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Auroville Adventure

August 2003

The future of Auroville farming?

- Alan

A high-powered team is assessing the viability of Auroville farms


There are four aspects of the farms' assessment. One focuses upon the history of farming in Auroville, examining the original vision and how farming has changed over the years. Another major aspect will examine the situation of the farms today (comprehensive data will be compiled and analysed for each farm), while another will ascertain the market for Auroville farm produce. Finally, strategies will be worked out which attempt to bridge the gap between the present reality and the farmers' and the community's stated objectives.
The impressive project team comprises John, who has thirty years of farming experience in the U.K. and southern Europe, David, who has degrees in tropical soil management and ecological agriculture and ten years experience of NGO management in Africa and Asia, Natasha, who has degrees in Biochemistry and Zoology and has farmed in India, Priya who has a Ph.D. in sociology and 15 years experience working in market research, and Tomas who has farmed in Auroville for many years.

David and John

Auroville farmers have not always had a good press. They have been criticized over the years for, among other things, not producing enough, for always wanting subsidies and for selling their produce at exorbitant rates. "This is rather unfair," says John. "Auroville farmers are farming in the most difficult way under some of the most testing conditions in the world. Only a limited range of foods can be relatively easily grown in this area. And while it's true that some farmers have received significant financial help over the years, there has always been a chronic lack of funds for basic infrastructure."

Then there is the management issue. "Most Auroville farmers are stressed-out by the responsibilities they're carrying," explains John. "The farmers have found it very difficult to find people to share management responsibilities because farming is not an attractive option for most Aurovilians, and Indians who qualify in farm management don't want to go into the fields."

There is also the lack of technical input. John is one of the first professional farmers to farm in Auroville. While he notes that quite a lot of research has been done by individual farmers over the years, some of it, he says, has been about reinventing the wheel. "What astonishes me," says David, "is that we don't even have a soil map of Auroville. There are so many gaps in our knowledge. For example, there's a real need for expert technical input to help us assess what can be grown in this bioregion, or the options for improved processing and storage of Auroville farm produce. And while Brooks is doing a first-class energy audit of Annapurna Farm, this is a ten year project which, in its present form, is too complex for the average Auroville farmer to make use of."

Finally, there is the matter of the changing tastes of Aurovilians. In the early years the community was small, many Aurovilians were involved in afforestation and farming and locally-grown food, like ragi and varagu, was the staple diet. Today, conditions have changed. The population is larger, only a very small proportion is engaged in farming, and many Aurovilians seem to prefer processed or imported food to that which can be grown locally. One aspect of the assessment process will focus on collecting information concerning what Aurovilians are actually eating today.

"The fundamental need as I see it," says John, "is to tie the farmers into the market. At present there is a growing gap between what Auroville farmers grow and what Aurovilians prefer to eat." Although the Solar Kitchen takes much of the farms' produce at present, John points out that the farmers could experiment more with what they grow - "sweetcorn, for example, which is a popular food and a much-needed source of carbohydrates would grow well here, as would onions" - while David notes that locally-grown organic food, which sometimes looks unattractive on the shelf beside chemically-grown products, could be made more interesting if it is prepared in innovative ways: "Dr. Beena's recent Auroville cookbook is a good step in this direction."

But closing the gap between what our farmers produce and what many Aurovilians buy is more than just about changing tastes. "The Auroville farms' pricing system is badly out of kilter," says John. "It takes no note of seasonal variations in the market of conventionally-grown food. Also, many customers don't understand why they have to pay such high prices for our farmers' produce."
In other words, giving clear and correct information is one of the keys to rebuilding consumer confidence. For example, the assumption that food grown or produced in Auroville is of higher quality than food available in the conventional market allows Auroville farmers and processors to charge a premium rate for their products. But is Auroville produce always better? If so, in what way and how much is it better?

Bullocks: indispensable for farming

Then there is the issue of labelling. Most Auroville food is either labelled as, or implied to be, organic. In fact, according to guidelines laid down by organic accreditation agencies in the West, hardly any Auroville produce would qualify for this status. One of the potential outcomes of the farms' assessment is to establish a code of practice in order to guarantee the quality of Auroville produce.

Then again there is the question of environmental awareness. David believes that older Aurovilians tend to be more concerned about what they eat and where it comes from than the younger generation. In order to partly remedy this situation, David's wife, Natasha, is currently developing a curriculum which teaches ecological literacy through farming.

Finally there is the issue of productivity. While our farms produce significant quantities of seasonal vegetables and fruit, there is still a huge shortfall in the production of staples like rice (currently only Annapurna and Siddhartha farm are producing rice for Auroville). Why is this? Partly it's a matter of lack of soil fertility. However, as the assessment team discovered, not all the farmers see producing good food in quantity as their prime objective: some put more emphasis upon research or upon preserving the physical environment. The priority they also give to health, well-being and spirituality reflects, to some extent, the unique nature of farming in Auroville.

One important question that needs to be answered, however, is that of food security. Does Auroville want to be self-sufficient in terms of food? While most Aurovilians appear to favour this in principle, the issue is complex. If food security means growing indigenous food locally, then either more Aurovilians would need to take up farming and we would have to acquire much more farm land, or we would need to encourage local village farmers to switch from cash crops and become our organic suppliers.

Such a locally-grown organic diet would be limited. Could Westerners thrive upon it? In the early years many Western Aurovilians tried living on a wholly indigenous diet. Almost all of them fell sick because their metabolisms couldn't cope. "This is one reason why the assessment group is adopting a more pragmatic definition of food security," explains David. "We're defining it not only in terms of what can be grown locally but also in terms of what many Aurovilians are eating at present. For example, potatoes and apples are popular but cannot be grown here. So this wider definition of food security would imply that Auroville would have its own farms, or links with organic farmers, up in the hills where such food can be grown."

The farms' assessment project is still in its early stages. However, the team is already thinking about other possible strategies for the future. While they emphasize that they're not interested in forcing all the Auroville farmers into one mould, they see advantages in the farms marketing and selling their produce collectively, in developing new markets outside Auroville and increasing food processing as a means of selling excess production. They also suggest that additional accommodation could be provided on all the Auroville farms to encourage young people with few resources to take up farming (as one Auroville farmer put it, "We are an ageing population").

As for improved technical input, the assessment team suggests that institutions which already have links with Auroville, like the University of Washington, Wageningen Agricultural University and the GEOCommons organization, could encourage qualified students to do applied research on topics like food production, energy efficiency and marketing in Auroville. Additional help is needed to carry out other, no less important tasks like data collection and entry.

"The key to the success of all the strategies we are proposing is how they integrate with each other," says David. "We need to become familiar with 'joined-up thinking', an approach which makes us consider the interconnections and the larger implications of our choices and actions. If, for example, we decide to produce more for modern tastes, how will this impact upon costs and the environment? If our farmers concentrate more upon supplying a basic indigenous-type diet, how will this affect consumer behaviour? If we don't attempt to change the low status accorded to farm work both in Auroville and in India, how can we expect to attract the brightest and most committed people to farming?"

This is not a kind of thinking which comes naturally to farmers, many of whom are already overwhelmed by the daily details of their work. "Which is why," says John, "the farmers are to be praised for agreeing to participate in this assessment. It will mean a lot more work for them, and the findings may be painful for some, yet they have been very cooperative. I sense that the farmers in the Farm Group have reached a stage where they are able to be honest both with themselves and with each other in the interests of improving their work. This could become a model for other groups in Auroville."

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