A personal journey of living on a farm has brought a better sense of well-being to a family, besides carrying with it the ecological benefits of lower water and energy footprints
I’m one of those few people across the world who’ve opted to move out of a city and stay in a farm. I live on a farm in India along with my wife and two children aged 13 and 10. We don’t subscribe to any one ideology, nor are we a part of any cult or movement. Living on the farm just makes a lot of sense to us.
By living on the farm, I sense that we contribute positively to the society, particularly to the ecology. This is a good feeling, but the starting point of our decision wasn’t this concern. For the first three decades of my life, I regarded what I was taught by the education system as gospel truth. I worked hard for success and celebrated my achievements.
As I grew up, I noticed people around me consuming food, textiles, construction, recreation, medicines and a lot more. They were convinced that the more they consumed, the better off they were. We too consumed our share of urban niceties. With children coming into our lives, the awareness of quality of food, overall health, habits and education started growing in importance. There wasn’t a feeling of deprivation, but good food, better habits and time for the family had become more important than a higher version car or a bigger flat.
Economics textbooks had taught me that human wants are unlimited, but I started feeling that my economic needs (including my wants and desires) are not unlimited. Economic well being and economic growth are measured only in financial terms. I started differentiating between economic growth and financial growth. There is more to economics than what can be measured in financial terms.
Looking at alternatives
At a subconscious level, I had begun to look for alternatives. I felt that financial growth had a purpose and when financial growth itself became the purpose, it was malignant – not just at individual level, but also as a society. As I looked for alternatives, I also realised that there were systemic inefficiencies like ecological degeneration, socioeconomic inequalities (rather exploitation), loosening of social and interpersonal connections, wasteful traffic jams and lifetimes spent in justifying existence in corporate offices.
All of these contributed to the search. An improved lifestyle was always a bigger factor than a need to escape the adversities.
Farm living appeared to be a comprehensive solution. It seemed to answer every question and in theory offered to improve the lifestyle significantly. We connected with a few people who had attempted something similar. The experimenters were few and far between and most of them turned to farm living for very different reasons.
I calculated that after having worked for 12 years, I had sufficient resources to build infrastructure for living on a farm. Our economic outlook enabled us to look at education very differently. We realised that if our children lived and learned on the farm, they wouldn’t lose out.
There appeared more to gain and nothing to lose by foregoing schooling. The bridge of further education can be crossed when we reach there. By living on the farm, we wouldn’t need to provide much for healthcare – we would mitigate the risk of lifestyle disorders. Provision for accidents and critical illness is quite inexpensive.
On one hand, the expenses on the farm are lower for the reasons listed above. On the other, the earning opportunities don’t necessarily reduce. Technology has enabled remote working for many professions and service providers. So, when we decided to move to the farm, the gut feeling was that I will find opportunities to use my competencies to earn the required money as well.
Having traversed the journey in the mind (decision making), the journey on the land was an eventful one and exciting as well. There were a few like us, who had attempted such a journey in India. There were more on the same journey elsewhere. There was guidance and there was experience of co-travellers that enriched the transition. The strength of conviction enabled us to tide over the difficulties of adapting to a farm life.
Decisions like these aren’t easily accepted by close family and friends. So, family members had to keep a close watch on our progress to remain assured that nothing untoward happens. For most friends and peers, it was like a suspense movie. But after six years and having lived through the initial years, all friends and relatives are at ease.
There are a few who even appear to be taking cues for their own benefit. The story of transition is long and maybe interesting to many. Here, however, I would like to focus on the impact of living on the farm and the potential of farm living as a method of combating the ensuing ecological crisis.
There is a substantial macro-ecological impact that compels us to consider farm living as a systemic alternative. Stated below is my assessment of the impact of farm living on the economic and the ecological aspects. Though the focus here is to highlight the ecological impact, the economic paradigm is integral to the possibility of actually getting there. The economic aspect of farm living calls for a detailed explanation, but for the purpose of this article, I’m stating it very briefly.
On the farm, we meet part of our economic needs through self-effort – we do a bit of farming, tend to a cow, home school our kids, entertain ourselves by roaming in the farm or trekking on the nearby mountain, wash our clothes, take care of our health by exercising regularly and eating healthy.
We don’t need to spend much money on food, education, recreation, healthcare, clothing and socialising. Some large expense heads like interest on home loan aren’t applicable to us. We’re also able to avoid high incidence of value-depleting consumption, almost inevitable in our erstwhile city life – junk or processed food, pollution of various kinds, an imbalanced lifestyle, medication and socially compulsive products and services.
We do engage in financial transaction for some economic needs – mobile phone, petrol, train tickets, occasional labour, part of the food basket and some other needs. But the need for money is significantly lower as compared to our erstwhile city life. Though we do not add much to the GDP, our economic needs are, arguably, better met.
