How one man in Kochi is putting some of the city’s vacant plots to use by farming vegetables, organically

Meet the man using unused plots in Kochi to grow organic tomatoes, amaranth, bok choy, thyme, celery, kale and more

Tomato plants heavy with fruit, frilled kale leaves, gleaming green capsicum… Anthony’s organic farm in the heart of Kochi is in varying stages of bearing fruit and harvesting. The 40 cent plotis hemmed in by high-rise apartments — including one under construction. Set in a tangle of concrete and traffic, this is an unlikely spot for farming.

However, the organic farmer’s lockdown experiment has surprised him, as well as the neighbours, with its success. Anthony did not expect the quantity he is harvesting — around 60 kilograms of vegetables every day from this plot and a combined 100-odd kilograms from another one acre-plus plot — even while on a third, a 17.5 cent plot, saplings and seeds are being planted. Here, baby amaranth plants are just a dark pink stain on plant beds; tomato and other plants have barely sprouted.

Celery, lettuce, bok choy, thyme, oregano, rosemary, green chilli, tomato, ivy gourd, snake gourd, string beans, bitter gourd …the list of vegetables Anthony has planted and harvested is long. Some, like capsicum and celery have been a surprise as he did not expect them to thrive in the heart of the city. Vegetables are harvested daily and sold at his store, Pure Crop Organic Shop in Kadavanthra, Kochi, which sells organic produce from his other farms as well. Every morning he and his three children, along with two farm hands, pluck the vegetables.

Farming is not new to Anthony. A winner of the Kerala Agriculture department’s Best Farmer award, he has organic farms in Munnar, Kanthalloor and Cumbum (Tamil Nadu); he also helped set up a collective of organic farmers in Kanthalloor, near Munnar. The 46-year-old has been an organic farmer for the last 10 years, dividing his time between his farms. Stuck in Kochi once lockdown was announced, he decided to try cultivating vegetables on unused land — “as a joke, I wasn’t expecting much out of it”, he says.

Getting the go-ahead from the owners was the easy part. “All these plots had been unused, used more as building waste dumps. It took me a month to ready the soil,” says Anthony, adding “It was slushy, not ideal for cultivation, these used to be paddy fields ages ago and hence the soil is marshy,” he says. He started work in the first week of April; preparing the soil took a month.

Anthony at one of the farms on a vacant plot in Kochi’s Jawahar Nagar. What started out as a lockdown experiment, has encouraged him to try it out in different parts of the city  
| Photo Credit:
Thulasi Kakkat

When he speaks of preparing the soil, he means reviving it with organic components, neutralising the acidic content and restoring the ph balance. He readies it like forest soil using dry, rotting leaves.

“It is the best nourishment,” he says, “I have five crore workers! Earthworms, red ants, microbes and other micro organisms — a good, healthy harvest depends on the soil.”

Four months in, these plots are in varying stages of cultivation. He planted vegetables in the beginning of May; the first harvest was ready by July. “The first batch, as expected, wasn’t great, but subsequently it has been good,” he says. He farms the plots in rotation, once harvest is done from one plot the other gets ready. The vegetables are plucked on alternate days.

Anthony’s arrangement with the owners is straightforward — they can pick any quantity of vegetables from the farms. “I cannot pay rent now since I don’t make much from the plots. It will take a cycle of three harvests — nine months — for the soil to change and for the returns to come in. If the owner wants the land back, all I need is a month’s notice to wrap up the farm,” he says.

Soli Joy is one of the people who has let Anthony farm on her property. “I wish I had let Anthony use the property earlier. I have been shopping for vegetables from him for a long time and over the years he has become a friend,” says Soli. Earlier she would have to get her plot cleaned once every six months or so, “this way I don’t have to do that… Also we get access to organic vegetables,” she says. She plans to ask him to farm on her daughter’s property in Payyannur (Kannur) too.

Anthony’s success with organic farming did not come easy: he learnt through trial and error. He is partly self-taught, and also learns from experts such as KV Dayal. He has also done courses in organic farming.

He is now approaching other owners of unused land in the city. Despite his successes, convincing them is still a challenge.

“In the area between Vytilla and Kaloor junction, via Kathrikadavu Road (six-odd kilometres), there are around 100 acres of unused land. I have approached a few people, there are some who have shown interest, not as many as I would like,” he says. “There is a lot more unused land in Kochi… if we can cultivate, I am certain that half of Kochi’s food requirement can be met locally.”

The formula he suggests links up with food security and self-sufficiency, generating employment and also promoting waste management by buying food waste in order to compost. Farmhands from places such as Wayanad or Thodupuzha could find employment in these farms.

For the city, this could be a permanent solution but not for him. Once restrictions are eased, he plans to return to his farms.

“But I am ready to show the way and help if people are willing,” he says. “People have to self–motivate rather than look at the Government, for this to work.”

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