With the help of First Tunnels, Farm In My Pocket is sending an 18’x42′ polytunnel to an organic farmer in southern India. The ‘Tashi Tunnel’, as we’re calling it (see below) should allow him to grow fresh produce during the rainy season, which his neighbours can’t: and since he’s growing organically, we’re hoping it might make other farmers think again about organic growing.
‘Sending a polytunnel to India’ sounds a bit like ‘coals to Newcastle’, doesn’t it? But it’s true, thanks to the generosity of First Tunnels and some fabulous friends. If your first thought is ‘why?’ you’re not alone. Eyebrows raise and slightly incredulous smiles appear when the subject first comes up. But in fact, it could be the start of something big.
The farmer in question, Phurbu Tsering, is the brother of a Tibetan lama called Geshe Tashi who was for many years the resident teacher at Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London. I’ve known him for a long time and travelled to India with him a few years ago. He’s one of those people who would do anything for anybody, and I just wish more of us were like him.
I took the train from Bath to London with him recently, and on the way proudly showed him an article in the July edition of Home Farmer magazine. Andy and I have been writing a series of ‘growing under cover’ articles for editors Paul and Ruth every month over much of the past year, and will do so again next year – assuming our polytunnels survive the winter and don’t take off for pastures new in a high wind!
Geshe Tashi, in return, told me about a visit to his brother from which he’d just returned. Not only is his brother a farmer, he’s an organic farmer. Now, that surprised me. I know from my own travels in India that, while there are many things there that could be termed ‘organic’, you’re very unlikely to want to see them on your plate. Don’t forget, this is a country where you can buy a bottle of fruit-flavoured water which states on the label that ‘this product is guaranteed to contain no fruit’. Heavy dependence on pesticides and fertilisers since the ‘green revolution’ in India has left many farmers in a spiral of debt.
Environmental concerns and the organic movement have a long way to go before they become part of life over there, as the main focus of much of the population is simply how to survive. And, we – that is, the ‘developed’ west, are largely to blame. India didn’t begin to spontaneously manufacture pesticides and agricultural chemicals, any more than Mexico did a few years ago. Such things are brought to them by wealthier countries such as ours because labour over there is cheap, and so the profit margin is bigger. And, of course, we export piles of the stuff as well. When the US decided to ban a whole series of weed killers back in the 1990s, the stockpiles were…exported to Mexico. And much of the resultant produce was…re-imported to the US and sold there! The same kind of thing happens in India, simply because there’s nothing to prevent it – although the results are less likely to be exported.
So, Geshe Tashi’s brother is a voice in the wilderness. Nobody else in his neighbourhood, and very probably in the entire state, grows organically. Because of this general lack of awareness of the benefits involved, his cauliflowers, for example, go in the same bin as everyone else’s, and sell for the same price. It’s definitely a tough life.
However, if he could grow a crop out of season, he’d not only get top dollar for it, he’d get some local recognition as well. That in turn will mean people start to listen to him and try to figure out what he’s doing, and – who knows – maybe some more farmers will start to go, and grow, organic. And what better way to grow an out of season crop than with a polytunnel?
Fresh cucumbers and new potatoes at Christmas… tomatoes in late May… fresh beetroot, carrots and salad when the ground outside is frozen so solid you’d need a JCB to harvest them, and so on: polytunnel growers get so used to this that it’s nothing unusual. While the climate in south India is generally much warmer than the UK, there are still seasons when it’s impossible to grow some crops. They have not one, but two monsoons. The first is the ‘regular’ monsoon to which the rest of India is subjected. Then there’s roughly a month with little or no rain, followed by another month to six weeks of downpour. Farmers don’t even try to grow most things during this time as it’s far too wet – but in a polytunnel, you only get as much ‘rain’ as you yourself provide.
So, that was the idea. Somewhat doubtful that it would be possible to inspire anyone else along these lines, First Tunnels were contacted. And, bless them, they immediately agreed to donate a polytunnel. The only thing they couldn’t come up with was the shipping cost. The focus then turned to friends who between them have donated the remaining cash needed for shipping and also the customs duty at Chennai. That way, Geshe Tashi’s brother won’t need to dip his hand into his (already quite empty) pocket at all. All he needs to do is pick it up, return home, and put it up.
Needless to say, a HUGE ‘Thank You’ to everyone who donated towards this unusual and inspiring project, especially Gail and Sean at First Tunnels without whom this would have just remained a nice idea. And of course, we’ll be getting letters from the Tashi Tunnel every six months or so, telling us how things are going. Watch this space!