The Shetty farm model

Engineer couple try out rainfed farming

By Aparna Pallavi
Published: Saturday 15 May 2010

The Shetty farm model

“This is our palace,” says 60-year-old N Ravindranath Shetty, as he welcomes one to his home with a grin. The palace he refers to is a 240 square feet single-room house made of clay bricks, roofed with coconut thatch and tarpaulin. An incredulous stare elicits an explanation: “Since we moved here, my wife and I spend all our time outdoors. This is all we need by way of a house.”

Ravindranath and Saraswati worked as engineers with the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. When they bought a 0.5 hectare agricultural plot in Marasara-halli village in Tumkur district of Karnataka to settle down after retirement, their friends in Bengaluru expected them to build a modern farmhouse; there are several in the area.

No AC, fridge
But the Shettys are content without such a farmhouse. In the past five years, they have rejuvenated the agricultural plot the natural way. “We belong to farmers’ families. As children we grew crops the organic way without knowing it. Later, as we moved out of farming and attained so-called social status, I noticed, in a parallel development, that beautiful process (organic farming) was coming apart,” said Ravindranath. Investment and income targets began to dominate agriculture. “The intense interaction with nature that is the soul of farming practice disappeared,” added Saraswati.

So, after retirement, the Shettys decided to return to land but minus city trappings. Ravindranath retired first and proceeded to build the house using materials available locally—stone, hollow clay bricks, wood and thatch. His wife helped as and when work permitted. The couple planted indigenous trees, including 400 fruit bearing ones.

“To prevent soil erosion, we dug a trench all around the plot. As we had decided against digging a well, installing borewell or taking piped water connection, we dug a small pond for irrigation,” said Saraswati. The only extra labour the Shettys used was when they hired an excavator to dig the trench and the pond and for building their house; they chose to do the rest of the work like digging, mulching and watering themselves. Initially they had to buy farmyard manure, but within two years the couple were growing varieties of legumes and working the plant waste back into the soil. The Shettys grow pulses, ragi, groundnuts, vegetables and other crops to meet their needs. “Our dependence on the market for food has reduced by half,” said Ravindranath. “In a year or two, the fruit trees will also start yielding income. Timber trees like silver oak provide long-term financial security,” he added.

Only rainwater
Living entirely on rainwater was more of a challenge. To minimize use of water for irrigation, the Shettys dug shallow trenches at regular intervals to trap rainwater. They also pressed plant waste into the trenches and the base of trees. The compost made the land porous and the spreading tree roots have better access to nutrients and water this way, said Ravindranath.

The Shettys also realized water harvested from the thatch roof was difficult to purify. So, last year, they constructed an underground storage tank with 15,000 litre capacity. They now plan to buy a cattle or two.

“The farming model the Shettys have evolved is a positive one for marginal farmers who depend on monsoons,” said G Krishna Prasad, secretary of Sahaja Samruddha, an organic farmers’ association of Karnataka. It also teaches urban weekend farmers around Bengaluru how “not to create tensions in the cash-strapped rural community by bringing disproportionate amounts of money into rural parts,” he added. Saraswati, he pointed out, works for the community and helps other farmers sell their produce in Bengaluru.

Ravindranath has a simple answer to those who are shocked by the drastic change in the couple’s lifestyle: “If not us, then who? If not now, when?”

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