In 2008, Diwakar Channappa was working as a project scientist in a watershed programme for ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) in Bengaluru. In 2009, he was cultivating dates in Saganahalli village in Gauribidanur taluka of Karnataka.
A book changed the course of his life. “It was in 2008 that I read ‘One Straw Revolution’ by Masanobu Fukuoka (Japanese philosopher and natural farmer). It inspired me to go back to my roots and take up farming,” says Diwakar, who completed his Master’s in Social Work and was also a visiting faculty at Tumkur University in Karnataka.
The book is a clarion call to abandon chemicals-laden modern agriculture and return to the heritage of natural and organic farming followed by earlier generations.
“After reading the book, I felt that I am not alone and others have taken this journey (of going back to the soil) before me. I quit my job,” he says.
While Diwakar’s father was a farmer, cultivating ragi, corn and toor dal on their 7.5-acre farm in Saganahalli, Diwakar lived in Bengaluru with his mother. His father used chemical-based fertilisers and pesticides, and the operations did not yield good income.
“I had never visited my ancestral farm because my father never wanted me to take up farming. He felt agriculture was not profitable, and a job was much better,” he says.
Back to the soil
Diwakar’s resignation met with strong opposition from his parents. “They told me that when my father could not make much money from the farm, how could I expect to turn things around given that I had never even sown a seed,” he recollects.
Also Read: Gujarat: Dentist-turned-farmer reaps rich harvest with organic farming of dates
He persisted and joined the farm in early 2009 despite his mother calling it the ‘most foolish decision’ of his life. “I began with the cultivation of ragi and toor using chemicals, as my father had been doing all his life,” he says.
After five months and spending Rs 25,000, he earned Rs 33,000 from his produce.
“A profit of Rs 8,000 was not even comparable to what I was earning. Bigger than that was the question of losing my name. People were talking about me, and I thought of doing something different that could rebuild my reputation,” he says.
Zeroing in on date palm farming
Sometime in 2002-03, Diwakar had attended a Krishi Mela (agriculture fest) in Bengaluru where a farmer had distributed pamphlets on dates farming in Tamil Nadu. “At that time, I had laughed at the cultivation of a desert crop in South India but now, I wanted to contact him. I finally managed to find his farm,” he says.
Since the climate of Dharmapuri (Tamil Nadu), where this farmer grew dates, is similar to Gauribidanur, Diwakar felt the crop could work for him. Date palm farming requires plenty of sunshine and little rain, and these conditions are found in the Chikkaballapura and Kolar districts of Karnataka.
The success of this Tamil Nadu farmer and the similarities in climatic conditions between the two places gave him confidence.
"In 2009, I bought 150 date saplings at Rs 3,000 per piece using my savings and decided to shift to organic farming,” he says.
Diwakar invested Rs 4.5 lakh to buy the date saplings of the Barhi variety, which he planted over 2.5 acres. Barhi or Barhee is a yellow-coloured date with a sweet and creamy taste. It is eaten fresh and is rich in fibre and antioxidants. In one acre, farmers can plant 65 to 70 date saplings at a gap of 24 feet X 24 feet.
“I dug pits and put in a lot of neem cake, castor cake, jeevamrit (also jeevamrut) and then started planting the saplings. For the first four years, nobody believed they were date plants that could yield fruits in Karnataka. The first flower appeared in 2013 and in all, 70 plants flowered that year,” he says.
The total output was 650 kg, which was sold at Rs 375 per kg. Diwakar’s profitable farming was well noted by everyone and his desire to prove himself was fulfilled. His farm is aptly named Marali Mannige, which means ‘back to the soil’ in Kannada.
The business of organic date farming
In the last season, in August 2023, Diwakar sold 4.2 tonnes (4,200 kg) of dates. “Right now, I have 102 plants yielding fruits, each producing around 45 to 50 kg. I sold the organic Barhi dates at Rs 310 per kg on my farm and charged Rs 350 per kg for home deliveries in Bengaluru in the last season,” he says.
On one acre, with 60 plants each giving around 45 kg, the total yield is 2700 kg. Assuming a rate of Rs 300 per kg, the total income from an acre will be Rs 8,10,000 (Rs 300 X 2700 kg). After deduction for spoilage, and costs for labour and farm inputs, the profit will be around Rs 6 lakh per acre.
About half of Diwakar's organic dates are bought by customers who visit the harvest festival held at Marali Mannige twice during July-August every year. “I do harvesting festivals so that people can experience organic farming. They pluck the first fruit and eat for free and buy the rest of the harvest,” says Diwakar, who does not sell his fruits in any market or mandi.
He started the festival in 2013 and the number of families visiting his farm for harvesting is increasing every year. “This year, in July-August, around 300 families came. People who had come in the first year have become volunteers now,” he says.
“I credit two strategies for my success – organic farming and direct sale to customers,” he says.
Diwakar prepares all the inputs like panchagavya (a mix of cow dung, cow urine, milk, curd, jaggery, ghee, banana, tender coconut and water), agni astra (made using cow urine, tobacco, neem leaves and other components), green manure, jeevamrit etc. on the farm. Jeevamrit is a mixture of fresh cow dung and aged cow urine from indigenous Indian cow breeds, jaggery, pulse flour, water and soil. It enriches the soil.
“I have eight desi cows of Hallikar breed and I use their cow dung and urine to make organic manure, pesticides, and sprays,” he says.
He cultivates sugarcane over half an acre. “I need jaggery for making jeevamrut and I started growing sugarcane to ensure that even the ingredients used for making it are organic. Now I get one tonne of jaggery, some part of which is bought by my regular customers,” he says.
Diwakar also grows organic ragi, toor dal, millets (foxtail, kodo), mangoes, guava etc. On another acre, he farms two indigenous varieties of paddy -- the aromatic and gluten-free sidda sanna and gandhasaale.
His organic paddy fields serve another important purpose – they take school students closer to Mother Nature by letting them experience farming first-hand.
“I am associated with Udhbhavaha, an alternative school in Bengaluru. I encourage children to connect back to the soil. Each month, for three days, a group of these children visit my farm to get their hands and legs into the soil and experience farming first-hand,” he says.
In the last four years, the school students have grown paddy annually over one acre of the farm. “Organic farming has transformed how they look at things. One is growing organic food and the other is giving organic thoughts and vision to the next generation. This has been the best part of my farming journey,” he concludes.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial, and socio-economic reporting)