George M J, a resident of Bengaluru, runs Mary's Barn, an organic farm and homestay that has a mini forest of around 350 trees and plants.
In 2004, George M J (67), a resident of Bengaluru’s RT Nagar, purchased a one-acre plot of land in Hesaraghatta. This area is located 12 kilometres away from the city, near Medi Agrahara village, and was once well-known as an agricultural village, where the cultivation of coconuts was predominant.
“In this area, only those with agricultural backgrounds or those practising farming could buy land. Coming from an agricultural family in Wayanad, I was able to procure a plot where 30 coconut trees were growing,” George tells The Better India.
While he is an engineer by profession and manages a company that manufactures industrial equipment, farming is his passion.
At first, he planted tapioca, as it was his favourite vegetable and easy to grow, and later began growing coconut. He saw his first harvest within eight months. Over the next year, he continued with the same crop, before the gardening bug bit him. He began experimenting by growing a wide variety of plants which includes fruits, medical plants, spices, and flowering plants.
Over 15 years, today, his one-acre farm is a mini food forest that houses 350 varieties of plants and trees. It is a haven for free-flying birds and is a homestay for individuals who wish to spend time amid nature.
Creating a mini forest
For one year after purchasing the land, George would only use the harvests of tapioca and coconuts for his family’s consumption, or distribute them among close friends. He’d also extract coconut oil to use for cooking purposes.
After George witnessed a successful harvest, he decided to live on the farm, cultivate different crops, and spend time amid nature. He constructed a home, a separate office space to manufacture machines, and moved in with his now late wife Mary George and three children, Roselin, Annie and Lovely George.
To introduce new varieties of plants, George began visiting other farms around the area as well as in Wayanad. He began learning about what was necessary to improve soil quality and yield, and purchased seedlings and saplings from the farmers he met.
“I would also visit the government horticulture nurseries where I would purchase several varieties of saplings and seedlings. The crops I purchased from Wayanad included cardamom, pepper, and several others,” says George, adding that he bought saplings from any city, state or country he travelled to.
For the healthy growth of his crops, George would follow only organic methods such as adding compost made from kitchen scraps, spraying cow urine and water as pesticides, and adding their excrement to the soil as manure. Instead of purchasing manure from outside, he started raising cattle, chicken, geese, ducks, turkey and rabbits on the farm.
He says being all-organic not only gave him a sense of satisfaction, but also helped him improve the fertility of the soil. With help from an in-house helper who was also a farmer, George began growing vegetables such as tomatoes, chillies, brinjals, gourds, and more.
“The family was entirely dependent on the farm for daily cooking essentials. From spices to vegetables and herbs, everything was procured fresh from the farm. The space is also self-sustaining as nothing goes to waste. The food scraps are composted and then added as manure for plants,” says George.
Opening up the farm to others
By 2014, the farm had 350 fully-grown plants and trees. George even constructed a treehouse on the premises to invite friends over and spend a day.
“By then, most farmlands around my plot had been acquired by the government. Those who visited the farm would marvel at how I had maintained a mini forest amid 3,500 acres of agricultural land. Many requested that I open the place up commercially and allow visitors,” says George, adding that some schools from the city also brought students to visit for day trips.
The students would spend time on the premises and learn about the various trees and their origin history. To date, over 25 schools would have visited the premises.
By 2017, George had officially registered the plot for commercial purposes and named it Mary’s Barn, in remembrance of his late wife.
“Since then, with help from my daughters, we have constructed a shed that accommodates 200 people for get-togethers or weddings. We also have a swimming pool and a rain dance floor for the guests to enjoy. The water used here is directed back into the farm to the plants,” says George, adding that the bookings for the place are managed by his youngest daughter, Lovely George.
Mary’s Barn has hosted 3,000 people. The guests are allowed to explore the farm and are provided with meals cooked from produce grown on the premises.
However, owing to the pandemic, the homestay has been closed, and George has sent his in-house helper back to his native town.
“With no help, I stopped cultivating vegetables and converted the swimming pool into a fish tank. The water from the tank is also used to grow crops through aquaponics systems,” says George, who has single-handedly looked after the place.
Not a happy ending
But the future of the farm is now uncertain as George might lose the property. Unfortunately, the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) has proposed to take over the area where Mary’s Barn is situated for commercial purposes.
“If they take over, they would destroy all these trees, which are the result of 15 years of effort. I have been continuously writing to the commissioner of BDA urging him to look into the matter as I procured the land and made developments using all my life savings. Losing the property would leave me with no source of income,” says George.
Now, he says he hopes for the best and will continue spending time in his paradise for as long as possible.
[If you wish to know more or get in touch with George visit their Facebook or Instagram page. ]