Agroecology in Kerala: crops and culture

So while Katharine has the glamorous job of quantifying marine debris on the hot beaches of Kerala, I have been looking for some way to learn more about the local forests and incredible diversity of plant life in south India. This month, I took the opportunity to join a course on Agroecology at the University of Kerala co-sponsored by the EU Nextfood project. The course has a really interesting format and utilizes a multidisciplinary methodology that involves action research- a fitting concept for looking at whole food system issues. The idea is that to address complexity in agricultural systems, policy design should be informed by holistic research that captures all the ecological interconnections of the process- this includes viewing a farm as an ecosystem that accounts for biological processes (and limitations) as well as a social component that recognizes the economic and cultural inputs to the system. In practice, this means observation, analysis, and policy recommendations take place through the multidisciplinary lens of a range of academic approaches, include as many stakeholders as possible in the process (farmers, suppliers, consumers. marketers, community members), and consider a multitude of scales from the local to the global. Inspired by the devastating impacts of industrial agriculture and the ineffectual track record of uni-disciplinary policy design, agroecology aspires to form practical, actionable, and sustainable solutions for regional and global food systems.

So I am all in! Our group (mostly economists and social scientists with a few biology/botany folks) looked at 3 local organic farms as case studies, as well as a range of other sustainable agricultural models around Trivandrum. It has been a really amazing way for me to share the perspective of Kerala grad students, meet (and eat!) with local farmers, and begin to get an idea of the incredible biodiversity that remains in this tropical landscape.

My group’s case study focused on the 2.5 acre farm of Shyla Basheer in Navaikulam, a small village in northern Thieruvanthapuram district. The farm is situated around a defunct quarry that provides water and is a testament to growing crops on a really difficult (steep) site. The family relies mostly on milk, eggs, rubber, and honey as their main products but grows a huge variety of vegetables and fruit as well.


Gourds and pumpkins growing in suspension over other crops and interspersed with banana and mango trees

Cow manure and poultry dung are collected as fertilizer- they make a viscous compost tea!

Hanging gourd by one of the many beehives
This is bunchosia glandulifera- peanut butter fruit- tastes just like peanuts!
Pista- pistaccio flower!
Two of the twelve well tended dairy cows
The hillside climbs up and around the quarry and then back down to the house. The whole thing is stepped and covered to grow more in more places-
A cashew fruit, very sweet- the nut has been pulled off the top and will be dried
Basheer and his grandson watering the melons at the top of the hill; its the dry season now but the quarry allows them to fill tanks at the top for distribution down hill
The quarry around which the farm is built
I did not get a picture of the amazing lunches we had on the farm- always rice and three kinds of curry and two kinds of pickle, but this is a drink they make when it is very hot- curd, lime juice, cardamom, and chile (and salt). very intense!
Rubber trees- the latex sap can be harvested regularly for about 35 years
Ash gourd- this variety is grown for medicinal purposes
Pineapple is often grown under rubber trees, as pepper plants are often trained to climb coconut palm or areca nut trees

Ancie showed us how to get the nectar from banana flowers- very sweet!

The family also has some paddy fields nearby the farm- the rice had been harvested and some legume was in the ground now
There are so many fruits growing around the gardens, many like starfruit can be harvested all year round; on our third visit we found these- translated as ‘water apples’ they were really crunchy but light texture and sweet
Holy basil- or tulsi- is everywhere and is a sacred plant used for cooking and medicine
Tamarind- eaten fresh it has a really amazing flavor- like 20 lemons condensed but also salty and a little sweet
Shyla, Basheer, Swathy, Ancie, me, and Vishnu

It was hard to encapsulate all the other crops and plants on the farm- cowpea and casava (tapioca), pepper and cardamom, elephant foot tubers, eggplant etc- and then the ubiquitous coconut palm, banana, mango, and jackfruit trees. All cultivated together on the hill to capture the rainfall, fertilized by the cows and poultry, and pollinated by the farm bees. Not a system designed to produce a huge market share of products but enough value added goods- especially some of the medicinal plants and honey- to make a pretty sustainable family farm. Our initial analysis, after talking at length with the farmers about their vision, includes expanding the (very stable) dairy business- where they have the room, applying for a government program that could install solar panels to drive the water pumps and provide electricity, and looking into producing more of the crops that can feed the cattle and poultry.

For a slightly different perspective, we also visited the Sangamaithri Farmers Co-op in Trivandrum, a group that supports 6500 members that grow organic produce on 5 well situated and irrigated acres on the edge of the city. This operation is designed to produce more, but also retains the focus on helping farmers with micro-finance schemes and contributing to local community healthy food initiatives for schools and the local community.

They also have rubber trees around the property; milk and rubber are sold to national and local corporations where there is a very steady demand-

Its a really beautiful and tranquil setting; their irrigation is fed directly from a nearby dam

The farm manager talking to the group about banana varieties
Banana is a big deal- there are dozens of varieties and the co-op has a facility to ripen banana and mango
The central portion of the land is a lot of a hybrid cassava, interspersed with spinach and amaranth

The whole property is supplied with water through irrigation canals and the soil has been amended with a great deal of compost and manure to support the volume of crops-

My ‘sunbrella’ critical for the tropical field toolkit. I get a lot of sympathy from the group because I often look like I am going to melt

Pepper plants growing up the areca nut trees

On the left is the remains that are left when coconuts are harvested; there is no English term for it but the group said there were something like 14 different words in Malayalam! On the right is how you make a necklace or bracelet from tapioca leaves. Regardless of people’s academic interests, everyone here seems to know an incredible amount about local species and have a real attachment to the landscape and how it is being changed by development.

I am so lucky to have had this chance to take part in this short course in terms of understanding local ecology and how it is deeply connected to local culture and I can already imagine bringing this perspective back to New England and seeing our food system in a way that recognizes the opportunity for closing systemic loops and using our resources in a sustainable way.

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