“Farms on the Hill Top” – An in depth view at the Rural Outreach program

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The following account speaks of the rural outreach program at the Sahyadri School. The program is both simple and complex depending on the lens and depth with which we look at it. At the first glance, it is a simple natural farming program, trying to advocate the blessings of the process to the nearby farming community. Simple and silent; just like most forces that are instrumental in the progress of our vast society.

 

In order to truly understand the work happening at the school farms, we will not only look at the practices followed here, but also the history and significance of these practices in the larger picture of education, agricultural societies and impact on society in general.

 

The human kind, considered to be the most intelligent species of all, is not as intelligent as the sparrow who knows which trees to fly to, or the wild who know how to hunt. We don’t know how to grow or source our food, but simply to buy it. The urban population is heavily dependent on its rural counterpart. A skill as essential as growing or sourcing your own food, is not considered to be as important to be a part of educating the child.

 

As the work on school campus farms have started, the involvement of students has gradually increased as well. The making of Paripurnamnal, and hands on sowing and harvesting by grade 9 students, has marked the beginning of students learning to touch the soil. When asked to share their experience, one word that students keep using is “satisfying”. A word which is usually used when there was a sense of void or incompletion, which is now filled. It indeed makes me think, if being around and in touch with nature, is essential for humans, in order to fill a pre-existing void, that cannot be fulfilled by anything else.

 

It is something to learn farming, and even more to learn from it. When we think of educating our children, a number of skills come to our mind, communication or oratory skills, skills of management, problem solving, and so on. A set of skills, that are extremely relevant to the jobs available in urban cities, and serve almost no value to the rural child. The education system designed for clerical at-desk jobs might curb the creativity of the urban child, but take the rural child away from so much of their wisdom. Getting the children to touch the soil teaches them the essential skill to source their food, puts them in a position to be able to challenge systems that encourage dependency on markets, understand the rich skill sets of rural communities as well as their systematic oppression.

 

These learnings were as long a process as the setting up of the farms themselves; a journey that started three years ago.

 

Prior to June 2016, Sahyadri School had been engaging with the neighbouring rural communities by way of teacher and student interactions with village schools, holding medical camps, sponsoring farmer training in organic / natural farming practices and field visits to model farms. These activities were however sporadic. In June 2016, School Outreach took on a more organized form when Deepa joined the school in the dual role of environmental faculty and coordinator of outreach activities. She wished to work with farmers in the school vicinity to understand and facilitate a move to sustainable livelihood creation that is in sync with the natural environment. This also happens to be in line with the school’s founding memorandum and the overall intent of environmental conservation.

 

The Outreach commenced with a native or indigenous seeds conservation programme in the first year itself with a starter pack of 37 indigenous rice varieties sourced from seeds conservationist Sanjay Patil of BAIF-Jawhar. Native or indigenous seeds are those that have been preserved and passed down generations as heirloom seeds and do not require any external inputs in terms of synthetic chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides.

 

Where the seed comes from, decides how dependent the farmer is on the system.

 

Seed conservation is practiced by getting your hands on at least one set of native seeds, growing them, identifying a patch in the harvest that grew better than the others, and using seeds from this patch, for the next cycle of farming. It facilitates the evolution of the crop, and makes the use of chemical pesticides and insecticides redundant. The indigenous seeds adapt better to climate change conditions and other resource constraints while yielding an assured farm output for sustenance purposes. Hybrid seeds on the other hand, come with a supposed promise of ‘high’ yield, and non-optional need to use chemicals. In other words, they come at a high price, additional costs, and unguaranteed quality of crops. Moreover, hybrid seeds push farmers into monocropping, the perils of which are devastating and need more time to be understood.

 

The seed conservation program thus, understands the “sovereignty of the seed” – the freedom from chemicals and the freedom to be the price maker  – which comes when a farmer holds and sows native seeds.

 

The importance of native seeds and natural farming practices is a topic of constant dialogue during weekly farmer meetings, organised for the purpose of training, interaction and exchange of ideas. Our initial efforts in conservation of indigenous rice seeds have now evolved into the creation of a mini seed bank that includes a variety of millets, cereals, lentils, oil and vegetable seeds and also a few medicinal plants. Demo plots for almost all crop varieties are implemented on campus to get a first hand and real time feel of issues on the ground. In addition, farmers are encouraged to account for all costs of farming and arrive at a suitable value of their produce for the market.

