We’ve been…

…growing heirloom tomatoes

…learning about roots

…making ghee (clarified butter)

vrindavan farm, local cows, clarified butter, ghee

…grazing and milking our growing family of cows

…making our own packaging from supari (betel) tree leaves

…fermenting edibles from the zen garden!

…expanding our heirloom tomato collection


…sourcing produce from other farmers to encourage their good practices and get them better value for their work


What’s on the horizon? … Bees! We hope to home the hardworking-pollinating-honey-making-compound-eyed ones soon.

Meeting the residents of the Zen Garden

The zen garden – our experimental patch. Here we experiment with new crops, heirloom variety, companionship, and build our seed bank for tomorrow’s meal. Each monsoon, this patch is left to rest… and as the skies dry, our work commences. Here’s a peak with its residents.

Where we’ve been…

The torrential rains of the monsoon allow us a bit of a breather on the land. Mother nature waters, we sit back, eat cukes, harvest, and work minimally not letting the jungle overtake. Post monsoon, we get busy. A quick rendition…

Members – two new members have joined us on the land. In India, the cow is synonymous with the mother and considered a Goddess (Devi). Sure, the cow gives milk, but for a grower, she shits and pees all over the land. We’ve willed their presence for some years now and are stoked to be joined by these two gorgeous ladies, with their massive strength and gentle presence.

Sows – while the monsoons have stretched over  by a month, we can’t pass up a sow period. We kickstarted the year with heirloom tomatoes (adding 3 new varieties to the collection from last), cucumbers (1 heirloom variety and another indigenous one), gourds (several local varieties). In store next are chillis, brinjal, radish, microgreens, and a host of weirdly coloured heirloom veggie seeds we got our hands on!


Ingredients – always foraging for food off the land. Sure, we grow, but what does the forest have for us?! This year, we were introduced to a whole list of indigenous monsoon vegs, also bamboo shoots, and we received some delightful mushroom harvests!

Ferments – our ferment continues to brew, feed for the soil, bubbling with life as we continually add new ingredients off the land

Harvests – harvests have included gourds, herbs, pumpkins, and flowers

Making Friends and Foes – as we ogle at the beauty and variety of nature’s creation, and delve into what role they play on the land… well, we make some friends and some foes. For the burrower, our til is kept to a mimimum. And the hornworm in all it’s beauty, does feed off our saplings and is now fed to the fish.

Spreading the knowledge – our goal is to see all growers evolve to clean practices. This year, we have begun work on PurnaMadhuVan, a plot of land around the bend from us, committed to growing clean and nutritious food. Here, starting from the blank slate, we sowed fruit trees for future generations, herbs for a couple years down, shared with them several of our saplings, and shared with you their bitter gourd and pumpkin.

And now, it’s back to the land.

Costs of Food

This thing with cost of food… It seems counter-intuitive that something grown naturally should cost more than the reverse. That unnatural inputs (chem fertilizer, pesticides) should add to the cost of food production is intuitive. But, the story isn’t just unnatural inputs. The price for organic really comes for the time and level of effort in growing something slowly.

Some variables to consider:

1. Growth hormones. To meet demand, growers pump produce with growth hormones (typically oxytocin) to look bigger and reach maturity faster. An example, the much loved bottle gourd (a.k.a. lauki/doodhi) typically takes up to 180 days (that’s 6 months) from seed to fruit. Similarly, cauliflower’s natural cycle is 3 months. However, a simple injection of oxytocin can achieve a fully matured fruit within half the period of time. (The human related side effects of consuming such food is an entire paper in itself, but I’ll leave you with the idea of forcing the human body to achieve full size within half the period of time it would naturally take.) In terms of output though, a food producer using oxytocin can output double the amount of produce in the same amount of time.

2. Management. Organic produce needs more hands-on care. A simple example, a chemical pesticide will kill everything in the area, instantly. One spray and your produce is saved from the pesky ones. To avoid pests naturally, growers introduce several steps into their production. For example, companion planting to “safeguard” some crops and “forgo” others that function purely as pest bait. Another example is making fermented pesticides, which requires more labour and effort in preparing the brew, time to allow fermentation, and application is typically double, if not three times that of a chemical spray. In addition, chemical sprays are subsidized by governing bodies.

