For more than a decade, I was conscious that the food and water my family was consuming was contaminated. I was convinced that uncontaminated food and water will be the single most important resource in the future. In 2010, when a friend told me about permaculture and how it focuses on creating a sustainable ecosystem rather than farming for farming's sake, I knew it could help me grow my own food.
Daunting as it was, to run a farm with a full-time corporate job in Mumbai, my husband and I decided to acquire land near our hometown, Chandigarh. Rosemary Morrow’s The Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture became my first handbook for putting permaculture into practice. Today, the four hectares of land is 80 per cent self-sufficient in food, and we are proud to say that everything that grows in North India, we grow at Aanandaa.
What was a barren land six years ago is now a closed canopy with more than 500 fruit trees, including mangoes, litchi, sapota, peaches, pears, bananas, papayas, figs, pomegranates, lemons, oranges, tangerines, and guavas. There are birds and bees. Wild hare, monitor lizards, a variety of snakes and mongoose have made the forest their home. Neelgai or blue bull and wild boars are occasional nocturnal visitors. Our crops are doing well, especially wheat, millet, pulses, legumes, and oil seeds. There are 4,500 trees from almost every local species. The water channels, swales, ponds and pools which intersperse the farm, give precious groundwater to the trees throughout the year.
However, we still have a 50-50 success rate with vegetables. Our ponds still do not retain water through the year. We still need to till some part of the land, but we know that each year we are getting better and that’s what matters.
The journey wasn’t easy. We could visit the farm only once every six weeks. Many things didn’t work out initially. The vegetables just wouldn’t grow, the fruits would not ripen, or crops would catch fungal rot. Our farm help recommended chemicals to boost productivity or keep the wild animals away, but we stuck to our guns. We tolerated failed crops and other damages, but never compromised on our principles (See box).
We learnt everything ourselves. We watched videos, read articles and books by permaculture practitioners. Besides, experimentation was key for us. For instance, this year we made new forays into seed saving and are almost self-reliant in terms of seeds. We have also introduced and adopted crop rotation.
Since we shifted to Gurugram, Haryana last year, I am more active in the local organic farmer’s movement, and I have started interacting with organic and permaculture farmers in Chandigarh. Although many visit the farm for an introductory session on permaculture, my
immediate neighbours are reluctant to give up chemical farming, and adopt a holistic approach as they cannot possibly endure even a few years of loss. Although I must mention that I have influenced them to plant more trees, and that’s a start. Anyway, I believe that organic revolution has to be driven by the more affluent urban farmers, who can afford to invest in the ecosystem without the need for immediate returns.
At a farm, everyday is a new day. I am continuously observing nature, reading, experimenting and applying changes to the farm to move it a notch higher every year. I feel it’s an evergrowing farm, both literally and figuratively.
We went looking for uncontaminated food and water, but got much more in this journey. The farm has become my family’s go-to place for every long weekend and holiday. Our daughters spend more time with nature than at malls and restaurants. We are proud they know trees by their names, have compassion for animals, and are conscious that in nature there is no waste.
We became in sync with the cycles of nature. Seasons are much more than a mere change in temperature. We also got attuned to the lunar cycles, which are closely linked with sowing and harvesting, and the monsoons became the most important event in our annual calendar. We turned vegan when we realised that the animals we play with are treated cruelly in slaughterhouses. We stopped fearing death as we saw birds and animals turn to dust and give way to beautiful trees instead. Buying is longer as attractive as it used to be.
Our friends tell us that we are living their dream. But this dream can become a reality for all of us. In an agrarian country like India, almost each of us has roots in the rural hinterland. I would urge everyone to reclaim a piece of land they may have in the family village, or plan to acquire one at the earliest (instead of that new car). If health is wealth, then growing your own food is the new gold.
Permaculture practices followed at Aanandaa
Water management: The first task was to dig a borewell, which continues to be our primary source of water. Besides, we have two ponds and four shallow pools to store runoff water from the hills. Mulching also helped reduce the watering rate.
Boundary: Locally grown bougainvillea was used as a green fence instead of concrete or metals.
Tree plantation: In our first monsoon in 2011, we planted over 1,000 trees across windbreaks, native forest trees, ornamental avenue trees and fruit trees. Six years later, there are 4,500 trees.
Zoning: There are four zones, beginning from zero, which is meant for human habitation. Close to the first zone is zone 1, where we grow vegetables and herbs. A fruit orchard is zone 2, and zone 3 is a field for crops. Zone 4 is a forest, a little more than a hectare, for animals, both wild and domesticated.
Mulching: In the beginning, there was no source of mulch as the farm was a barren piece of land. A year after we began, the saplings were wilting even though we were watering them twice a day. To mulch all the saplings, we bought truck loads of wood chips from a local wood chip processing plant. The watering rate reduced from twice a day to once in 3-4 days.
Tilling: Although permaculture discourages tilling, we till just our fields, but only with a bull drawn plough. Since we have grown perennial crops, we have liberated ourselves from the drudgery of planting-harvesting-replanting every year.
Animals: We introduced animals to add to the ecosystem. Cows, goats, hens, geese, and dogs play an important role at Aanandaa. Apart from the domesticated animals, we have a wide variety of birds visiting us now.
Diverse crops: We grow different varieties and species to avoid being dependent on one particular source of food. Pest attacks are reduced and more importantly, crop failure is not that huge a risk.
As a lead up to the 13th International Permaculture Convergence, Down To Earth presents a series of blogs on permaculture in India. Organised by Aranya Agricultural Alternatives, IPC will be held in November 2017.