How “organic” should organic be? Does “organic” automatically mean healthy and planet-loving? Should we bring in “packaging, ethical-farming, community development” into the definition of organic?
Aparajita Sengupta and Debal Mazumder had been mulling over these questions for a long time. Perhaps, these questions led them to think things over about the life choices we make, the outcome we seek. Enlightenment can indeed be life-changing. Why else would a couple, well-settled in America, uproot themselves from their home in Kentucky and lay down roots in the small village of Ruppur in West Bengal?
It’s a tantalising story to pursue.
“We used to be “normal” people for a long time but later we figured that it meant being stuck in 9-5 jobs and doing nothing about being fed toxins all the time. We got tired of playing the part of destroyers of the planet, so we wanted to heal, even if in a very small way.”
Today, one will find Aparajita and Debal, now full-time farmers, growing their own organic food in a remote hamlet in Bengal and teaching others to follow their path of sustainability.
The Journey Back Home
After years of navigating through the supermarket aisles of Kentucky, USA, Aparajita and Debal had an epiphany. Holding the enormous onions and eggplants in their hands, the couple introspected how these genetically modified variants of the most common vegetables are actually wreaking havoc in their health.
“The very subtle qualities in food that are hard to describe but easy to sense were missing from the food we cooked,” says Aparajita, who was pursuing her PhD in English at the University of Kentucky. Her husband, Debal, was a senior software engineer settled in the States for nearly eleven years.
Their lives were set, but something was amiss. A touch of home? A taste of the home soil? A sense of belonging? The unfortunate realisation about the chemically-laden food they were consuming in the USA prompted the couple to take a major decision.
Going back home and starting afresh.
The ‘Organic’ Which was Not Environment-Friendly
Having grown up eating fresh, seasonal produce back home in West Bengal, the duo could not fathom the strange taste of the food in the USA. After some background research, they realised – “Every morsel in the “conventional” section had been liberally sprayed with pesticides and fertilisers, and poultry biographies read like horror stories. We could not brush these stories aside as mere health freaks’ paranoia—the taste, texture and shape of things often signalled that these were not naturally occurring substances,” shares Aparajita.
Soon, they made a conscious switch to organic produce and started grocery shopping only at the designated organic food stores. However, more disappointment was in store for this couple who simply wanted a fresh, healthy bite of food on their plates. The organic harvest carefully curated in plastic packaging, inside the air-conditioned, fluorescent-lit departmental stores did not appeal to the family due to the environmental contradiction at every step.
“If organic farms are mere non-chemical replications of corporate farming models—growing monocrops over thousands of acres and spraying neem oil with planes, the very idea of ethical food was completely lost. Besides, some of the “organic” products were not quite food — we had serious reservations about what passed as organic in the processed isles. We were not really convinced that frozen vegan organic pizza or frozen organic TV dinners were food,” shares Aparajita.
Slowly, the couple started losing their faith in the fruits of the foreign soil and longed for the fragrant rice, tender potatoes and fresh river fish of Bengal. In their minds, they were already toying with the idea of returning to the native land.
Finally, in 2011, the family, along with their little daughter, decided to take the step ahead. They sold their house in Lexington, Kentucky and headed back home. For the next few years, they resided in Kolkata and engaged themselves with a community-supported agriculture farm.
In 2014, they moved to Ruppur in Birbhum district and started living in a sustainable two-storey mud house, while nurturing their two-acre organic farm christened – Smell of The Earth.
A Farm Above and Beyond ‘Organic’
“Our methods are beyond “organic,” asserts Aparajita, in a conversation with The Better India. She explains, “Not only do we follow natural farming methods, but we also try to avoid the use of organic pesticides as much as possible. We steer clear of using even neem oil on our fields and instead encourage natural predators like birds, ladybugs, praying mantis, owls, lizards etc.”
The farm does not use any groundwater and the crops are predominantly rain-fed. The couple practises rainwater harvesting in ponds from where the fields are irrigated during the dry seasons. In addition, they use the least amount of external inputs like organic fertilisers and turn all their household food waste and agricultural waste into compost for the farm.
“We do not use hybrid or genetically-modified seeds. We believe in low-intervention methods that mimic nature,” clarifies Aparajita.
From four different varieties of paddy to wheat, millet as well as lentils like Masoor, Moong, Bengal Gram and Pigeon Peas – the devoted organic farmers grow everything that they consume. They even grow their own oilseeds to maintain a completely self-sustaining consumption pattern.
Almost all types of common vegetables, potatoes, onions, garlic, turmeric, mustard, seasonal herbs and spices are grown at Smell of The Earth. They ever rear their own fish in ponds and raise ducks for eggs.
“We also grow a number of aromatic herbs and spices. We have introduced some local forest species into our ecosystem as well,” shares Aparajita.
Inducting Others into a Sustainable Lifestyle
Foodwise, the family is self-sufficient. In fact, they also have a surplus to share with guests and neighbours. They often sell rice and homemade jams and pickles locally. “We do not believe in long-distance transportation of something as basic as food,” says Aparajita, citing the carbon footprint generated from transportation.
A substantial portion of their revenues also come from agricultural training workshops and hosting volunteers at their own farm. They also run a farm stay cottage that welcomes visitors who wish to imbibe the true spirit of peaceful, rural living.
Additionally, Aparajita and Debal provide consultancy services for farm design, for farming enthusiasts who wish to follow a similar ideology of sustainable, natural farming. In their free time, they teach basic reading, writing and Maths to the local village kids.
“Twice every year, we teach a Natural Farming Course for a small (9-10) batch of students. It is a 7-day residential course that offers a professional introduction to permaculture design and natural farming. We have students from all over the country and often from abroad,” she informs.
Prachi Deshpande, who manages the organic farm Grass Hamlet near Bolpur, West Bengal, had been in close contact with Aparajita and Debal for a few years now, learning the techniques of organic farming from them.
Having met them during an urban gardening workshop where Aparajita was one of the facilitators, Prachi was inspired by their way of life. She and her husband began volunteering at their farm from time to time, and also signed up for their training course on natural farming.
“It was an intensive week-long “ecological exchange” where we stayed on the farm, had discussions about permaculture philosophy and design principles, the politics of food, natural farming techniques, soil types, water harvesting, etc. We also did hands-on work on the farm on preparing different types of beds and natural pesticides, harvesting and mapping.”
She continues, “There were also discussions about ways to earn income from the farm produce, on growing bio-diverse crops and nutrition security. We did a project on optimally designing a small patch of land in ways that maximise resources like water, wind, sunlight and shade, and minimise labour inputs. It was a great learning experience, especially because we could see the principles taught were actually being applied on their farm itself .”
Prachi admits learning a lot from the farmer duo, who have been a constant source of support in her farming venture. At present, her farm, Grass Hamlet grows rice, potatoes, mustard, some dals, peanuts, vegetables and even sugarcane for jaggery.
Now the US-returned couple practises chemical-free, low-input, minimal intervention farming and operates locally. They also invite visitors to volunteer at their farm and have a taste of the sustainable rural lifestyle. You can learn more about it on their Facebook portal.
It takes a mammoth amount of courage and sacrifice to shun a picture-perfect life in society’s views, and respond to the call of the soil. And Aparajita and Debal are trendsetters for the same. At Smell of The Earth, they are reviving the primordial practice of living in close communion with nature.
At a time when the planet is suffering the aftermath of incessant corporate greed, this planet-loving couple may prove to be true pioneers for a better, beautiful world.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)