3. Seeds. Sadly, these days, sourcing heirloom seeds (i.e., seeds naturally pollinated (by wind and insect) passed on through farmer generation), is harder than finding the laboratory prepared ones. GMO seed (i.e., seed where the plant’s DNA is altered in a way that cannot occur naturally, sometimes including the insertion of genes from other species) has flooded our market, even the deep interiors where agriculture is abundant. Not too many traditional producers save their seed. Hybrid and GM varieties have shown immediate results, and most farmers need immediate income. To source heirloom seed requires legwork, connectivity in farmers, and a financial ability to wait out the slowness of natural.

4. First market appearance/challenging seasonality. As consumers, we’ve become ready to pay high value for produce that reaches us early. A simple example here is fruit like mango. Mango sold in February will receive three times the price versus the mango sold during it’s natural cycle of ripeness, just before the rains. But for mango to reach the market in Feb, it’s been harvested early and ripened by ethylene gas or calcium carbide, making it market ready at optimal price. This also means that by the time the natural producer enters the market, despite his produce being more holistic in flavour and nutrition, the markets already been flooded with produce.

5. Perfectly appearing food. As consumers, we’ve become used to that perfect looking food. Spinach leaves without holes in them, mangoes without blemished skin, bananas all the same size, and typically, bigger is better. At the production level, this gave rise to all kinds of food manipulation. One example is of bananas, where producers replaced their traditional saplings with tissue-culture banana (i.e., Dolly the sheep and her offspring). At the production level, this means every banana in the overall banana head will be the exact same size. It also means greater outputs. From the traditional banana, the bananas furthest on the banana stem will be smaller in size, as naturally, more nutrition is received by the bananas closer to the stem. But who wants to pay the same price for the smaller fruit, when you can get more at that value?


greens grown at bandra terminus, mumbai

For us at the farm, we supplement our produce with other sources of income, thus allowing us to keep the price of spinach close to that what’s sold in the market. But when I saw the massive amounts of spinach being grown along Bandra terminus, and compare that with the spinach we’ve grown and brought to the city, it really drives home the point of cost variance.

vrindavan farm, natural, produce, organic, spinach

spinach grown at the farm

The bottom line, growing naturally is slow, takes time and effort. When it boils down to costs, you’re paying for this time and thus quality of your food. To all natural food producers that manage to keep their selling price low, kudos. And to those that can support such food producers, go for it, as it allows others not at the liberty of buying good food, to purchase the same.

Searching for good food

“Organic” has become a fad today. But, fads don’t last. Eating natural, local, fresh is much more than coughing up a lofty amount for your produce… It’s about your health and that of your family. On the flip side, there is a pressure to meet the demand, and all of a sudden, everyone is organic. As consumers, we’re being inundated with stories of food, some often misrepresenting the nature of our food, without tools that equip us to make informed procuring decisions. Here’s sharing some narrations of why I believe we need tools in the first place, and tips to help inform decision-making.

Why I believe we need tools…

The more I interact with farmers/distributors/sellers, the more I learn where there practices are. And right now, it’s not a glorious story, though there are many silver linings. But what’s occurring is not necessarily out of lies at source. It’s sometimes a lack of information.IMG_4236

A narration: We identified an onion farmer whose produce we wished to share with you. The soil of his fields looked as though he had applied 3 inches of cow dung, but, he had not. With soil more precious than gold, I’d commented, you’d need nothing for feed. We’d conversed about his practices, which he shared were au naturale. I believed him. This was not an unfulfilled man trying to make a sale. This was a man, king of his world… seated in his loin cloth atop a khatiya (bed made of wooden frame and matted rope) in the cool interiors of his cowdung and straw home, buffalo and chicken romping in his fields, wife serving him hot meals, kids running the sale of his labour, and plenty of time to dry his year-long supply of bidi leaves for his smokes.

