A chain of interconnected hillocks forms the Kukkal thorai valley. As far as your eyes could see, farmlands are scattered all across the valley along with small patches of town and housing at random. Roughly, a minimum of 1000 acres is cultivated with vegetables in this region. This serene region, as they say, has an apt climate (average of 15 degree Celsius) for growing vegetables such as iceberg lettuce, broccoli, zucchini and red cabbage. “These vegetables have been cultivated in this valley only for the past ten years.” says a local farmer. Tea was grown extensively along with green beans and carrots before the trend of exotic vegetable cultivation emerged. Many of the locals believe that after the introduction of the genetic modiification (GM) seeds, the beans that were grown and marketed to many parts of the country had failed to produce good yields due to chemical farming.

This exotic vegetable trend kicked off in a manner that gave such good monetary returns to which all the farmers were lured towards. The farmers are aware of the health risk associated with GM food and the application of a vast amount of pesticides and insecticides. They are hesitant to transform to organic farming because of the lack of input support or guidance to carry out natural practices. Whereas if the farmers grow the GM seeds, they are assured with a fixed price throughout the year by the established seed outlets that sell them. The opportunity to sell their yield without having to spend on transport makes it feasible for them.

There are some traders who work hand in hand with the seed outlets. They purchase seeds directly and grow them in nurseries until they stem close to 30 to 40 cm and sell them directly to farmers. When a farmers buy the saplings, the trader notes down the date so he can track the approximate day of harvest, and will directly collect the ripe crop. They have their own markets to which they sell the product to and the farmers get their cut.

During conversations, they disclosed the fact that they hardly consume any of the vegetables they grow as they are well aware of the number of pesticides that are used. Air-conditioned trucks are used to transport these vegetables to the Coimbatore airport from where they are flown to Delhi, Bombay, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai and other major metros. Such costly operations are in place to sell the produce across the country at supermarkets from a small place such as Kukkal Thorai.

While speaking to one of the farmers, he mentioned how government-subsidized stores are hardly replenished with organic fertilizers, while the chemical stores beside it have ready synthetic fertilizers at a cheaper rate than organic fertilizers. He says “if this is the case, how will it be possible for me to follow organic practices? If the government is ready to help us, we are ready to transform”. The new District administration is keen to eradicate chemical farming and has announced to soon declare Nilgiris as an organic district. While doing so, considering the fact of providing support through bio inputs & other organic matter at a lower rate will encourage farmers to turn away from inorganic practices. Furthermore, better market opportunities for their organic produce will also be helpful.

Eradicating these chemical outlets can be the first step in preventing these farmers from utilizing them. However, surprisingly, inspite of excessive use of chemicals, soil test results from the Horticulture department show that the Organic Carbon percentage and Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) present in the soil is at an optimum level.

In the last week of August, we held training for ten farmers that were keen to learn the process of making organic compost. A demonstration on setting up a compost pit and the methodology involved in processing compost took place. A detailed discussion was held on how native plants can be used to prepare organic extracts to prevent pests. Example – Calotropis, Datura etc. During the training, farmers mentioned that if these techniques are effective surely many will follow. “In our place if one farmer does something and if the outcome is good all the others will follow”.

As a part of the HCL project, we are working towards the conversion of a minimum of 50 acres into organic farmland within the duration of the project. Constant interactions with farmers from Kukkal Thorai have revealed that they are enthusiastic to get underway. A farmers group is one thing that is absent. Talks to form a group among themselves will be the first action in this quest and is in progress.

If the farmers persist, the objective can be achieved. More updates on this topic will be imparted shortly.