Many of us dream of leaving behind a fast-paced life to live close to nature and grow our food. Although this is an exciting prospect, few of us take the plunge.
Aniish Shah is one of the few. After working in the corporate world for 16 years, he decided to quit his job in 2016 to pursue his passion — farming.
He received training from experts and faced numerous challenges.
“I had worked in marketing and sales and was earning well, but after a point, I realised that I was doing the same thing in different organisations. I was living out of a suitcase because of all the travelling, and I was tired of the rat-race. So I decided to pursue what I love,” smiles the 42-year-old
Now, Aniish is an organic farmer-entrepreneur, who grows close to 20 crops on 30 acres. Some of these crops include groundnuts, wheat, turmeric, black-eyed beans, corn, pepper, mangoes, and cashews.
He also has a farm-to-table venture called Earth Harvests where customers are sent weekly crates of fresh organic and natural produce.
Currently, they have over 400 regular customers. Aniish also uses ingenious techniques of biodynamic farming, a form of alternative and natural farming without any chemicals.
Additionally, he also practises agroforestry on 1.5 acres of land, growing trees of silver oak, teakwood, sandalwood and areca nut, bananas, pineapple, papaya, guavas, and chikoo.
Through his farming practices and consultation services, Aniish earns nearly Rs 60 lakh a year. He has even exported his veggies to the Middle East and the UK.
Terrace Gardening Paved the Way
Aniish did not grow up on a farm but was raised in Mumbai’s concrete jungle. He completed a Bachelor’s degree in commerce from Somaiya Institute in 1999 and joined the Business Standard as an executive in print sales. After working there until 2001, he pursued an MBA degree from the same institute.
For nearly 16 years after that, he held roles in sales and marketing at The Times of India, Future Media, and Network18, among other organisations.
In 2012, he began working as the vice-president of an energy company in Bengaluru. His home had a terrace, and he wanted to put it to good use, while also utilising the city’s perfect weather conditions suitable for gardening.
Aniish picked up some soil, seeds, and a few pots. Within two months, he went from two to 20 pots.
“I grew beetroots, carrots, kokum, chillies, radish, french beans, tomato, brinjals, palak, and methi without any chemicals. I had so much produce that I would often give it away to my friends and neighbours,” he recalls.
The sense of fulfilment pushed him to learn more about farming. He spent close to 20 days on the farm of Narayan Reddy, a pioneer in organic farming in Karnataka. From him, Aniish picked up ancient knowledge on farming.
He did not have any land to implement all his learnings, but some of his friends did. He decided to use their land for farming and divide the profits.
Overcoming Initial Hurdles Through Resilience
In 2016, he quit his job and returned to Mumbai to pursue farming on the outskirts. About 70 km from the city, he started working on a 16-acre land. He got it leveled, created ponds for irrigation, and set up other irrigation systems. But, things didn’t go as per plan.
“That year was particularly bad in terms of rainfall, and I realised that even though I had set up everything, the soil would not lead to a successful harvest. The temperature was around 42 degrees, without any viable sources for irrigation. I would have ended up in debt, and so, I pulled out of the project. I spent almost Rs 8 lakh from my savings,” he says.
Despite this disheartening episode, he refused to give up on his dream. He took a permaculture course on a farm in Zahirabad near Hyderabad for 15 days. This was followed by another course in biodynamic farming from Bhaikaka Krishi Kendra in Anand, Gujarat.
Aniish would often visit the outskirts in places like Karjat and Satara and meet with farmers. In 2017, he started Earth Harvests to eliminate middlemen and connect farmers directly to consumers.
Meanwhile, he also started offering consultation services helping people set up their home farms, terrace gardens, hydroponic farms, vertical gardens.
The turning point came in early 2019 when he got in touch with a landowner in Sindhudurg. Aniish began working on the 30 acres and began his journey as a farmer.
Biodynamic Farming Begets Success
Aniish explains that biodynamic farming is very similar to organic farming, but it goes a step beyond. Here, the soil is carefully tended to and enriched with nutrients, before the seeds are sown.
“In the 1950s, the organic content in Indian soil was four per cent, which has now gone down to 0.4 per cent. But having organic matter that facilitates microbial activity is important because it helps in the growth of healthy plants and water retention,” he says.
He informs that biodynamic farming follows a simple method that can naturally attach nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus to the soil. For this, he grows green manure, sows the seeds of legumes, millets, corn and a few greens. After 45 days, when these crops have grown, he uses a rotavator to uproot these crops. The crops make the soil rich and act as mulch for the next crop, which is grown for a longer period.
“This is a very convenient method, but people take some time in truly understanding the benefits. With a bit of planning and spending Rs 1,000 on seeds, you make the soil so rich that you cut the costs on fertilisers,” he says.
Aniish has also stayed away from monocropping and follows the ‘companion planting’ method, where different crops are grown in proximity. This helps in pest control and pollination. On his farm, he grows turmeric with toor dal, corn, bottle gourd and bitter gourd.
Additionally, he makes organic fertilisers and uses unique methods for pest control.
Jeevamrutha is prepared in both dry and liquid forms using cow dung, cow urine, gram flour, jaggery and good quality soil. He also uses biochar obtained from burning organic and wood waste, which is mixed with the jeevamrutha or algae. He also makes fish fertilisers by mixing fish waste with jaggery, a teaspoon of urea, and water, which is fermented for a week before use.
For pest control, he makes a mixture of cow urine, ginger, chili and tobacco leaves, which is fermented for a week. This is diluted with water before spraying. Aniish also informs that yellow and orange flowers (like Marigold) tend to attract more pests. So, he creates a barrier around his primary crops by planting these flowers.
Mumbai-based banker Michelle is one of the many people who have benefitted from Aniish’s fresh produce. The 43-year-old learnt about the farm-to-table initiative during the lockdown through her society WhatsApp group. Incidentally, she just wanted to buy some eggs, but now, hers is one of the 75 families in the society that sources veggies from Aniish every week.
Priced at Rs 1,000, the10-kg crate of essential staples has seasonal veggies, fruits along with free-range eggs and mushrooms as add-ons.
“The veggies in Bombay’s markets are at least three days old. Here, we get quality produce which is freshly harvested. The entire society sources 2,000 kg every week. And, the fact that it is supporting hardworking farmers also makes us happy,” says Michelle.
The Road Ahead
After overcoming his challenges, Aniish is committed to spreading the message of eating local, seasonal and fresh. “Knowing your farmers and where your food comes from is the first step towards eating healthy,” he says.
He is working towards adding more farmers to his network so that they are paid equitably.
On his own farm, he plans to scale operations and bring Earth Harvest to cities like Bengaluru, Indore, and Ahmedabad. Additionally, he carefully collects and preserves seeds of indigenous crops in his ‘Seed Bank’, which is open to others.
“With time, we have realised that eating good food and taking care of our health is the most important thing. If we make food our medicine, we would never have to worry about illnesses. I look forward to sharing my learnings and leaving behind a legacy that promotes traditional agricultural values,” he says.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)