Shankar Venkatraman: Providing livelihood for farmer families through organic farming
"Farming is the noblest profession. It has the power to heal you and the world"
We are raised in a certain way. With certain preset goals and set bars that keep increasing constantly. Our definition of success has always remained singular. If you don’t tick the right boxes in this set checklist for success, you are already labelled an anti-social weirdo. But for a few, happiness and success are measured in how much love they can give and receive. Be it people or the environment. Shankar Venkatraman an organic farmer now runs a 60acre organic farm funding and supporting 90 farmer families from remote villages in Tirunelveli. The first time we met him and his team, the work and the passion they had for the soil instilled a whole different energy.
How it all began:
Shankar was your typical ace student. Who passed out of BITS Pilani with a degree in Technology. Got a job in California, USA. Got married, had a beautiful baby girl. Just as he was striking off things on the list steadily, there was a slight turbulence when his daughter was diagnosed with Eczema, a skin condition that is caused due to the chemicals in your food. It was a difficult time for Shankar and his family to process something that was going to affect their child’s life so largely, thinking about how unfair it was for a child to go through something like this. Constantly thinking and trying to learn how he could have stopped it and how he can make her life better. Trying to fix this from the grassroots and do everything in his capacity to protect the rest.
He stopped consuming food that he didn’t see grow himself. He started with farming for his family in his backyard. He joined an organic farmer in the US and farmed with him every weekend. He studied newer, sustainable ways to farm. He built and ran an organic farm in California called 'Hillview organics' for many years. But his hunger to make a real difference couldn’t be fulfilled there. Which is when his homeland called him.
Sowing the seeds of his dream:
At the point when Shankar decided to come back to India to look for farmlands, farming wasn’t a hobby or a part-time passion project. He was in it for good. With the blessing of a few people, he found the right people to collaborate to create his vision. When he worked in the USA, he could never wrap his head around the system of hiring and firing people. A structure where an employee was just a machine trying to meet targets. Where no one cared about a fellow worker. This was the first thing he wanted to change if he ever got to a position of having people work under him. And this is exactly what he did. For him, it was just not enough to grow food organically, but also to make a farmer who is told that there is no other way of farming but to use GMO seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, to believe in the success of organic method of farming. To make them trust in him, the process and that suicides didn’t have to be the only way. The one way he felt that his cause could reach people, was to bring on board the young farmers who could be the 3rd generation farmers in their family but are now only encouraged to take up desk jobs due to the high risk in farming. So he adopted farmer families from remote regions in the state, gave them shelter, gave them a piece of land to work on, sponsored education for all their children and fed them 3 meals a day. This made the farmers try the right way of farming without risking their money or their lives. In the process, he gained their trust and love.
The journey so far:
Acquiring the land would have seemed like a difficult process but the challenge was to make the soil fit for farming which was over a year-long process. But the yield that he got at the end of it all was something worth all the effort. Shankar bought European small farming tools to make the process easier for the farmers with him. What he created was a wonderful community of people who cared for each other and would stand by him even at the worse. He tried to help the farmers rehabilitate from their vices. He started teaching students from the Agriculture colleges how to be a farmer in the current scenario and provided the practical training they required. What he soon realized was a bigger section of people just like him wanting to make the same switch as he did. With one, many joined his cause to learn and live. Currently, this community supplied over 1000 customers within the Bangalore city. With fruits and vegetables pluck right from the plant and delivered to your doorstep with a lot of pride and passion. A community with cows, buffaloes, goats, hens and a whole different range of flora and fauna that is home to a large number of children. A community that not a lot of us got to grow up in ourselves and something the generation after us never be blessed to grow around.
Shankar misses his daughter and family back in the US. Watching his child grow through Skype is difficult but to also look at the thousands of plants he nurtured grow for the generations to come is something that is worth the miles being apart. His love for the soil and the art of farming is what got him through the toughest journeys of his life. Talk to him about depression and he will tell you, “Farming is the best medicine for depression”. With the aim to erase the stigma of farming not being a reputable profession. We live in a country where the only image of a farmer a child has is of a dark skinny, bare-chested man in a dhoti on a cow ploughing the land as part of every textbook in all curriculums. No one talks about as educated as a Shankar Venkatraman. If the role of a farmer is not appreciated for a child, how would they know it was even a viable career option on that checklist? In the wake of starting a revolution, Shankar continues to inspire people to appreciate and love the earth that birthed you.