Kerala is seeing a minor revolution in what it eats. As urban residents across the state have grown anxious over fruits and vegetables doused in pesticide, an organic kitchen garden movement has been quietly gaining momentum.
As the organic food movement has grown, it’s drawn support from the media, the government, political organisations and many other groups. But it all started with one institution – the Kerala Agriculture University (KAU).
It was the KAU’s studies in the past few years, on the levels of insecticides and pesticides in most commonly consumed vegetables that sparked public fears, and began receptivity towards organic food.
But the University has also been at the forefront of innovating new methods for families to grow their own organic kitchen gardens no matter how little space they have.
The Integrated Farming Systems Research Station under the KAU in Karamana in Thiruvananthapuram, in particular, has developed a number of farming methods that can even be adapted for urban living conditions. The centre, formerly known as the Model Agronomic Research Station, was established in 1955 under the Central Government, but was brought under the KAU when the University was established in 1983.
Jacob John, Professor and head at IFSRS, says that in keeping with the rapidly growing demand for organic food and home-grown vegetables, the Research Station is innovating on a variety of food-growing models that can be used by everyone from the rural farmer to urban high-rise residents.
Over 19 acres of land, the IFSRS is working to innovate on integrated farming systems involving rice, fish, poultry, cattle and vegetables.
“Basically, we study how to get the maximum yield by farming a small area. For example, one of our successful models involves rearing ducks in enclosures above fish ponds. The duck excreta serve both as food for the fish, and as fertilizer for crops. Another model is growing a vegetable plantation on top of fish ponds. This conserves water and makes very efficient use of space," he explains.
Another exciting integrated farming model the Research Station promotes is fish rearing within coconut plantations. "We mainly grow genetically improved Tilapia fish. They are tasty and fleshy, similar to Karimeen (pearl spot). Long but shallow tanks are dug between rows of coconut trees in a plantation, and the fish are reared there. Since it’s a fresh water fish and we need to change the water regularly, the old water can be used to provide manure for the coconut trees," he says.
Prof. Jacob John
Jacob says that one-time-one-crop planting doesn’t serve for effective farming anymore, and urges that every farmer should turn to integrated farming.
But as much success as the field farming models have had, the innovations in terrace gardening developed by Jacob himself have turned out to be most popular. These vertical and homestead models of cultivation in pots, grow-bags and rows, which allow families who stay in congested urban areas to grow anywhere between 20-40 plants on a single stand that can easily be housed on balconies or small terraces.
"Many people come here to learn about terrace gardening. I too travel across Kerala to give classes regarding these methods. And if anyone is interested, we send them diagrams of the stands so that they can build their own," he says.
These terrace gardens also innovatively use water, with sprinkle, drip and stick irrigation systems that are highly eco-friendly. Jacob says that he and others at IFSRS evolved these innovative models in order to maximise the yield from smaller spaces. In traditional methods, he says, a house built on 3 cents of land (just over 1,300 sq ft) a maximum of around 200kg of vegetables can be produced annually. However, the Indian medical association recommends a family of four members to consume around 300 to 350 kg of vegetables each year. "So, we made these models that occupy smaller areas but produce a higher yield," Jacob says.
he IFSRS is a model in the comprehensive use of resources. Nearly every bit of free space is used to grow something useful. Yet, says Jacob, even then the rising demand for organic produce is increasing over supply.
The Research Station sells milk and eggs every day, while it hosts a vegetable market twice a week. And the profits from these sales are significant, says Jacob. "Whatever we do here is profitable. That shows that effective farming is always profitable," he says.
Rice and Maize cultivation
The kind of public interest the IFSRS receives for its ongoing research, adds Jacob, is a healthy sign that the people are eager to return to organic living. But it’s also significant that the government is equally interested in supporting their ventures.
"The encouragement the government gives us is not meagre. The present government is moving ahead strongly towards the goal of making Kerala fully sufficient in vegetables, poultry and paddy," says Jacob.
Edited by Rakesh Mehar
Photos : IFSRS