Ramalingam, a man of humble background and a pure vision to make the world a better place, was born and brought up in Pondicherry. He came to Auroville in 1984 while participating in physical education activities, and that is when he got a chance to get involved with the vision of Auroville- a universal city in the making in South India, dedicated to the ideal of human unity based on the vision of Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose) and The Mother (Mira Alfassa).
Ramalingam was living on a beach in the Gokulam community (of Auroville) when the 2004 tsunami hit, and they had to move on to a new place. After a long round of negotiations and attempts to figure out a solution, Ramalingam was allotted 7 acres of land in 2006 but there was still a lot of ambiguity till things fell into place in 2009. This was the history of Sustenance farm before Ramalingam set it up in its current form under the guidance of his guru – K.Mahadevan, the retired Deputy Director of Agriculture, Pondicherry.
“For the first two years – 2009 and 2010 – all I did was clear, grow, and clear the land again. Clear. Grow. Clear,” says Ramalingam. But on K.Mahadevan’s advice, they took a bulldozer and pushed everything to one side. “We did that till all the ground was cleaned, and the land was ready to be ploughed. When I was living near the beach, I had a big dairy with lots of cows. I had accumulated rich compost over the years, which was just lying there. So I brought the entire compost to the farm, spread it across the land, and ploughed again. We also mulched the plants using a rotor system,” explains Ramalingam.
Initially, there was one strip where three-four different vegetables were being grown. “Now, the land has been divided into eight parts and raised with the pit system, where we dig, put compost and put a plant, and the bit system, where we raise the bed and put a plant. In the rest of the farm, we started growing nine crops, including pulses and cereals like cow-pea, green gram, black gram, sesame and mustard. These started growing well, but we didn’t have water or a pump. So I designed a filter system with sprinklers that acts as a portable pipe with lines for water connected to a 30-feet-long flexible water hose. With this, the crops began to grow nicely and we had good yield,” continues Ramalingam, as he takes us through the farm’s journey.
The growing cycle
As he walks us through the farm, Ramalingam explains that when you’re running a farm, one has to plan everything in advance. “Auroville has major water scarcity, so we don’t want to pump much water. July has some early showers, then the monsoons arrive from late August to December. When the rains arrive by September, the whole field will be planted and ready. So we do some rainwater harvesting on the farm. If there’s too much rain, the water collects in the channel around the farm, and it gets collected in a big reservoir in the back, which recharges the groundwater supply. There’s vegetables like pumpkin, snake gourd, cucumber and bitter gourd that grow as creepers. Apart from that, we grow papaya, bananas, spinach, lemon grass, mint, etc,” he informs.
And there are also huge uncertainties that have to be accounted for. For instance, late in 2018, a huge group of boars came and an entire crop was lost along with damage to the piping infrastructure. “But when one lies with nature, one has to accept everything. We will not use electric fencing but are currently in the process of putting up a barricade around the farm,” says Ramalingam.
Sustaining the farm
This is always the tricky part. Some produce goes to Auroville’s FoodLink, which purchases a limited amount of the produce from Sustenance Farm but owing to some organisational dynamics within Auroville, Sustenance Farm isn’t an integral part of the farm groups. So Ramalingam has to find other ways of distributing or selling their produce.
One of the issues is also that Sustenance farm grows using natural farming techniques but they haven’t gone for certification (since it is very expensive and we at EatLocal also believe that such certification should be by trust). “But I don’t like seeing my harvest wasted, so we’ve started doing vertical expansion and value addition by making our own fruit jams, preserves, peanut butter etc,” shares Ramalingam.
The Akshaya Cafe at the entrance of the farm is also an initiative in this direction. It opens up a small source of income along with providing affordable, wholesome local food using farm produce. Whether it’s a thali with staple fare of rice, sambhar, rasam, vegetables, chutneys and a juice served on banana leaves, or their dosas for breakfast, many locals and visitors come to Sustenance for their daily meals.
The road ahead
Sustenance doesn’t have a volunteer program but for the past year, the team has been working on a six-week training program, which should begin this September. “We’re constructing a space in the farm for the classes, so as soon as the roof is in place, we’ll invite people to come join the course. We want to become a place to come and learn everything about food, which includes growing, processing and cooking,” shares Ramalingam.
The Akshaya Cafe will be a focus area as well. On average, about 50 people are served food every day. “We try to give food that suits the body, that can be digested easily and is healthy for the consumer. We rotate the daily healthy vegetables like bitter gourd, banana stem, banana flowers, agathi keerai, etc in our meals,” says Ramlingam.
As a whole, Ramalingam wants to continue working on improving soil fertility and increasing production and becoming a model farm for Auroville. There are also plans to install a solar pump for making the farm even more sustainable.
Beyond the farm
Ramalingam goes twice a month to Vallimalai to sing Tiruppukal songs of Saint Arunagirinathar. “I’m not into socialising with people. My main goal is to grow and cook food and serve people. My son will be in college for two more years. Once he comes back, my wife and he will join the farm,” shares Ramalingam.
There is one piece of advice from Ramalingam’s guru that he firmly lives by:
“Be a farmer, not a trader. The crops might be destroyed, you might lose money, but be strong, keep faith in the soil, and rise again.”
Make sure to visit Sustenance Farm and have a meal at Akshaya Cafe during your next visit to Auroville. Follow them on Facebook.
There are many farmers like Ramalingam who can produce much more, but don’t have a system that supports the farmer and creates a supply-driven market. Join us at EatLocal by signing up to this system and supporting farmers by ordering vegetables straight from a farm near you.