How a Kerala family shows the way towards subsistence farming

While a 20-cent plot of land in on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram cradles their own paddy fields, a well-maintained kitchen garden on the terrace of Uma Maheshwaran’s city residence provides enough vegetables for day-to-day needs

Does it sound puzzling that Uma Maheshwaran and his family does not ‘buy’ rice at all, or for that matter, most of the vegetables out in the market? Not that they are into any fad diet, rather, the four of them have learnt the art of “self-sustenance” through subsistence agriculture.

While a 20-cent plot of land in Vilavoorkkal near Malayinkeezhu on the outskirts of the city cradles their own paddy fields, a well-maintained kitchen garden on the terrace of their Kowdiar residence provides them with enough for day-to-day needs. Adding to this is the six-cent land around the house where some indispensable spices such as ginger, turmeric and black pepper, bananas and tubers such as chena, chemb and kaachil are cultivated.

“We make our subsistence agriculture activities a fun family affair. Farming is a hobby of mine and I take to the fields after work hours, weekends and holidays,” says Uma Maheshwaran, a Professor at the Department of Plant of Plant Pathology at the College of Agriculture, Vellayani. He bought the plot at Vilavoorkkal in 2008 for the purpose of starting his own farming. For land preparation that involves ploughing and levelling, he ropes in the help of Krishi Bhavan workers. Planting of saplings is done using the transplanting method and a portion of the plot serves as a nursery where seedlings are raised.

Not dampened by the rains, the family recently “celebrated” another harvest, this time procuring about 400 kg of the Jyothy rice variety. “All our rice requirements are met throughout the year from our own fields. Any surplus is usually given off to kith and kin,” explains Uma Maheshwaran.

For the last two crop seasons, he cultivated the long and red Jyothy variety, having previously harvested the high-yielding, short-duration Prathyasha variety and the medium-duration Aishwarya as well. As the paddy crop duration is generally a little over three months, Uma Maheshwaran cultivates pulses on the plot during summer, when he manages to get a yield of close to 10 kg a year. He says one or two local labourers are employed for threshing, while the professor himself chips in.

On the terrace of his single-story house, one can find a range of vegetables such as tomato, brinjal, bitter gourd, cluster beans, ladies’ finger and so on apart from red amaranth and a few varieties of chilli in eco-friendly grow bags.

Keeping it cool

  • Uma Maheshwaran says he uses basic farm implements. During the “cool season” during the November-January period, he grows vegetables such as cabbage and cauliflowers. “No matter how much care you give, pests and diseases are unavoidable since we do not use pesticides. Sometimes, I spray organic pesticides like neem-garlic oil if required,” he says.

“Perhaps, three essential items that we cannot grow on our terrace are onions, potatoes and garlic as they flourish more in cool climates,” says his wife, Rajasree MR, Joint Director of Plant Protection, Krishi Directorate. She says every Sunday morning, the couple makes it a point to visit their Vilavoorkkal plot for weeding and examination of crop health.

Anand U, a banker, says he developed a passion for farming right from a young age, learning from his green-thumbed parents. “For me, farming feels like a refreshing break from an otherwise hectic and monotonous schedule. It also helps you be in close communion with Nature,” adds Anand, now posted in Thrissur.

For Aparna Raju, farming came a “new” experience when she became part of the family after tying the knot with Anand but says she took to it like a duck to water. Now, in her father-in-law’s absence, she makes it a point to water and prune the plants on the terrace. “What I have learnt from my experience is that farming is not a hard row to hoe. In fact, anybody can do it,” she says.

The family is also focusing on apiculture, for the twin benefits of promoting cross-pollution for their terrace farming as well as to harvest honey for own use. A vermicompost pit set up in their backyard helps in recycling kitchen and farm waste and use the same as organic fertiliser for the plants.

They want to promote sustainable subsistence agriculture not just to set an example against the growing menace of food adulteration in a mass consumption-driven culture but to highlight “the trails and tribulations” small-scale farmers go through.

For now, it’s about making hay while the sun shines!

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