Eating is an agricultural act - Wendell Berry

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Thane super fast!

cyclone thane crossed the coast near pondicherry about 60km from here. we are about 20km from the coast. we had been tracking its movement from monday on imd site and other weather channels and were hoping for some rains for our groundnut crop. what we got was way more than we expected. 20cm of rain and continuous severe gusty winds over 2 days.

we lost a couple of papaya trees, few banana and drumstick trees. we could save some of our papaya trees as we provided support in time against the wind direction. peanut field was flooded and has now drained. we hope there is no lasting damage to the crop. nearby peanut, watermelon, ash gourd crops have got battered. some of the peanut crops had been damaged earlier when as well due to sudden rains 2 weeks ago. the farmers had ploughed and re-sown in the week leading up to thane. its a double blow @ 7k / acre cost each time for someone who barely earns about 20k/acre per year. quite a bad start to the main growing season of the year.

while in the city, any rain anytime is welcome and we would just stay indoors and enjoy hot tea and bajjis. severe cyclone is considered a treat as it brings an extra holiday along with its winds. for the first time we have been amidst farmers sharing their desperation and anxiety over lost money and effort due to crop damage. farming surely is one of the most risky ventures and high risk leading to high return mantra that earns million to investment bankers, does not apply to the farmers. its either normal return or high loss, never high return for the people who produce the single most essential commodity for human existence - food!

there is surely something wrong with the economic order in this world.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

nature's own farmers - termites

the word termites evokes creepy feelings to most city dwellers. during our recent visit to our parents place in chennai, we were busy cleaning clothes and furnitures that were attacked by termites (yeah its an old house) and spraying all kings of things toxic to ward them off from our house.

at pR, termites and earthworms and millions of other life forms are the original residents. we have moved in with them.

termites have taken fancy to our bathroom walls and are forever building and rebuilding on them. come rainy season we see millions of them working away bringing in mud and building mounds all over the place. it looks like the mud inside the walls are bubbling up. we have often wondered what they find in these walls as there is no wood work on the walls. apparently they come for any dead plant material, wood, leaf litter, dung or just soil. there must be plenty for them in the cob walls that does not meet our eye.

this rainy season we saw something new. suddenly one day the mounds had white spots on them. as though someone had sprinkled rice flour on them. in the couple of days they grew bigger and became mushrooms. so sweet smelling that i gave into the temptation and tasted a few. they were divine!

as it turns out, this species of mushrooms belong to a group of fungi commonly called Termite Mushrooms (Termitomyces). they are cultivated by termites inside their nests or mounds in underground fungus gardens! these mushrooms aids in the breakdown of cellulose and lignin into a more nutritious compost which serves as the termites actual food! however termites grow and harvest the fungus in its minute mycelium stage without letting it develop into the umbrella-shaped fruiting bodies that we call mushrooms. these mushrooms are normally not visible as they are inside the mounds unless the termites for some reasons could not control their growth (when it rains too much) when the mycelia will literally grow through the roof of their nest and burst onto the surface of the ground as mushrooms! amazing! and yes it was very wet couple of weeks ago when the NE monsoon was in full fury. apparently the are edible. they are dying out now and the termites will probably eat them.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

samba wheat experiment

most of you should be familiar with dhalia or broken samba wheat (Emmer or Khapli wheat (Triticum dicoccum) ) that makes great upma. we have had it in the form of kanji (drinkable porridge) in our childhood. it is supposed to have a higher fiber content than normal wheat and a lower glycemic index. we picked up a kilo at nilgiris and was shocked to see the price listed at Rs.100/kg.

so, we thought why not try to grow it ourselves. it is reported to be grown in some parts of tamil nadu but we could not get reliable information on any particular place or season. we got a kg of seeds from a herbal medicine shop in maduranthakam. the friendly shop owner sells whole samba wheat and managed to get seeds from his supplier. sweet!

this is our lucky ragi field which as been under mulch from last year. you can see the dried ragi stalks + weeds over grown. we sickled a part of the field to the ground.

then broadcasted the seeds and covered them with a thin layer of mulch.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ragi - take 3 - bumper produce

yes, ragi t3 has beaten the earlier record produce.

take 3 was planted adopting the SRI methodology.
we raised the nursery in early july and transplanted the saplings when they were 10-11 days old, one sapling at a time, with a spacing of about 8 inches. the saplings were under 2 inches tall looked quite delicate to be transplanted. we noticed the roots were also about 2 inches long.

transplanting younger helps better root development and avoids damage to the root structure while transplanting. the spacing ensures they have enough room to spread. better root growth & spread will translate in better tillering.

well, all of the above worked beautifully. the saplings grew tall and strong. they put out an average of about 10 tillers within a month. we harvested from the top in two phases as we saw more crowns appearing as the earlier crowns had matured.

we got 23kgs in 4 cents and could not contain our excitement. this field has been under mulch for over 18 months now.

ragi mudde
has been added to our regular menu.

