Stories from the farms

Meeting the farmers, telling their stories, and sharing them with our customers is supposed to be one of my chief fellowship projects. Even if my role has evolved into more of a communications jack-of-all-trades, I did have an opportunity to travel last month to visit some of our farmers near Kaithal, Haryana, in the rich wheat and rice belt of north India. It was fascinating to hear from farmers about why they chose organic farming, and I felt optimistic about the clear economic and environmental incentives that undergirded each of their stories. There are many aspects of farming in India that I’ve recently learned about, such as the massive subsidies for water and electricity for every farmer, that will probably need to change in a more resource scarce world. Changing a massive system built on such incentives will be incredibly difficult, but a growing movement toward organic farming, which has the potential to be more profitable and which builds up soil resiliency, lessening the need for complex irrigation and fertilizers, is undoubtedly going to be part of the picture. I’m looking forward to meeting more farmers soon, but until then here is the first story from my trip to Haryana, which recently went up on the company blog:

When Rajesh began farming organically, he didn’t have a name for it. He just knew that he needed to try something different if he was going to support his family. Rajesh inherited his farm from his elder brother in 1995 and adopted the same techniques as everyone else, using chemical pesticides and fertilizers to harvest primarily wheat and rice. Money was always an issue, but every year the amount of fertilizer went up while his crop yields stayed the same. He realized that if he kept going this way, he could no longer afford to be a farmer.

Everyone Rajesh knew used chemical fertilizers, but Rajesh remembered how his father and grandfather had been able to grow healthy, plentiful crops without chemicals. He decided he would try the same. It was not easy going at first, and his neighbors mocked him for his old methods. But Rajesh’s wife was extremely supportive, encouraging him to follow his instincts and helping to harvest the wheat and rice while working a farm stand for their fruits and vegetables. Soon, Rajesh began to notice changes. He’d grown ghia for years, but with synthetic fertilizers the quality had always been poor; the ghia was large, but often hollow on the inside, and without much taste. Organic ghia grew more slowly, but the fruits were healthier and tastier than before.

Relying on traditional knowledge, Rajesh discovered some successful methods through luck. During his first son’s baby shower, he left out jaggery for his cows. When it fermented, rather than throw it away as everyone told him to do, he put it on his fields and discovered it produced healthier plants. He now uses a variety of fermented products as part of the fertilizers on his fields. As his crops thrived, other farmers took notice, but it was not until 2007 that Rajesh’s friend Surinder, who was working with I Say Organic, pointed out that what Rajesh was doing was farming organically. This encouraged Rajesh to reach out agronomists and scientists, who helped him refine and improve his techniques. In 2011, Rajesh’s farm was certified fully organic.

When Rajesh began farming, he did not think it could support his family, and he urged his brother-in-law in Germany to help him find work there. However, when the call from his brother-in-law finally came, in 2010, Rajesh turned him down outright. The switch to organic farming helped Rajesh to make a living selling his crops in Haryana and in Delhi, to open his own sweet shop, and to earn the respect of his fellow farmers, who now seek his advice on organic techniques.

Rajesh preaches patience to new farmers, telling them that although organic farming does not produce the immediately huge yields that come from chemicals, the end results–healthy soil, higher quality crops, and healthier people, are more than worthwhile. Most importantly, farming organically means preserving this life for the next generation. When he began farming, Rajesh was not sure whether his children would be able to follow in his footsteps. Today, he says he hopes his children will be able to take up organic farming like he has, and continue to work the land at Rajesh Organic Farm for years to come.

Before receiving the Fellowship, Eliel worked for three years in the U.S. House of Representatives. His experiences in Congressional offices representing different districts in New York State gave him an opportunity to apply his academic background in political science and public policy to promoting jobs and economic development in his home state. At the same time, he learned about representing and furthering local priorities at the national level. In addition to his time in Congress, Eliel has worked with domestic and internationally focused non-profits advocating for human rights, social justice, and economic development, and received his Masters in Public Policy with a focus in international development from the University of Maryland.

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