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Shift Cultivation

A growing number of blue-chip professionals are turning from motherboard to mother earth. For some,farming is a way out of the IT race,and for others,an idyll that will last a lifetime.

Written by V Shoba | New Delhi |
November 7, 2010 1:28:55 pm

A growing number of blue-chip professionals are turning from motherboard to mother earth. For some,farming is a way out of the IT race,and for others,an idyll that will last a lifetime.

There’s an old joke about a farmer who won the lottery. Asked what he was going to do with the money,he replied that he would keep farming till it was all gone. For Vijay Sindagi,a fledgling organic farmer with a four-acre plot in Hesarghatta — 50 km from his residence in Whitefield,Bangalore — the lottery was information technology (IT) and he earned it over the course of two decades. In April this year,he quit as a chip designer at Texas Instruments,well aware that agriculture wouldn’t yield enough to cover the taxes he paid as a techie. Sindagi insists,however,that farming need not be a loss-making proposition. “It needs a fair bit of initial investment — my wife calls it an expensive hobby. But I have started seeing some money now and I believe the farm will pay for itself in three-four years,” says the 50-year-old,who made Rs 15,000-18,000 last summer from his first yield of mangoes — 300 kg from 50 trees.

When he bought the farm in 2003,he knew that a farmer’s life would be much more arduous than working eight hours a day in an air-conditioned cubicle — managing the farm’s operations from end to end,right from sowing and harvesting to bringing the produce to the city and bicycling to his friends’ houses to deliver it. It didn’t make a lot of sense as an alternate career,especially to someone with an untrained green thumb,but it did as a way of life he had always dreamed of. “Even as a child,I wanted to grow things. My grandfather had a patch of land near Belgaum where he used to farm. I thought it was a nice thing to do. Often,when you’re in the IT race,you get stuck there for a long time,I didn’t want that,” says Sindagi,who now spends anywhere between 30 and 70 hours a week working on the farm.

Sindagi is part of a growing tribe of IT professionals who are trading wealth and competitive living for a simple life on the farm. Shashi Kumar,an engineer with Wipro who lives on his farm in Chittanahalli,a village 90 km from Bangalore,and drives to his Electronic City office every day,says he knows at least a dozen techies who are growing food for the first time in their lives. “For some,it’s the need to get away from a sedentary life; for others,it’s a concern about chemicals in the food they buy. There’s a huge network of engineers-turned-farmers around Bangalore,” says the 37-year-old who comes from a family of farmers and grows organic vegetables and pulses on a three-acre patch of land.

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Srikanth MA,a validation and operations manager with Intel,Bangalore,and a weekend farmer who is determined to move into his eight-acre,all-natural farm in Maralwadi on Kanakapura Road in four-five years,says that of the 100-odd visitors he has had in the last four years,70 to 80 per cent were IT professionals. “Most of them visited with the intention of taking up organic farming at some point of time,” he says. The farm,an hour’s drive from his home,where he has built a humble,solar-powered cottage,is his dream-come-true. In the afternoon light quilting the greens,Srikanth’s wife Priti,a biologist,talks about how it all started,as she squeezes freshly picked passion fruit into a glass. “Srikanth had an acre of ancestral land near the city. When we visited it 10 years ago,we thought it would be nice to plant fruit trees there to attract birds. As we met traditional farmers,we realised we could also grow our own food,and ended up buying this piece of land,” she says.

Japanese farmer and visionary Masanobu Fukuoka’s book The One-Straw Revolution irreversibly altered their world view,and they became firm believers in his philosophy of letting nature do most of the work. “When we bought the land,it was hard as a cricket pitch. We first planted low-maintenance fruit trees and timber,then we found it was easy to grow tur and horsegram,now we’re trying out vegetables. The idea is to be almost self-sufficient,” says Srikanth.

Though he doesn’t till the land or de-weed it,there is a rich biodiversity on his farm — over 3,800 trees of 140 species,of which 40 species are fruit trees. “We use leaves and other organic matter like mulch and let weeds balance the nutrition content in the soil,” he says,as his seven-year-old son Sriram busies himself collecting strange trophies around the cattle shed — a dead spider,a weaver bird’s nest,a fly swaddled in spidery silk. “These are the priceless,intangible benefits of farm life. Sriram feels confined in our flat in the city. Here,he gets to do the things he likes — spot birds,collect worms for the vermicompost pit,chew sugarcane,play on the swing,climb trees,pick berries and guavas…” Srikanth says. The couple regularly supplies fruits and other produce to organic stores and to Bangalore’s first organic restaurant,Lumiere.