We take a walk, his wife leading me through their onion fields. As she showcases their work with pride, explaining why they IMG_4242vgrow the way they do… I hear, “…and then, we put “khad” (fertilizer)”. My radar beeps wildly. Thus far, there’s been no talk of khad, despite my specific questioning. I investigate further… “Oh it’s not much”, she shares, gesturing a palmfull for this vast expanse of fields. But how do I explain the nature of man-made chemical to a mind that knows not this very idea?

I’d also been told the seeds sowed were gaon (village) saved seeds, implying open pollinated, indigenous. On the walk, I find seed packets from non-other than bio-chem seed giant.

What do I make of this? Again, he’s not a discontent man with need to push a sale. I’d expect such behaviour at the distribution end, driven by the pressure of competition and sale, but not at source. So what’s occurring at source? From what I understand, for some generations now chemical additives have been used, the practice having become so ingrained, the grower doesn’t even think much of it to make a mention. Most importantly, impact of chemical usage takes years of accrual before surfacing. Thus far, grower doesn’t know outcome of his actions.

Another narration: An organic company (new crop up in Bombay) approached me several times – they had strawberries to offer our clients. Within under a minute of the call, I knew the rate and was asked, so, how much would you like to order? Woa! Slow down I say, let’s talk strawberry first….
“Where are your seeds from?”
“We are certified ma’am”.
“Yes, humour me, what seed variety is it? Open/F1/… ”
“I don’t know ma’am.”
“Hmm. How were they grown? What did you feed it?”
“I don’t know….”
“If your crop gets hit by bugs, what do you do?”
“Dunno ma’am…”
“Maybe you should call me back with your grower on the line?”
“Sure ma’am. For now, how much can we put you down for?”
“Nada. Not unless farmer dear and I have chatted.”
“Sure ma’am. I’ll call you with them.” …
I receive the same phone call, several more times, sans farmer, always beginning and ending in the same direction, until I finally ceased to answer.

A flip side narration: A fellow farmer came to me. He had grown 200 kgs of toor dal. I’ve spent many years with this farmer, we speak freely about our practices and rationale behind them. While he makes no claims of being organic with other produce, his toor, he’d grown naturally. Sure, this means his soil isn’t the cleanest, but, to tell you the truth, unless we, as an earth body cleanse our systems, no one is truly organic. Most produce of farmers in my area is collected by distributors, at a rate that may not cover the labour even, let alone other input costs. We gladly took all the dal he needed off his hands, at his said price.

Back to the point…

Sellers/growers/vendors often misrepresent (not always deliberately) the nature of the food sold. So, what tools do we have to help make informed decisions about our food?

Understand seasonality

Learn what grows in your lands and when. Food grown in season is less likely to need artificial help to make it grow. While this knowledge once prevalent within each family is disappearing, it’s not lost. The best source are your own grandparents. There are also several efforts on the web, a quick and dirty search gave one such link, I hope to update to include more references in time (KD, are you reading?). (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/…/articlesh…/19290556.cms)

Be prepared to unlearn your habits

We’re used to eating palak paneer year-round. Actually, traditionally, very little variety was grown in vegetables (as we know them today) in the summer. Summer in India was the season of fruits, pulse, grain; much like winters out west being the time of canned and preserved foods. The very nature of food preservation is to carry one through grow lulls. But if you just must have palak year-round, maybe au naturale isn’t for you. Being “organic” also means syncing yourself with what wants to be on your plate per the season.

Natural often looks natural

When I receive fruit that looks identical and blemish free, I am vary. Nature’s being is uniqueness, each of us bent by the experiences and exposures of our life. The same holds true with food.

Start conversations

Discuss your food with its sources and get to know its handlers. Build a relation with your grower, but rather than call re. the bug eaten leaves (which does so prove they’re natural), ask about the leaves… where and how they were grown, its seasonality, its transportation/distribution, its time from harvest to your plate. Seasonal produce gains high price when it’s in the market early, but also drives the practice of harvesting a pumped up fruit early and chem-ripening, to gain first market presence (mangoes in Feb?). Ask where your fruits are from. Purchase when they are in season, not when they first show in the market. Food modification has taken on so many robes, try and gather as much information as you can about your food.