Monday, November 07, 2011

millets harvest - update

we had a classic manavari (rainfed) aadi pattam this year - adequate sun with adequate rain.
our sowing was timely and so the reaping was not bad. mahesh & sujatha and ananthu & sumathi had come over to help us with the harvesting. it was a lot of fun & banter.

harvest update

1. foxtail millet - thinai (2 varieties - yellow and red).
sowed in patches of 3 cents each. harvested 16.5 kgs in total.
days to maturity - 63 days

we harvested the thinai by cutting the stock from bottom, dried it and beat it to get the grain. processing will involve pounding (kai kutthal) the gains in a mortar with a pestle (voral and ollakai) and winnowing away the skin. apparently thinai has 7 layers of skin and so needs to be pounded 7 times. we got edible grain after pounding 4 times. we replace rice partly with thinai while making pongal and it is delicious.

2. pearl millet - kambu (bajra) - 2 varieties (hybrid and native)

a) native kambu: smaller grain and looks more like thinai than the classic bajra.
Sowed in 3.5 cents. Harvested 9.5 kgs.
days to maturity - 62days
native kambu is a great find. easy to grow, easy to harvest, easy to process and delicious to consume. seems to be hardy as well.
we cut the crowns from the top, dried them and beat them to get the grains. one pounding in the voral and winnowing gives us clear grains. we grind them and then use them to make porridge (kanji) and rotis. rotis made with 50% native kambu and 50% wheat were very tasty.

b) hybrid kambu:

largest grain size among all millets. we are not sure if this is hybrid or another variety of native kambu. however the shopkeeper who sold us the seeds called it hybrid and so we will as well.

Sowed in 4 cents. Harvested 4.5 kgs. we lost out to some attack where the grains started to turn black due to heavy rains prior harvest.
days to maturity - 77days

here too we cut the crowns (of what remained after the attack) from the top, dried and beat them. it took longer to process this 4.5kgs when compared to the 9.5kgs of native kambu. we have not consumed it yet, but have seen recipes for "khicidi" on the net.

3. little millet - samai
sowed in 2.8 cents and harvested 7.5kgs
days to maturity: 78 days

we cut the stock from the bottom, dried and beat to get the grains. we are yet to process and consume.

4. groundnut
sowed in about 4 cents and harvested 13 kgs.
days to maturity: 83 days.

in these parts groundnut is sowed mainly in karthikai - margazhi pattam (nov-dec) just after the withdrawal of north east monsoon. it is grown as an irrigated crop to get optimum productivity. however, aadi (july-aug) sowing used to be done as a rainfed crop (lower productivity) to get seeds for the main pattam. offlate, people have done away with the aadi sowing as they prefer to buy seeds . we got a just enough for our karthikai sowing.

it is supposed to take about 100 days during the irrigated season. our rainfed one came to maturity earlier and we had to take it out to stop the rates and squirrels from helping themselves generously to the pods.

ps: our camera packed up and so no pictures of the harvest.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

the wealth hoarders

the union cabinet has a bunch of ministers who have been guzzling it up, says sainath in the latest scathing analysis.
it is quite eye-opening in that standing the midst of such mosquitoes, we do not only have the "i am clean" MMS, but "you have to be ultra thick-skinned" MMS.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

ken robinson on education - via TED

ken robinson's position on education moves me incredibly.
his first talk on TED was "schools kill creativity"  and i have been looking forward to his future talks.
watch this animated masterpiece and his latest TED appearance.

the message is similar in all the talks, but the presentations captivated me.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

monsanto - more monstrous than before

monsanto is scary.
the extent to which they will go to dominate world food production, thus annihilating anyone who stands in their path is documented beautifully in "the world according to monsanto".

read the review here and watch the video here.

monsanto's all pervasiveness in our lives is highlighted in april davila's daring 'month without monsanto'.

ananthoo and his friends are on a Monsanto-Quit India campaign.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

aadi - mega planting bash

this is THE month.
the tamil month of Aadi. mid july to mid august. the saying goes 'aadi pattam, theydi vithai' - in the season of aadi, just plant anything.

