When most people around him were selling their land to invest in homes and migrate to cities, 63-year-old Senthamil Selvan made a different choice.
The banker with an illustrious 36-year-old career opted for voluntary retirement, sold his home in Katpadi for Rs 40 lakh and bought a three-acre land.
150 km away from Chennai, nestled in the village of Kalampattu, located in Vellore, is Arivu Thottam, the lush green model farm that this retired banker built.
This farm has over 110 coconut trees, 90 mango trees, 25 chiku trees, 33 lemon trees, a banana plantation and a dedicated horticulture space where brinjals, tomatoes, chillies and a variety of greens are grown. It has attracted over 150 farmers, parent groups and 2,000 school and college students.
In an exclusive interview with The Better India, he narrates his six-year journey into converting once barren and uncultivable land into a beautiful farm.
“As a banker, I was given the responsibility of encouraging and issuing farm-loans in two states. It was during these interactions that I realised how dejected most of them felt. Their land was doused with chemicals and on the brink of becoming completely unsuitable for agriculture. Also, the cost of chemical fertilisers and pesticides was leading to mounting debts. In this situation, even if a farmer received a loan, it would be impossible for them to revive the land or repay the amount. This ground reality rattled me to no end.”
Besides, the increasing unawareness among urban folk about the source of their food further pushed Selvan to think of a solution.
“Every single day, you consume food without even questioning where it comes from. Without realising that the chemicals used to grow it are not only depleting the quality of the soil but also posing major health threats for you,” Selvan points out.
Linking these two points, he decided to seek voluntary retirement in 2014.
However, he bought the land two years before his retirement, while still in service. During this time, he juggled work and developing his farm.
“Organic farming is a slow process, but highly effective. At the least, it takes a farm two years to detox and become suitable for the traditional farming process. I used this time to fence the area, dig borewells and grow plants to improve the quality of the soil. These activities did not yield anything. Whatever was grown was ploughed back into the soil, to revive it by giving it the nitrogen and nutrition it needed. This biomass, coupled with cow dung, served as natural manure. The only improvement was that some of the coconut and mango trees that already existed on the land and were wilting away, improved after the use of bio-fertilisers and pesticides,” he says.
Today, after six years of sustained efforts, the farm helps fulfil most of his daily consumption requirements and yields 10,000-15,000 coconuts and four tonnes of mangoes annually.
Lemon harvested year-round also gains close to Rs 30,000. Besides, herbal plants and banana plantations gain additional income.
“While Rs 6 lakh a year may not be a very big amount, the satisfaction of growing chemical-free food and delivering it to my customers is far greater,” says the retired banker.
He was also using drip irrigation to make the entire process water-efficient.
He currently sells his produce through word of mouth within his circles, primarily in Chennai, where his family and friends reside. He plans to expand and formalise the process as he works on creating his own market to push his produce.
“Growing as well as selling organic produce is a challenge. In a market where chemical-laden products are being sold under the organic label, it is difficult for organic farmers to gain profits. Selling their produce to middlemen drastically reduces their margin. And at the same time, the location of the sale is crucial,” he explains.
He illustrates this with an example.
“If I were to sell the mangoes at my own farm, they would sell for Rs 8,000, but when the same mangoes are sold in the city, they earn over Rs 45,000. You can imagine the difference! So it is essential that farmers devise techniques to go out and directly sell their produce in a better way.”
In the last six months, he has opened up his farm as an open resource centre to small farmers, school and college students, and parent groups, for no fee at all.
“It is an absolute delight to share the rich history of agriculture with these young minds and help farmers adopt techniques that lower the cost of production and improve yield. Parents and kids sit under the trees as I explain to them the different varieties we grow on the farm. I encourage young kids to speak to the plants, touch them, and embrace them for the gift of life.”
The farm conducts several workshops and activities, in addition to taking these groups around villages for an authentic experience of rural life.
Selvan’s hard work has helped him onboard several retired agriculturists to form a resource team, who have also worked with the state government in the past. From teaching vermiculture to encouraging the popular concept of rooftop gardening, they have been providing him with the required support without charging a penny.
Even if it takes a while, organic farming is the only resource to farmers to make agriculture profitable again, adds Selvan. It may seem like a risky investment at the start, but once your soil is chemical-free, the income and profits are steady, he insists.
And he owes his success to the unwavering support from his wife and children.
“We have a democratic system at home, where we consult all the members before arriving at any decision. My children (both IT engineers) and wife have been very supportive. My wife, Gunasundari, has been helping me with the farm activities throughout.”
He signs off by drawing parallels between his own experience and the burning issues of the current agricultural scene in India.
“As a banker, I was able to bear the losses during the first two years, which was crucial to remove the remnants of chemicals from the soil. But this is not the same with small and marginal farmers in the country. Here’s where the government can play an important role in supporting financially. If policies are set in place, nothing can stop our farmers from moving towards organic farming.”
If this story inspired you, get in touch with Senthamil Selvan at +91 94430 32436. You can check out the Facebook page for Arivu Thottam here.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)