“Farming is just another way of working for the country,” Joseph Louis, a retired havildar tells me. A conversation with this ex-soldier is peppered with gems like these. Another one soon follows, “For me, serving in the army and growing food for people are the two most noble professions.” A native of Kavalam, in the Kuttanad region of Kerala, Louis’ life is testimony to the fact that a soldier never retires.
Following his retirement from the army, the 80-year-old has picked up farming equipment as a way to serve the nation and be active at the same time.
Interestingly, Louis’ 4.5-acre organic farm is an anomaly. On any day, you will find a farmer or two, trying to understand how he has managed to grow passion fruits amidst his six-year-old rubber plantation!
The Better India (TBI) finds out.
Inspiration Can Strike from anywhere, Just Keep an Eye Out
Having established his successful rubber plantation, Louis was satisfied. But last year, a television programme on a Kerala farmer shook things up for him.
The said farmer grew passion fruit amidst rubber plantations and Louis thought he could do the same kind of intercropping without using any chemicals.
Generally, when farmers opt for intercropping, (a method where two or more crops are cultivated on the same land) they choose plants that complement each other. For instance, spices are planted between trees as they require very less sunlight.
The interesting thing about this combination of intercropping is that where the rubber is a water-intensive crop, excessive water can kill the roots of passion fruit plants. In terms of sunlight too, passion fruit needs 6-8 hours of sunlight every day but tall rubber plantations limit the same.
“I had never heard about passion fruit. I had no idea about its colour, shape, size. All I knew was it provides key nutrients, is rich in antioxidants, boosts the immune system and is a good source of fibre,” informs Louis.
He took notes from the episode and for further guidance, headed straight to the Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK), a public-sector enterprise. Not only did he get enough knowledge to begin the process, he also got 1,000 saplings of passion fruit at subsidised rates.
He began with planting one passion fruit plant between every two rubber trees. Next, he trimmed the branches of the rubber trees to allow the passage of sunlight.
As passion fruit is a pretty aggressive vine, he spread a net across his land by tying ropes to the trees at the height of 7 feet. These ropes help the passion fruit branches climb and spread across the net.
To stop the damage to the crop by excessive water, Louis made small elevated bunds (embankments) on either side of the saplings, “The bunds prevent the water from accumulating in one place and runs off quickly,” he explains.
Louis also installed PVC pipes on the field that provides water directly to the roots of passion fruits.
Finally, for a seamless pollination cycle, he set up 50 beehive boxes. The method worked and in the first season, Louis’ farm produced up to 200 kilos of passion fruits, which he sold at Rs 80 per kilo. He also reaped benefits from the beehives as he was able to collect about 50 litres of honey which he sold at Rs 400 per litre.
Kerala is bananas over passion fruit! And to no one’s surprise, Louis was able to sell off his entire yield. “Due to its healthy properties, passion fruit was an easy sell.”
Life Before Farming
A graduate in Economics and Political Science, Louis began his professional journey as a school teacher in the early 1960s.
“Back in those days, there were very limited jobs for Arts graduates. I enjoyed teaching school children but the pay was not enough to feed my family,” recalls Louis.
The turning point came when he came across a vacancy in the Indian Army in an editorial and decided to go for the test in Ernakulam, “Earning money was my sole motivation but somewhere during the practical tests, I found my true calling.”
As destiny would have it, he cleared the tests in the first attempt and joined the Indian Army as a havildar (sergeant) in 1965. Army life gave him the opportunity to travel extensively across the country for the next 20 years until he retired.
By the time he retired, Louis’ three sons had settled in their respective careers and offered to support him.
Naturally, he was expected to enjoy his retired life.
But the energetic man was having none of it. Six months was the maximum he could sit at home without any work, “Switching from an army to civilian life is not easy. In the army, we are expected to be on our toes all the time. Retirement is not for me.”
After trying his hand at a lot of things, he ventured into aquaponics which he practised for two years but technical difficulties made him abandon the activity.
Though his formative years were spent lending a helping hand on his neighbour’s farm, venturing into the field for a profession was never his plan. He says life came a full circle a few years ago when he decided to reignite the childhood dream.
After giving up aquaponics, Louis purchased a land a few kilometres from his house and started his rubber plantation, “Most of the farmers are into rubber plantation and so it was my first choice in case I needed inputs.”
Six years later, he is harvesting passion fruit along with rubber trees and reaping the benefits.
Probably, it is these very unconventional choices that make Louis’ farming methods popular in the village. Visitors, mostly farmers, from Kavalam and the neighbouring villages are often spotted on his farm studying his eco-friendly and cost-effective practices.
Living life the Way he Wants
Though he has employed 3-4 people to work on his farm, Louis visits his farm every day without fail, “This farm is my fourth child and I want to nurture it properly. In the future, I hope to plant more varieties of fruits and vegetables.”
We can all take lessons from Louis’ life; it’s never too late to learn something new. Who knows, it might end up being fruitful for you!
Photo Credits: Reshma Thomas
With inputs from Serene Sarah Zachariah
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)