we had chosen the well at the place of future 'acre-sized' farming. and in that location, we had cleared up around 1/3rd of an acre (approx).
we got it ploughed and ready. this was in addition to the other fields that we have used earlier for groundnuts, ragi, varagu, etc.

here is the list.
1. foxtail millet - thinai (2 varieties - yellow and red)
2. pearl millet - kambu (bajra) - 2 varieties (hybrid and native)
3. sorghum - chozham (jowar) - 2 varieties - white and red
4. rice - 2 native varieties - wadan samba and maduvu muzhangi
5. little millet - samai
6. ragi
7. kodo millet - varagu 
8. groundnut

and they were interplanted with
9. cow pea - karamani
10. toor dal - tuvarai
11. gongura - pulicha keerai
12. horse gram - kollu

totally rain-fed only.
like a charm it rained 2 days and 10 days (yesterday) after planting. one more in the next 20 days should be enough to take it through. 

and tons of veggie varieties too.
and trees are still waiting for their turn. gotta go.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

ragi - take 3

our obsessive affection towards ragi must be quite apparent to the regulars.
1. ragi - take 1 was planted in april 2010 and harvested in sept/oct 2010. it was a long duration, tall variety from karnataka.
2. ragi - take 2 was planted in jan 2010 and harvested in april 2010. it was a short duration (kulla kar - short variety) sourced from the local village.
both were transplanted in the field which has not been ploughed since we came here in jan 2010 and has been under constant mulch/cover since then.

time for take 3. and quite different from the previous takes.
using the kulla kar short variety, the chosen method was SRI - sytem of rice intensification. for us it was system of ragi intensification.
the concept is simple and has been shown to deliver good results for rice as well as ragi.
the 3 key elements were:
1. transplant young. we did it on the 10th and 11th day.
2. wide spacing. we spaced the saplings at over 8 inches.
3. single sapling only.
these elements allow a high level of tillering and hence a high output for lesser input.

with help from ananthu, sumathi and veda, we completed the transplanting in pretty quick time.
and just as we completed transplanting, it rained.
very nice.

and we are back...

it had to be something of impact to shake the cobwebs of the almost month-long blogging hiatus.

and it happened last night.
Rain sweet rain...

with camera on the blink, and a series of outages/dial-up downtime, and just one shower from june to date, writing enthusiasm was at a premium.

well now, all that is past and behind us.
welcome back to Farm, yeah.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

theruvadaichan - the road blocker

a return to the place from where this journey could have all began - cuddalore.
it was a year spent there - between may 1995 and may 1996 - which got me doing two important things - thinking and writing.

and as another example of remarkable coincidences, this is the very city of karpagam's childhood and summer vacations and a very lovely and very old grandmother.

and we visited cuddalore last week to coincide with the spell-binding annual temple festival of the magnificent Padaleeswarar temple. this picture should explain the superlatives.

all temples have wonderful stories behind them. here is the background of the Padaleeswarar temple.

the star feature of the 2 week long festival would be - Theruvadaichan (TV).
the festival deities (utsava moorthis) perambulate the streets daily in special floats.
one of them, is the imposing TV.
as the name suggests, this float is as wide as the street and is the veritable road blocker. here it is in its early trellis stage. 

and here it is all set to roll. (our camera packed up)
image courtesy - Cuddalore Online

it is nearing 11 PM as the decorations and aarati finish and the crowds tense up.
the cymbals and drummers up their tempo and as the priests on the float wave their towels - the float moves.
hair prickles up on its ends. the crowds' collective gasp as they scramble back is music.
it is quite the incredible darshan.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

re-thatching the pavilion

the pavilion was built in april 2009.
built over just under 3 weeks by a team from auroville, it is our residence, our workshop, our lounge and an iconic part of pR.

two years of rain and sun had eroded the coconut thatch (kith), especially the northern face. leaks had developed in around 3-4 places.

it was time to replace the kith.
the same team which laid the original thatch re-did the thatching.

here is an animated time lapse series.

the entire operation lasted less than 5 days. and cost Rs 75K. uncannily, just how much it cost us for digging the well :-)
you must have noticed the mats in the final frames.
that was the masterstroke. karpagam's inspired idea. here is why...
at a cost of Rs 75K every two years for kith replacement, this system just becomes unviable.
the classic rural home use a second layer to cover the kith. it could be palm fronds, rice straw or most commonly, vegil. these would increase the life span of the roof by another 2-5 years, depending on the choice and the quality of the installation.
vegil - a reedy grass that commonly grows on tank beds and borders in this area. to survive the moisture, they develop a waxy outer layer and it turns out to be the ideal topping on the kith.

