The year was 1994, and organic farming hadn’t caught up in India. But one panchayat in Kerala went ahead and advocated the practice to its villagers, in the hope of making them self-reliant. Now it is 2018, and Kanjikuzhi, located on the shore of the Arabian Sea, is the only vegetable-sufficient panchayat in the state, and a prize-winning template for regions around the country.

“Every household in Kanjikuzhi grows its own vegetables,” said panchayat president MG Raju. “We don’t need to buy vegetables from the market at all. People here use what they need and sell the surplus, so pensioners, homemakers, everyone has some income”.

The panchayat grows 19 types of vegetables, including beans, lady’s finger, cabbage, green chilli, bitter gourd, snake gourd, cucumber, cauliflower, brinjal and cheera, a variety of spinach with beetroot-red leaves. “Last year, we grew 40,000 tonnes of vegetables,” said Raju. “We sold these to nearby cities such as Kochi, Kottayam and Alappuzha. We have what is called the Panchayat Development Society, or PDS, which buys vegetables door to door from those who want to sell it in the market. We have PDS shops along the highway where we sell the produce.”

Photo credit: Kanjikuzhi Grama Panchayat/Facebook

Long-term plan

The seeds of the transformation were sowed when 60 households agreed to be part of a scheme to grow organic vegetables. In 1996, the People’s Campaign Programme led by Dr Thomas Isaac, who is now the state finance minister, started to evolve. “I wasn’t a politician then, but an economist,” said Isaac. “Our idea was to have a model for sustainable cultivation. But it has now evolved to include every single household here.”

According to a report released in March, the organic products market in India is expected to grow to Rs 10,000 crore by the year 2020 from its current size of Rs 4,000 crore. This is because of the increased health consciousness among the youth and urbanites, who are aware of the ill effects of the chemical preservatives present in non-organic products.

Kanjikuzhi panchayat, with its 29,921 residents and 8,600 families, is aware of these growth possibilities. To make sure that households get all the help they need, it runs the Haritha Samruddhi Scheme under which saplings are grown in greenhouses and given to farmers for free (last year, the panchayat distributed 50 lakh saplings). Eco-friendly compost is available at subsidised rates. And then there’s the Karshiga Karmasena, a team of volunteers that goes around encouraging households to use environment-friendly ways of farming.

Kanjikuzhi grows 19 types of vegetables, including beans and lady’s finger. Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman

“All families here grow their own food 365 days of the year,” said Isaac. “Primary and higher secondary schools in Kanjikuzhi teach children how to farm and to grow your own food. Other districts in Kerala want to replicate this model, [and] other places in India too, for example Darjeeling.”

Success at grassroots

“Kanjikuzhi is located on the shores of the Arabian Sea, which means that the soil we have here soaks up all the water,” said Divya Jyothish, a local award-winning farmer. “It’s not soil but sand. Imagine Juhu Beach in Mumbai. Could you grow anything there? Kanjikuzhi is in Alappuzha district, the tourist destination known for its beaches. It is impossible to farm. The pathways are rocky. But in the last 20 years, we have learnt about measuring the pH value of the soil; about watering it twice a day, about the things that can grow here.”

Photo credit: Kanjikuzhi Grama Panchayat/Facebook

This morning, Divya is off to talk to British farmers about organic farming. She’s 33 and can climb up coconut trees to pick coconuts, traditionally a man’s job. In 2015, she was named young farmer of the year by the Kerala government for growing 100 kilos of okra, which is the most that the village has ever produced.

Divya can earn as much as Rs 50,000 during the vegetable growing season, which lasts from December to March. “I love being a farmer because there’s no tension, no stress,” she said. Over the rest of the year, she travels to speak with farmers in Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh about how Kanjikuzhy has become self-sufficient. “Organic food is becoming a trend. Demand is increasing. This krishi is the future.”

Subbakesavan, 46, is also a Kanjikuzhy farmer who is on his way to MG University in Kottayam to teach agriculture students about a special varietal of beans. “I developed this myself when I first started farming in 1994,” he said. “I’m a school dropout but I was always interested in crossing and developing new varieties of vegetables.”

A bottle gourd farm. Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman

Subbakesavan came up with what is now known as Kanjikuzhi payar, a type of bean that’s a cross between the lima and the local vellayani beans. It is a long green vegetable which is softer and sweeter than the usual French and green beans you get in the market. “In the last 20 years I’ve come a long way,” he said. “I also grow saplings worth 10 quintals of bean produce a year and sell [those] mostly in Karnataka and Sharjah in the Middle East.”

Subbakesavan earned over Rs 10 lakh last year from selling saplings alone. “My family – mother, father, sister – we’re all farmers. Vegetables provide us a good income.”

Raju said the panchayat has set benchmark prices to cushion them against the fickle market –“This scheme is precisely what has made Kanjikuzhi possibly the only place in India where farmers do not suffer losses with fluctuating market prices.”

A PDS shop that sells local organic produce. Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman

Need to modernise

Still, farming in Kanjikuzhi has its own problems. Anand, 68, who farms an acre of land, and his wife Omana were taught to measure the pH value of the soil. “We layered the sand with the silt and clay from Lake Vembanad and then grew vegetables,” he said. “Here, we need to water the plants twice a day. A farmer in Punjab, for example, would do it just once a day. We’ve had people from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh to see what they can learn from us.”

It’s not just other Indian states who are interested in Kanjikuzhi. Not long ago, an Italian industrialist came here to invest money in buying land, machinery and organising systems in a more commercially profitable way.

Divya and her 40-year-old husband Jyothish, who is also a farmer, have tied up with the businessman. “We felt it was time to take things to the next level,” said Jyothish. “We’ll farm the land and grow vegetables. The Italians will give us their expertise in how to make it more commercially viable. Our plan is to set it up as an online business. That’s where the future is.”

While organic farming has given Divya and Jyothish a pukka house to live in, a cow that gives milk, ghee and compost and some land for their daughter to run around on, it also provides income for his parents. His 72-year-old father Vijayan and 64-year-old mother Shobhana earn up to Rs 500 a day helping out in the paddy fields. “Not only are they financially independent, they also stay active and healthy,” said Jyothish. “This is true of most households here”.

Divya and Jyothish. Photo credit: Meenakshi Soman

Despite all the hard work, marketing remains a big problem. One of the main challenges Kanjikuzhi faces is streamlining the way it distributes and sells its produce. The main market for Kanjikuzhi produce is Kochi, about 75 kilometres away.

“I have to take the vegetables to the city every other day,” said Jyothish. “Sometimes I sell them myself in apartment blocks or to a supermarket. Many children from this village have done their MBA. They’ve all returned and are trying to figure out what can be done to cut out the middlemen. Demand for organic produce is increasing. We have to keep up with the times.”

This is also a priority for Raju, as the president of the panchayat. “The Panchayat Development Samiti helps farmers with getting their produce to places such as Kochi, Kottayam and nearby Alappuzha and we also sell at the panchayat shop here,” he said. Kanjikuzhy has celebrity patrons such as superstar Mammootty and singer Yesudas, who buy its vegetables, which has helped.

“Ours is a really easy model to replicate,” said Raju. “Kanjikuzhy has become a template for India.”