In 2013, five young men who graduated from Loyola College with management degrees and placements, parted ways to get on with their lives. Little did they know that two years down the line, they would reunite for a venture that would change the city, the country and the world.
The five men, Kern Agrawal, Kenneth Lowe, Karan Maheshwary, Ashwin Kurisinkal and Mathews Cherickal, collectively known as The Urban Farmers, came up with the idea of farming within the city as a business plan for their course. While researching, they felt that two things were terribly wrong in existing farms and agricultural areas. First, the amount of chemicals used was alarming. Second, of the total land they owned, farmers used only half for cultivation, and sold the rest of it to real estate dealers.
On realising this, the team decided to take up farming with the objective of promoting it within the city and encouraging people to use only the freshest produce in their daily lives. “There is no place in Chennai where farming is done in a big way. Why can’t the city grow its own greens?” asks Kern, the driving force behind the idea. Despite many doubts, they were supported by Fr. Casimir Raj, president of LIBA and their professor, Dr. K.V. Rajendran, to carry on with the project.
They started on the rooftop of the LIBA building, with a 5,000 square foot space, and with the knowledge of a fairly new method of agriculture known as biodynamic farming, where only natural compost is used, thereby keeping the produce completely organic. They used dry leaves collected from the college campus to create vermicompost. In this, they were aided by Fr. Ignacimuthu of the entomology department An added benefit of biodynamic farming, they realised, is that the base strength of the plant is high, which in turn negates the need to use chemicals and pesticides.
They harvest a wide variety of vegetables such as tomatoes, okra, herbs, chillies and more. While it was initially distributed among the college staff, as they got the hang of the operation, they began supplying to a nearby housing complex. The feedback they received was beyond what they expected, as people were impressed with the freshness of vegetables. Through word-of-mouth, they began to expand.
Today, The Urban Farmers have over 20 farms around the city, including Adyar and Nungambakkam, which are traditionally residential areas. They are also in talks with corporate companies to establish a Food Park, to encourage them to cultivate and supply to their employees within the organisation.
Though they do not retail anywhere yet, they have taken part in exhibitions and farmers’ markets. At a recent farmers’ market, they had customisable kits for setting up your own farm on both rooftops and pieces of land. The kit contains soil, manure, a particular choice of seeds, resources required for irrigation and protection for rooftops. From start to finish, members of the team or trainees help set up the farm, and will pay a weekly visit during the first month to follow up with the growth of produce. For lands larger than 2,000 sq.ft., they offer additional support to clean up the area and make the land suitable for planting.
As in the case of many other trends, urban farming is a phenomenon that is slowly gaining pace in India. “As a team, we are really close, and we have the advantage of age on our side. What we have in mind right now is a dream to have a green city, a complete set of organic urban terrace farms in Chennai and the world,” says Mathews.