Connect with the Farmer

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A local market in Bangalore
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Photograph by Pooja Nayak

In recent years, there has been a serious disconnect between the consumer and the farmer. By the time we finally consume food, not only has it travelled a lot from the plot to the plate, but it has also undergone so many modifications that what we finally get is a mere ‘product’. Many of us would have hardly met or chatted with someone who grows our food; much less visited their farms and understood what it takes to grow food.

This could be symptomatic of the larger problem of ‘disconnect’ that we are collectively facing in so many ways, perhaps because we don’t deal directly with people who provide us our ‘goods and services’ anymore. For instance, we buy food off aisles in supermarkets, where they have arrived well-packaged, ready for us to drop into the cart. Consumers now have a chance to interact with farmers growing fresh organic vegetables and fruits with the beginning of the first weekly Farmers’ Market in Mumbai.

This disconnect could very well be an outcome of relentlessly pursuing industrialization which revolves around the tenets of ‘specialization, standardization, and centralization of decision making’. In fact, if we examine industrialization’s impact on food, we can see that at every stage we seem to be going further away from the source, further away from the producers, and therefore further away from what may be personally and carefully cultivated with a lot of hard work and sweat.

It is with the idea of bridging this disconnect between the consumers and the farmers, and making the idea of fresh organic vegetable-buying interactive, that Kavita Mukhi - a naturalist, farmer and eco-nutritionist - is putting together helping put together a farmer’s market in the heart of urban Mumbai.

Though Kavita spent the first few years of her life on a farm, it is only recently that she reconnected at a deeper level with soil. The earth, she says, had always been beckoning, but she took longer to finally move to her farm in Alibaug, a seaside town near Mumbai. Her farm is where she spends most of her time growing vegetables and making interesting modifications to her house to make it as ecologically sensitive as possible.

Her movement towards organic food, health and nutrition started in the 1980s when she was a young first-time mother, who found doctors and other people giving her advice that did not make sense to her. She felt as if the simple, basic truths about nature’s ways were neglected; rather than being encouraged to use common sense and intuition to take care of her child, she was being pushed to get dependent on a complicated medical and nutrition system.

Meeting and hosting Masanobu Fukuoka, the pioneering Japanese farmer & philosopher (One-Straw Revolution) was a turning point, which finally culminated in her helping organize the first Natural Farming Conference at Bordi in Maharashtra in 1990. The conference was a defining moment in many ways, for it helped her establish relationships with farmers and these have deepened with time.

With a 100 square foot space that was gifted to her by the late Nari Gandhi (a natural architect), she started an outlet for dry, organic and health foods called Conscious Food, that today sells in Mumbai as well as other urban cities. She has bought directly from the farmers over many years - and this has helped, as they now see her as a friend and a fellow supporter.

Earth Connections

Over the years, Kavita feels she’s only grown more in awe of the wonders of Nature; the bounty of the earth is so magical, even when the seeds are not planted - needing only a bit of rain to sprout. Small farmers are constantly a witness to this abundance of nature – and ‘they’ are the real scientists in agriculture.

Sir Albert Howard, an English botanist and an organic farming pioneer who studied Indian Agriculture for 25 years, wrote about the wisdom of the farmer, who, over centuries discovered bio-diversity, mixed cropping, maintaining the richness of the soil and without any external inputs as the secrets of stability and sustainability of farming in India.

He says, “…the peasants of the East have anticipated and acted upon the solution to one of the problems which western science is only just beginning to recognize. Whatever may be the reason why crops thrive best when associated with suitable combinations, the fact remains that mixed culture generally gives better results than monoculture.” (Sir Albert Howard, ‘An Agricultural Testament’ Other India Press / RFSTE, 2000, p13)

A farmer knows how to preserve a truly natural open pollinated seed that contains the potential of feeding our millions, and how to give his farm the care that biodiverse natural farming requires. The Green Revolution, reductionist science that brought in NPK and pesticides which gave high productivity in the short run but degraded the land has devalued the farmer and also brought in diseases.

Kavita connects this macro chemicalization of agriculture with instances such as a train going to Bikaner being renamed the ‘Cancer Express’, because a large number of villagers (mostly farmers and their families) travelled in it to go to the cancer hospital in Bikaner!

GM seeds: What they mean for us, our farmers and the Earth

The recent debates and consultations over the Bt Brinjal have proved that the Farmers’ Markets are definitely necessary. India’s self-reliance has already been attacked when hybrid seeds flooded the market – Monsanto owns or controls over 60% of the seed companies in India. GM foods will bring in a far greater danger.

Listening to the various experts - a mix of farmers, scientists, and concerned individuals- at the Bt consultations held at Delhi in January made Kavita all the more determined to ensure that something be done about educating consumers about healthy, pesticide-free, GM-free, all-natural foods.

Their concerns and arguments about the ill-effects of genetically modified food confirmed that GM does not just play with the health of the millions or the health of the soil; it messes with livelihoods, with our minds, our souls, with our traditions and with our heritage. The MNCs’ strategy, she is sure, is to enslave the entire nation by controlling agriculture and food.

Farmers’ Market: Ensuring food security and safety

Organizing a Farmers’ Market is Kavita’s initiative towards dispelling myths about food and farming. It is her way of informing the consumer of the even greater need today of organic food. She feels that it is imperative that we rethink the way we live and realize the impact our purchases have on the earth.‘We have with every decision, seen to it that farmers remain so poor that even small amounts of money offered (often only the hope of a better income) by corporations forces them to use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid seeds & now the latest genetically modified (GM) seeds. ‘

Another important point is that since labeling laws for GM & non-GM foods are not yet in place - and there is an obvious difficulty in labeling fresh fruits and vegetables- the Farmers’ Market becomes of even more consequence.

She is happy that the farmers are equally excited about the event. There are about 25 farmers from Maharashtra with a variety of vegetables and a profusion of fruits like grapes, mangoes, strawberries, pomegranates, custard apples, guavas, chickoos, oranges, watermelons, bananas & papayas- all organically certified.

The idea of the market is also to expand it as a platform for the farmer to do away with the middleman, earn a small premium and see his efforts reach people who appreciate the goodness of food as it is meant to be. Since it is a community-oriented initiative, it will also be an interactive space, with relevant films being shown through the day, awareness posters and talks, some organic tea and snacks.

Some of the challenges include the coordination with farmers, dealing with produce that are dependent on weather conditions, financing operations, and the price of space and advertising, which is exorbitant in Mumbai.

The time has come for the idea of the farmers market, and she is overwhelmed by the response she has got through emails and online groups. ‘As long as the people want it, there will always be a Farmers’ Market’, she says. But for the present, their main challenge, she declares, is letting people know of these Organic Sundays. So do pass the word around in Mumbai and drop in for some fresh-off-the-farm organic vegetables and fruits!

 

‘Organic Sundays’ will be held every Sunday between 10am & 5pm at Nilgiri Garden, Bandra Hindu Association, just off Linking Road, in the vicinity of National College, Bandra (W). Bring your kids and your carry bags! For details you can write to Kavita Mukhi at farmersmarket@kavitamukhi.com