Shifting to farm living was possible only because of a radical shift in the economic paradigm – fulfilment of economic needs (including wants and desires) is indicator of economic well-being rather than statistical measurement of GDP or per capita income. Fulfilment of economic needs ought to be measured subjectively by the incumbent rather than objectively calculated by a statistician. Thus, I can certify that our economic needs are fulfilled irrespective of which socio-economic class a statistician puts us in.
Since the pivotal aspect – the economic one – is so different from the rest of the world, the impact on some macro-ecological concerns is massive. It is so substantial that, in my opinion, for the ecological impact alone, governments, NGOs and the opinion leaders ought to promote farm living as an alternative method of living. Of course, for that to happen, they need to reimagine economics. Let me elaborate on the impact on water and energy. For the reader, the clue is sufficient to think through the impact on waste management, air pollution, biodiversity and climate change.
We practise natural farming – the ancient method of farming that preserves the organic matter in the soil and relies on decomposition of this organic matter for plant nutrition. It also lays emphasis on biodiversity and multi-cropping, which is another ecological issue with the current paradigm of development.
Efficient use of water
The water requirement is a fraction (50-80% lower depending on the crop) of chemical farming. This is because chemical nutrition supplements like DAP and urea increase the water requirement, and natural farming focuses on retaining the soil moisture through various methods and practices.
Agriculture is a significant component of India’s per capita water consumption. Though we haven’t reached there yet, it is possible to self-grow a large portion of the food basket without drawing much of the groundwater. Not only does this reduce water consumption, food thus grown is also more nutritious.
Water consumption other than agricultural water is also an important aspect. All our water is directed into the farm. There is no wastewater. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that not a drop flows out of the farm, not even sewage. There is no flush in our toilet because we use a dry compost toilet.
We also harvest the rainwater in a trench around the farm, thereby recharging groundwater. Though we haven’t formally calculated it, I’m pretty confident that the amount of water that percolates is many times the water we draw, including for agriculture.
At a macro level, comparison of water consumption on a farm vis-a-vis a modern city is revealing. Water is considered an expense in a city because the water drained isn’t reused. At best, grey water is recycled. Sewage and wet waste, which isn’t recycled, is truly wasted despite the fact that it can be recycled to increase agricultural productivity or even tree cover. A huge quantity of water used for construction activities is drawn from the ground and is lost in evaporation.
When we read about the water crisis facing the country and the world at large, it is amusing and shocking at the same time. Amusing, because the solution is right here, and shocking because it is being ignored or not considered at all.
Small energy footprint
Our energy consumption on the farm is a fraction of what it was when we lived in the city. There are two parts to the energy consumption – direct and indirect. Our direct consumption of energy is lower because our need for electrical and electronic equipment is less.
We don’t need a fan – there’s a constant breeze most times, given that there are no buildings blocking the flow. We need very little lighting – natural light is adequately used when we work in the open and there isn’t much energy left to work after dark, thereby reducing the need for light post sunset.
We use wood instead of electricity to heat water. We haven’t felt the need for a washing machine, an electric chimney or an air-conditioner. Our use of vehicles is limited. So is our use of television. Even for drawing water, we use a handpump and not a motorised one. It’s good exercise. We do use a mixer grinder, an oven, a television, smartphones and laptops.
The indirect part is the energy spent by government and corporate service providers for the collective benefit of residents of a city. These include building and maintaining high-rise residences and offices, sewage network, water supplies, waste management mechanisms, roads and flyover infrastructure for vehicular traffic, rail network, transportation for food and other consumables – the list just goes on. Most of these expenses are irrelevant for us.
Per capita energy consumption is considered as the barometer of development for countries. It seems so ironic. We aren’t attempting a frugal lifestyle. In fact, we try and consume all that adds value. Energy consumption is hardly the indicator of the fulfilment of economic needs.
For the purpose of this article, I am limiting myself largely to the ecological benefits of farm living, that too just the cursory ones. A detailed study will show up many more benefits and also quantify the difference in the consumption of water and energy. The economic impact of farm living is also stated broadly. The idea here is to provoke thought. Additionally, there are significant areas of impact – education, culture, politics, which I’m not touching upon.
A large-scale adoption of farm living should have a significant positive impact on the individual as well as society. The idea of economic development and education was sold to common people over almost half a century. Selling the idea of farm living may not be as difficult, given that a large portion of the population anyway resides outside cities. Besides, this lifestyle is closer to the way people lived a few decades ago.
Every evolution in society and civilisation has brought disruption, but it has always given time for the society to come to terms with the new rules of the game. If farm living does acquire an evolutionary proportion, it will bring along its own challenges. The question is this: do we intuitively feel there is hope in this direction. If the answer is yes, are we willing to invest (much effort and a little money) in it?
First published by India Climate Dialogue on 27 Sep. 2019