“If 10,000 people in India resort to food forestry today, it can save 50,000 people in the next few years.”
In the administrative domain of India, Patanjali Jha, a 1986-batch IRS officer who is presently posted as the Director-General of Income Tax (Investigations) Karnataka and Goa, is revered as a veteran.
With a Masters degree from Delhi School of Economics, has established himself as one of the leading government officials in the country. He has also featured in the limelight recently for his selfless initiatives during the COVID-19 crisis.
However, little known to many is the fact that Jha is an expert in food forestry, and has been managing over 100 acres of food forest for the past 20 years, with 60 acres land in Khalghat, Madhya Pradesh and another 40 acres in Purnia, Bihar.
In an exclusive conversation with The Better India, the illustrious officer expressed his deep love and reverence for nature. Speaking in his distinctive baritone, he also shared glimpses of his encyclopaedic knowledge about medicinal properties of indigenous plant species.
“My father had around 10 acres of ancestral land in Khalghat, Madhya Pradesh, adjacent to the Narmada river bank. I bought the land from him, and together with five other farming enthusiasts, we bought around 60 acres of land in the region,” recounts Jha, while taking me back by two decades to the time when he got intrigued by food forestry.
Being inspired by Fukuoka’s natural farming methods
Initially, a large part of the land was lying barren, ravaged by sand mining and stripped of its natural biodiversity due to unscientific chemical farming.
It was around this time that Jha chanced upon the ideals of Masanobu Fukuoka—the pioneer of natural farming. Inspired, he delved further into the concept and learnt about botanist Albert Howard’s methods. His chance tryst with Bhaskar Save, considered the Gandhi of natural farming, also motivated him deeply.
“When I started out natural farming following Fukuoka’s methods, people warned me against it and said that crops wouldn’t survive without tilling. But, we had plenty of sunlight, rains and arable land—and I truly believed that it is all a plant needs to survive on its own. And I was right. In the last ten years, the beauty and bounty of the land has grown by leaps and bounds,” shares Jha.
He also adds how his farming has been influenced by the ancient Indian scriptures and traditions, indicating his keen interest in the same.
Creating a 60-acre food forest on the banks of Narmada
In Khalghat, Jha and his partners have created a 60-acre perennial food forest over the years. They grow around seven to eight different plant varieties in a multilayered arrangement.
“Taller trees like neem and babul (Acacia) line the periphery. These are naturally accompanied by the guduchi (giloy) creeper—considered to be one of the best immune boosters in traditional medicine,” shares Jha.
A series of 70-foot-tall moringa trees that Jha and his friends had planted way back in the early 2000s thrive in the central zone of the food forest. These are dotted around with smaller shrubs of citrus plants like kafir lime, mausambi, gondhoraj lime, some seedless varieties of lime as well as the regular lemon.
“We have also grown the Badhwani papaya and yellow papaya, the indigenous varieties people now have no clue about. They are more accustomed to the hybrid seedless variety. Besides these, we also grow several varieties of mango, banana, litchi, turmeric, sweet potato, yam, pink pepper, ber (jujube) and aloe vera. However, the star of our food forest has to be vetiver,” informs Jha.
Vetiver is a type of grass which has proven to be extremely good for maintaining soil quality. Its roots penetrate deep into the soil, helping in moisture retention in the topsoil as well as carbon fixing. One vetiver shrub is believed to have the same soil protection capacity as that of a large tree.
Jha explains, “In Thailand, an experiment has shown that a plant surrounded by vetiver grows about five times faster than their normal counterparts. So now we make sure to surround all our plants with it and have seen our crops give generous yield in a short period of time thanks to this grass.”
Branded under Vanya Naturals, the products of Jha’s food forest, like honey, pink pepper, turmeric, among others, are marketed online to a steady base of urban consumers. While Jha’s business partners and family members manage the finances and logistics, he is primarily interested in the knowhow part of things.
Jha’s brother-in-law Himkar Mishra, who looks after the farm in Purnia, Bihar, says, “Patanjali has been a true inspiration for me. I used to work as a corporate executive before, but I quit my job in 2016 inspired by his agro-ecological endeavours. Since then, I have been permanently dedicated towards the farm, which has now been turned into a food forest.”
Mishra adds that with the help of a few village women, the food forest grows around 40 acres of turmeric and yam at the lowest layer, interspersed with groves of fruit trees like mango, litchi, berry. The forest also has around 1 lakh gondhoraj lemon plants along with 50,000 of Thai seedless lemons, sourced from Kolkata.
Around 40,000 pink pepper trees are also thriving in the forest which are originally from the rainforests of South America. Thousands of moringa and subabool trees stand the tallest, sheathing the entire forest and helping in layered sunlight harvesting. The farm also has a dairy unit comprising cows and goats.
Trees and Bees
Jha entails ‘trees and bees’ as the main motto of his food forestry.
“Bees are the biggest pollinators in the world. But, we have very little awareness of how our natural exploitation is affecting their population. There will be an apocalyptic food crisis in the world if the bees are not there, along with the trees.”
He has also planted marigold plants to invite the bees in abundance. “We have also been running an apiary for the past four years in the Bihar farm.”
Though presently residing in Bengaluru, Jha makes sure to visit his farms as regularly as possible. His family members take care of the farm in Madhya Pradesh, with the help of a few farming families, though the entire food forest requires very little human intervention aside from the harvesting.
Inspired by the food forest, around 150 farmers in and around Khalghat have replicated the model in over 4000 acres of land, earning huge profits, while saving the environment in turn.
Jha entirely forbids the tilling of land in his method, which he considers as torture on the earth. He also adheres to the minimal use of organic manure and similar supplements; even regular watering is not required in food forestry.
He jokingly refers to food forestry as the ‘grandfather of organic farming’, because he believes that the secret to nature’s bounty is to leave it on its own.
“Create enough biodiversity to ensure that your food forest has flowers, fruits, vegetables as well as birds, bees, insects and other animals – all living in perfect harmony. Nature is kind and giving. Look how the Yamuna river has cleaned up with just a month of respite from human intervention,” says Jha, highlighting how respecting nature is the first step towards a healthy and happy survival.
“If 10,000 people in India resort to food forestry today, it can save 50,000 people in the next few years,” concludes Jha. He urges everyone to learn to rely on nature and adapt to a more organic diet, eliminating all the chemical-laden produce from one’s plate.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)