Lumiere,on Outer Ring Road,is Manjunath Pankkaparambil’s labour of love. A former software engineer with Oracle and once a green card aspirant,Manjunath moved from California to Bangalore in 2002,inspired by a meeting with Ambrose Kooliyath,a Gandhian who owned a health restaurant in Kochi. He had never watered a plant in his life but Manjunath bought a nine-acre plot of land in Kanthalloore,Munnar,to “experience farming”. As he began to grow organic carrot,cauliflower,broccoli and lettuce,the idea of a restaurant where he could use the produce took shape. Three and a half years ago,Manjunath started an organic restaurant in Kochi,and last year,another in Bangalore,with over 90 per cent of the ingredients,including milk and spices,sourced from his own farm and other organic farms in the neighbourhood. He grows spices like basil and parsley,besides a few vegetables,on his terrace and has also leased out land in Hosur for another farm. The 10,000 sq ft restaurant,furnished with natural fibre chairs from Kerala,serves delicious north Indian,south Indian and continental fare (and probably the softest paneer in town) at affordable prices. Manjunath is not breaking even yet,but he plans to establish an organic farmer’s market on one floor of the building and encourage agro-tourism.

Sateesh Natarajan,a former technical architect with Wipro,Bangalore,says most of his family’s food needs,are met by his two-acre farm on Kanakapura Road,30 km from the city. “I have been farming for 10 years now. Earlier,it was more of a hobby. It was in 2005 that I got serious and quit my job to move in to the farm,” says the 42-year-old who grows rice,dal,ragi and vegetables.

For most engineers-turned-farmers,agriculture is not a headlong leap into a pastoral life or a passing fancy,but a considered decision taken after years of planning and laying aside a neat nest egg. Sindagi,for instance,worked for a PSU,Bharat Electronics,for six years,before he realised he couldn’t afford even half an acre of land with the money he had saved. So he packed his bags and went to the University of Rhode Island,US,for a Master’s in computer engineering,then joined Texas Instruments,before returning to Bangalore in 1998. Even after quitting his job,Sindagi does not live on his farm since his 11-year-old son goes to school in Bangalore. “I don’t like the fact that I burn so much carbon,and eight litres of expensive fuel,every time I go to the farm,” he says.

For Sindagi,it’s one of the essential compromises as a farmer,an approximation of the ideal life he hopes to lead when his son is all grown up. And it’s something George Varghese,a 37-year-old mobile applications architect who moved into his farm in Sirsi,Karnataka,three years ago,did not want to settle for. “We bought the farm in 2007,when I had just come back after a year in the US and six years in Australia. For a few months,I worked in Bangalore,visiting the farm on weekends,but it wasn’t enough,” Varghese says.

So he worked out a work-from-home deal with the mobile phone company that employs him. “Even before I started working,the plan was to eventually live in a rural setting,closer to the roots,and grow my own food. We didn’t want to be anywhere near the city. Eventually,I want to do farming full time,” says the father of two toddlers,who is keen on home-schooling them. On his six-and-a-half-acre plot,he grows areca nut,paddy,sugarcane that is locally processed into jaggery,gooseberry,cashew,cardamom,pepper and a variety of fruits. “In a few years,the farm will take care of most of our food needs. We hope to make money from value-added products,do more bee-keeping next year and build a one-bedroom homestay cottage to supplement the income from the farm,” he says.

Making your farm pay for itself isn’t as easy as it sounds. Arun Kaulige,a software developer who grows legumes,coconuts,fruits and vegetables on his two-acre farm near Madhure,Doddaballapur Taluk,in Bangalore district,says it is possible for a family to live off land the size of his farm provided they train their frugal muscles,live on the farm and prevent unnecessary cash outflow,and practise traditional mixed cropping.

Sindagi started out with little knowledge about farming and has now grown vegetables worth Rs 2,000 on a 20×20 ft patch in one-and-a-half months. “I learned by trial and error,mostly error. I tried to grow kidney beans and green peas,for instance,and failed miserably,” he says. On the other hand,when he wanted to grow soyabean,a local agricultural scientist said it was impossible to grow it the organic way. “Fresh soyabean is rare to come by in Bangalore and I had just come back from a trip to Japan,where they serve it boiled and salted as a starter. But (despite the objections),I grew it anyway. I got a good yield that I was able to sell at a premium,” he says. Kaulige supplies 15-20 litres of milk every day and believes an acre of land is enough to produce food for eight families. “In a sense,farming is an engineering problem. You have to figure out how to source water,how much mechanisation you need,what to plant,and whether to hire labour,” he says.

The experience of growing one’s own food is humbling. For Manjunath and his family,it led to a perceptible shift in their lifestyle. His children,fresh converts to the green fold,avoid junk food and now attend Shibumi,an alternative school that runs on philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s idea of holistic education. Says Sindagi,“It makes you appreciate the value of money. We were a middle-class family and we will always be one.” Srikanth seconds that. Threading through the cool,spongy,quarter-acre patch of banana intercropped with areca nut and coffee,he says the family tends to eat what it grows. This weekend,it is country okra,a few tomatillos,a big bunch of greens,banana,papaya,guava,tubers and some citrus,loaded into crates and piled in the boot of his Scorpio.

“We don’t shop much. And whatever we need is available in the village market. When we are here at the farm,my wife cooks on a gobar gas stove. There is no food processor,she uses a mortar and pestle. It’s a simple,quiet life of hard work and deep satisfaction,” he says.

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