for the scale of the pavilion, using vegil just was not feasible. it would have cost us an additional Rs 1 lac!
it was just that, the size and scale of the pavilion was taxing us when karpagam came up with the mat idea. mats are made out of 'korai grass' - another type of waxy, reedy grass which also grows near water bodies. the grass is slit and is woven into mats.
the total mat cost was less than Rs 5K.
even if it just increases the kith life by one year, it is a killer solution. eco-friendly, cost-effective and easy to install.
but will it work? we will wait and see.

the removed kith is super mulch material.

in the meanwhile, here is the simple but beautiful method of fastening the kith onto the wooden frame.

and to prevent the mats from flapping in the wind, the entire roof was tied down with nylon rope.

and finally, the team of monkeys who did it...

Monday, June 06, 2011

well done indeed

start digging a well and unleash the ghosts...
so goes a tamil saying which summarises the intense effort and agony involved in digging a well - or getting a well dug.

thus many have started resorting to the use of borewells - which take no more than a day to drill and access the deep tranches of groundwater.

but, a well is unmatched as the preferred personalised water storage device for a farm. just the sheer volume of water it stores gives the farmer many options.

for over 3 years, DV has been steadfast in not unleashing the ghosts.
but as a necessary step towards increasing our agricultural area, a well would be critical and we were ready to take on the ghosts.

first step is place identification - very importantly, it has to be at a place where the underground springs are copious and generous.
we trust that our rain water harvesting initiatives should help these springs and hence our well.
we did this through a water diviner. it could have been a little sham act of sorts, but we just went with some faith and some logic.

then the diggers take over.
spec sheet
1. diameter - 21 feet for the first 15 feet depth.
2. diameter - 12 feet for the second 15 feet depth.
the intermediate 4.5 feet wide annular space (at around 15 feet) will be the base on which the retaining wall will be raised to prevent the top part (item 1) does not capsize through rain and erosion.

the retaining wall is another story.

so here we go with the digging.

as always, we start with the pooja. the yellow shirted gentleman is the lead digger.

the use of the back-hoe (JCB) is now common practice. this monster gouged out around 11 feet deep of the top diameter cylinder.

the dirt is hauled with tractors. top soil to the fields, rest spread for road repair, other future building works.

the hole starts to develop.

in its developed state. around 7 hours of JCB work it took to get to this size.

now we move into manual zone. a crane is installed. 

the dirt is manually loaded onto buckets and craned to the top.

once we hit the rocky substrata, the explosives come out. this is another regular practice to speed up the process. notice the drilling going on, as well as the tubular explosive packs in his hand. they are packed into the drilled holes.

see the spots where the explosives have been packed into the earth.

after the boom , this is the rubble which then gets hauled out.
they used explosives 7 times through this digging.

and at last, the first sight of water. this was noticed at a depth of around 24 feet.
well digging is done in summer for the simple reason that the water levels/springs are at their lowest flow and if you manage to hit a decent water level in summer, you should be well taken care of for the other seasons.

as the last bits of debris is being cleared, the final look.

the final pile of rubble.

after the initial JCB work, it took around 65 person days to complete the digging.
at a total cost of 75K, it is a reasonably modest expenditure for a well.
the digging team - led by the very hard working Mr T Govindan - was very professional and we would strongly recommend them.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

mango mania

we had succumbed to the mango temptation last year, gorging on alphonsoes from the neighbouring farm as well as bingeing at the leo farm picnic.

this year looked bleak as the neighbours had planned well and sold off most to the juicers with minimal wastage.
we just got our obligatory 'friendly' basket.
it was like a drop to quench our thirst.

we thought that this year fruit quota was already completed with the watermelon bonanza.
but not to be...

on a trip to madras, we were re-introduced to an outlet which stocks the widest range of mangoes.
this combined with trips to the neighbouring farms(around 5-7 kms away) - which retail at drop-dead prices - made our mango year a sweet sucess and continues to do so.

the best part was the varieties that we have tasted this year. here is the list.

