Wheat was easy — sow, reap, spray and sell. But when we tried to raise corn without pesticides, it turned out so sad-looking, it sat at the mandi all night, unsold.
The two-year hunt had been harrowing but worth it. Next to a small village in Haryana, we had found our patch of land. Now we had to make it functional. As Brijendra, the farmer who sold us the plot, said, “Papers don’t matter; you don’t own the land till you have planted the first seeds.”
We couldn’t afford the entire parcel of land Bijendra had been selling — even though we had cashed in every single asset we held — so we had decided to forego the part with the tube well on it. As a result, we had no water source. But our dreams were big.
We had kept our day jobs in the city, the husband and I, with the aim of becoming weekend farmers. We realised that this was a luxury, given that farmers elsewhere were crushed under debt or reeling from an agrarian crisis.
In this other life, we wanted to create a space where friends and family could come and grow their own vegetables, get their hands dirty, mingle with honeybees.
We didn’t know the local farmers, but we knew we would need their help. As the blur of faces we had driven past again and again became real people, many came forward to give us a hand.
Jaichand, who owned the farm next to us, generously offered to share his tubewell so we could water our crops. He refused money, so we set up a barter where in exchange for the water, he took the chaff that came from the wheat, to feed his cattle.
Pintu, who tilled the land on our neighbor’s farm, decided to adopt us — our crash course in farming (and the horrors of chemical farming) would come from him. An old turbaned man came by with his goats every day; we were one of the few farms that had no fences and offered him free grazing rights. I looked forward to his visits as his floppy-eared livestock scattered poop like chocolate pellets, their hooves clicking like the pitter-patter of raindrops on hard earth.
On every visit to the farm, I found new signs of life. Bright orange insects I could not name, moths that used their saliva to make the perfect little brown holes that they then crawled into; a flock of opportunistic egrets that followed the tractor as it tilled the land, looking like fluttering white handkerchiefs against a pale blue sky. I clapped with joy the day I spotted a pair of bent black Ibis heads foraging for insects on our land; the following day, a large Indian hare dashing across the bare soil sent us into raptures of joy.
I would have been happy like this, coming every weekend and just watching nature at work. But we had work of our own to do.
In the first round, we desisted from applying our fancy knowledge of organic farming gathered at weekend workshops in the city. We wanted to first familiarise ourselves with how food was grown in the area traditionally. So we let Pintu plant wheat.
He became the one to watch over the farm all week, when we were not around. And though we did pay him, his help was invaluable. Secretly, I think he expected us to bail; he probably thought we’d get fed up of farming and just lease the land to him, but he has done everything he can to encourage, help and guide us.
He knew where to get the seeds, he knew the local market, and knew what to plant when. We let him hold our hand as we took the first baby steps into farming.
Wheat was the easiest, he promised. You scattered the seeds and watered the saplings, and four months later, it was time for harvest. The miracle of life, sunlight and yes, lots of chemicals later, we really did have a standing crop.
We avoided the big combine-harvesters that came all the way from Punjab to harvest wheat, leaving behind the ugly stubble that was then burnt, releasing thick plumes of smoke and PM2.5. I would have none of that. Our wheat was harvested by sickle and hand, piled it into neat sheaves and then winnowed to separate the grain from the chaff. The work took all night and, when the first tractor rolled away with sacks of wheat from our fields, it was 4am.
We sold it at the local mandi, exhilarated to receive a cheque for our first crop. But when we went home and did the maths, we realised we had barely broken even. It was a firsthand lesson in the agrarian economics that is, at best, shortchanging millions across the country.
It was also a lesson in ecology. We discovered just how many times our food is sprayed with chemicals before it reaches our plate. A nearby crop of bhindi, I counted, was sprayed seven times with pesticide before it was harvested. Was there any way we could change that? We were determined to try.
The next season, we planted corn. I had tasted the corn on a nearby farm and been inspired. This time around, I urged Pintu, let’s use fewer chemicals. Again, a few months later the corn was ready, but this time the insects had taken over; our crop didn’t grow to its full length.
The night of the harvest, Pintu drove it to the city’s biggest mandi, where food is auctioned every day before sunrise. He returned saying no one wanted our corn; it was puny and not worthy of an auction. It sat all night at the mandi like a child that no one wanted to play with. I had to eventually bring my abandoned consignment home.
It was a bitter lesson in how we needed to take our attempts to grow food more seriously. Before the next season hit, I made the rounds of the organic farmers I knew. I needed to grow my own food without feeling the urge to pound our soil with chemicals to make the crops look robust.
I attended workshops and got trained in permaculture. I learnt all the things we were doing wrong — we had to move away from mono cropping that makes crops vulnerable to pests, we had to do more to enrich our soil so that our plants had the nutrients to fight insects.
Organics is not a fanciful idea, it is laborious and that’s why the farmer of today is wary of getting into it. But it is still better than eating food laced with toxins. Next season, we would apply all this knowledge and grow our food more responsibly, I promised myself, as I chewed on our dwarf-sized corn sautéed with butter.