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Auroville Adventure

Jan 2002


Growing Auroville's food

- by Carel

 

The Auroville farms are showing a substantial progress. But it is by far not enough, says farmer Jeff from Discipline.

 

Preparing rice fields for seedling planting

Rice fields before harvesting
Photos taken at Annapurna farm

Discipline is a community situated in the northern greenbelt of Auroville. Like all other greenbelt communities, it started on bare earth, 27 years ago. Today, the area is lush. Discipline consists partly of forest, partly of farmland with a few houses scattered in between.

Australian born Jeff is Discipline's farmer. He is responsible for 15 acres of farmland and for a livestock consisting of five cows. "I joined Auroville in 1982 and started as a teacher. But as things go in Auroville, at one point there was nobody to take up Discipline farm and as it needed to be done, I did it. I keep trying to combine it with my other passions, which are painting and being an actor," he says cheerfully.

Jeff relaxing against a papaya tree at Discipline farm

Jeff is also active in Auroville's Farm Group, which attempts to represent the interests and needs of Auroville's farms to the community, with increasing success. "The problem in a nutshell," says Jeff, "is that the farms' income is insufficient to allow for any substantial investments in farm development. In fact, many farms run on a shoestring budget, the income just covers the farms' running expenses. In the best of cases we break even. Lacking money for investment, the efficiency can't be improved. It is a vicious cycle, which only can be broken by large investments from the community or elsewhere. The main part of the farms' income is generated from product sales. Auroville's Central Fund contributes towards the personal maintenance of the farmers with a monthly amount of on average Rs 2,700 per Aurovilian farmer, which is less than 50% of the true needs. For development work, we depend on donations from private individuals, from Auroville commercial units or from outside organizations such as the Dutch Stichting de Zaaier and the American Foundation for World Education."

Discipline is one of Auroville's smaller farms. The possibilities to cultivate the land using a tractor are limited; most of the work is done manually, supervised by Jeff and by John, a Newcomer from England. The farm employs five men and three women. The wages paid are slightly above the wages current in the surrounding villages. Its main products are vegetables - varieties of beans, cucumbers, pumpkins, squashes, jicama (from Mexico), sweet potatoes, salads, radishes and yams; a large variety of common fruits such as chikoo, mango, guava, bullocks heart, papaya, banana and coconut, and a few uncommon ones such as sour sop, black and white sapota, and cheese fruit. "I just started to grow passion fruit, a fruit very rich in vitamin C which is used in fruit juices and for ice-cream toppings," says Jeff, indicating trellises of neatly bound passiflora plants. "And I experiment with grafting techniques, such as grafting tomatoes onto other plants. Other farmers are engaged in similar experiments to make ends meet. At present, we do the best we can within our limits. Each farmer uses his or her own ingenuity to cut costs, experiment with new products and with new farming methods to increase yields. And we profit from the visit of individual experts such as Paul, a professional farmer from Holland, who has farmed in Auroville in the last three years. He helped to develop farming methods such as the raised-bed farming system, made us aware of the possibilities of growing additional crops and assisted in many other ways. The overviews from the Farm Group show that the farms' turnover is steadily increasing."

Electricity is still a major expense for Auroville's farms. Though the Tamil Nadu government gives free electricity to farmers in Tamil Nadu, this doesn't benefit Auroville's farms. The Auroville Foundation has been classified as 'institutional' and pays the highest rate. However, a change seems to be in the air, which would classify the Auroville Foundation as an educational institution and consequently lower the farms' electricity bills. While most farmers would breathe a sigh of relief, for Discipline farm it matters little. It is not connected to the local grid and uses a diesel generator to irrigate the crops. "We tried solar pumps, but they were not efficient enough. We also installed a drip irrigation system and a pipe system to distribute cow-urine water to the vegetable gardens. But the present water situation is insufficient," says Jeff. "Our existing well needs to be deepened, even a new well may be required. The 2001 winter monsoon has largely failed, so we may expect problems unless there are some out-of-season rains."

Paul's visit brought more than just individual support. It highlighted the fact that in some farms the level of professionalism can be increased, and that though the total farm area covers nearly 350 acres, the farms don't yet make most out of it because they lack the necessary finances. "We also don't have an overall Auroville farm picture as yet," says Jeff. "The farmers meet, we coordinate what each of us grows and where to sell it, but individual initiatives still determine each farm's development. We do not have a yearly all-Auroville production and development plan. That's why the idea to attract an agronomist to study the Auroville farm scene has been around for quite some time now.

Such a professional would analyze the farms and Auroville's consumption patterns, identify the problem areas and make medium and long-term action plans. The farms would commit themselves to this plan, producing what the community requires, and the community in turn would assist in obtaining the necessary funds. Prof. Henk Thomas from the Dutch Stichting de Zaaier was very interested in getting such a plan made. But we have so far failed to pull it off."

Donor interest in farm development has not been lacking though. The total donor support over the last five years amounted to Rs 73 lakhs (US$ 152,000). Apart from supporting the personal maintenance of the individual farmers, the Auroville Central Fund provided help in the form of a contingency and an emergency electricity fund to a total of Rs. 10 lakhs (US$ 21,000). Auroville's commercial unit Maroma selected two farms, Anapurna and Siddhartha, and supported them with a total of Rs 28,5 lakhs (US$ 60,000). Apart from these internal sources, other donors also helped substantially: The Dutch Stichting de Zaaier and the American Foundation for World Education donated Rs. 12 lakhs (US$ 25,000) each in this period, and Gateway another 9,5 lakhs (US$ 20,000). "And sometimes there are individuals who help out," says Jeff. "A few months ago a private individual from Germany helped us by donating Rs 20,000, just like that."

Donor interest is a reflection of an increasing awareness in Auroville that it is necessary to develop the farm scene. This awareness, however, does not translate into the willingness, let alone the ability, to purchase the Auroville farms' products at their real costs. Though the Auroville farms are unable to meet the internal Auroville demand, they cannot sell the products at the prices required. Says Jeff: "If a subsistence farmer from the neighbourhood grows 20 or 30 bushes of lady's fingers in his backyard and sells the produce for Rs 5/kilo, we can't charge Rs 15 or Rs 20 to Auroville's sales outlet Pour Tous. Equally, we have to compete with products that are grown on a large scale outside Auroville using fertilizer and pesticides. Only one Auroville farm, Auro-Orchard managed by Gerard, uses pesticides, and that to a very limited extent. All the other farms are 'organic'. As we all know, 'organic' implies lower turnover due to non-use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides. In Europe, consumers willingly pay two or three times more for organically grown vegetables and fruits. But in Auroville, we can't charge what we would need." The main buyers of the farms' products are the Solar Kitchen, Pour Tous, Vinod's stall in Kottakarai and the food-processing units KOFPU and Naturallement. The Auroville restaurants don't buy much from Auroville's farms.

"Over the last years the situation has improved," concludes Jeff, "but it is far from enough. If the community seriously wants to manifest The Mother's ideal of food self-sufficiency, it will have to develop a long-term farm policy and make even more substantial subsidies available."

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