Meet the people growing food forests in their backyards
To the untrained eye, a permaculture farm may look like a patch of wilderness in a neglected backyard. When it looks like that, you know it’s working.
The idea is to switch from the slash-and-burn model of agriculture to a gentler, more permanent formula where fruit trees shade vegetable patches, perennial plants grow, are picked and plucked from, perish, form mulch, feed other plants, and start over. Where birds can eventually make their homes — traditional agriculture is notorious for not supporting other life forms; where bees and insects thrive, and eventually small animals arrive to nibble or hunt. Where Man has only a passing influence.
You can grow herbs, or raise chickens; put in a rainwater harvesting pond or create an artificial lake. Plant your vegetables in rows. But then you ideally just tend to the various elements as they interact and evolve into what looks, more or less, like that patch of wilderness.
A permaculture plot can be as small as a single acre or as large as a forest. Peter Fernandes and Rosie Harding’s is just a 600-sq-m kitchen garden in Goa, converted, while Narsanna Koppula, a permaculture advocate in Telangana, has an 11.5-acre sprawl.
On a typical plot, tall trees form an outer perimeter. Trees with large canopies are planted here and there, to offer shade to the shrubs. Perennials like lemongrass, tulsi, kadipatta and drumstick offer diversity and contribute mulch.
The inner zones are carefully designed to grow nutrient-intensive cash crops like maize along with legumes like beans, which provide nitrogen to enrich the soil.
“It’s not just a set of farming techniques, but guidelines to designing a system where flora and fauna not only co-exist but benefit from each other,” says Koppula, 60. For 32 years, he’s been helping others learn how, in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh (AP), Odisha, Kerala and Maharashtra.
He’s worked with NABARD and the AP government on sustainable agriculture projects. In 2013, he started teaching a 72-hour Permaculture Design Course (PDC), spread across 12 days, to enthusiasts. “I’ve had over 1,150 PDC graduates so far,” he says.
These enthusiasts include former techies and executives looking for a fresh start, organic growers looking for an even more sustainable formula, and youngsters seeking a return to the simple life.
The term permaculture was coined by Australian biologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1974, when they were researching systems for sustainable perennial agriculture.
In 1986, Mollison, along with educator Robyn Francis, conducted the first one-day permaculture workshop in India, in Hyderabad; the following year, they held a 12-day PDC. Thirty participants from India and Nepal attended. Koppula was among them.
“What was interesting to me, as someone then working with an agricultural NGO, was to see if this model was possible in semi-arid, drought-prone areas in AP,” he says. “The more I was successful, the more interested I got in telling others about it.”
His success included slowly switching his entire family plot to permaculture. He then began spreading the word among local farmers, starting with the simplest steps — like rainwater harvesting and aquaculture.
“The interest in permaculture farming has grown dramatically in recent years,” he says. “Most takers for the PDCs used to be foreigner tourists looking to volunteer on an Indian farm. Then came a few urban farmers. Last year, we had 30 people sign up every month, for either the shorter 6-day PDC or the full 12-day one.”
Devinder Sharma, an agricultural scientist and food and trade policy analyst, believes it is time the government stepped in to promote permaculture among traditional farmers, through policies and subsidies. “The concept has been picking up in India for a couple of years now, but remains popular mainly among the once-urban, organic type of farmer,” he says. “Given that agro-ecological farming is crucial to India, these principles can and should be adopted by traditional farmers, slowly and steadily.”
FROM ONE FARM TO 11
Connecting with locals and spreading the word is one of the 12 principles of permaculture. So, most permaculturists look beyond creating food forests.
So when Shagun Singh started Geeli Mitti farms in Nainital in 2016, her goal was to help rural families in the vicinity redesign their farms too. The former marketing executive was introduced to the approach on a backpacking trip through Thailand. She then came across perma-farms on similar trips through Cambodia, Turkey and the US.
In 2015, she decided not to wait until retirement to start her own permaculture farm. She signed up for a 12-day PDC and bought a 1-acre plot. She has since been conducting her own PDCs.
She’s also now working with a team of 30 students, volunteers and ‘interns’ to help redesign 11 farms in the neighbourhood, each covering between three and five acres.
Volunteers work on the farms for five hours, six days a week, in return for food and lodging, and the hands-on experience. Interns may earn an additional stipend depending on their skill sets and expertise.
