Located near the Visitor’s Centre in Auroville is Solitude Farm, a living example that nature and humans can live in harmony. When we arrived there to meet Krishna McKenzie, one of the young Aurovillians who established this in 1996, we were delighted to see the farm-forest in all its glory. Krishna had first come to India in 1990 as part of a school trip from Brockwood, a school started by Jiddu Krishnamurti in U.K. He found his teacher Fukuoka, while working in the garden of Brockwood, and eventually made his way back to India, trying to find a way of living that would facilitate inquiry.
From the start of our conversation, we could tell that Krishna is a man of ideals, one who genuinely lives and believes in his work.
The farm-to-table cafe
The idea behind the cafe, which was started as an extension of the farm in 2011, is to demonstrate that anyone can grow and consume healthy, organic food. Over a delicious thali at the farm-to-table cafe, we were taken back to our roots as Krishna explained the nutritious elements of every dish on our plate. “We offer red rice along with millet dosas with flour made from our own vazhakkai (raw banana), mixed with tapioca flour and millet flour. This is usually served with kara kuzhambu made with tapioca. There’s a green papaya salad, which is commonly found in many states, but which people don’t eat anymore. The pea-flower in the tea is a weed – it’s good for brain development and uterus, and for treating epilepsy and menstrual problems. There’s a vegetable made with basale soppu (Malabar spinach), which grows as a weed but is high in nutritional and medicinal value. And of course, there’s fresh mango pickle made from our own mangoes!” shares Krishna, as we relish each bite.
Krishna points out that many of the greens in their salads are weeds, or leaves from trees like mango, guava, tamarind, bel (golden apple), tipli (long pepper), etc. Even with dishes using banana, one day the flower is used in a vegetable curry, while on another, it’s the stem.
On eating local
When we talk about eating local, it’s imperative to understand the characteristics of local food. “Everything on this plate is easy to grow. And if it’s easy to grow, it grows in abundance. And if it grows in abundance, anyone can grow it. You don’t need a degree, chemicals or machinery to do this. You just grow, harvest and you cook it! If it grows easily, it’s also non-exclusive food, so it’s an economically viable option for everyone,” notes Krishna.
The second characteristic of local food is that it has no ecological cost. Elaborating the point, he uses the example of a lorry that transports food from the farm to consumer. “From the setting up of a factory to make metal for the lorry, a separate one for tyres and paint, and another for the individual parts, all these add up and are causing climate change. It’s the same with industrialized agriculture, which is using more and more resources to mass produce food with little or no nutrition,” he says.
The third characteristic is that local food has high medicinal value. “In this meal itself, you’re eating food that is good for cognitive ability, pregnancy, skin, gastro-intestinal problems, asthma, and even preventing cancer. Mother Nature she wants you to be well, and wants you to be healthy without any effort. But, when we chase after iPads and Nike shoes and Mercedes Benz, we won’t ever get this because our values have been perverted. When the idea of success becomes synonymous with good food and there is meaningful knowledge sharing, only then comes a sense of wellness in the community. Those are the values that we have to aim for,” asserts Krishna.
He concludes that eating local “has to do with honouring a cultural, nutritional heritage that’s part of our cultural identity by exploring where our food comes from and our relationship with Mother Nature.” Krishna emphasises the need to honour soil and all the leaves, branches, weeds, and organic nature which is eventually returned to the soil. “None of this is rocket science. There’s no technical expertise involved. Instead of recognising that these processes happen automatically in nature, we keep looking for technological “advancements” through hybrids and Genetically Modified (GM) crops and hydroponics and lose touch with the natural way.”
Going the Fukuoka way
After the sumptuous meal and discussion on eating local, we walk around and experience firsthand how the Solitude farming community has developed the 6-acre farm using the natural farming principles of Masanobu Fukuoka and permaculture techniques. Fukoaka advocated that all the bio-resources around us, such as leaves, weeds, branches, etc., should constantly be returned to the soil to increase soil fertility. All the farming is done without adding pesticides or fertilizers, and no machines or tillage is done so as to respect every part of the land. “Fukuoka’s teachings are a bit like Krishnamurti’s – there’s pretty much nothing that can make you doubt what he said. Fukuoka’s approach is also Advaitic, non-dualistic and not opinionated; he’s talking about facts,” explains Krishna.
Out in the fields
As Krishna points out the various indigenous millets and rice, oil seeds, grams and pulses, and fruits and vegetables growing around the farm, he explains that more than experimenting with food, “what’s really happened is that we’ve understood very profoundly and precisely that everything starts with the soil.”
He elaborates, “If the soil is healthy, that is Mother Nature – a divinity that every civilization on the planet has recognized as a part of their culture. And to recognize that divinity, you need to return all organic matter back to the soil. That is a shakti (power). When you leave soil like that, there’s more and more farming happening naturally without you doing anything. Sundakkai, drumsticks and so many varieties grow on their own. We’re planting in between and have established tapioca cultivations and fruits trees but mostly, things just grow here.”
The CSA Model
For the past few years, Solitude has been offering locals a weekly basket filled with a collage of seasonal fruits and vegetables, along with a unique juice kit to ensure a complete nutritional package as part of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. While there are few takers at the moment and supply is unreliable because of water problems, Krishna is still confident that this is the way to go.
He adds that CSAs should never give people options to pick what they want, because their choice is defined by what they know. “We give them tapioca, spinach, green papaya, bananas, sundakkai, junglee baingan, drumsticks etc. We also give a juice kit and salad kits in the basket. The more people engage in this philosophy, the more diverse their basket can be. If they don’t have these options in the shops, people don’t know about it. But older people from the villages with traditional knowledge will know about this food because it’s a part of their culture,” says Krishna.
The way forward
While the farm operations and cafe continue to grow the natural way, Krishna’s current focus is on working with the Tamil Nadu government for a mid-day meal scheme for children to eat local, nutritious food. “If the government stops giving subsidies for chemicals and instead supports the farmer to leave the sundakkai growing on its own, and give that to children once a week through a mid-day meal scheme, it’ll cure diabetes for a whole generation,” he concludes, optimism in his voice.
A reminder from Krishna to all our readers: Local food is your birthright, it’s in your blood; you just have to eat it.
The next time you’re at Auroville, make sure to experience Solitude Farm and experience the oneness with Mother Nature for yourself.
Solitude Cafe is open from Monday to Saturday. Breakfast is served between 9am to 11am, and lunch from 12:30pm to 3:30pm. A free farm tour is organised every Friday from 11.30am to 12.30pm.