Like any other young couple, Subhashree Santhya and her husband’s life was filled with joy when she gave birth to her second child, a son, in 2019. But soon, an emergency struck when her little baby was diagnosed with an atrial defect in his heart.
“The doctors told us that he had holes in his heart and would require surgery. It was the start of the pandemic — January 5, 2020, and he was only five months old. They immediately decided to operate on him; it was a seven-hour-long surgery and my baby survived. The surgery was a success,” Subhashree tells The Better India.
Doctors suggested she give her son a clean and chemical-free diet.
“I found it very hard to find chemical-free and genuinely organic vegetables in the market, and so, I decided to grow my own,” says Subhashree.
Her determination to feed healthy, organic, and chemical-free food to her children made way for her farm. She quit her job in 2021 and is now a full-time urban farmer who grows 20 kilograms of chemical-free organic food per week and also has her own brand of porridge mix.
‘It all started on my balcony’
After completing her BTech in Mechanical Engineering, Subhashree started working in an IT firm and moved to Mumbai after getting married. She had no farming experience or background before she started growing vegetables for her son.
Knowing very little about growing plants, she and her husband started brainstorming and looking for tutorials online.
“It was the start of the pandemic and we had a lot of time on our hands. I looked up tutorials online and started reading the science behind growing plants — what grows well in what environment, what soil I should use, and how I can make compost from my kitchen waste etc,” she says.
After researching and a lot of trial and error, Subhashree was finally able to grow spinach on her little apartment balcony in Navi Mumbai. “The very first thing that I grew was regular spinach, and then we tried to grow Malabar spinach, moving on to tomatoes and lady finger,” she says.
Little did she know that her little garden would soon lead her to become an entrepreneur and urban farmer.
“There was a nursery near my house which provided me with necessary things for making compost like earthworms and cow dung. I used my kitchen waste too to make compost. I started experimenting to grow different kinds of spinach as they have different nutrient content in them. I started a WhatsApp group where concerned parents would join, and I would teach them the process of growing plants and making compost — right from what size of a drum needs to be used to how much time it would take to make the compost,” says Subhashree.
Soon a large number of parents started flooding her inbox with requests to learn about growing plants and to buy organic vegetables from her.
“The vegetables that I was growing were not even enough for my kids and my husband, let alone anyone else. So I purchased one acre of land in Khalapur, which is a 30-minute drive from my house to grow food on a larger scale,” she says.
To understand the art of organic farming and to scale up her knowledge and skill, in 2021, Subhashree decided to pursue a six-month course at IIT Kharagpur in Sustainable Agriculture.
“During the course, I found a lot of inspiration from G Nammalvar, who was an agriculture scientist. He was the one who initiated the thought of growing organic food from things around you. I read a lot of his books and was able to find different varieties of rice and millets,” she shares.
She adds, “We are now growing traditional rice varieties in association with farmers in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. And in our Khalapur land, we grow different varieties of spinach, pumpkins, lady fingers, etc. We also grow ponnanganni keerai (sessile joyweed), which is not native to Maharashtra, but with proper soil care and organic manure, we were successful in growing it. Besides that, we also grow millets.”
Prioritising clean food over money
Alongside working on her farm, Subhashree also created her own porridge mix under the brand name ‘Mud and Mother’ in April 2022.
“The prices of organic vegetables can be quite high and it is difficult to make them available in all seasons. So, I decided to make a porridge mix that would have the same amount of nutrition,” she says.
“If you see a platter – we add egg, pulses, etc to top up the nutrient value. What if we could have the right amount of nutrients in one shot? We researched for around six months to find the right balance of vitamins, calcium, iron, protein, magnesium etc. This is a good solution for working parents who do not find the time to make a meal that provides everything,” she explains.
“We have chosen red rice, black rice, and a few millets to make the porridge mix. Many mothers with kids diagnosed with cancer or any other terminal disease have found it very nutritious and healthy. It has zero preservatives and is 100 per cent natural and organic,” she further adds.
Subhashree informs that the reason behind making this porridge mix was also to make it available to people belonging to all economic backgrounds.
“I believe that healthy and organic food should not have an economic barrier, and it should reach the less privileged too. We sell it at a minimal cost of Rs 80 per packet. The profit margin is very low, but the idea behind it is not to make money,” she says adding that the mix is packed in 100 per cent eco-friendly recyclable packs.
“I felt the need to give my kids the best food I could. It was the pandemic, and I could not bring myself to trust anyone with bringing me safe, let alone organic and clean, food. I knew it was an unconventional path to take to become a farmer, but my family was extremely supportive. My son is now healthy and almost three years old; this is all that matters to me,” she concludes.
Although Subhashree has a farm to tend to, she still keeps her balcony garden alive, and her house-help and neighbours are free to take a bite.
The porridge mix is available to purchase from her Instagram account – ‘Mud and Mother‘.
Edited by Pranita Bhat, All images courtesy – Subhashree Santhya