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Terrace garden to farming: Urban dwellers show the organic way

An increasing number of professionals in Delhi and NCR are now renting agricultural land for organic farming.

delhi Updated: Feb 17, 2018 23:16 IST
Manoj Sharma
Their owners-- mostly professionals from Gurgaon-- are toiling in the field they have taken on lease for community organic farming. Some are weeding, some sowing seeds, and others are plucking vegetables
Their owners-- mostly professionals from Gurgaon-- are toiling in the field they have taken on lease for community organic farming. Some are weeding, some sowing seeds, and others are plucking vegetables(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

The sky is blue, the sun is shining bright. One can hear the whisper of the cool wind blowing through the trees. Over a dozen SUVs are parked on the edge of a green agricultural field surrounded by the Aravalli hills in Gairatpur Bas, a bucolic village about half an hour’s drive from the glitz of the Millennium City.

Their owners-- mostly professionals from Gurgaon-- are toiling in the field they have taken on lease for community organic farming. Some are weeding, some sowing seeds, and others are plucking vegetables. “I was buying organic vegetables from the market but was not quite sure how organic they actually were. So, I thought why not rent a farmland and grow my own vegetables,” says Shikha Gaur, who runs an event management company. Helping her out in her 600-yard field is her 12-year-old daughter, Tvarita.

“I have stopped buying vegetables from the market ever since I started growing my own. For me, this is also a way to connect with my roots,” says Yogesh Malpani, a software engineer who is in the village with his two children.

Gaur and Malpani are part of Green Leaf India, a community of about 80 urban organic farmers in Gurgaon who have rented 52 farms, where they grow everything, from tomatoes to potatoes, for their kitchen. The district horticulture department has helped them rent the land from farmers and provides the technical know-how.

An increasing number of professionals in Delhi and NCR are now renting agricultural land for organic farming. And cashing in on the growing desire among urban dwellers to grow their own food are many enterprises, which help them lease farms, provide technical guidance and raw materials.

“Twenty-eight families from Delhi and NCR have leased agriculture land from us near Palwal, a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Delhi,” says Deepak Gupta, co-founder, Organic Maati, which helps them set up organic farms. The firm subleases farmland it takes on lease from farmers. “Our clients are growing everything from vegetables to herbs to grains there,” says Gupta.

Many of these ‘agri-enterprises’ believe they are creating a sustainable local food and agricultural system that benefits the farmers, urban communities, and the environment. “What we are trying to do is make organic farming feasible for urban people, save the land from pesticides and help the environment,” says Gupta.

“We have helped 50 people develop personal farms in the past year,” says Kapil Mandawewala, the founder, Edible Routes, another company that creates what it calls ‘organic edible landscapes’.

Gurgaon’s Green Leaf India community was born when the district horticulture officer, Deen Mohammad Khan, was invited to speak on terrace gardening in a residents’ conclave. “Many in the audience said they had no terraces, and the balconies were too small to grow anything and asked if we could help them lease farmland near Gurgaon. I said I could try,” says Khan.

Over the next few days, Khan would travel to many villages neighbouring Gurgaon, trying to convince farmers to rent out their land to these professionals. The farmers were initially wary -- after all, they had been used to giving their land on ‘batai’ (sharing) to mostly landless farmers from UP and Bihar, and not to city professionals wearing Apple watches. But Khan eventually managed to convince four farmers.

“We got seven acres of land, but there were more people wanting to lease than we could accommodate. Sixty families immediately signed up,” says Khan. The unique urban farming community comprising IT professionals, doctors and lawyers connect on a WhatsApp group, discussing everything from how to make manure to sowing seeds.

“Earlier, I was doing it in my balcony, but there is only so much you can do there. Community farming can go a long way in dealing with many diseases, including cancer, caused by consumption of pesticide-ridden vegetables,” says Dr. Jyoti Wadhwa Saigal, an oncologist at a premier Gurgaon hospital, who is part of the organic farming community.

Every individual in the community has a 600-yard farm for which they contribute Rs28, 000 every six months, including the cost of seeds and the salaries of nine labourers they have hired to help them. The community pays Rs 60,000 per acre per annum as rent to the land owners.

Not just Gurgaon villages, many are leasing farmland in places such as Palwal. Vijay S Nath, who exports garments, for example, has leased one-acre of farmland in Kishorpur village near Palwal, another site of community organic farming. On weekends, Nath travels to his agriculture farm with his wife and two sons. “We have sown everything from wheat to vegetables such as carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, spinach with our own hands, and it was quite an experience. My son’s exams are coming up, but he still comes and likes to study sitting on a charpoy in the middle of the field,” says Nath, who leased the farm three months back. “The joy of growing and cultivating your own food, and knowing what you’re consuming, is beyond words. This is also an opportunity to take a break from gadgets.”

Gupta, the man behind the farming community in Palwal, leases vast tracts of land from farmers and subleases to his clients for Rs 50, 000 per acre.

In view of the huge demand for personal farms, he plans to add 100 acres to the 38 acres he already has. With more people wanting to grow their own food, there is also a huge demand for training in urban farming.

“Almost 100 people attend our workshops every month at our multifunctional farm in Aya Nagar in Delhi,” says Mandawewala. At the farm, the classes are held both in the open and the classroom, a bare brick structure with a mud floor and a blackboard.

The farmers who lease out their land for community farming, Gupta says, benefit too. “Many of these farmers generally get about Rs 8,000 per acre annually for giving their land on Batai to landless farmers. We lease large tracts of land from them and pay thrice as much,” he says.

“I would not make more than Rs 25,000 a year if I cultivated an acre of my land,” says Satinder Singh, a farmer who has leased out two acres of his land for the Green Leaf India community’s urban farmers. He is also one of the nine people the community has hired to help with cultivating the 52 farms. “I am the manager of these farms,” says Singh. “It is a good experience working with the city people.”

Dr. Anand Kumar Singh, deputy director general (horticulture) at Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), says that urban dwellers growing their own vegetables is a positive sign for the society, environment and sustainability. “It is a fact that vegetables available in the market are not safe. Besides, it helps the environment because locally produced vegetables eliminate the need for all that fuel-guzzling transportation, reducing emissions. It also minimizes waste,” says Singh.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 10-30% of produce is spoilt during transit in developing countries.

Urban farming, says Prof. Anirudh Garg of Institute of Urban Farming and Sustainability, is likely to take the form of a social movement in the coming years. “It is the need of our expanding cities. I firmly believe Indian cities can grow their own vegetables. When we talk about urban farming, we need to focus on horticulture with innovative technological interventions and not agriculture,” says Garg.