While studying in school, the dream of Tom Kiron Davis was to play volleyball for India. Growing up in Thumboor, a small village in Kerala's Thrissur district, his other passion was to spend time in the paddy fields cultivated by his father and grandfather. His love for volleyball made him the captain of the volleyball team at Christ College, Irinjalakuda, and he represented the Calicut volleyball team twice when he was pursuing graduation.
But a shoulder injury in 2005 crashed Tom’s dream. He then went to Dubai for a job with Citibank after completing his MA in Economics in 2008.
Cut to 2023. Tom is growing organic paddy on his family’s land which was left uncultivated from 2005 to 2015 and had turned barren. “I worked in three organisations in Dubai from 2010 to 2015. The corporate world is all about monotony and deadlines. I did not want to be bound by limitations. I prefer to work in the fields with nature,” Tom says.
“The high salary package could not stop me from returning to my roots, and I resigned in 2015,” he adds.
From Dubai to Thrissur
Tom’s family owns five acres of land in Thumboor in Thrissur, where, for generations, they had been cultivating paddy, rubber, areca nut, coconut, nutmeg, and other spices. His father opted for traditional farming using chemicals.
“In 2005, my family withdrew from paddy cultivation and allowed the land to remain fallow because the labour availability was erratic, there was no mechanisation, the input costs were high, and the market rate of paddy did not leave any profit for growers,” he says.
Not only Tom’s family, but other farmers in the area had also given up paddy cultivation because of these factors. Hundreds of acres of land were lying barren for years in the Velukkara (also Velookkara) panchayat in Thrissur.
Tom knew that to bring farmers back to paddy farming, it was essential to turn organic and live in harmony with nature. Organic farming cuts input costs, improves soil fertility and moisture-retention capacity and reduces the need for irrigation.
“I began to clean up the one-and-a-half acres of my family land which was lying unutilized since 2005. I cleared the weeds, debris, stones and other waste accumulated over the years,” he says.
Tom joined a labour guarantee programme, which provided him with helping hands in the cleaning activities.
“We also cleaned a 2km canal that runs through the Vazhukkilichira paddy field. After that, water management for irrigation became easier,” he says.
While some varieties of paddy can grow in dry settings, about 75 percent of the global rice production comes from irrigated rice systems. Most paddy varieties give the maximum yield when the water supply is sufficient.
“Though the area gets sufficient rainfall, the cleaning of the canal boosted the efforts to revive paddy farming in the area. The next task was to improve the fertility of the soil,” says the 39-year-old.
How to ready soil for organic farming
A believer in organic farming, Tom added jeevamrit (also jeevamrut, a natural liquid fertilizer) and vermicompost to the soil to prepare it for cultivation. “Jeevamurt increases the friendly bacteria in the soil. It improves the pH of the soil and can be used effectively for organic farming,” Tom points out.
He has converted all of his family land into an organic farm where no chemicals have been used since 2015.
After the success of his first paddy harvest, other villagers were inspired by him and became interested in resuming paddy cultivation. “We cleared up around 150 acres of land where paddy is grown now. With support from the Velookkara Krishi Bhavan, and the Athani Social and Cultural Club, we increased the area under paddy cultivation,” the organic farmer says.
Tom and other farmers use cow dung, jeevamrut and ghanjeevamrut as inputs in organic paddy farming.
“To control pests, we add fish eggs to the fields and the fishes attack the rival insects. All the inputs are prepared on the farm,” he says.
To repel other insects, Tom and other farmers use a spray made from decaying salmon fish. While Tom cultivates only a paddy crop annually, from September to January, some other farmers also cultivate some varieties of pulses and other edible crops for short periods to increase their incomes
Tom cultivates organic Matta Triveni paddy, which sells at Rs110 per kg while some other farmers also cultivate the Rakthashali red rice, which is sold at Rs275 per kg.
Rakthashali, an iron-rich variety of rice, gives a yield of only 600 to 800 kg per acre. Known for its anti-oxidant properties, this red rice variety improves blood circulation and is also recommended for boosting the immunity system and has a high market demand. It is a rare variety now being cultivated only by a few passionate organic farmers in Kerala. They also grow Kuruva besides other varieties.
Also Read: Seven tips for switching to organic farming
He has solved the labour problem by using a mechanical harvester, tractor, walk-behind rice transplanter for transplanting rice seedlings, baler and other equipment. “We are also able to get labour more easily now due to rising migration from other states,” he says.
Organic rice from Thumboor to the world
While Tom's first major contribution was to bring farmers, especially youth, back to paddy farming, the second one has been the creation of an efficient marketing system that has eliminated middlemen and improved farmer incomes.
“If a farmer has to take his produce to the market, he cannot make profits,” he says as a matter of fact.
He has brought together farming families in the Thumboor Village to sell rice and spices directly from the farm to consumers across the world under the PEPENERO brand.
“We are using social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram to reach directly to customers. Our brand is also available on Amazon. By cutting out middlemen, we offer the best prices to consumers and the right income for our farmers,” says Tom.
PEPENERO also sells turmeric, peppercorn, nutmeg, brindle berry and other spices. “This way, farmers are able to get full returns for their hard work. We are sowing together, and harvesting together,” he says.
“We sell our organic rice in the Gulf region, Europe, Canada, Australia and in Europe,” says Tom, who has been awarded for his work. In 2016, he got the Panchayat award for the best organic farmer. He won the Swami Vivekanandan Yuva Prathiba Award instituted by the State Youth Welfare Board in 2018. Tom has also represented Kerala in national agriculture events.
“Our model predominantly supports the small-scale farmers in Thumboor Village and ensures that they get the right price for their products. This is the only way to make farming sustainable and our farmers happier,” he says.
(Tom Kiron Davis can be contacted at +91 8301082911)
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)