The vast emerald paddy fields, white storks meditating on the mysteries of the loamy earth and farm labour planting paddy in the watery fields make up the eternal triptych of Kerala. Farmer Nandakumar, who grew up in a landscape of tall coconut palms that line the paddy field pathways and lives in the village of Panangad nourished by the backwaters, has been working on his land for as long as he can remember. He grows Pokkali rice, typical of the area where the water has saline content.
The long-stemmed paddy whose height helps it to flourish in the waterlogged fields is best for cultivation when the tide fertilises the land in end-October. The height of the stems makes it difficult for machine-aided harvesting. Yet all the beauty of the green and water wasn’t enough for the 65-year-old Nandakumar’s worries to cease. His family has been farming since 1956 and the lack of getting workers on time has caused them financial distress.
Once the paddy ripens, it has to be harvested within a week to prevent poor soil strength from ruining it. “Consecutive losses forced me to reduce my farming area,” he admits. The pandemic made things worse; no worker was willing to wade into the watery fields with sickles. Nandakumar decided to innovate—if the worker doesn’t go to Nandakumar, he will go to them. He launched “Farmer a Day” campaign for individuals on social media inviting folks interested to learn farming and work with him in the harvesting.
This time it was a bumper crop and the 50-participants-a-day for an eight days programme worked out to the advantage of all. The organically grown Pokkali has a unique taste; farming lore even credits healing properties to the extra large grains. Because of the protein-rich quality of the rice it’s a staple for fishermen who go out to sea at dawn and return with their catch at dark.
“I own 20 acres of farmland. I need over 500 workers to harvest it—an average of 20 workers per acre. I’ve managed to bring together 40-odd traditional farmers to assist the farming rookies. Collective public participation in the harvest is important,” Nandakumar says. He continues to get calls from people and groups across the state. This time the participants were taught a master class on ‘Back to Farming’ along with a traditional brunch, a boating excursion and a souvenir.
“The campaign is totally free. We aim to provide a whole new experience for the first-time farmers. Since many veteran farmers have left the field, I’m hoping this campaign would bring back the interest in agriculture into our youth,” beams Nandakumar. Many professionals and support groups, both men and women have called him up. “Though I’ve no prior experience in farming, I’m excited. When I shared the information as my FB status, many people started reaching out to me asking for details,” says Dev Hariharan, an IT professional from Thiruvananthapuram.
With the support of ‘Subhiksha Keralam’ project, Nandakumar scaled up the quantity and received a bounty. He reveals, “Many cultivators have approached me for my seeds. Once the harvest is over, I plan to venture into prawn farming. I’m also thinking about creating value-added products from our harvest with the support of state government.” From traditional farming to versatile ambition, the Kerala farmer is sowing satisfaction.