Pine-fresh mountain air, stunning views of the majestic Dhauladhar range and a laid-back little town brimming with warmth — just a few things that make Dharamshala so special. Nestled in the verdant foothills of Himachal’s Kangra Valley, this gorgeous hill town has long been known as a place of rest, respite and refuge (its name even translates to spiritual shelter).
And if there is one place in Dharamshala that exemplifies this legacy, it is Peepal Farm — an organic farm that doubles up as an animal recovery center.
Located in Dhanotu, a tiny village on the outskirts of Dharamshala, Peepal Farm was started by Robin Singh in December 2014. A US-returned-computer nerd, Robin wanted to help animals in need while living a lifestyle as sustainable as possible, an idea that had been shaped by his experiences in the preceding years.
In 2012, Robin was living in the US where he ran a tech company. On a visit to Auroville in Pondicherry, he met Lorraine, an old lady who was single-handedly taking care of 45 stray dogs. Inspired by her dedication, he spent much of his short stay helping her in her work.
Next year, when he returned to India with his friend Joellen, not only did he collaborate with the old lady to start a volunteer programme, he also initiated a sterilisation programme for street dogs in Delhi. That’s when he realised that this — working for animals in need — was what he truly wanted to do.
“There was also this strong desire to give back to the society and play a role in making the Earth a better place,” Robin told YourStory.
Robin returned to USA, wrapped up his work, handed over the reins of his company to a couple of his friends and returned to India. After some research, he zeroed on a patch of land in Dhanotu to start a place that would bring together animals in need of help and people who wished to help animals. His support system and co-founders in this venture were his friends, Joellen and Shivani.
For the name, Robin named the farm after the peepal tree, inspired by its ability to grow in the unlikeliest of places and terrains. He wanted his farm to similarly thrive in tough situations, challenge the status quo in society and move towards a sustainable future that is more compassionate towards both humans and animals.
After acquisition of land and considerable planning, construction of the buildings on Peepal Farm started in December 2014, with all the buildings being built using eco-friendly material such as salvaged wood, bamboo, stones, mud and recycled waste.
The layout for the farm’s main building also followed a passive solar design, which eliminated the need for artificial heating and cooling (like heaters in winter and ACs in summer). The farming finally began almost a year later, in October 2015. Robin adopted natural farming techniques such as no-till cultivation to grow a part of the food required by the farm on a daily basis while procuring the rest from local farmers.
Till date, crops such as wheat, corn, potato, onion, tomato, garlic, cauliflower, gourds, okra, carrots, turnips and greens (such as mint, coriander, spinach, kale, mustard and bok choy) have been grown organically on the Peepal Farm.
A recovery center was also set up on the farm to treat injured/sick stray animals and provide them with a shelter until they get better.
Initially, Robin and his team tended to only dogs and cats, but with time, they gradually started treating other animals, including cows, horses and mules. Once the animals recovered, they were found safe homes for or released back from where they had been recovered. If some animals cannot be released due to certain reasons, they live at the farm forever.
Peepal Farm follows sustainable practices and runs a work-exchange volunteer program where anyone can get accommodation and three meals a day in exchange for 36 hours of services on the farm (like cooking, participating in sustainable farming, housekeeping, taking care of animals, and constructing new buildings).
The completely-vegan farm does not serve animal products — meat, eggs or dairy, though egg shells (from boiled egg vendors) and leftover bones (from local butchers) for ailing dogs are allowed. The idea is to only use those animal products that are considered ‘waste’ so as to to avoid contributing to the demand for meat or eggs.
Priority is also given to minimizing consumption and consequently, the amount of trash leaving the farm. Waste segregation, mulching and composting are practised regularly on the farm. Most of the farm’s animal sheds and dog-houses are built from used plastic and beer bottles. Besides the cow dung generated by the farm cattle is used to make bio-degradable plant pots that are intended as a replacement for plastic planters.
Robin and his team also use concepts such as ‘Cultural Jamming’ and “Hacktivism’ to develop a positive association between the public and animal welfare. For instance, a small step such as putting gunny sacks with a picture of Lord Krishna and the line “This is my cow” on stray cows can prevent them being whipped with sticks.
They also organise community initiatives such as helping village girls learn how to use Internet tools and providing free veterinary services for all animals in the village. Since the farm runs mostly on the contributions from friends and family, the co-founders have recently introduced ‘farm-cation’ facilities and a range of organic products to add to their revenue flow.
So if you would like an offbeat vacation where you can get your hands dirty, learn sustainable farming and play with doggies, Peepal Farm will be happy to host you. You can even commit to a longer volunteer experience or simple swing by for some ready-to-eat organic snacks! Learn more here.