Located in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra, Phungus is a remote village that remains dominated by farming communities and largely untouched by modernisation. The area is also home to Farm of Happiness, an agro-tourism property where travellers can get their hands dirty in the fields and understand what goes on behind the scenes of the food that comes to the table.
Behind this happy farm are Sampada and Rahul Kulkarni, a Mumbai-couple who turned to farming over 10 years ago.
In 2005, Rahul, an advertising professional, and his wife Sampada, an actress, found themselves seeking a break from their mundane lives. They found their answer in turning back to Phungus, their native village. “My family was into farming but I hadn’t bothered to find out much about it,” says Rahul, who began with the intention of founding a nature resort in the village.
The nature resort took a turn towards agro-tourism as Rahul and Sampada interacted with farmers and found mentorship under Shekhar Bhadsavle, a renowned entrepreneur-farmer. Rahul says, “We did not know about food security issues and were awestruck with the information we found. We realised the importance of growing our own food.”
With research and more interaction with local communities, the two decided to step into the fields themselves and establish not just a resort but a place where people gained consciousness of the food on their plate. “We were working on virgin land and did not want to expose it to chemicals,” says Rahul, adding their farm was little more than jungle when it started.
“We realised that we have to be the farmers,” he says. “We started by looking at the basics—water, seeds, what worked, what didn’t. We planted around 50 varieties of crops, and began making notes and photo documenting our experiences. Following traditional practices, farmers are often unable to judge how they might be able to maximise their produce and business. But our education helped us analyse our steps. The Internet was a big help—we could see what was happening in Thailand to California. We used all these resources to plan our course of action over the years”
Taking a hands-on approach and learning as they worked, the couple developed the farmstay property as more than just a recreational space. As Rahul says, “We want our guests to go back home with a certain learning (of their food).”
Following natural, organic farming practices, a variety of crops are grown on Farm of Happiness, including paddy, ragi, alphonso mangoes, jackfruits, gourds and more.
One of the first experiences for guests here is a walk around the farm, and Rahul and Sampada actively encourage them to work with the farmers on the seasonal crops to gain an authentic understanding of an agricultural life. There are also provisions for bullock cart rides, trekking, bird-watching, star gazing and fishing.
Along with experiential farming, conscious eating is one of the foundational pillars for Rahul and Sampada’s venture. “Our knowledge of food is often limited to the information we find in our food packages,” says Rahul, citing examples of how unsustainable consumer demand often contributes to aggravating the food security crisis.
“When I was growing up, mangoes were available for only a few months,” he says. “Now they are available through the year. It is because we are demanding it, and our demand is changing the natural cycle of the produce. If we know how harmful it is, we are less likely to make such demands.”
Unsurprisingly, the Farm of Happiness follows a stringent crops cycle and emphasizes firmly on farm-to-table practices and acquainting guests with healthier dietary choices. Not to mention the pleasure of growing their own food.
Juggling their labour of love with their day jobs, Rahul and Sampada work with local communities to manage the everyday affairs of the farm.
The couple focused on hiring locally from the very beginning. While it contributed to the sustainable principles of the farm, the move also enabled the founders to learn from the vast knowledge of local farmers. “We have 10 team members and each of them is an experienced farmer,” says Rahul.
“Along with farming, the employees also serve as cooks, electricians, plumbers etc,” he adds. “We are located in a remote area and having these skills enable them to solve small issues at the farm easily. We also spent time building their confidence. For many years, I travelled every weekend to check on the farm, work with the employees and set a POA for the coming week before heading back to Mumbai on Mondays.”
As the operations have settled and the property has gained in repute, Rahul doesn’t need to visit every weekend. Nevertheless, the couple remains deeply invested in developing their pet project. With their daughter continuing her studies in Mumbai, the couple currently lives in the city and continues with work. But their dream for the not-so-distant future is to make the farm their home.
With these initiatives, this multi-tasking creative couple has made it a mission to encourage people to know their food and grow it too.
“We don’t want to increase the size of our property or have a lot of people,” says Rahul on plans for expansion. “Instead, we want to spend quality time with our guests, answer their queries, help them in the farm and keep up their interest levels.” Experimenting with new crops at regular intervals, Rahul hopes to optimise the farm’s production and build a sustainable future for the eco-friendly venture.
In farming and encouraging others to join the movement, Rahul and his wife hope to rise above the ongoing craze for organic foods and instead emphasize on empowering farmers as well as consumers. “Farming has to be lucrative, and young and educated people have to take to farming themselves,” he says, adding that a mere craze for organic food isn’t enough to make it sustainable.
Having seen the difficulties of organic farming, and experiencing it himself, Rahul is eager to spread awareness of organic food, procuring them and encouraging others to join the movement. “We don’t see ourselves as role models or want to be preachy, but we are happy to help anybody who wants to join the movement.”