Define “local”

There’s no consensus to this. Some define it within 100km radius, some within an 8-hour drive, and so on. If a farmers market / restaurant claims “local”, ask what they mean. Heads-up, eating locally means eating seasonally, which frequently means relying on a more limited repertoire!

Read labels

While we get away with a lot in India, labels do hint to some information. I cannot forget the olive oil sold on the streets of Varanasi… Product name: Olive oil. Ingredient list: … 0.01% olive oil!

What about certifications? I am personally not too blown by this idea. Being Indian by root, I know just how easy it is to get whatever you wish to be certified for. Also, many small scale farmers couldn’t be bothered getting into the process (both time and economics won’t allow it.) Europe has invested a lot of time in certifying bodies. The game has now become outdoing your competition… Certifying body A says your product is truly organic if we approve it with a green leaf stamp. Meanwhile, certifying body B says, look for the green tree stamp, THIS shows your product is truly organic. Food and Ag Industry says, it’s a whole bunch of crock, WE tell you about food, not A and B. Bottom line, the food world has been flooded by businessmen, and what’s being forgotten is that we’re actually talking human health. Rather than fret too much about certification, take the time to get to know the hands that touch your food. Typically, this will give you all the information you need.

Receive all information with a grain of salt

If I didn’t investigate with the onion farmer, I’d have never known the truth. Sure, I say my produce is naturally grown, but, be your own best judge. What helps me being a consumer is to ask: What drives this person to be in food? When it’s not business that brought the individual to growing/transporting/selling/cooking, it’s less likely that they will cut corners to meet an end. When there is absolute passion behind the work, you will know it in their response.

Get involved

Many folks today make the “local/organic” claim. If you have time, get out and check out their farm. You’ll learn everything discussed above, and probably more, in that single visit. Besides, the world is run on relations (the lasting ones, outside of economics). Once your farmer has a face to you, he’ll work that much harder to bring food to your plate.

Consumers have the ability to make big shifts. Small scale farmers are already fighting a fight to stay alive in a climate that is working to grab the very land from beneath their feet, while growing food, and selling it to you at an affordable rate. They cannot compete with the buy low sell high model of large businesses, or the acquisition of endless certifications. They cannot question the nature of all the new agricultural technologies being fed to them, subsidized, by Government and Ag educational institutions. YOU on the other hand, have the buying power, which will determine the shift of what is sold in markets.

(Sources: TOI, Tampabay.com/projects (Some text here has been sourced from the Tampabay.com piece for consumers, that we found well covered tools.))

111 days later… tomato. the fruit

‘Long story short… 
In October, we received life changing seed of this glorious fruit. By the end of the month, the seeds had made it into soil, well, into soil in tiny ol’ milk bags from the city yonder. First sprouts were in 3 days. A month later, they were moved to the land. Early December we saw the flowers followed closely by fruit. Jan 30th was our first harvest!

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Good food

When the food’s grown good, meal prep is simple


We’re up to our toes, nay, neck in tomato!

Earlier this fall, Sandra transformed our world with her seed collection, sharing over 20 of the 150 tomato species she grows!  Needless to say, it’s much of what we’re thinking about these days.

As for the fruit masquerading as a veggie… stay tuned!

Amazing Encounters in Food – I

Delegates and Participants of the Slow Food International Movement - Terra Madre Giovani - We Feed the Planet, at the Milan Expo 2015

Delegates and Participants of the Slow Food International Movement – Terra Madre Giovani – We Feed the Planet, at the Milan Expo 2015

The experience commenced with 2500 folk hailing from across the globe, with a single common thread – food. The goal – bringing together to strengthen our food system and creating a global vision of good food.

It’s easy to forget when on land with one’s head in the earth that we’re not alone. This gathering put energy and passion back into our work. A reminder of the pure joy in what we do and why. The food system doesn’t need just growers and fishers; it needs educators, bankers, activists, distributors, chefs, consumers… it needs and touches us all.