1. doodh peda
2. jahangir
3. jawahar
4. kesar
5. mancurad
6. rasalu
7. padiri
8. senthoora
9. banganapalli
10. rumani
11. alphonso
12. kili mooku/bengloora
13. malgova
14. neelam
15. imaam pasand

if you are in chennai, do go to Taylors road (enter by taking a right on poonamalli high road coming from ega theater and this place is within 1 Km on the right side) to the retail outlet of the praiseworthy Mr Ramakrishna - his variety and rates should boggle your mind. (call Mr Murugan on 750 268 0715 for details)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

well well, the roof's coming apart

2 very large activities are happening as i type this...
1. a well is being dug (for future agriculture)
2. the roof of the pavilion is being re-thatched.

both big tickets items and the latter has temporarily forced us into the new home :-)

till we re-settle down, updates are just queueing up.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

pesticide in food - dire warning contd...

in response to the cabbage warning, my friend surio, has come up with this comment which he said (and i agree) deserve main page inclusion.

The Internet is our friend. Usually Bioingestion and Bioaccumulation damage is a build up that takes years but manifests quite suddently. Do you remember growing up in 80s India, and reading about mercury / poisoning / through fish consumption in Japan?

This will be somewhat similar. The brave should click here and here to get educated (or more scared, whatever the case may be).

My own personal take is that pesticide poisoning disaster is already manifesting itself in the other species and it is a matter of time before we are stuffed and cooked! Take a look at here and also at something called Colony collapse disorder among bees. Of course, there are highly evolved bird species such as Bee-Eater (Duh!) that feed on these bees and die-off en masse. It's OK, seems to be the stupid refrain, so long as it is not us, but the birds and the bees, it's OK. Even bats are being affected, but no one knows why it is happening yet.

Honestly, I don't know what an alternative to pesticide farming might be. This becomes even more paramount because if we stop pesticide use, there will be major crop failures for at least 3-4 seasons as crops will take time to build their resilience to pests. And while this happens, many of the 6 billion infantilised wastrels of a bipeds will surely have to die. Horrors..

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

flying tiles

did you wonder when you read the roofing post, "how did all those tiles get up there onto the top?"
pretty sure that no one did :-)

that is over 6000 tiles - each weighing 0.5 kg - moved up by over 7 feet.
around 65 Kilo Joules of energy expended.

simple as ready, throw, catch and lay.

inviting readers to convert to an animated gif image and send.

raincoat for the house

you saw the four faces.
just as we finished that post, screeching winds, thunder and lightning woke us up in the middle of the night.
like we ran helkter-skelter for the roof protection a month ago, we did the raincoat routine - this time for the walls.
we were anxious that the slanting rain would damage the plastering.

so here is how it looked in the morning after.
well done team pR.

and the good news...
a small part of the eastern wall could not be fully covered and faced the full frontal assault of the rain.
and it looked like it managed quite well.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

cabbage - dire warning

in an 'i-told-you-so' fashion, my avoid-cabbage warning has been expertly explained here by s kannaiyan.

stop eating cabbage - it is nothing but pesticide.

ash gourd misery

a diverse story.

white pumpkin (real name - ash gourd) is one of the best and easy crops that grow in the summer.
full of water, it is a summertime treat.

we planted 4 varieties of seeds 3 different locations since mid january. we picked the right season and in fact spread our risk by planting with such diversity in variety and soil type.
but NOT a single bud to show for the effort....
no idea yet on why we were blessed this way.

on the other hand, our neighbouring farmer grew ash gourds over more than 5 acres and had a bumper crop over over 5 tons per acre.
while he managed to sell one lot, over the last 2 weeks, ash gourds prices have tanked to Re 1/kg.
he will not be able to sell over 15 tons of gourds.

they are lying in his field, unpicked and in a vain expectation of a recovery of the prices.
even if they perk up a bit, his fruits will be too mature to be sold.
sadness, indeed to see so much food going unused.

home - 4 faces

here is a close look at the four sides of the house.

starting with the front - north face.

east face.

backside - south face

west face

Monday, May 16, 2011

building our house - part 6 - plastering

as the roof was getting laid, the plastering of the walls was parallelly being done.

as the mud walls would need protection from rain spray, we originally thought about a lime-based water-resistant plaster. lime is beautiful natural material for mortar and plaster.
but one experiment with hydrated lime powder we procured locally, did not inspire confidence in its quality.

hence we decided on a simple, reinforced form of mud plaster.
20:1:2 portions of sieved soil, cement and cow-dung slurry.

here is the mixing on soil and cement.

add the slurry and mix away.

this is the final plaster mix.

first hand applied, and then...

...smoothed with a finishing trowel.

a close up. the edges are tough going.

the western wall.

the southern wall.
post plastering, the walls are given a simple swab-coat of dung slurry. this aids in the binding and fills up the minor cracks that generally develop in the plaster.

the northern wall before the plaster, and...

...after the plastering. with the crew in full regalia. the gentlemen in white shirts upfront were the chief masons heading a very competent crew.