Mumbaikars are taking to terrace farming

Preeti Patil, 42, donned the farmer’s hat when she transformed the 3,000sqft terrace of the Mumbai Port Trust’s central kitchen into a mini-farm.

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Food inflation, hoarding of grains, Bt brinjal… Food has dominated national headlines for quite some time now. But while most choose to whine, a few are making a choice about what lands on their plate. Some are opting for organic food, others growing their own vegetables and herbs.

Preeti Patil, 42, donned the farmer’s hat when she transformed the 3,000sqft terrace of the Mumbai Port Trust’s central kitchen into a mini-farm. The intention was to recycle the garbage generated at the canteen daily. Today, the terrace garden grows over 100 varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers. Sugarcane, tamarind, guava, mint, banana, corn, cashew nut, orange and mustard harmoniously coexist here. Butterflies and moths only enrich the biodiversity.

The mere 4x12ft balcony of Patil’s Dockyard Road home may not be as big a success as the MPT garden, but she is persistent. A little space cordoned off by a big-holed net accommodates several aerated buckets and drums growing spinach, lettuce, lemongrass, mint, tomato, cauliflower and turnip. Patil not only uses her kitchen waste to prepare the compost, but has also devised a technique to ensure better soil enrichment.

“Amrit mitti, a compost of greens (dry leaves) with Amrit jal (mixture of cow dung, cow urine and jaggery) acting as catalyst, ensures that essential microbes are retained in the soil. It is airy soil with maximum capacity to hold water and has a carbon content of 5%,” says Patil, a member of Urban Leaves, a group which supports organic food and also conducts one-day workshops for wannabe farmers. “And it doesn’t give out a foul smell. Rather, a sweet smell emerges with the first rainfall on the soil.”

Sreedevi Lakshmikutty, 43, who writes on sustainable farming and
is a staunch opponent of genetically modified crops, is another city farmer who grows her herbs in a small 10.5x3ft balcony at Phoenix Towers, Lower Parel. “I think, apart from space crunch, time is at a premium for city dwellers. Since I work from home, it is relatively easier for me,” says Lakshmikutty, who has been eating organic food for six years. Parsley, tomatoes and chauli (long beans) are other plants that adore her balcony.

“I have achieved self-sustenance in my tea consumption,” she says excitedly. “It feels great when guests come over and I just pluck my pudina (mint), lemongrass and tulsi (holy basil), and serve them tea.”

For Sushil Borkar, 47, an IIT-Mumbai graduate, his Karjat farm, where he grows rice organically, is a passion. “I have been growing rice for some years but I switched to organic farming only seven years back,” he says, admitting that the immediate post-switch yields were not very encouraging and he incurred losses. But Borkar, who runs an export business, adds that subsequent yields were of the finest quality. He sells the rice at Rs60 per kg, inclusive of home delivery charges, in Navi Mumbai and select South Mumbai areas.

Monisha Narke, 35, who has a farm on the outskirts of the city, grows a few herbs and cucumber and says her home waste is almost zero per cent. “Nothing from my kitchen goes to the BMC truck. I don’t give my kids any packed food. Even biscuits are taboo at my home,” Narke says. “We even play Holi using beetroot waste.”

Along with other mothers at her children’s school, MET Rishikul Vidyalaya, Bandra, Narke has started an initiative called RUR (reduce, reuse and recycle), where schoolchildren practice gardening in the courtyard. “The kids just harvested methi (fenugreek) and we made delicious methi parathas!” she says proudly.

Patil, Lakshmikutty, Borkar and Narke’s are just baby steps in a city of millions, individual self-sufficiency in food still a far cry. “Going organic, and planting your vegetables and harvesting them is not just a lifestyle, but a belief system which requires a lot of commitment and patience,” Lakshmikutty says.

“There is a basic disconnect. We take our food and environment for granted. Lifestyle diseases are on the rise, but we fail to connect them with ecological imbalance,” says Neesha Noronha, who is making amrit mitti at her Bandra cottage.

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