Five-acre farm is nestled inside a patch of Shola forest with natural streams and artificial ponds running through it
Babu Rajasekaran wields a machete as he meets us around 30 km from Udhagamandalam, down the slopes adjoining Mukurthi National Park. He is there , to escort us to his organic strawberry farm.
We look a bit dubiously at his weapon. “It just makes me braver about facing any wildlife I might encounter on the way,” says Rajasekaran. The five-acre Heartberry Farm is nestled inside a patch of Shola forest, with natural streams and artificial ponds running through it.
“There are tigers here, spotted almost every day by the workers on the farm. Sloth bears and leopards are even more common, not to mention Indian gaur,” he says, not exactly filling us with confidence, as we walk through a slippery dirt road, through lush green undergrowth, towards his farm.
Rajasekaran, 35, is clad in khaki shorts and red sneakers, and earphones dangle from his ears. Formerly an IT professional, he worked in the bustle of Bengaluru for almost seven years before getting tired of the city and moving back to the Nilgiris, where he had spent his early years. Then, about three years ago, he sealed his pact with the hills by setting up one of the few completely organic strawberry farms in the district.
“What drove me towards taking up farming was my love for plants, inculcated in me by my mother, an excellent gardener, and my father, a former executive engineer with the agricultural engineering department of the Tamil Nadu government,” he says.
After moving here, Rajasekaran chose an unused tea estate for his farm, precisely because of its isolation. “The area itself is untouched, with very little influence of chemical fertilisers, with pristine water and an amazingly wide array of wildlife,” he explains.
One of the factors behind the decision to set up a completely organic farm was to serve as an example to other farmers that farming methods do not have to be underpinned by intensive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. He has spent the better part of three years working out ways to produce the best quality strawberries, facing and overcoming numerous challenges along the way.
“I faced a lot of problems, with many of my first batch of plants destroyed by strawberry root weevil, a pest that attacks the crop,” he says, addingthat after extensive research, he finally managed to track down a type of nematode that rids the crop of the pest without him having to use any chemical insecticide.
So exhaustive have his efforts been that a multinational company approached him recently, and after testing the quality of his strawberries, including for the presence of pesticides and chemicals, offered to buy his entire crop, to be used for producing baby-food. “That was a really big deal for me, to be acknowledged by expert agronomists as having raised crops safe enough to even be used for baby food,” Rajasekaran says. He now supplies strawberries to Bengaluru, Chennai and a few other places in the Nilgiris.
“My ultimate aim is to inspire other farmers, and with any luck, within the next four years, 300-400 farmers in the Nilgiris will be growing crops using completely organically methods,” he says.
The workers at Rajasekaran’s farm have already taken some of his advice on organic agriculture for their own property.
G. Sidharaj, who grows crops on a small patch of land near his house, says that Rajasekaran taught him how to make jeevamrutham, or organic fertiliser using food waste, including banana and papaya, to help plants grow better. “I was told to produce the organic fertiliser using vegetable waste, and when I started using them, they produced great results,” he says.
Rajasekaran says that unlike a conventional farm, his three acres are rife with wildlife, including insects, amphibians and birds. “The birds and amphibians help me by eating some of the pests, and are a testament that farming, when done right, can exist alongside local ecology, and have a negligible impact on wildlife,” he says.
Though he realises that more needs to be done to promote organic farming, he agrees that the Nilgiris district administration and the Horticulture department have been extremely supportive. “There has been real change, an almost seismic shift, in how the collector has tried to encourage sustainable farming, and I hope the efforts bear fruit in the long run,” he says.