Farmer's Share: Towards Dignified Rural Livelihoods
Farmer’s Share in Shoranur, Kerala, is a space where highly inventive experiments on food, clothing, pottery and architecture happen, and dignified rural livelihoods are facilitated. Ambrose, who piloted Farmer’s Share, is a Gandhian and his actions and activities revolve around the idea of Gram Swaraj. He started off working as a mason after completing 10th standard, and later got involved in the Gandhian study circles in Ernakulam, thereby absorbing the philosophy into his life. He later ran an organic food hotel in Ernakulam and then an organic store in Bangalore. When the organic store business became too big and it conflicted with his values, he gave off his share to his business partner and returned to Kerala.
Farmer’s Share was thus established in 2017 by taking a 10 acre land on lease, with the intention of being a permaculture and crafts learning centre, where their lives and products evolve in tune and pace with the rest of nature.
One of the proposals of ‘Gram Swaraj’ by M. K. Gandhi is that every locality should stay strong in multiple aspects, including that of governance, production and distribution of its resources. It is evident from the 74 years since India’s independence and counting, that centralisation of these different aspects cannot function without some forms of injustice or exploitation. People in the lowest rung of the society, the marginalised, continue to be subjugated in democracy. Labour rights are violated and the rest of nature is exploited in the case of centralised, mass production and distribution systems. The answer to all these forms of injustices is that the models of society remain small, such that they can govern themselves, attain swaraj.
Our relationship with the rest of nature will then not be about extraction and control, but of mindful consumption and regeneration. Small-scale production systems will be developed that would address the fundamental needs of humans in these small societies. Humans would then be able to meet their needs in a convivial and just manner and we would have a least violent and least corrupt society. It is this comprehensive dream of Gram Swaraj that Farmer’s Share works towards.
Food and farming
The first priority in the actions and activities of Farmer’s Share is given to food and farming. Ensuring a dignified livelihood for the farmers, a fair price for their produce and enabling least wastage of resources are focused upon. “We have a limited understanding, a skewed intellectual understanding, that food is required for sustenance. We don't really recognise that it is a fundamental need and those who produce it must be appreciated,” says Ambrose.
If we consider our fundamental needs of food, clothing and shelter, they are all directly related to the soil. Therefore it is imperative that our vision for progress should be one which integrates this understanding. While the education system has the power to integrate this understanding in the society and its people, what we have today is a system where learning happens out of economic interest. We tend to believe that our needs will be met if we have money. But what if we don’t have enough resources or have the know-how of treating resources with respect? One of the intentions of Farmer’s Share is to inculcate a culture where resources are consumed in such a way that the rest of nature sustains, a culture where society consumes resources based on need rather than greed, a culture where our mentality towards food and those who produce food changes, where we trust our farmers and not treat them through the lenses of money alone.
One of the biggest injustices in the world is that of wasting food. How can food be not wasted, and be processed and stored and saved is one of the explorations at Farmer’s Share. “Earlier we used to store and save food in different ways. But today we are arrogant that with money, all our needs for food can be addressed. But still, a lot of food is being wasted,” says Ambrose. One-third of the global production of food is being wasted annually which is enough to feed 3 billion people (Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations Report). This is when close to one-tenth of the global population lives in extreme poverty (The World Bank Report). This is indeed the failure of the people and systems who govern food production and distribution. In a convivial and just society where we take care of each other, where hoarding inequalities in access to food are eliminated, there ought to be no chances of humans dying of lack or non-availability of food.
Ambrose believes that a culture of buying food from farmers by giving it due respect and value, and not wasting it, should be one of the most important aspects to be achieved by the education system. That food which is produced with the care and nurturing of human labour and the natural resources such as air, water, soil and minerals, should be given due value. He asserts that it is impossible to measure this value with currency. “Yes, currency might be the means for transactions today. But how long has it been since currency came into existence? Didn’t people live happily, taking care of each other before?” Ambrose asks.
Processing and value addition of food through creative and innovative ways is one of the areas Farmer's Share focuses on. If farmers are late in finding a market for the fruits or vegetables they produce, they are likely to end up at loss. At Farmer’s Share, they sun-dry fruits such as mango and sapota and dip them in honey, thereby making it a premium product. Ripe bananas and other fruits too have been sun-dried and sold, not just preventing wastage, but also adding value and earning more money. Experiments with hibiscus flowers is one of their key attractions. Hibiscus concentrate for sherbet, hibiscus infused honey, hibiscus-tulsi tea and hibiscus jam are some of the edibles they have developed out of these flowers available in plenty in the village. Recently, they have also started using hibiscus flowers as a natural dye for the cotton clothes they weave. This value addition support is provided to neighbouring farmers too, by Farmer’s Share. They also offer learning programmes to equip more people with the techniques of value addition.
