A number of people who have interacted with us via different platforms have communicated a sense of disconnect with the natural world. This is a craving of a very deep nature, something that’s a lot more fundamental than wanting to go to that favourite restaurant on a weekend. Typically, the most common way that people choose to address this is by buying a small farm on the outskirts with the dream of making it a sanctuary that fills that gap.
Weekends, however, are not enough to make a farm work. Moreover, it’s a little expensive for a small farm to afford a caretaker, a water source, and the repeated maintenance issues that keep coming up. Some folks have made it work, usually by focussing on the farm more than anything else, but for most, life and work takes over and the farm goes into a limbo. The first few years of enthusiasm gives way to neglect and a pressure to sell the farm and ‘realise’ its valuation. End of the day, for most, the need to connect with nature is not fulfilled. We have seen this happen umpteen times, to us, to friends, colleagues and the like. Collectives are a way to address this problem and here is why.
Initially, collectives were just a way for us to be able to afford a larger piece of a farm. This was important to make sustainable farming stand a chance. Moreover simple maths suggested that the risk was split between many individuals and hence lesser chance of the economics being a burden over time. As we started working on our first collective, what became clear is the exponential benefits that started to pile up and we soon began to appreciate what a powerful idea this was.
One of the big reasons for a single farm owner to abandon the farm is the hole it blows in the pocket. A caretaker, a water source, fencing, irrigation, accommodation for the staff, transportation of small amounts of produce, it easily adds up to a few lakhs a year for a 3-5 acre farm. At that scale, there’s really no hope of breaking even whatsoever. With a larger farm, of say 100 acres, you are good with 3 to 4 sources of water, a single caretaker and you begin to see how economies of scale begin to take shape. More importantly, each 5 acre piece is not competing for resources, for eg, come monsoon, all 5 acre pieces are not focussed on growing rice. You grow a bit of rice and many other things on your 100 acres instead. This collective planning allows you to diversify the farm, and most importantly, have buffers of undisturbed forest systems that replenish the soil while the rest of the farm is at work. A sense of continuity and holistic outlook begins to emerge over the farm at that scale as you now have the land bandwidth to really experiment. Having said this, to really take advantage of the collective system, the landscape has to behave as if it is a single farm and not a collection of small farms. For eg, when you are deciding on where to create veggie beds or where to put the houses, we are not looking at it as setting of the veggie bed on every farm of the individual stakeholders but looking at it at a landscape level. So if it happens that only 3 of the individual pieces have veggie beds, so be it. The entire collective virtually owns those beds and not just the 3 specific stakeholders. This approach really helps us achieve the full benefits of a collective system.
Plenty of water management features like swales, check dams, lakes, bunds, etc are possible at that scale whereas the best you can do on a 5 acre piece is really a small pond and a well. Scales allow you to plan better. For eg, you might choose to grow paddy and other grains on only those parts of the farm that allow for irrigation from the lake. While in the rest of the farm, you might choose to really focus on perennials. The thought process itself is vastly different. We get the scale, but why collective? Simply because, it’s expensive to build all these features as a single farmer. For eg, at our collectives, the earthworks alone would cost around 2-4L per acre. On a 100 acre scale, this is easily 2-4 crores being spent on just earth works. Would a single farmer ever have this kind of an infrastructure budget? When you split this between say 50 members of a collective, we are really talking about 4 lakhs per member. This is suddenly a far more affordable number when you think of long term infrastructure.
As we have seen in our earlier articles “why take soil seriously” about how soil and forest systems are game changers when it comes to sustainable farming. Riparian zones are key to ensuring great soil. These are zones that lie along natural drainage systems on the land – the streams, the ponds, the nullahs etc. Water is life and hence life tends to thrive in an around these water bodies even in seasons when they seem to have none of it. This is our repository of thriving ecosystems. A large scale allows us to dedicate the riparian zones as undisturbed ecosystems, where life can thrive and incubate the soil regeneration process. On a small farm, even if it is sitting next to a nullah, giving up a 20m distance from the nullah as a riparian zone would mean half the farm being left undisturbed. A lone farmer may not be able to do that.
We are frequently amazed at the suggestions that come from the member community on all aspects of the farm – product ideas, cultivation ideas, marketing ideas, etc. Honestly, quite a few of the initiatives we have taken are things we did not even conceptualise, like the idea of a restaurant at coorg that serves only once a week, dishes that are made completely from foraged produce, or making limited edition wines from grapes and other fruits that grow wild in the collective. With these many minds, genuinely interested in seeing the farm sustain itself, it is easy to see how more doors open up. Now, this was not something we had imagined when we started but now are fairly convinced that this is the biggest value add of a collective, something that cannot be replaced.
Some folks who call us, extremely enthusiastic about the collective concept, express disappointment that they dont get their own individual piece with a house in it. However we look at it in a different view. You are getting a 100 acre farm and all its benefits at a fraction of the price. What’s more you have beforest helping you in the process!