Wednesday 10 march
I arrived early morning March 4 on an overnight bus from Delhi. Despite bus-lag, the rain, the low, grey skies, and bone-chilling cold (just the previous morning I’d been basking in the
Karnatakan sun), I could still tell how beautiful the grounds were and what a special location this is (yellow, blue, white, purple flowers dot the edges of the walk, stepped fields of wheat
reach up to the elements, aging Japanese-inspired stone work peeks out from many bends in the path, a stream rushes past rocks and boulders north to south along the eastern edge of the property,
and handsome, green Himalayan foothills hover on all sides). Still, this is no resort or museum...there are clearly some works in progress: empty beds awaiting seeds and transplants, an open,
stony area where something (a new building?) will go, some wooden arches in need of mending. But my overall impression was: wow, it feels good to be here.
Ramesh and I talked and planned (and ate!) most of Thursday while the rain continued, but by the brilliant, sunny morning that followed we had a game plan for my month on The Natural Farm. I
would help him catalog and map out the crops currently being grown on the property (including a more detailed sowing/harvesting calendar), and I would help him design and create a small ayurvedic
garden on the north end of the property. Among the herbs we plan to plant (or at least obtain seeds for while I’m here) are dandelion, ginger, chamomile, coriander, sage, flax seed, liquorice,
aloe. We also hope to include the following (all of which are new to this American): shatavari, safed musali, kaunch, kaupvat, ashva-gandha, akarkara, sarp-gandha, vanaksha,
sugandhbala, and stevia. We may even work in a road trip to a university southwest of us in Himachal Pradesh where we can get some of these seeds and maybe some advice on how
best to care for the plants.
What I am struck most by here (other than the natural beauty of the place) is Ramesh’s commitment to pursuing as natural a lifestyle as possible, and to experimenting with a variety of farming
methods (including those of Japanese farming trailblazer Masanobu Fukuoka) in the name of keeping his farm 100% organic.
The cottages on the property were constructed from natural materials and have traditional earthen flooring. Water is conserved throughout the property and is heated in the cottages only on
command (and after an hour-or-so wait). All water comes from the spring rushing down from the mountains and is collected each morning for drinking water and set out for us in varying sizes of
copper pots. Meals consist almost entirely of food grown on the farm (the incredible cook, Prekash, makes his own bread from the wheat on the farm, makes his own paneer and
yogurt from the cow’s milk, creates excellent subji and chapatis and poppodoms and parathas and teas from homegrown sweet peas, turmeric, chili, broccoli, coriander, chamomile,
etc). We chew on slender, minty-tasting branches as a natural refreshment after meals. The gardening team sprays “green manure” (organic compost) on crops with a hand-pumped
spray gun. There is a wonderful lack of machine noise here (well...save for the clatter of old engines and drilling coming from the construction of a hydro power plant across the river and north
of the farm).
Ramesh comes not from generations of farmers but from - as I understand it - a Hyderbad business family. He has a long background in engineering and energy research in the United States. I
asked him what brought him here, and what his ultimate goal for the farm was. Did he seek to build The Natural Farm into a commercial venture? Was he trying to completely convert it to Fukuoka’s
He told me that he came to this four-acre farm five or six years ago after his thirty-five-year stint on the fast track in the United States, hoping to establish an organic farm in a relatively
pristine part of northwestern India. While he dreams of eventually running the farm entirely on Fukuoka’s methodology, which includes no weeding, composting or tilling, Ramesh admits to having
the luxury of time to move in that direction bit by bit, all the while experimenting with the farming wisdom of locals, and of other experts around the world (some of whom have visited the farm
themselves). In other words, the farm need not be commercially viable (while surplus is welcomed, Ramesh is content if the farm succeeds in feeding only himself and
guests/team) and though of course not interested in wasting time or repeating mistakes, he is able to focus on finding the most productive ways to keep the farm organic and need not skip steps
while advancing towards the Fukuokan ideal (a state that - even Fukuoka admits several times in his books - can take years and years of soil cultivation to reach).
This commitment to experimentation in the name of organic farming seems to me a great gift. Ramesh welcomes the genuinely interested guest and volunteer and hosts the farmers of the area
frequently, trading experiences and advice. This is an ideal place to (I hope) contribute in a small way as a WWOOFer but also to learn a great deal about sustainable farming.
Ramesh seems to encourage learning by doing, and isn’t afraid of the novice’s errors. When I ask him about a detail in Fukuoka's argument he responds, "yes, ponder that a while and see if you can
come up with a solution." In other words, all ideas are welcome here. He freely admits mistakes he’s made and how he's learned from those as well as his successes, and appears to remain curious
and adventurous and eager to try new things. So I suspect this will be a true education in farming, all the more worthwhile because my host appears unjaded and just about as excited as I am to be
I'll sign off with a question...
It’s hard to argue with the philosophy behind Fukuokan farming, but can the average farmer really afford to lose a season’s crop while he waits for the soil to improve, or due to an irritating
pest that Fukuoka’s methods prohibit him doing anything about? Is it realistic to think that the farms of the country, or the world, can convert to 100% organic with no tilling or weeding given
the world’s insatiable desire for fast and cheap food? Reading Fukuoka’s literature (radical and groundbreaking and incredibly inspiring….I feel like I’m reading the late-night, excited scribbles
of Thoreau or Gandhi on man’s true relationship with nature), one wants to believe that this change can happen. As Ramesh says, maybe the average farmer can’t afford to make this change quickly,
but that is precisely why it is “up to us” to experiment and try first so that we learn from mistakes and later try to lead the way.