 

The biggest challenge in bringing the shift towards natural farming is the shift required in the mind of farmers. A farmer is not different from a child brought up in a classroom. The current education system, that cripples the learning process to memorizing and procedure, is similar to how hybrid seeds, and monocropping, have cripled the creative and enriching process of farming to labour and toil. Like the child, the farmer is brainwashed by the system, into practicing chemical farming, thinking that this is the only way to earn profits, that it is his/her responsibility to feed the masses (even if it comes at the cost of his own stomach) and that natural farming will never fulfill their needs or wants. A farmer, who has stayed in the same mindset for years, will now find it extremely difficult and against his version of reality to accept the benefits of natural farming; just like a child, who once out of the dingy classroom, struggles to think on their own and  colour outside the boundaries. We are patient and wish to keep having conversations, and prove by example.

 

The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but building the new. – Socrates. 

 

The reality for the farmers in India, at present, is depressing and almost dystopian in nature; while the possibility of a rich, satisfied, fulfilling life is not far from their reach. Natural farming and polycropping, provide the farmer with abundant harvest for their family and sufficient surplus to meet most of their needs – which can be met because the diversity and quality of their crops allows them to become the price maker- and sell their produce at a price that they deem as fair. The cost of insecticides and pesticides are cut down, the farmer himself moves towards a healthy life with nutritious produce at his doorstep and minimised contact with the chemicals. It also makes the creativity and knowledge involved in farming more visible, increasing the dignity of the farmer from a mere labourer. It reduces the nation’s dependency on the chemical industry, which are also the biggest source of water and air pollutants. Moreover, it facilitates rural development, reducing involuntary migration to cities; reducing the burden on urban cities as well. Natural farming could be one of those high energy potent practices, that can target multiple social issues around the world at literally the root level.

 

Most sectors around the world, by nature, are trapped in a system. The production sector has no choice but to mass produce for a capitalist world, the transport sector has no choice but to work on polluting machines, the primary producers such as farmers have also been trapped as we have seen and well so on. Every one, as delusionally free they might be, are trapped in a system; with very little choice to change it. Discrimnation, inequality, injustice and environmental damage multiply themselves in such traps. If there is any sector that has the potency to give a real fighting chance to such systems, then it is the education sector – or the ‘sector of minds’.

 

It is easy to see why Krishnaji laid such emphasis on environmental sensitivity and sensibility. It really brings one full circle with the understanding of how humans and other living beings are interdependent and interconnected in the fine tapestry of life. Often visitors to the school campus comment on how ideal and simplistic our world on the hilltop is, and that we miss out on the real world and its complexities that exist outside particularly in the cities. One realises that real is as real perceives – humans were meant to live deeper lives of nurturing all living beings within nature and caretaking its resources, not causing harm and exhaust available resources. Life on the school hilltop gives one a glimpse of how enriched human lives can be.

 

The learnings have been immense – both at the individual level as well as at the community level. At the personal level one realises that different living things are not that different after all. While nutritional requirements of different species may be varied, what is poison for one living being is very much poison for another. In that sense, all sorts of chemicals used in the farmland not only eliminate the essential microbes in the soil but also harm us by entering the food chain and into our food plates. While the soil may appear inanimate from afar, it is very much living and needs to be kept so in order to keep it going and allow sufficient amounts of farm produce from the farm plot. Similarly, our body being a microcosm of microbes is in fact quite similar to the living soil. Just as one would take care to keep the flora of the soil ecosystem flourishing by encouraging growth of good microbes and keeping harmful chemicals at bay, so must the flora of the body ecosystem be nourished by a good diet that is free from harmful synthetic chemicals in all forms.

 

There has of course been real instance learning and affirmation of scientific aspects encountered long ago in a more academic and textbook format. Very often the aha! moments have occurred during classroom interactions with students. Similarly, working with indigenous seeds and natural farming practices has been a very fulfilling experience. One realises that Nature operates through diversity and cooperation rather than uniformity and competition; the topline predators operate in the predatory mode for a minuscule portion of their lifespan, during the rest, they function as caretakers of the ecosystems they inhabit; the minutest living being has its purpose in the web of life, even the so called parasite beings (e.g. mosquitoes) contribute positively to respective ecosystems, it is our understanding of them – limited as it is, that makes us see them through the narrow lens of labels (such as parasites). These and similar other learnings have been a revelation that have echoed with Krishnamurti’s teachings.

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