“One misconception that has been created in our country is that the farmers toil hard, produce and sell food for their own living. But no, they live for others. Neither farmers nor non-farmers are realising that farmers needn’t sell their produce to live or sustain. Therefore it should be the responsibility of whoever consumes food to make sure that the one who has produced it lives a dignified life. Farmers living happily should be the need of all non-farmers,” Ambrose asserts.
Handloom and handicrafts
Five handlooms have been set up at Farmer’s Share in collaboration with Khadi India, providing livelihood to five women from the locality, namely Bindu, Dhanalakshmi, Jayalakshmi, Rajitha and Suneethi. The woven cotton cloth is then dyed naturally and marketed and sold. One interesting fact is that none of them were traditional weavers. They learnt weaving out of their own interest and desire, as Farmer’s Share created the opportunity for the same.
In the patriarchal system we are part of, most rural women are married off at a young age, and then an immense load of responsibilities sets in. Giving birth, taking care of the child and so on. Once their children are about 10 or 12 years old and can take care of themselves, then they have more time at hand. Farmer's Share works with women who have lived a good part of their lives taking care of others and now are in a better capacity to do things for themselves. The joy of creation that they experience and at the same time being financially independent to an extent is something Farmer’s Share intends to take to more people.
They are soon to start bamboo crafts in collaboration with an organisation based in Wayanad, to create utility products such as scoops, skimmers and bodies of speakers, knives, clocks, etc. Rural women will be equipped for the same. Farmer's Share is envisioned as a craft education space to support people to become self-reliant.
Akhil, 18, Ambrose and Mini’s second son, got interested in pottery, and studied the craft at a friend's pottery studio in Thrippunithura for a year. Akhil has now set up his own pottery studio at Farmer's Share. The designs he has created are largely utility based. After a great deal of experimentation, he has now developed slender and light-weight designs compared to traditional pottery. Terracotta products made in the traditional manner are usually thick and heavy, but with the innovation in the clay slurry, by using a filtered slurry, they have achieved a thinness similar to that of ceramic products and also smoother surface finishing. They now plan to equip local women to make terracotta products in ceramic thickness and good finishing. The vision is that the women then can make the terracotta products at their own home, at their own ease and convenience. Farmer's Share has created a market for these products, and due to the demand and value they have, they wish to equip more people to be self-reliant.
The building concept at Farmer’s Share is that it needn’t last for a very long time, but for the lifetime of one generation. “One should be able to gauge the limit of security for one's house or building”, says Ambrose. “A wall can be made of varied thicknesses; 4.5 inches, 9 inches, 13 inches and so on. If I build a wall of 13 inches, it is a reflection of my foolishness.” Ambrose believes that if people can change the notion that their security is dependent on the thickest of walls and ever-lasting materials, so many possibilities of ways of building open up.
At Farmer’s Share, they have been exploring various materials beyond bricks and stones. Soil, bamboo and grass are available in plenty in the villages nearby, and have been put to use. They have found developing their knowledge and skill in making use of locally available materials to be an empowering process.
A lot of materials otherwise considered to be waste have also been used in building the space. In wood mills, the outer part of the wood is rejected and usually just burnt off, as they are not in a flat or symmetrical shape. Those wood pieces have been used at Farmer’s Share to create the inside structure of the walls of the huts. Reject pieces of guitar fingerboards have been used for panelling. Some of the steel frames used are the remains of designs cut for gates. Cycles rims, wild seeds and more have been used to build the space. Wood powder has been used as a plastering material by mixing with maida, tulsi leaves and malabar nut leaves. Malabar nut leaves are at times replaced with neem leaves or other pungent smelling leaves which help in pest control. Such plastering is also a healthier alternative to the chemical based paints, as we spend at least 8 hours a day in close proximity to the painted walls.
Humans of Farmer's Share
Mini, Ambrose's wife, stands strong with him in all his pursuits, and is equally involved in running the space. She is involved in all aspects related to food and leads the activities in the kitchen. Their sons Akhil and Amal have multiple interests which are largely inclined towards art and creativity. They work towards developing the idea of Farmer's Share and creating new possibilities.
