The good, the bad, and the ugly of urban farming

Bangalore Capstone City Urban Farming

Over the years, urban and peri-urban farming in Bangalore and Mumbai has been practiced extensively at the micro level but it fails to reach the macro level.

“Welcome home” reads the sign board at Hamsah Organic Farm and Sustainable Living located 25 kilometers (km) from Bangalore city in Dommasandra. Surrounded with farmlands, narrow lanes, etc., Hamsah farm is home to plantations of around five vegetables and fruits, and some nuts and flowers. 

The owner, John Fennessy runs the farm with his wife Shweta and a few volunteers. For John, the journey of Hamsah Organic began in 2007, on a small farm in Auroville where he worked as a farmer and gardener. 

After that, while staying in California, John always thought of farming in India. One day in 2008, John and Shweta packed their bags and moved to India. Initially planning to stay and settle in Auroville, they changed their plans and went to Bangalore. “It was at that time when my brother-in-law brought me to his farm in Bengaluru,” he said. 

With a blueprint of turning this land in Dommasandra into an organic farm with vegetables, flowers, and fruits, he started farming. In the beginning, the earnings from the items in his farm were not that good. But with time, John began investing in resources and learnt to market his produce. Also, in order to boost his income, he started investing in activities like gaming, baking, etc. at his farm.

Tales from Sarjapur

A peri-urban farm located 20 kms from Bangalore city in Sarjapur, Suresh Kumar’s Sarjapura Curries works to bring back traditional and lost plants and help his neighbouring farmers build a network. 

“We have plantations of turkey berries, kakke soppu (Black nightshade), nela basale (Ceylon spinach), harive soppu (Balloon vine), etc. Not everyone would buy these vegetables and hence, we also have plantations of tomato, brinjal (eggplant), ladyfinger, etc.,” said Kumar. 

With an aim to promote local, nutritious, and organic greens, Kumar began to inform people about his farms by organizing workshops. “People would be fascinated by the type of plants we grow. That is the aim. We want them to know about these unpopular eatables,” Kumar explained. 

“The process is slow. We are working on building a network,” said Kumar.  

Urban and peri-urban farms, like Hamsah farm and Sarjapura Curries are popular with some farming enthusiasts who wish to practice farming in urban areas. The reasons for this are many; hobby, self-consumption, starting small commercial units or full-fledged business, etc. But other than these enthusiasts, the practice of farming in and around the city remains largely unfounded and unexplored. 

Finances

Bengaluru’s concrete jungle area has expanded by 925 per cent since 1970. With urbanization expanding the traditional boundaries of the city, thanks to the tech boom, more farmland was sold off to developers. Hence, the availability of land for urban farming remains an unanswered question. 

John presents an alternative solution that can be done with limited space and resources. “I planned on making my vegetables, fruits and other produce as my raw material for my other products. For peanuts, I started making and selling peanut butter which was a huge success. Similarly, for fruits, I am planning to start jam. Pure. Tasty. From nature’s basket,” he said. 

Dishant Nisar, a journalism graduate turned farmer, thinks that farming is not everyone’s job. “The thing with farming is that you have to invest not only your knowledge, time, and skills but also a lot of financial resources. You have to invest a lot in labor, tools, and strategies. If you are patient and have the resources to invest in farming and live for four to five years on a no profit basis, farming is a great business opportunity,” he said. 

To this, John’s organic farm has more than farming.

“Other than farming, I have also started retreat hotel facilities at my farm. People can come and learn about organic farming and try their hand at farming. There are dedicated areas for sports like archery, volleyball, chess, etc. Also, we have special baking tools and facilities where people can try their hand at baking pizza and bread. We brought in this plan not only to earn money but also to promote our organic farm and farming,” added John. 

Over the years, urban and peri-urban farming in Bangalore and Mumbai has been practiced extensively at the micro level but it fails to reach the macro level.

Urbanization

Urbanization is taking place at a faster rate in India where the population residing in urban areas was 11 per cent (1901 census) increased to 28 per cent according to the 2001 census. In the 2011 census, the figure crossed the 30 per cent mark, standing at 31.16 per cent. According to a survey by the United Nations State of the World Population report in 2007, by 2030, 40.76 per cent of India’s population is expected to reside in urban areas. 

B Mahendra, an urban planner based out of Bangalore and a council member of the Institute of Town Planners in India highlights concerns for urban farmers. “A safe and reliable water source is essential for production and it is something not every location can offer. Also, one of the most widespread and common issues impacting urban farming is the implementation of outdated public policy. To get all of this, you need money,” Mahendra explained. 

