M. Arivuazhagan and his mother Palaniammal have managed to script a success story in farming by adapting traditional agriculture and eco-friendly organic techniques to modern technology. They use solar panels (seen in the background) to supply the electricity required to pump the water for the farm in Thenkadai Kurichy, Kulithalai Taluk. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj Patriarch and former agricultural activist Koundampatti Muthu with his family in in Thenkadai Kurichy, Kulithalai Taluk. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj
Organic farming has helped this clan to reap rich dividends
“We sold gold to buy this land. Now we are reaping the gold back from it,” says Mrs. Palaniammal Muthu, the matriarch who runs a 7.8 acre farm at Thenkadai Kurichy (also known locally as Koundampatti), Karur District with her eldest son Arivuazhagan.
Visitors could spend the whole day in the verdant surroundings, sipping the sweetish water from an endless supply of tender coconuts, listening to the mother-son duo recount their tryst with agriculture.
“This stretch was just a scrubland when my father bought it in 1967, by selling Amma’s 6-sovereign gold thali chain,” says Arivuazhagan. “I joined the farm when in 1987, after I failed my 9th Class exams. With six siblings to take care of, I used to do everything with my mother – including kitchen work, babysitting, besides the farming.”
That early graft has paid off handsomely. Today, Arivuazhagan proclaims with pride that his four brothers are all college graduates, and his two sisters were married off in a grand manner with the help of the farm’s income.
Palaniammal has overseen the calving of at least 500 cows in her 40 years as a farmer, and now, still sprightly in her late sixties, is already on to other value-added farming practices such as vermicomposting and maintaining a small pond of freshwater fishes. Solar energy panels help to pump the water for the farm’s requirements.
Given the precarious nature of agriculture today, one keeps expecting to hear a cautionary tale soon. But in this narrative, there seem to be only inspirational ideas.
“We were following a mixed organic and chemical fertiliser-based farming system earlier. Now we have gone completely organic, because of its long-term benefits,” says Arivuazhagan. Though his school education stopped early, he hasn’t stinted on getting acquainted with the latest trends in farming.
He riffles through stacks of notepads from all the courses that he has attended around Tamil Nadu. “One of the earliest lessons I learned was that in order to be successful, a farmer had to run a farm that would yield a daily, weekly, monthly, half-yearly and yearly profit. So instead of growing crops based on what is selling well in the market at a particular time, it’s better to plan for a sustained harvest,” says Arivuazhagan.
The Koundampatti farm has 450 coconut trees, inter-cropped with casuarina, curry leaf, lemon and wild jasmine (pichhi poo).
In the centre, is a pond with around 2.5 tonnes of ‘kendai (rohu),’ ‘katla’ (Bengal carp) and ‘jilapi’ (Tilapia) in it. Arivuazhagan dives in with a friend to coax some of the fish into his net as his children wait with a sack for the catch that will be cooked for lunch.
“It is important to innovate in agriculture, whether in machinery or marketing,” says Arivuazhagan. To this end, his farm has become a collaborator with a Chennai-based company Giv Farms that promotes organic agriculture on a big scale. ‘Giv’ stands for ‘Grow more’, ‘Integrated farming’ and ‘Value-addition’.
Initially, the Koundampatti farmers are cultivating okra and brinjal organically on 20 acres in nearby villages. This is part of a 150-acre project.
“Our old natural manures, pest and disease control methods coupled with scientific understanding of micro nutrients and vermicompost are good enough to have long term food security,” says A.K. Sankar, Managing Director, Giv Farms. The management professional from Tirunelveli has had an abiding interest in organic farming, which he has tried to standardise through the company.
“I visited more than 50 farms across Tamil Nadu in the past 2 to 3 years and have learnt chemicals are not really required for increasing crop yield,” says Sankar.
“It takes lot effort to get back the beneficial microbes to the soil. If we take that bit of extra effort we could succeed,” says Sankar.
He has cultivated banana, okra, brinjal, tomato, tapioca, turmeric, watermelon and drumstick, among other crops, organically over the past two years on 60 acres of leased lands.
Arivuazhagan’s brothers M. Anbazhagan, a mechanical engineer and Tamilvanan, an ITI machinist, are now part of the Giv operations which take local fields in and around Nangavaram on lease for cultivation.
Each of the seven fields is under the supervision of a hitherto unemployed engineering or B.Tech graduate who has been retrained in organic farming. Giv Farms pays the supervisors a stipend of Rs. 7,000.
Among the latest projects on the anvil is a plan to cultivate spinach on a 24 acre plot and transport it to around 500 green groceries in Chennai daily through refrigerated trucks.
“We are using sprinklers to irrigate the spinach plot, because they keep the soil moist enough for easy harvesting,” says Arivuazhagan.
“This way, we can grow spinach through the summer, and in rainy weather, do it in covered enclosures.”
Palaniammal still manages the day-to-day working of the family farm, which includes manual harvesting of the wild jasmine, and tending to the many by-products of the coconut trees.
“You can get at least six to seven products out of a single coconut palm,” says Palaniammal.
And true to her word, she shows the firewood, roof thatching panels, brooms, copra, and coconut oil that the plantation yields.
As the day wears on, she calls her son Tamilvannan to pluck some coconuts from the tree towering over the old thatched hut that used to be the family homestead once.
Visitors gather around as he fixes a newly-acquired self-operated device that helps him to climb the tree as if on steps to the top.
As the nuts come thudding down, Palaniammal looks for something else to keep herself busy.
“This land has made us what we are,” she says.
In the shadows
Koundampatti Muthu makes a dignified entrance at the end of a day’s visit to the family farm that is being managed by his wife Palaniammal and son Arivuazhagan.
The 92-year-old’s benign appearance belies his history as a freedom fighter, and in the 1960s, in local politics.
Born in 1925, K. Muthu was the youngest of six siblings of a farming family, and perhaps the only one of his siblings to study up to Intermediate level.
He worked in the Railways, and in the 1950s, became a close associate of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) supremo M. Karunanidhi, helping him to draft screenplays and political speeches.
After a political career that included leading farmer agitations and a brief stint as a Member of the Legislative Council (Kulithalai), K. Muthu gave it all up to settle down in his native village.
The farming practices that he had picked up from his father helped him to lay the foundation of the farm’s growth.
“He was 40 when we got married,” recalls Palaniammal. “Like him, I had attended school. We both knew that we would have to educate our children so that they could be successful and independent. But he would also take charge of the farm work whenever he could.”
Still a staunch friend of his ‘annan’ (elder brother) Karunanidhi, K. Muthu today stays in the shadows, relating his stories of bygone strikes and political gatherings that wrote the history of Tamil Nadu.