Akhil's interest in terracotta started with clay modelling. He enjoys creating new designs, the freedom involved, and that he can work and create independently. Amal, 20, finds himself in the management of the space. Amal’s interests include designing, branding and photography. He learned the basics of designing and photography from his father’s friend who runs a studio. He stayed and worked with them for one and half years to build his skills further. He desires to build a brand identity for Farmer's Share, and is exploring the design of labels and stickers of their products.
Farmer’s Share is a community tied together by meaningful explorations and cordial relations. The other humans of Farmer’s Share include Kavya, Rashid, Meera, Susmith, Padmini, Krishnaveni, Appu, Nandan, and Josey.
Kavya works with Amal in the management of the space. She also handles their social media and helps with the accounts. Kavya completed her degree in Mathematics and took a gap year after college as the approach towards education there was to gain marks and not build knowledge. During her gap year, she explored paper-quilling, making paper out of plantain fibres and mushrooms, bowls and rope out of plantain fibre, eco-printing and more. She came to Farmer's Share to further explore these interests of hers. In the conventional education system, she was being told to do everything. But now at Farmer's Share, she has the opportunity to think, brainstorm, conceive ideas, work in collaboration, bring innovations and so on, which she enjoys.
Rashid is an artist and designer, who had a love for art right from his childhood. Rashid desires to lay his hands on all that interests him, keep learning and attempting new things, and not to be limited to one area or expertise. After completing his degree in Fine Arts, he worked for different companies, including an advertisement company. He could focus only on one or two areas there, and felt that his scope of learning was limited, which brought him to Farmer’s Share, where he had the possibility to explore a variety of interests and no walls binding him. He now experiments on various areas such as cloth, product design, branding, packaging, etc., but his larger focus is in the creation of a clothing brand, Farmloom, at Farmer’s Share. Under Farmloom, he has created designs for various age groups, from newborn babies to adults. He is now in the process of designing prototypes of footwear, bags and wallets along with working on new clothing designs. Rashid is happy that everyone around shows interest and gets involved in what he does.
Meera is a naturalist and crafts enthusiast who holds a doctorate in wildlife biology. It was her interest in natural ways of living and being that brought her to Farmer’s Share. She hosted a workshop on natural dyeing at Farmer’s Share in November 2020, kept visiting the space more often, and later found herself being absorbed into the space. She currently leads the natural dyeing process of the clothes woven at Farmer’s Share. She has also been incorporating bamboo weaving in pottery to make more utilitarian designs. Meera had been carrying the dream of starting a farm school for a long time, and she now finds Farmer’s Share to be a perfect setting for it. She wishes to engage with children on environment and wildlife, and is in the process of designing weekend camps for children. Based on the responses, she wants to offer more long term learning programmes, which she hopes will eventually manifest into the creation of a farm school.
Susmith is a mechanical engineer and a product designer by training, but he considers himself more as a maker. He loves making tangible things, from products to foods, one of the reasons which brought him to Farmer’s Share. For him, Farmer’s Share is a space where they conduct experiments on addressing material needs of society from basic principles and designing better sustainable systems for meeting these needs. One of the areas he is currently exploring is different techniques of making pottery, such as machine pressing.
Padmini is from the neighbourhood and assists Mini in cooking and taking care of the activities in the kitchen. Krishnaveni is the accountant at Farmer’s Share and lives nearby. Appu looks after the cows and other farming related activities. Nandan is an all-in-all, who is into various activities such as plumbing, electrical wiring, farming, felling the coconuts and more. Josey, Mini’s brother, takes care of drying and processing the fruits and flowers, and also painting. The humans of Farmer’s Share affirm that collaboration and cooperation is the way ahead for creating anything that sustains.
The idea of staying small
Ambrose believes that it is only through self-sustaining communities that we can have a healthy democracy, and that the implementation of democracy in its best possible manner can happen only when the models of governance are small. All that they try to create and develop at Farmer's Share is an attempt in that direction, introducing different aspects of food, farming, handloom, pottery, architecture, etc. they are familiar with.
The idea of Farmer's Share is not to capture markets or grow big. They wish to showcase the different possibilities of a rural economy. The space has been designed to let people experience certain models of livelihoods and ways of being that are just and inclusive. The people associated with Farmer's Share are there because they wish to lead a joyful and meaningful life. “If we can't find ourselves to be joyful while working, the model that we are putting across will be a wrong one,” emphasises Ambrose.
Farmer's Share and it's humans are a testimony that alternative, non-exploitative lives and lifestyles are possible, that small, local and beautiful are possible, that convivial futures are possible, that hope is possible. They can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published on Vikalp Sangam in October 2021: https://vikalpsangam.org/article/farmers-share-towards-dignified-rural-livelihoods/