While searching for farm land, we had explored several parts of Tamil Nadu. Kodaikanal was one of them. It got dropped off the list because of difficulty of access and doubt of my family’s tolerance to colder climate for prolonged periods of time. But, no other place in Tamil Nadu came close to the beauty and the vistas this landscape had to offer. (Ooty and Coonoor come a close second.) The undulating terrain make access for large excavators and tractors tough. So, most of the forests in and around hills are and hopefully will continue to be well preserved compared to most other wet and dry rainforests in the plains and the plateaus of the country. Forests host an enormous amount of native as well as introduced biodiversity and are a major tool in humanity’s fight against climate change, species extinction and biodiversity loss.
In the dead end of a road off Shenbaganur near Kodaikanal, there is a beautiful community of people living sustainable peaceful lives in a land collective called Karuna Farm. They have taken degraded farm land next to a forest, where there used to be monocultures of potatoes on the hill slope and reforested the entire area with local species and fruit trees. They host guests to share knowledge and spread awareness of the benefits of living within a forest.
Vinay Parade is a part of the collective and also farms land adjacent to Karuna Farm. I met Vinay while we were simultaneously volunteering in 2017 at Solitude Farm & Organic Kitchen in Auroville, near Pondicherry. Over the years, we have been in touch as our journeys have had similar timelines of learning and experimenting. What he has created and developed in the past 5 years at his farm is nothing short of spectacular.
Farming next to a forest offers several advantages. The leaf litter from the trees provide excellent mulch and carbon to continuously enrich the soil. The beauty of farming in a no-till methodology is that fungi, mycelium, mycorrhizal networks do most of the job of nutrient management and pest management. (This topic needs several books to understand and unravel the mystery of fungi: look for recommendations in Reading List) The only jobs that is left for humans is to choose seeds, protect new plants from competitor weeds for the first few years and then harvest. The abundance and diversity of wild mushrooms around is only evidence of excellent soil health. No industrially exploited agricultural land on earth can even come close to the texture, smell and diversity of life in Prayogshala. It is this soil that civilization needs to mimic if we want to capture any carbon from the atmosphere using tested and ecologically-friendly life-enabling ways.
The steep slopes of the land have been transformed into terraces for ease of cultivation. In monocultures usually, not a single native tree is left behind when land is converted for agriculture. But people like Vinay who realize the importance of forest species retain as many as possible. Bananas are the highlight of these farms in forest clearings and can be spotted from a distance in the other hills overlooking the valley. The most amount of food for consumption by Vinay and his guests is produced by bananas. The banana orchard grows wild producing large and healthy bunches. The varieties are Malai Vaazhai, Naatu Vaazhai, Nendram, Sevvazhai. The bananas themselves produce so much biomass that there are parts of the farm where one has to remove innumerable layers of banana leaves and stems to reach the soil. The soil underneath teams with so much insect and microbial life that not many nutrients need to be fed artificially.
The trees that Vinay has introduced in his food forest are : Mango, jackfruit, avocado, guava, oranges, lemons, ramphal, tree tomato, passion fruits, jamun, papaya, sapota(chikoo), sweet lime, amla. The species that are in the testing phase are: Rosemary, chillies, lavender, geranium, lemongrass, mint, sweet potato, Coconut, maprang, ice cream bean, cacao, vanilla, mape sapota, miracle berry.
I am personally addicted to the passion fruit growing here – they are so tasty and crunchy I must have devoured a more than a dozen every day. Avocados are very buttery, as they should be and one of Vinay’s major income source from his produce.
Vinay is also cultivating oyster mushrooms for self consumption and for sale. We did a little prep work for new batches of oyster mushrooms together when I was there. The raw materials that were involved were hay, plastic buckets with holes for drainage and for mushroom growing, oyster mushroom spawns from Bangalore. It is a simple process and anyone with little space with drainage can grow them on even urban spaces.
Vinay’s place is accessible only after a walk of 4 kms from the nearest bus stop, 2 kms from the nearest car stop or 1 kms from the nearest jeep stop. The last 2 km walk borders a tall old eucalyptus forest to the south. The northern boundary of the farm, the last 1 kms, borders the old growth Tiger Sholai forest. It was named so because of presence of tigers in the past. It seems to be a part of a larger forest called Vellagavi forest which starts from beyond Vattakanal. Periyakulam-Adukkam Trail is a forest trail nearby. The narrow pathways along the forest boundaries and within the farms are the only way to transport produce. Some of the pathways have steep climbs and descents. So, carrying heavy weight to sell produce in the Kodaikanal market or outstation becomes a challenge at times, especially during monsoons. The best way to reduce weight and extend shelf life of produce is to dehydrate produce. The tasty jackfruits and bananas are transformed into dehydrated chips, which he then sells to people in his network.
The water source for all the settlements in and around this place are beautiful freshwater springs and streams emerging from the forest atop a hill nearby. The water can be had for drinking directly as there is no source of human contamination uphill. This place is 15 kms from the notorious now-defunct HUL factory, so no risk of mercury poisoning for sure. The location of Kodaikanal is such that it receives rainfall during the southwest as well as the northeast branches of the monsoon. And the rich forest like floor of the farm retains moisture through out the year, minimizing the need for manual irrigation.
Untapped potential is available in multiple layers in the farm and Vinay keeps introducing which ever species are conducive to growing in this climate one at a time. He has introduced stinging nettle, cardamom, rudraksh, chikkoos, more avocados over the years and continues to plant more diverse species every year. Most of the vegetables for the household right now come from Kodaikanal – it would serve him well to introduce as many vegetable species as possible. Potatoes are done in small patches when the season is right and because they are grown without any fossil-fuel based fertilizer and pesticide, they are small in size, but very tasty.
I didn’t feel like leaving Vinay and his farm after a week long stay to unwind, learn and exchange knowledge. I am very envious and proud of the kind of lifestyle he is leading: envious, because he is living in an environment that takes years to nurture; proud, because of the transformation he is bringing to the land and people around.