For this challenge on learning about regenerative agriculture, we asked Fiona Arakal, the director of Ishka Farms, to teach us a thing or two and tell us more about the work she is doing not just to regenerate the soil but also to rebuild communities.
What is regenerative agriculture and why is it important?
“How do we positively impact the land and the village we are in with what we do”.
Fiona: As custodians of the land, we keep asking ourselves constantly how what we are doing to build our farming enterprise impacts the land. In the few years that we have been at this venture of setting up an organic, sustainable farm; we have travelled the distance of “Do No Harm “ to “How do we positively impact the land and the village we are in with what we do”.
For eg – use of plastic mulch sheets is pretty much the gold standard on all organic farms for weed control and trapping in moisture. The issue that bothered us was what we would do with the kilometres of plastic sheets at the end of its life cycle? What are the options for recycling it, how much of it would degenerate over the 8 years it’s supposed to last and what all will leech into the soil in that time? Would we be poisoning the water table that we are so painstakingly recharging with all of our rainwater harvesting and afforestation efforts? Over the course of the past year, we have worked at designing planting cylinders thrown to our needs on the potter’s wheel; a chamber that would hold nutrition and moisture for the tender roots of saplings and protect the stems from the mechanized weed cutter. We have now improved on it by figuring out that we can use discarded roof tiles to create the same sort of chamber. It not only up cycles something that normally thrown away but we are also paying the villagers for it. When the tiles break and disintegrate, we know there will be no harm done to the land.
How did you come to start Ishka Farms?
Fiona: We wanted to create an enterprise that would always be in the sunrise sector – working with the land seemed to us to be that; modern agrarian practice coupled with ancient wisdom is where the future of food production is headed.
Having come from a typical trading background where sunrise or sunset was never in our control, where quality parameters were not decided by us, where client interactions were determined by corporate-speak that we had no inputs in; we were ready to embark on something where we determined all of the above based on our belief and moral compass.
A lot of research, learning, studying, unlearning and a lot of heartache lead to Ishka Farms the way it is today.
How has your initiative built also built the local economy?
Fiona: For us, building the local economy was key especially considering this company is a new gen enterprise with no prior experience in such a sector.
Also, we are the ‘outsiders’ who had to demonstrate that we were there for the long haul. Simple steps of getting low-cost gym equipment, so that the youth in the village could pass the physical for an IPS job not only builds goodwill but also helps them qualify for jobs they aspire for.
Employment – On the farm, we do not truck in migrant labourers, instead, we provide jobs and on the job skilling so that employment rates go up not only in the village we are in but also in the surrounding villages. Even administrate / white-collar jobs that could easily be done online by support staff in any city are handled on-site by local staff.
Building a 5000 sq ft production facility on our own farmlands, in the heart of the village, as opposed to the easier option of setting up our facility in the nearest town with infrastructure has boosted the local economy. We procure all consumables locally – from the salt for our curing process to the charcoal for the land to the cow dung and farm waste for our compost heap.
Procuring our needs locally and prioritising local employment has helped the local economy directly; indirectly there is a cascading effect – from the fuel station that refills all of our vehicles to the spend in the local shops that our staff makes.
How can someone in urban India support your initiative?
Every single time a till goes ‘kaching’, an urban shopper is making a decision to or not to support small local ethically run enterprise.
Fiona: That’s fairly simple. Every time someone in urban India makes a purchase – consciously choose a local brand of produce. Question where your food comes from and how it reached one. Choose to buy farm direct supplies or from small-scale growers. Read the label on all produce – where it grew, who made it, who markets it, who distributes it? All of that information which is on a label will help one choose wisely. Every single time a till goes ‘kaching’, an urban shopper is making a decision to or not to support small local ethically run enterprise.
Who are your sources of inspiration? Can you recommend other initiatives to look up that are practising regenerative agriculture?
Fiona: We started with just an internal drive to succeed in something new and radical, to be pioneers at Caper cultivation in India; so we never had time to look at inspirational people across the world to model ourselves on.
However, we now find like-minded people to speak with and draw strength from. The Farm Chennai is one such place. Magical in what they have achieved in the past four decades.
We are a work in progress and we are marching to our own beat and pace!
Here’s what Project Drawdown says about Regenerative Agriculture