Dhyaneshwar Dhage (47) had decided to commit suicide in June 1993.
Of the 500-plus acres of land his family had once owned in Giroli village in Wardha, 759 km north-east of Mumbai, only 5 acres remained.
As crop after crop failed, the family had been forced to sell the ancestral holdings one piece at a time.
And what with the cost of everything, including farm inputs, going up, Dhage could no longer support his wife and three sons on what remained.
To top it all, his father had just died, and he had inherited that persistent Vidarbha heirloom: A large loan, compounded by years of exorbitant interest.
“I thought to myself: ‘It’s time to just end it all. There’s no way out of this’,” says Dhage, still moved to tears by the memory of that decision.
Then, he says, he thought of his wife, then just 26 years old, and his three little boys.
And Dhage decided to try and solve the problem, rather than run from it.
“I found that 70 per cent of our daily needs could be met using our own farm,” says Dhage. “I decided to grow just what our family needed, to start with, and revert to traditional farming, which was more cost-effective.”
Over the next five years, Dhage built up his 5 acres using natural resources — he had a well on the farm, he grew only seasonal fruits and vegetables and used vermiculture fertiliser that he made himself.
“I took a cue from Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of self-reliance,” he says.
Today, the ‘experiment’ is a cooperative supported by a deputy sarpanch, with a total of 500 acres of land jointly managed by 150 farming families.
In a drought-prone region where over 7,000 indebted and desperate farmers have committed suicide over the last five years, it’s a model that offers hope on a small, achievable scale.
With nothing but the experience handed down from previous generations, Dhage broke a cycle of crop failure and indebtedness that crores in relief packages and loan waivers have failed to break.
“I even made our own tooth powder,” says Dhage. “It was the first thing we used in the morning and I didn’t have the money to buy it, so I used the neem and babul plants on my farm to make it.”
Soon, Dhage was making so much, he was selling it in the local shops. And since it was cheaper than the packaged powder, it sold well. It was the same with the excess fruits and vegetables.
As business improved — a few months on, Dhage was even running a small-but-profitable animal husbandry business on the side — the Dhages actually began saving.
Other families in his village, who had initially written him off as eccentric, began coming over to see what he was doing so right.
Sixteen years down the line, the experiment Dhage started is 500-acre cooperative that stretches across three tehsils.
It’s called the Gandhi Jilha Vishmukta Shetmal Utpadak Sangh (Gandhi Toxinless Agro Produce Association).
He refuses to call it organic farming. “I did what our forefathers did centuries ago,” Dhage says. “We used cow dung, cow urine, vermiculture fertiliser and herbal sprays. We followed a strict natural crop pattern.”
Prices are still low, and sales still good. “I have even built a two-bedroom concrete house using the profits I made through our farming and allied business,” says Suresh Latare, Dhage’s neighbour and the first to join him in his experiment.
“Dhyaneshwarbhau has changed our lives,” says deputy sarpanch of Amgaon village Abhay Dhokne (34). “The government introduces new schemes every year but implements them inefficiently and fails to rid us of our begging bowls.”
The co-op is now dreaming big.
The next ‘experiment’ on the cards is a processing unit.
“We grow several cash crops like oilseeds and fruit, and we have our own network of retailers,” says Dhage. “It’s time to get a little more self-reliant.”