The Economic Times, 26 January 2016


(Representative picture)


WAYANAD, KERALA: There is a light in Joseph Pendanath’s eyes when he walks through his farm, whose thick foliage resembles a forest in parts. He checks how the nutmeg graft is doing, throws a coconut frond over a few spinach saplings for shade, caresses a pepper vine here, smells a green lime there, and loosens the soil around a slender arecanut tree. From the tubers underground to the tallest coconut tree, Pendanath’s three acres in the foothills of Wayanad in Kerala is filled from soil to sky with layers of more than 30 food and cash crops. The ideal forest farm.

As drought, unseasonal rain, or pesticide wither the fields of millions of small farmers across India, the lushness of Pendanath’s farm is bewildering. When asked what he did different, he says, “When a farmer doesn’t choke the soil, it will give like you’ve never seen. And when the consumer pays me the price that can sustain this kind of farming, I can do more of this.”

Pendanath is one of the over 4,500 hill district farmers in Kerala who form an alternative farming collective called the Fair Trade Alliance Kerala (FTAK). These largely small and medium land holders — 10 per cent are women — do sustainable, organic farming that rejects mono-cropping for biodiversity, preserves and shares local seeds, and embraces the market. They largely export cash crop like spices, nuts and coconut to the growing group of ethical consumers in the West, and food crops like vegetables and rice to the local markets. While the national farm income in India is an average Rs 77,000 a year, FTAK chairman Thomas Kalappura says its members (with 0.3 to 4 acres of land) make at least Rs 1.5 lakh a year. In the tenseenvironment of climate change, large scale agribusiness, and a complex mix of state dependency and apathy that threatens the future of agriculture, these small farmers are making profits.