Ramanathapuram, also called Ramnad, is one of the driest districts in southern Tamil Nadu. Nestled in the dusty, sun-baked interiors of this district is a lush green patch of land replete with orchards of mangoes, guavas, gooseberries and watermelons. But this wasn’t always the case.
Till about a decade ago, the land here was arid, rocky and covered with kaattu karuvelam (a thorny bush). The transformation from barren land into a productive field is a result of the tireless efforts of a group of hard working farmers from Punjab who migrated here about 10 years ago.
It all began in 2007 when Manmohan Singh and his friend Darshan Singh chose to travel over 3,000 km to the drought-prone village of Vallandhai in district Ramnad of Tamil Nadu. They were following the advice of their mentor, Baba Iqbal Singh (former Director of Agriculture, Himachal Pradesh), who had suggested that they try their hand at farming this arid land.
Back home, cultivable land was in short supply and the duo wanted to provide a better life for their families. Despite being told by the locals that the area was prone to long dry spells, Darshan and Manmohan decided to take on the challenge of breathing life into the parched land.
The friends pooled in money and jointly bought 300 acres of land as the local farmers, sceptical about the fertility of the land, sold them at throwaway prices. Their next step was renting a small house in nearby Virudhunagar.
For the next three years, Darshan and Manmohan travelled everyday to the fledgling farm (named Akal), clearing the rocks from the land, digging borewells, installing sprinklers drip irrigation and preparing the soil for plantation.
The hard-working duo also learnt as much as they could about the weather of the region before carefully selecting their crops.
Darshan and Manmohan planted mango trees on 80 acres, amla and guava trees on 40 acres, papaya and coconut trees on 10 acres and a mix of cashew nuts, dates and almonds on five acres. Additionally, they also planted an assortment of vegetables and fruits, like carrots, cucumber, pumpkin, custard apple, chikoo and watermelon, in an inter-cropping pattern.
Soon, a few friends and relatives arrived to pitch in with their efforts. The men pooled in the land that they bought with the Akal farm, before building dormitories for themselves and small cottages for their families on the periphery of the now 900 acre land. They also built a common kitchen and meditation room on the farm – the nearest gurudwara, Guru Nanak Dham in Rameswaram, is about an hour away.
The friendly farmers also built warm relationships with the locals, devoting much of their free time to learn Tamil from them. From lending their tractors to imparting tips about the latest farming techniques, they were quick to lend a helping hand to others in the village.
The farmers also participated wholeheartedly in the local festivals and functions and slowly, the villagers started doing the same.
“As farmers, we are bound by nature and greenery and it does not matter where we belong to, where we stay and where we work. Our camaraderie is beyond food, language and boundaries now,” say the farmers, adding that they feel at home in Vallandhai.
The group’s hard work, patience and spirit of enterprise finally started yielding results with the farm breaking even in 2015. Today, the farm is earning a good income with most of the kitchen needs of the families being met by their own kitchen gardens.
The farm’s ‘Lucknow 49’ variety of guava and prized ‘Imam Pasand’ mangoes are famed in the regional markets for the size and taste.
The success of Akal farm has become an inspiration for the local farmers who now come to the Akal Farm to learn about farming equipment and arid land cultivation. Darshan and Manmohan Singh are often invited by the District Collector to address the local administration and farmers from the region.
The Punjabi farmers plan to increase organic horticultural cultivation on the Akal farm and have roped in experts (from the regional agricultural university) to help them do the same. They also plan to introduce dairy farming and millet cultivation.
“Our hard work literally bore fruits. It has shown that if you love nature and understand how it works, you can do farming anywhere,” says a soft-spoken farmer in a colorful turban, as he heads out to the field to do what he loves – till the land that is giving him a better future.
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