Delegates and Participants of the Slow Food International Movement, Terra Madre Giovani - We Feed the Planet - walking toward the Slow Food podium at Milan Expo 2015 Photo Credit: Mimesilab, Source: Slow Food Youth Network

Delegates and Participants of the Slow Food International Movement, Terra Madre Giovani – We Feed the Planet – walking toward the Slow Food podium at Milan Expo 2015
Photo Credit: Mimesilab, Source: Slow Food Youth Network

The massive collective was hosted by the Slow Food Youth Network. Conceived by Joris Lohman, and given birth to with the work of innumerable hands including the amazing Kumud Dadlani (Slow Food India coordinator, steward of Vrindavan Farm, and Food Analyst with Impressario), Francesco Anastasi, Ilara Capria, Maham Rizvi, and many many dedicated and passionate individuals.

producers, organic farmers, vrindavan farm

Indian Delegates of The Slow Food International Movement – Terra Madre Giovani – We Feed the Planet at the Milan Expo 2015

The Indian delegate team included Ananda Teertha Pyati (founder of Sahaja Samrudha Organic), Kegitar Lyngkhoi (an Associate in North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society NESFAS), Rohit Jain (an Indigenous food activist and initiator of Banyan Roots Organic), Achintya Anand (an R&D Chef growing his own micro greens Krishi Cress), Shivani Unakar (student of Hotel Management and Food Studies at Christ University who is already changing the nature of food (returning traditional dishes to the plate, and dealing with food waste)), Gaurav Gurjar (a passionate Permaculture designer, and creator of urban food forests with Swechha India), Ankita Kapoor and Siddhant Mehra (the young and energetic couple of C Green that have initiated many organic farmers markets and are only at the beginning of their venture), Aravindan Neelamegam (organic producer of millets, pulses, traditional paddy and more), and Gaytri Bhatia (environmental analyst, grower and steward of Vrindavan Farm).

Gaytri Bhatia, environmental analyst and producer at Vrindavan Farm presenting at the closing ceremony of the Slow Food International Movement - Terra Madre Giovani - We Feed the Planet at the Milan Expo 2015

Gaytri Bhatia, environmental analyst and producer at Vrindavan Farm presenting at the closing ceremony of the Slow Food International Movement – Terra Madre Giovani – We Feed the Planet at the Milan Expo 2015

The largest experience one walks away with from such a meeting is the network of dedicated individuals in food. Between conference sessions, over meals soaking in the sun, during lengthy bus journeys along the Alps, and over nuts and wine in the late night and early morning hours.. we shared of our experiences, learned from each other, created a vision, and simply spread the energy and love of our work… Encounters included, the lovely ladies of South Africa who exuded positivity and peace – slow food coordinator Zayaan Khan, seed banker Tania Jacobs, and activist Liliana; The passionate South African fisher, Christian Adams, driven to change the world for our children.. Staying abreast with government and policies Christian sees clearly that the people must work for their own interests; Lebanon fruit and vegetable farmer and bee keeper Raed, whose very being demonstrates the simplicity of our work; Ever-kind founder and educator of FACT Collective Gai Lai Mitwichan; Small scale producer Daniella Rodriguez Besosa, who in only 2 years has been growing, educating, and hosting youth on her farm in Puerto Rico, and supported by her sister’s CSA efforts feed the community local and good produce; Creator of delectable Yere chocolates Amona from the Ivory Coast; Indonesian farmers Afi and Emick; Food philosopher David Deijmann, and boy, so many more.

Carlos Petrini, visionary and founder of the Slow Food International Movement presenting at the Terra Madre Giovani - We Feed the Planet closing ceremony in Milan 2015

Carlos Petrini, visionary and founder of the Slow Food International Movement presenting at the Terra Madre Giovani – We Feed the Planet closing ceremony in Milan 2015

The International Slow Food Movement was envisioned by Carlo Petrini, of Bra, Italy. Driven to make a stance against fast food, he’s dedicated his life to bringing slow and well grown food to global status.

It’s a good reminder for me, this paradigm shift we are experiencing in food. Food had became wrought with marketing, brands, labels, certifications, packaging and moved far from the true nature and experience of it. But here we see the hands in food today don’t want to output fastforwarded wholesale junk. They come from passion, from earth stewardship, from pure love… wanting to produce and share food in its holistic and true form.

Some links: