Valentine's Day is all about love. Here is a Kerala couple who are madly in love with each other and shares a passionate relationship with something they had been in love long before they met – farming. Married for nearly 10 years now, Vijith V C and Vani V live together in the Garden of Eden they raised together.
Their 4.5-acre land at Vani's native Haripad (Alappuzha district) houses over 5,000 trees, over 3,000 varieties of vegetables, fruits, rare plants, medicinal herbs, ornamental plants, 32 bamboo variants, various breeds of cows, goats, hens, duck, fish, birds, and a dense kaavu. Completely run on three biogas plants, solar plants and nine ponds and a rooftop rainwater harvesting system, which complement each other in sickness and health, the land is their dream, passion and way of life. They call it a sustainable farmland.
Promoting life in harmony with nature, this couple shows that sustainable living is not impractical. They have been booed and shunned at first, but now, people recognize their efforts. Farming, for Vani and Vijith, is political as well – something they do for the soil and the people living there. By following traditional practices of mixed farming and applying organic manure and compost for the crops, they fight pests and naysayers alike. The strength to fight was stemmed from their love for each other and shared passion.
Vani and Vijith met some time in 2005 at a nature camp organized by an NGO Ore Bhoomi Ore Jeevan (One Earth, One Life). They were in their early 20s. Vani was a girl head over heels about agriculture, brimming with ideas and passion about eco-friendliness and nature. Vijith was a KSEB employee who loved farming and has been part of nature camps and plantation drives since school days.
"We hailed from different backgrounds. I was from Haripad, he was from Kannur. I am sort of outspoken and he uses measured words. I act and talk, he thinks and acts. But though we were poles apart in characters, we were bound by love for farming," recalls Vani. They became good friends and used to discuss their plans for future. And one day, Vani proposed to Vijith. "I was shocked. I had no marriage on cards. There hasn't been a thought of even living with a person other then plants and trees. Moreover, I considered her as a leader of a movement and an inspiration for generations to follow. She was a good friend. I wasn't ready for it and I rejected her proposal," says Vijith. But their paths were to cross again. The two secured admission for post-graduation in Ecology at Pondicherry University. Vijith left his job at KSEB to pursue the course and follow his life's calling. Midway to the course, Vani's father fell ill with Parkinson's disease and she had to rush home. Vijith had no choice but to follow her; he realized that they couldn't live apart. At Vani's home, he found their paradise – the lush greenery of biodiversity he has been dreaming of. Together, they made the decision, to practice the life they have been planning to, at Harippad.
It wasn't an easy decision to make. "Yes, people called us crazy. Our parents were pissed off. They felt it was an immature decision and our different backgrounds wouldn't ‘fit'," recalls Vani. "But now, they all agree that we couldn't have had a more perfect partner. And we too could prove to them that all we planned were feasible and right."
Their wedding was without the usual religious rituals at the kaavu in the land. Together, they planted a tree and served a feast for the invitees using the crops they produced on their land. "The rice we served was harvested by ourselves at the field of organic farming friends. Serving the food produced and prepared by the bride and groom was a big thing back then," she says.
The couple considers their gurus as their guiding force. Their association with eco-warriors like agro-ecologist K V Deyal, K V Sivaprasad of One Earth One Life, B Mohan Kumar of Kerala Agricultural University has helped them be environmentally conscious and stay motivated.
"It's from them we learnt that agriculture is not just a job, but a service too. But like many other services (like the ones of housewives), agriculture too lacks visibility. No one takes into account the labour and sacrifice of a farmer. A farmer cannot afford an excuse or an excursion. It's a part of their daily life. A lot of living beings depend on the farmer. Our attempt is to educate everyone of this too – that farming should not be invisible; their efforts need to be recognized."
The ponds they dug up in the plot helped withstand the floods, and the kaavu serves as an air-conditioner for the crops, without wilting them in the scorching summer. "It's our attempt in micro climate regulation. We manually form a climate ideal for farming so that summer or drought do not affect the plants. The kavu stays untouched and is home to hundreds of life species. We also preserve endangered species of flora and fauna. This space we live in is an ecosystem of its own," she adds.
The indigenous crops and varieties they cultivate are resistant to diseases. The organic manures help them grow and the pests are consumed by the hens, ducks and quails. The cows feed on the produce and grass from the land and their dung goes to a biogas plant. (There's no cow shed or cages for the animals; they all roam free as they wish) The second biogas plant is linked to the toilet, and the third one, to food waste and poultry droppings. The biogas plants completely meet the cooking gas requirements of the household. The solar panels meet most of the energy requirements, except pumping using motors. With ponds, the ground water and soil quality are in check and the water needs of plants and animals are met.
A strong advocate of agricultural politics, Vijith explains his life motto, "I believe that there's no term like ‘my farming'. Farming is everyone's. What I produce is meant for others too. I am asked many a time why we don't export our produce. My politics is that what we produce on our soil is our right. Our focus should be on indigenous and endangered crops and practices. Genetically modified and hybrid crops are indicating a future of monopoly. We don't want that. We don't' want our soil to be unfit for use after a few cycles of hybrid crop cultivation. We don't want to be criminalized for sharing seeds patented by multinational firms. Instead, let's preserve our heritage and tradition and lead the way for future generations. We just want to be a tiny part of that movement."
Ask what their aim is, Vani says, "To bring about a sustainable development model everyone can replicate in their life and preserve the nature and themselves."
Since their dreams are the same, the couple doesn't find frictions or conflicts between them. "Vijith is very patient and thoughtful. He is practical and never let his thoughts or ideals get undermined by emotions, unlike me. We both have our own set of shortcomings, but we complement each other. Where I lag, he makes up and where he can't plan or execute, I jump in. Most importantly, we appreciate each other's efforts. That's very crucial, I feel. Without recognizing each other's work, there's no democracy in a relationship," Vani says.
Vijith adds, "We don't interfere in each other's freedom and be judgemental of each other. I am in awe of her work the same way I have been when we met. Always energetic and optimistic, she tries to implement everything we believe in."
The couple runs a training school with the support of Krishi Bhavan where they impart farming lessons to farmers in the area and those who come over for advice. They hold annual camps for school and college students at their farm. They also organize film screenings, theatre workshops, nature camps, toy making workshops and promote recycling and upcycling though their lives.
Apart from engaging in organic farming and promoting organic farming, they run Prakrithi Jaiva Kalavara, a store built close to their farmland, where the couple sells produces from organic farmers for the price quoted by the farmers. Apart from vegetables, fruits, tuber crops, varieties of rice, rice powders, millets, beaten rice, ragi, sprouted ragi powder, kokum, coffee, spices, rock salt, brown sugar, pulses, dairy products, the shop also has value-added products like dry fruits, gingelly balls, Channapatna toys, cloth bags and ornaments made using manjadi seeds and husked rice. What makes the store special is that the buyers can directly harvest the vegetables from the field and pay for those. "That way, they will get to fall in love with the happiness of farming, and try to imbibe in farming," feels Vijith.
(Vandana Mohandas is an independent journalist based in Kochi)