Annapurna Farm is slowly increasing its production of organic rice and cereals. Investments are needed to safeguard future rice production.
“Cyclone? What cyclone?” Tomas and Andre flash identical grins. Cyclone Nisha, which in November wrought havoc in Tamil Nadu, caused no problems in Annapurna Farm. “We didn't notice a thing,” says André cheerfully. Tomas gets serious and explains that the farm only escaped damage because the paddy is not yet flowering. “The stalks bent with the wind. If the storm had come when the paddy was in bloom, it would have caused a lot of damage,” he says.
It is open day at Annapurna . A small group of Aurovilians and newcomers is being shown around by André, who runs the farm together with Tomas and Selvam. The farm's huge rainwater catchment ponds enjoy pride of place. “Contrary to our neighbours, we irrigate our farm using harvested rainwater,” explains André. “In a year with good monsoons the tanks hold sufficient water for our needs.”
Annapurna got itself an electricity connection last year, with a Rs 10 lakhs donation from the Economy Group. “This is good planning,” comments Tomas. “ Annapurna is Auroville's largest farm and the community's main rice producer. But we'll need more water than we have now for the farm to expand and increase its production. We must also hedge against monsoon failures. The only way to do that is by using groundwater. But the groundwater here is at a depth of 100 metres and electricity is essential for running such a deep bore well.” But aren't the Auroville farms paying the highest electricity tariff? “No longer,” says André. “With the help of the Auroville Foundation office, Auroville farms are now entitled to free electricity, just like all other farms in Tamil Nadu.”
Freshly-planted rice fields at Annapurna
Annapurna Farm is located about 10 kilometres outside Auroville on the road to Mailam. It was bought by The Mother before the foundation of Auroville in 1968. For many years the land was arid and saline. When Tomas came in 1986, his first task was regenerating the lands. The going has been slow due to lack of money and manpower. But today, salinity is less of an issue. “We still have a few bad patches which we'll regenerate in the coming years,” says Tomas. “But most of our 135 acres are now arable.” Apart from paddy, Annapurna also grows cereals such as millets, varagu, sesame, kuduravalli and mustard, and rosella, pigeon beans, cow fodder and green manure.
Annapurna 's heavy black soil is very delicate. Tomas explains that it has to be treated carefully. “We must ensure sufficient plant cover, not irrigate too much, and certainly not use chemicals. It responds very favourably to organic treatment. We use green manure, live mulching, crop residues and animal compost. That is the key to our farming here.”
The benefits of this system of soil treatment are numerous: improvement of the soil structure, additional nitrogen and increased soil microbial activity, to name but a few. Tomas adds an additional advantage: serious pest outbreaks are rare, because natural controls exist to automatically bring populations back into balance. “In fact, we are doing very little active pest control since we hardly have a problem with pests. Moreover, the costs of doing something about it are usually higher than the yield losses. We believe in the concept that a good soil and a good variety of crops – we usually grow four different rice varieties in one season – will yield good results.”
A field of ripening varagu
Because of its soil treatment and the use of natural fertilizers, Annapurna 's agricultural produce are certified ‘organic'. The certification is done by the Indian branch of the Swiss Institute for Marketecology (IMO), one of the most renowned international agencies for inspection, certification and quality assurance of eco-friendly products.
“The IMO control is stringent. We have to maintain records, and we regularly receive inspection visits,” says Tomas. Is it worth the trouble? He nods. “There are a number of advantages. Firstly, it sets a high standard which we want to maintain. Secondly, it shows to the Aurovilians that what we are doing is first class. Thirdly, I can sell my products outside for a better price; and that, in turn, convinces Auroville that our prices are reasonable.”
Unlike its cereals, Annapurna 's dairy products are not certified organic. “We can't grow all our cow feed,” says Tomas. “We do grow a good amount of cow grass, but if you want to get a certain milk production, you have to feed concentrates such as grains which do not grow in our climate, and we haven't been able to find certified organic feed grains.”
Cheese being aged
Tomas warns about the milk quality. “People don't realize what they are drinking. The fact that the IMO hasn't certified any dairy in South India is a warning all by itself. In addition, there are the dangers of milk pollution due to unhygienic storage, and there is a lot of milk adulteration.” Tomas refers to frequent media reports on crackdowns on those who have adulterated milk – even packaged milk of well-known brands – with water or with products such as sodium bicarbonate, soap powder, starch, buffalo milk or colourants, to increase its density and whiteness. “If Aurovilians want to remain healthy, they should only use Auroville's dairy products. But many Aurovilians risk their health consuming packaged milk and milk products, or buy milk from the village.”
Value added products
“Lack of community support has forced us to change our farm economics,” says Tomas. “Earlier we sold what we produced. Nowadays, we sell value-added products. Take milk for example. Selling milk is bad business; it does not fetch the cost price since we treat our animals much better than elsewhere. But a value-added product such as cheese gives us a good margin. So we make cheese. The same goes for gomasio. It takes very little work to make gomasio from sesame, but it sells well and gives us the profit we need to run this farm. And people are prepared to pay the extra price.”
Market demand has also forced Annapurna to purchase a number of machines. André, who is the farm's mechanic, points at the de-stoner, which separates stones from paddy. Elsewhere is a machine to thresh the paddy, and another one to mill the rice.
“The Solar Kitchen demands clean rice free of husk. They do not want paddy. We do not want to go to the local rice mill, as experiences haven't been positive. One Auroville farmer almost lost his crop as the rice he got back from the mill was yellow and stank. Also our certification requires that we control our own milling process. So it's now being done on our farm.”
Other Auroville farms have followed Annapurna 's example and are also selling value-added products to break-even. “They need to do that as the risks of farming are almost entirely borne by the farmers,” says Tomas. “But that is not as it should be. There is a very small farmers' fund which is supported by the Economy Group with a Rs 12,000 a month. But there should be a much bigger fund to help farmers buy seeds and manure and purchase machinery; that fund should also provide a buffer against crop failures.”
In this respect Tomas mentions that the Government of Tamil Nadu has a policy to compensate individual farmers for crop failures due to bad weather. “But it seems Auroville farms don't qualify as they are part of an institution, the Auroville Foundation. But this should be pursued. For registration would also entitle the farms to purchase machinery and irrigation systems at subsidized prices.”
The economics of Auroville's farms
Tomas acknowledges that Auroville's farms need to improve if they expect the community to respond to their demands. “Many of the farmers are simply not professional.” Should the farm group be given authority to oversee the farms' production and efficiency? “This should be discussed,” says Tomas. “Such a management system is used by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. If the farmer does not respond to the needs, they look for another manager. We need to do a brainstorming session between the farm group and various people with interest and expertise to see about the immediate and long term future. Farm land is valuable, and needs to be well-tended.”
A catchment pond at Annapurna after the 2008 monsoon
Organic soil improvement
‘Green manuring' means improving the soil by ploughing-in green field crops. Annapurna cultivates a few acres of Gliricidia for the purpose. The plant grows into bushes. The branches are cut and brought to the fields. Also ‘pressmud' (sugar cane waste) is purchased for the same purpose.
Annapurna Farm also practices ‘live mulching'. In this system, cover crops are inter-planted with cash crops. The seeds are sown in between the rice with the last irrigation flooding. The cover crop germinates after the rice has been harvested, and provides ground cover throughout the summer. Then it is ploughed-in.