In Kerala, a push for organic food turns professionals into gardeners

Living on Earth
Sujitha (right) and her husband Manu (left) stand in the center of the frame in a portrait photograph.

Just five years ago, Kerala, a tropical state in southwestern India, imported almost 70 percent of its food. But today, the state is about halfway toward its ambitious goal of going 100 percent organic and agriculturally self-sufficient by 2020.

Kerala hosts a highly literate workforce, and many people choose to work abroad, so the state used to rely on imported food. When doctors and the public started to blame rising cancer rates on chemical pesticides from this imported food, it kickstarted an urgency to go organic.

Despite some roadblocks, such as working with acidic soil and expensive fertilizers, many Keralans are now embracing organic agriculture as a side hobby or even a second career.

Related: Kerala’s making an ambitious pledge to go organic

Sujitha Sudhakaran and her husband, Manu, live on the outskirts of Kerala’s capital, Trivandrum, where they grow fruit and vegetables on their terraces and in their yard.

"Actually, I have almost 27 varieties of water lilies here,” Sujitha says. “And mainly these are tropical varieties which bloom a lot. And all the dragonflies and butterflies, honeybees, all these get attracted to these water bodies and my pollination in my vegetable garden is taken care of by these flies and bees.”

Sujitha is one of thousands of concerned Keralans who are trying to grow completely organic food. But one social group in particular has taken up organic gardening with special zeal — educated professionals. For instance, Unni Krishnan, Kerala’s agriculture officer, retired from his job at the State Bank of Travancore 12 years early to grow his own food. Now, he’s teaching people to do the same by reaching out to his fellow Keralans through social media.

Unni Krishnan’s garden, located in a fashionable Trivandrum suburb, contains chili peppers, okra, eggplant, amaranth and cabbages while gourds and tomatoes hang from a trellis made of hemp rope and bamboo. For affluent gardeners like Unni Krishnana, purchasing soil enhancers like lime, which is needed for the acidic soil, is not a problem.

Sujitha Sudhakaran, on the other hand, makes her own compost using a method called bokashi composting, which is a Japanese word meaning to ferment. Bokashi composting involves adding micronutrients directly to the decaying mixture so that the fermentation process speeds up and helps generate biogas that she uses for cooking.

In fact, Sujitha has multiple containers in her composting area, which contain kitchen waste like leftover fish and chicken bits. She uses her compost to fertilize her many plants such as rice, spinach, chili peppers and cowpeas. Sujitha says on her terrace she can grow everything needed to feed her extended family at the late summer harvest festival Onam.

"Last Onam, we decided to call all our family here and we all joined and we made food out of what we’d grown from our terrace, so completely it was from our terrace,” Sujitha’s husband Manu said. "We made — we call it sadya — we’ll have boiled rice, there would be something called avil, which is made out of four different vegetables, and then there would be a curry that is called a sambah, which is made out of, again vegetables, so it would be a complete vegetarian feast.”

The bounty of organic farmers in Kerala is spurring the growth of organic markets. One such market is at the Centenary Indoor Stadium, which functions out of a large shed in the heart of Kerala’s cultural capital, Thrissur, about 180 miles north of Trivandrum. It features trestle tables laden with produce such as spinach, jackfruit, curry leaf, yams and bottles of concentrated cow urine that some Indians use as a garden pesticide and others take as a general health tonic. Cows, in fact, are sacred in India’s largely Hindu population. And although 20 percent of Keralans are Catholics, cow manure and urine are still put to many uses.

Growers and sellers are mostly professionals, university teachers and business people or retired. For example, Paul Joseph, a former chief engineer in the merchant marine, frequents the market as both a buyer and seller. He grows papayas, oranges, limes and leafy vegetables.

Sandhya Kumar, a former teacher, and now a market organizer, has taken on a second career as an organic gardener. On her fully organic acre of land, Sandhya grows staples like coconuts, bananas, eggplants, nutmeg and pepper. But she also has hens, goats and a cow that provides milk for ghee and paneer. Her cowshed, which is just a roof of interlaced palm fronds over a concrete floor, is where Sandhya collects the cow manure and urine. Not only does she use the manure to fertilize her plants, she also uses it to transform her soil. Because of the fertilizer, Sandhaya says it’s now full of earthworms and leaf mold.

Sandhya, like Sujitha Sudhakaran and Unni Krishnan, is a typical example of Kerala’s professional backyard and rooftop gardeners. Together, this network of organic food producers is accelerating Kerala’s ambitious goals of 100 percent organic food by 2020. 

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