Techie turned farmer Jai Ganesh talks about why he left his job in the US to take up farming in Vellore and why the kids of today need to know more about healthy food and what goes into growing them.
By Ashwin Lobo
Amidst the heavy traffic, high-rise buildings and shopping malls, it can be difficult to remember that most Indians still live in villages and work on farms. When we buy fruits and vegetables from the market, we rarely stop to think of the farmer who worked so hard to grow them.
To honour these hardworking folks, to whom we owe the food on our plates, Kisan Diwas or National Farmer’s Day is celebrated every year on 23 December. We decided to catch up with an organic farmer, Jai Ganesh, to hear his views on chemicals in our food, what a career in farming feels like and why parents should help their children connect with nature and farming.
When did you first hear about organic farming?
I grew up in a village and was brought up in an agricultural family. My family has a 33-acre plot of land in the Vellore district of Tamil Nadu and my father worked on it full-time. He was engaged only in chemical farming. I knew nothing about organic farming and first came across the term ‘organic’ while shopping at a supermarket. I saw that they had a section dedicated exclusively to organic produce. I was surprised to see that the organic produce was more expensive than the other fruits and vegetables. This piqued my interest in the subject, so I did some research and learnt about organic farming.
How did you shift careers from IT to organic farming?
I’m an ME in Computers and graduated from Anna University. After graduating, I started working in a software company and was posted in the United States. In 2002, I returned from the US to get married. I approached my father and told him I wanted to work on the farm. My father was very upset when I expressed this desire to him. He was completely against me quitting my job to pursue farming. So, I told him that I would continue working at the software company and do some farm work in my free time. My first foray into organic farming was in 2006. I started with organic cultivation of mangoes. However, since I was still working at the software company, I could only farm during the weekends. My friends were my first customers. They were quite pleased with the quality of vegetables that I sent them and asked me to ramp up the business. In 2008, I opened a small organic shop in my apartment. Meanwhile, the demand for organic produce kept growing and I had to keep expanding. In 2015, I finally quit my job at the software company. I dedicated all my time toward organic farming and built my business. We have three outlets in Chennai and we also sell produce through our website organictapovana.com. We provide a number of organic products including vegetables, fruits, country chicken eggs, rice and pulses.
How does chemical farming harm our bodies and the environment?
My father is a great case study to answer this question. He worked in chemical farming all his life. He used a lot of chemical fertilisers and pesticides on his farm. Five years back, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. When we consulted the doctor, he asked what my father’s profession was. When we disclosed that my father was a farmer, the doctor was sure that the chemicals used on the farm had caused the Parkinson’s.
Chemical farming doesn’t just harm us humans though, it also seriously damages the land. My grandfather was also a farmer. He worked on the same land. He used organic methods only, since chemical fertilisers were not popular in India when he was farming. He simply used cow dung manure to fertilise his crops. When my father shifted to chemical farming, it greatly affected the land. My grandfather managed to harvest 100 sacks of rice from a five-acre plot of land. Using chemicals, my father struggled to even generate 50 sacks of rice from the same land. The chemicals used on the soil not only led to the loss of nutrients but also killed earthworms that are vital to the health of the soil. Chemical fertilisers may boost production in the short-term but in the long-run they seriously damage the land and result in huge losses for farmers.
In India, most parents would discourage their children from becoming farmers. How can parents and schools build an interest in sustainable agriculture?
It’s a sad situation in India. Even when children have a passion for farming, parents do not allow them to do this. A lot of parents have the view that farming is not a good profession. What they don’t realise is that without farmers, they wouldn’t have food to eat. This attitude needs to change if children are to be motivated to learn about farming. My belief is that students should be given some basic training on farming at the school level, just like they are given training in dance, drama and arts. So, children should be given an introduction to farming while they continue with their studies.
How do you think people living in urban areas can make a difference in the sustainability space?
In urban areas, people wonder how to spend their weekends. They should take trips to nearby villages on the weekend. There they can work on the fields alongside the farmers. They can also do tasks like ploughing and removing weeds. Instead of spending money in the gym, they can get fit naturally in the fields. If city folk aren’t willing to do physical labour, they can help farmers in other ways as well. A group of like-minded people can form an association and help farmers with interest-free loans, providing organic manure, or getting them cows, which are a source of income. There’s a lot of scope for urban people to help farmers.
Why do you think it’s important for people in cities, especially children, to know about farmers and agriculture?
I took some students to my farm in Vellore. One of the students asked me, “Where is the rice tree?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or be ashamed. Everybody says that India is an agricultural country, but students still don’t know where rice comes from. When people go to restaurants to eat, there are a lot of chutneys available. Instead of explaining what they are to their children, parents simply call them ‘green chutney’, ‘white chutney’ or ‘orange chutney’. Instead, what they should be telling children is that this is ‘pudina chutney’, ‘coconut chutney’ or ‘tomato chutney’. Without even this basic knowledge, it’s very difficult for children to feel a connection with the farmers who grow their food. In our farm, every three months we arrange a ‘Know your farmer’ programme. We take people on eco-tours around the farm. There, we introduce the farmers to them. Thus, our customers actually get to meet the farmers who grow the food they eat. Through these face-to-face meetings, people understand more about the work a farmer puts in.
Why do you think that it’s important for people to connect with nature and go back to the roots?
Every person in India has his roots in a village. If a city-dweller traces his ancestry back far enough, he will know which generation of his family moved away from the village. When city folk come to visit our farm, they feel really rejuvenated to be in such natural surroundings. We’ve got a lot of feedback from people who say that their stress levels have been reduced just by visiting our farm for a day or two. I definitely see a change in people’s attitude when they visit an organic farm.
How do you inspire your own child to take up farming?
Even though I was brought up in a village, my father didn’t train me in farming. Later on, when I discovered my passion for farming, I had to learn it from scratch — how to sow a seed, how to plough the field and how to harvest the crops. When it comes to my own child, I just take him to visit the farm. He’s a smart, carefree 12-year-old. I don’t force him to do anything. I just ask him to enjoy himself on the farm — eating mangoes or swimming in the well. As he’s having fun, I realise he’s also watching what I’m up to. Every once in a while, he offers to help. He’ll say “Appa, I’ll do the ploughing now” or “Let me pluck out the weeds, daddy”. So, without any force on my part, he is taking an interest in farming. The choice is left to him whether he wants to take it up as a profession or not. As a parent, I will simply introduce everything to him. Ultimately, the decision is his.
Even if you’ve lived in a city all your life, there’s no denying that a visit to a farm can rejuvenate you and your family’s health. So, this weekend, take your family to a farm and help your child reconnect with Mother Nature.
Jai Ganesh is the Director of Tapovana Organic Farms, Vellore.
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