a variety of gourds and beans. We have also tried Bengal gram, horse gram, pigeon pea and fruits like papaya, lime, lemon, sweet lime, guava, custard apple, etc,” says Salvi.
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Based on the success of this cultivation, Salvi plans to help and advise tribal farmers on what to grow on their farms.
In the past eight months, Salvi and his team have planted more than 800 tree saplings in the area. “Everything that we grow here is natural… it’s all done without using synthetic fertilisers or poisonous and harmful pesticides or herbicides,” he adds.
Salvi feels the only way forward is going back to one’s roots and following the path of our ancestors who have left us an entire universe of knowledge and wisdom. “We have made a lot of mistakes in our farming practices and yet we find that nature has been kind to us… It rewards us for the love and care we give it,” he says.
The organic way
Sunil Gupta always believed that people in villages led healthier lives being close to nature. This myth was shattered when he discovered that rural folk were actually getting more prone to diseases like cancer and diabetes due to the harmful chemical composition of the soil, water and air there. “The general trend among farmers was to exploit the resources to the maximum by using chemical pesticides and fertilisers to generate large profits. Surprisingly, they were somewhat aware of the ill effects of chemicals, but were not ready to change to any eco-friendly system,” says the former resident of Delhi, now a full-time farmer based in Panchkula, Haryana.
“It was then that I decided to take up this challenge and contribute to society and environment through promotion of organic and natural farming. I took over a part of my family farmland from my father to start the project. Thus began my farming journey on a five-acre piece of land at a village called Goriwala near Dabwali in Sirsa, Haryana,” says the 44-year-old MBA graduate.
That was in 2001, when a 29-year-old Gupta had just given up his job as an operations manager with a European GIS systems manufacturer in Delhi. “After about five years of the ‘techno-managerial’ job, I wanted to do something on my own, something socially beneficial, even if I had to compromise on earnings,” he says.
Gupta’s first attempt at organic farming, however, failed miserably. Local farmers advised him to return to city life. His family, too, wasn’t happy with his decision to turn a farmer at that time. “For two years, I had to go through this pressure. Finally, my efforts paid off and I could get a good crop, almost on a par with the village output, but without using any chemical components,” says Gupta, adding, “My net savings were higher, as I sold my wheat at double the price, which compensated for my yield loss. I had travelled to various places in Rajasthan and Uttarakhand to see how natural areas sustain greenery without any human intervention. I adopted the natural practices of manuring, mulching, herbal spraying, etc, which proved to be successful.”
Marketing and quality assurance were another problem. Buyers also wanted variety and regular supply of organic products. Gupta then started promoting organic farming among other farmers in Haryana and Punjab. “I founded an organic farmers’ society in Haryana and started the production and marketing of the organic produce. We also got our certification from the National Programme for Organic Production, which helped us in marketing our produce in Delhi through an association with the brand, I Say Organic. A few other buyers also approached us and bought our produce,” he says.
Gupta is now facilitating the direct marketing of organic produce to consumers through fair-price mechanism. “It’s a pricing mechanism, which we have developed… it’s proved to be a win-win for both consumers and farmers. I coordinate this activity from Panchkula,” he says. As part of this, Dharani Suphalam, a primary producers’ society of which he is the president, ties up with top organic stores in Gurugram, Jalandhar and Ludhiana.
At the end of the day, Gupta is a happy man. “My son and daughter are extremely supportive, and do their bit of social work as well. My wife, too, teaches children of needy people and strongly supports my activities even though I could have earned much more otherwise,” he says.
Woman of the soil
WHEN RADHIKA Singh, all of 22 years old then, first mooted the idea of farming to her parents in 2011, they discouraged her, saying doing so would deprive her of her active social life. The Sherwood College, Nainital, alumna had just come back to Gurugram from France then, after having completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology and later biochemistry, and was trying to decide on her next course of action.
