Coimbatore resident Aravinthan R P grows rare varieties of vegetables in a spare space at his father’s residential school. He also conserves seeds, and provides nutritious meals to the students, while encouraging them to learn how to farm.
Did you know that there are over 150 varieties of pumpkin that exist all over the world? Are you aware that there are more than 60 varieties of eggplant and over 10 varieties of okra?
As amazing as this sounds, many of these varieties are on the verge of becoming extinct. With only the most common and popular ones being sold in the markets, the survival of the rest looks bleak.
On a mission to save as many varieties of vegetables as possible, 38-year-old Aravinthan R P from Coimbatore quit his job to pursue his dream. So far, he has collected and planted various seeds — saving close to 70 varieties of eggplant, 20 varieties of okra, 28 varieties of tomatoes, and 20 varieties of beans.
“I never really imagined that I would end up doing this. But life worked out in a way that saving these varieties of seeds has now become my passion,” Aravinthan tells The Better India.
When you can’t find authentic organic produce, you grow them
Born and brought up in the small town of Karur, Tamil Nadu, Aravinthan was always under the influence of farming.
Growing up, his father was a farmer. After completing his engineering degree and then master’s in Germany, he worked as a research assistant at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology for some years before coming back to his homeland in 2012.
The decision to come to India changed Aravinthan’s life completely.
“My father wanted me to write civil service exams so I decided to prepare for that. In the meantime, my father took over the management of a school in Coimbatore, so we moved closer to it,” he shares.
“We have over 100 residential students and wanted to provide them with nutritious food. We looked for sellers who sell organic vegetables, but there was no proof that they were actually organic. So we decided to grow our own food,” he adds.
“My friend who used to grow organic vegetables on his terrace said that he cannot explain in words how juicy and tasty his vegetables are. He said that it is not very hard if you use the right methods. This inspired me, even more, to grow food for the children at school,” says Aravinthan.
He shares that his forefathers have been farmers and so he had a liking for nature and farming. But with not a lot of experience in natural farming, Aravinthan decided to start small and plant a few vegetables on the school’s terrace.
“Since we decided to do organic farming, we figured out that heirloom seeds would be the best option. We would give only natural fertilisers and nutrients to all the plants, so they become genetically strong and adaptable. But when we tried to source heirloom seeds, we could not find them easily. This gave me the idea of founding a ‘seed bank’ at the school,” he says.
“What started as just an urge to give healthy food to my residential kids turned into a completely different thing. In 2015, we started growing our organic food on the occasion of Pongal,” he adds.
Furthermore, he grows the vegetables organically with no chemicals or artificial fertilisers.
“There are a lot of varieties of many vegetables, like onions, that are inherently pest resistant. If we can find those varieties and grow them, then we won’t have to worry about using pesticides or chemicals,” he says.
‘It is a service, not a business’
At Aravinthan’s school, all the students participate in planting their food.
“To encourage youngsters to do farming, we have a program called agricultural sciences in our school. The students of the course help in planting the crops and harvesting them. They get a first-hand experience in farming. The other kids help occasionally too,” he says.
“We also introduced ‘grow bags’ to our students. The bags are basically kits with seeds and tools. The kids sow their plants on campus and take care of them. The seeds from the harvest are then stored in the seed bank. This helps the kids inculcate healthy farming habits,” he adds.
Talking about his motivation to keep going, Aravinthan says, “My idea was simple; I just wanted to give my kids a healthy diet. Also, nurturing the seed bank is important. If we don’t try to save them, they will go extinct. If we lose one variety of a vegetable, it will be lost forever.”
Talking about his produce, he informs, “Today, we produce around 2,000 kg of vegetables and various varieties of beans per year. Over the years, we have collected hundreds of seeds and are trying to preserve them. We slowly expanded our farm to the spare space near the playground in the school. For every new variety, we plant one or two trees, as we have limited space,” he says.
“We grow tomatoes, eggplant, radish, okra, broad beans, chillies, drumsticks, pumpkins etc. We also have water apples, vanilla tamarind, coconuts, and some pulses like green gram and pigeon pea lentils,” he adds.
The produce is mostly consumed by the resident students on a daily basis.
“The leftover is given to our staff teachers and they can just take it home. If there are any more leftovers, we share them with our neighbours. The students put up stalls and the neighbours are welcome to take the vegetables for free. There is a WhatsApp group of our residents and neighbours where we tell the details of the vegetables so they can come and get them,” he explains.
Shweta Sharma, who has been teaching Hindi in the school for the past decade, says, “I started teaching in 2013, and after two years the school started to plant its own food. The best part is that they involve the students in the activity too. I think it is very important to induce more and more students in agriculture as they are our future. Especially, here they learn organic farming which is very essential.”
“Whatever is leftover, the staff takes home. Yesterday, I took some drumsticks and they were so juicy. This is the thing about the produce from our farms; they are so fresh and natural,” she adds saying that anyone can easily spot the difference between organic vegetables produced on the school’s farms and the regular vegetables sold outside.
“The seeds, on the other hand, are given to enthusiasts like me who want to conserve them. We don’t sell them but rather share them. The activity of preserving seeds is not a business but a service for me,” says Aravinthan.
With this venture, he hopes to make farming profitable and induce more and more youth into agriculture.
“As for the future, we want to grow corn. It is very difficult to prevent cross-pollination in different varieties of corn. But, there are many ways to prevent them, and I want to figure that out. I can only hope to save as many varieties of vegetables as possible and inspire more people to do the same,” he says.
If you are interested in conserving seeds and saving different species, Avinathan is willing to share his knowledge. You can reach him at 76395 55088.
Edited by Pranita Bhat