From rainwater harvesting and reviving local ponds to introducing plant diversity, they’ve engineered slow but steady change in these fields. “We’ve explained the importance of dividing land into zones so that you can grow food for self-sustenance and for commercial use,” says Singh, 37.
Some of the farmers now grow wheat, ragi and peas for themselves, while growing mushrooms for sale. Many have begun commercial beekeeping, selling the honey and benefiting from the natural pollination. “We are planning to dig little ponds near the farms to harvest rain water in the coming monsoon and sustain local fish, which is an additional source of income,” adds Singh. This water, which is richer in nutrients, is used to irrigate the farm and improve soil fertility.
A ROUGH START
Economist Kunal Khanna, 32, and his American wife Laura Christie Khanna, 29, moved from Australia to Khanna’s family plot in Panchgani in 2018, because they wanted to live a farm life. Laura had done a PDC in Australia, and decided to convert their barren 1-acre plot called The Odd Gumnut.
“The soil was hard laterite clay overgrown with weeds. We removed them and sowed a cover crop of legumes to improve soil health,” she says. Then they left, on a one-month trip to Europe.
“We actually hoped to come home to a good harvest,” says Kunal, laughing. “We had got an important step wrong. When we returned we found 98% of the seeds hadn’t sprouted, and the weeds were back, and growing more aggressively.”
The couple decided to take it more seriously, and have started sheet mulching, which tries to mimic natural forest processes to eliminate unwanted plant material and improve soil quality. “We have layered the soil with vegetable waste, manure, leaves and straw and will leave it like this for a few months,” says Laura.
They plan to grow cucumber, zucchini, tomato, watermelon and basil, for consumption and sale.
They’re using their own grey water (reusable waste water from baths, kitchen sinks, washing machines etc) for irrigation, which means they’ve had to make a few big lifestyle changes to ensure chemicals don’t kill their crops.
“I use only natural products like reetha and shikakai in my hair, and yoghurt as a natural conditioner,” Laura says. “Besan makes for an excellent face wash and we use ash and lemon rind to clean our vessels.”
Their next big step will be building a compost toilet that will turn excreta into compost. “So far, visiting relatives have been in awe of how we’ve managed to change our entire lifestyle, but I don’t know if having to use a compost toilet will change their opinion,” she laughs.
A NEW CODE TO LIVE BY
When Peter Fernandes and Rosie Harding, both 49, started growing organic vegetables about seven years ago in their 600-sq-metre kitchen garden in Assagao, Goa, it was because they wanted fresh, chemical-free produce.
By 2013, they had heard about an online PDC by Geoff Lawton, an Australian student of Bill Mollison, and were intrigued. “We signed up for the course that ran over eight months,” says Fernandes. The online course offers video clips, e-books and a 24x7 community of permaculture students and instructors.
“This gives you enough time to understand the concepts, try them out and come back with doubts and questions, which we found very helpful,” he says.
Their home is now surrounded by poultry, geese, guinea fowl, an apiary, and scores of edible plants and trees, including mango, guava and water apples, gourds, beans, herbs and chillies, none of which is sold. “Not having any commercial commitments helps us experiment with different methods and species, allowing us to constantly expand and refine our knowledge base, ” Fernandes says.
LIKE A BRANCH OF MATHS
Marketing executive Vahishta Mistry and his wife Neha Sumitran, 32, a journalist, both quit their jobs in 2017, to live off a farm. “We’d always discuss how it would be fun to eat what we grow, so when we got married, we just knew this was what we were aiming for,” says Mistry, 36.
By the end of 2017, they had saved up enough to move to a relative’s house in Kodaikanal, bartering to complete a course in permaculture by helping the host in the kitchen.
“For 14 days, Neha and I took turns to attend the sessions, while the other did market runs, designed lunch menus and oversaw the kitchen,” Mistry explains. Then they moved to working on other farms, in Ooty, Goa and Faizabad. After months of interning at farms, they are now in the process of buying a little plot in Kodaikanal where they can practise permaculture.
“The early exhilaration of packing your bags and leaving for a farm to grow your own food is nothing once you realise that permaculture is not really about embracing a new trend but almost like a branch of mathematics, where you are constantly designing and redesigning layouts in your head,” Mistry says.