Singh had to convince her parents, assuring them that it wasn’t a passing fantasy. “I told them that this was the only thing that would give me the sort of satisfaction and peace of mind I was looking for. Also, there’s so much one can do, improve on and bring back from this sector. This is not to mention the quality of life one experiences, working incredibly hard—physically for the most part,” says the now 28-year-old. The whole concept of farming, however, took about two years to take shape, during which time she started working at the Gurugram branch of the Alliance Francaise de Delhi.
It was finally in 2014 that her 65-acre farm on family land in Kichha, Uttarakhand, was up and running. She runs it now along with her parents and elder brother, and also lives there.
As an extension of her farming venture, she also started a farmstay in 2016. “We wanted to give people that added push and allow them to taste the difference between home-grown products as opposed to what you get in cities,” she says.
Initially, Singh faced a lot of challenges. The toughest was getting work done by people on the farm. “Dealing with women workers was easy, but the men needed to be assured that I was here to stay. It’s also very difficult to change the mindset of some people, but I have learned to live with them, as they have with me. It will only get better with time,” she says.
Most of the ‘heavy-duty’ farming, like that of wheat, paddy or sugarcane, is taken care of by a manager and his team of permanent employees who live on the farms. Half of the farming area has been converted into mango and guava orchards, and these are leased out to a contractor for a few years at a time. “I play my part primarily on the little orchard near our house, which has various fruit-bearing trees and the ‘polyhouse’ farm, where we grow vegetables, besides taking care of the cows and poultry, and our four Alsatian dogs,” she says.
Talking about the economics of the farm, Singh says, for the most part, it pays for itself. “By and large, the amount that we get out of the farm is used to pay for labour. Going ahead, we plan to cut down on the cultivated land and work more on the orchards because labour is a massive concern in these parts because of the industrial areas being set up at Sitargunj and Rudrapur nearby,” she says, adding, “Everyone wants to work at the factories. Irrespective of what they are paid, nobody wants to do physical labour that farming requires. The orchards work better because they are seasonal and don’t require too many people all the time. Water is also a major concern at the moment. The water table in the area has dropped tremendously in the past few years.”
To tackle the problem, Singh plans to set up water-harvesting units in the near future. “We also want to renew our focus on self-sustainability, primarily by utilising solar energy and bio-gas in innovative ways,” she says.
As per Singh, the whole idea behind her venture was to bring back things that a lot of us have forgotten. “I want to share this concept with as many people as possible and show them that this is something that we all can do on a small or big scale,” she says.
Going back to the roots
Chennai native Vinoth Kumar was tired of following the same routine everyday. “I was working in shifts, sometimes 24×7 in my corporate job, and was missing out on many things. I didn’t have time to meet friends or attend family functions. My father, who has already worked for over 40 years now as a school principal, is still very passionate about his job. For me, it had just been a few years and I was already so stressed… something had to change,” says 34-year-old Kumar, an engineering and MBA graduate.
That was in 2011. Kumar had by then worked for nearly six years in different corporate set-ups such as Allsec Technologies, Zoho Corporation, Groupon and Standard Chartered bank. Armed with his savings, Kumar decided to take a break and travel across the country, which proved to be a turning point in his life. “While travelling to know how people live in different parts of India, I was shocked to discover the pathetic situation of farming in the country,” says Kumar. “Most of them didn’t want their children to take up farming because they were not making any profit,” he says.
Kumar came back to Chennai and, to everyone’s surprise, informed his parents that he was going to take up farming as a full-time profession.
In 2014, when Kumar started organic farming on family land in Cheyyur in the Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu, access to organic and traditional methods was not very easy, as these were not documented properly. “Also, most of the information was restricted to specific areas. I had to travel a lot and meet farmers—especially the older, experienced lot, besides attending training programmes and volunteering at others’ farms—to collect bits and pieces of information about good farming practices. I got brilliant results when I applied them in my farm,” he says.
Kumar grows millets, pulses and oilseeds on his 12-acre farm, and manages to pay his bills with the profits made through them. He chose these particular crops because they require very less water.
Going forward, Kumar wants to spread awareness about the benefits of organic farming and promote it across the country. “Organic farming is the answer to many of the world’s problems and should become the only type of farming practised if we want to heal the world,” he says.