Subhajit Mukherjee, an environmentalist, ambassador of Majhi Vasundhara Abhiyan, and founder of Mission Green Mumbai presents the importance of urban farming in India’s urban areas. “The urban island effect in urban cities of India is a major concern. In Mumbai, areas like the Western Express highway, Eastern Express highway, Jogeshwari-Vikhroli link road, Sion-Dharavi region experience extensive urban island effect. 

This can be treated with small gardens or farms on terraces. Not only does this help in combating the effect but it also produces fruits, vegetables, etc. for consumption and other purposes,” he said.

Historically, urban gardening and farming is said to have its history dating back to 2000 BC with the farmers in Egypt, who had their vegetable farms close to their home, as they needed special care (an example of this is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon). 

The Aztecs in Mexico built a floating farming pattern called chinampas. The chinampas farming style, which started on a small-scale was eventually practiced on a large scale within the urban areas to sustain the growth of the expanding Aztec empire.

Coming back to today, Nisar presents another aspect of urban farming. “The problem with urban farming is that urban centers are not viable for farming. Mumbai is the financial hub and Bengaluru is the information technology (IT) hub. No urban city is a farming hub (yet),” Nisar explained.

Urban farming, on terrace and garden spaces in the city is gaining popularity in Bangalore. Garden City Farmers Trust, based out of Kengeri Satellite town, is a group that helps people in cultivation and farming. Founded in 1995, the group has trained over 5000 individuals to set-up small to big farms on their terrace, gardens, society place, etc. Farmizen is a mobile app that enables customers to grow their own chemical-free vegetables and fruit on a rented farm. 

Common terrace spaces, a phenomenon observed in metropolitan cities, is one of the hindrances for urban farming. “Usually, cities have buildings and complexes where 50-60 families share a common terrace. Not everybody would want to have tomatoes or other vegetable seedlings on their terraces, Mukherjee explained. On the contrary, Bangkok is a brilliant example of community urban farming. People in buildings grow fruits and vegetables, especially lemons on their terraces. Later, they sell the same in local markets and use that money for maintenance purposes,” Mukherjee added.  

Lack of interest

Mahendra explained why people in the urban areas would not explore urban farming. “Urban farming in Bangalore can only be done at the micro level. Considering the various aspects of urbanization and high property costs, people can farm only at community level. There are various non-governmental organisations (NGO) that teach people farming. This is surely helpful for those who want to do terrace and vertical farming. Although, the benefits of urban farming may not be fully utilized if appropriate support infrastructure is not in place,” Mahendra added.  

“The reason I started a network of farmers was because they were quitting farming. Due various ecological reasons, they wanted to sell their lands,” said Kumar.

During World War I and World War II, the United States of America promoted victory gardens or war gardens – cultivated by citizens on private and public land.

Echoing this, Mukherjee explained how the government has started to invest in urban farming. “The government in Maharashtra has made it compulsory for colleges and universities to collaborate with at least one non-government organisation (NGO) that works around nature conservation and farming,” said Mukherjee.

Farmers’ problems

As an urban farmer, John faced issues surrounding water supply. Earlier, his farm used to have little water storage and supply during the summer season. “Learning from my past experiences at the farm, now I have bought some tanks and dug-up some wells in my farm,” he said. 

Mukherjee, who has worked extensively on water consumption suggests rain water harvesting. “One can install tanks, dig safe and clean holes or wells and then preserve the rain water for future usage,” he said. 

Tusshar Kapde, a traditional farmer based out of Nandgaon Peth in Amravati district of Maharashtra fears the rise in number of urban farmers. “If people start farming in the urban areas, what will happen to the farmers in the rural areas? An old farmer associated with Kapde’s farm fears about his family’s future. “I am old. I will die in a few years. But what about those who have started farming in my family and community? People’s lives depend on agriculture. It will be very difficult for us to learn something new,” he said.

Mukherjee presents a simple solution to this. “Urban farming does not possess any risk to traditional farming. Massly consumed crops like bamboo, wheat, sugarcane, etc. which are of utmost importance cannot be grown in vertical or terrace farming. They require special soil, space, and water supply. The urban areas are only favorable for some vegetables like tomatoes, cabbage, lemon and some fruits like banana, chikoo, etc.,” he said. 

“I am sure that Bangalore would have more peri-urban and urban farms. As more people are coming forward to explore it, I hope to see more farms in the coming years,” Kumar said hopefully. 

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