Swapna James is an award winning farmer from a village 20 km from Palakkad town. The bus to Cherpaullasherry from Olavakode junction, goes near her village, Kulakattikurusi, an interior village, near Kadampazhi-puram Hospital Junction. Journalists and government officials know her well, and her name goes out to the committees which look to honouring farmers for the work they do. She has received the Karshakatilakam award for best woman farmer, Akshayashree award, and Desabhimani Award for organic farming.
Her husband, James, is a successful rubber plantation owner and latex dealer, who says that “Swapna looks after the krishi” which includes organic rice cultivation, along with vegetables and fruits, coffee and spices. Since 2000, they have worked extremely hard, beginning their day at 5 am and winding up their duties at 12 midnight. They say that their profits actually come from the work they do as a couple, and that if they were to delegate, not only would the costs be high, but also the efficiency would be lower. They constantly reiterate that hard labour, and ownership management allows them to do what they do: grow vegetables for the table, distribute organic vegetables to clan members, and sell the excess to a neighbouring school, bringing in a steady income.
Swapna has been able to generate an income of Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 a month, has no personal household expenses for fruit, vegetables, turmeric, ginger, spices, coffee and rice. She harvests honey with the help of workers, who are able to squeeze it from the hives because it is work they are traditionally familiar with. There is a new interest in Kerala in orchids and ornamental plants, so these last two years, she has been able to expand her garden in this direction. She buys the orchids from nurseries, and then multiplies them by growing them in optimum conditions using pebbles, tiles and coir for the base, then transplanting them on to tree trunks. School children, doing projects in botany, often come to see her garden for their projects, assiduously taking down notes.
Organic farming as an idea is an offspring of the Kerala scientists, who wanted to wean the population from chemically infused vegetables, fruits and horticulture. It’s success has depended on the housewives and retired people of these small towns and its adjoining villages. Swapna and James are representative of the interest that the rubber plantation owners have in negotiating with traditional jaiva krishi or natural farming methods, while growing cash crops and spices. They believe that coffee, for instance, can be interspersed with rubber trees, with nitrogen provided from runner beans. Organic farmers tend to go against traditional methods.
Swapna is deeply integrated in social media platforms, and says that her exposure to ideas from other farmers comes from the posts they put up in their Facebook pages. The couple also travels widely over the state, visiting farms, and nurseries, attending courses on organic farming, and also reading the vast literature that is being generated by the government employees who are committed to this programme.
One of the innovations they have put together on the farm is a tube well, without motor. The well is 600 feet deep, and it requires no electricity. The valve used here is a “foot valve”, similar to that one used in a motor device, where water once it comes up, shuts, and water does not go back. Much of these simple innovations have appeared after much thought on their part, of simple and inexpensive ways of accessing water or good soil.
Swapna says that the earthworm count has gone down considerably because of pesticide use, and what one should strive for is a natural return to a soil which harbours earthworms. For this, they have devised various compost heaps, which are state sponsored in design, which allows them to place a base of cowdung manure, and layer it with leaves, rotting materials, including dead farm animals, and everything is organically broken down into fresh earth fit for growing things in a matter of weeks. In these compost heaps, wooden frames like chicken coops are constructed with lattices that allow the compost to be aerated. They also use solar traps to catch beetles which arrive at night to destroy fruit, flowers and vegetables.
In his spare time, James and his friends, as members of the Arts and Sports Club of Kadampazhipuram, look after those villagers who are dying of cancer, and provide palliative care for people who are old, sick and incapable of looking after themselves. They are now collecting money from friends and relatives for a hospice for those who are in the last stages of their life, and live alone without children or attendants, a common problem for Malayalees, generally, whose family work abroad or in other cities in India.