Monday 11 October 2010

Meet Siddharth Sikdar, the City Farmer

When I called Siddharth last night, it was dinner time. So, what are you having, I asked. Palak soup, a green salad, rice, alu gobi subzi, small onion sambar, coriander chutney, pudina paratha with carrot juice to flush it all down. “Did everything come from your garden,” I asked him. ” Everything except the rice which I don’t grow anymore. You name it, I grow it,” says Siddharth.

Before you start thinking that perhaps Siddharth has a big farm somewhere in which he grows his vegetables, think again. Everything he eats, he grows on a 200 sq ft area on his terrace of his flat in Pune where he lives. “I am what they call a city farmer,” he says.

In a city where people live in homes the size of a matchbox, is this really feasible, I ask him. Absolutely yes. What you can grow and how much you can grow depends on how much space you have and how much sunshine you give your crops, he explains. “You can start by growing dhaniya leaves in a  coffee cup, if you want to grow palak you need a larger bowl. If you have a balcony wall, you can grow all kinds of gourds. And if you have a plastic box, it is great to grow potatoes or arbi or sweet potato,” he expounds.

“If you have a balcony, use it. If you have a terrace, you can do a lot more. You can even grow crops indoors, so long as you can give the vegetables 4 hours of sun on your terrace,”he explains.

It is not just vegetables that Siddharth grows at home, he grows fruits too. He has a papaya tree which gives him absolutely yummy papayas. He has grown chickoo. “ I have even grown wine grapes,” he says with satisfaction.

How did he get started, I ask him. “I got stressed with corporate life, so I started looking at how to improve the quality of my life,” he says assuring me that the least stressful part of his corporate life was the time he spent with IRIS. (Actually he did not say that, I made it up) But it true that Siddharth used to work for my firm IRIS in 1999-2000 and the only reason I don’t think that his life at IRIS could have been stressful is because he has agreed to return. “I was looking to find a way to discover good health and I realized that we had a big problem with food. The secret to a happy life is good food,“ he says sounding almost philosophical.

So, he started looking at the food supply chain, he started trying to figure out where his food was coming from. What he saw simply shocked him. “The food that we take for granted is simply not ok, there are serious issues with how it is grown and how it is made ready for human consumption. Even a common fruit like a banana is ripened in a dark room with chemicals. It is so harmful, you don’t realize, until you have seen it, as I have,” he says.

That’s when he discovered the work of R T Doshi one of the leaders of India’s green revolution. “What I saw, what I read, changed my life,” says Siddhartha. ( “I learnt that good farming is not about growing good crops as much as about growing good soil.” Then there was Shripad Dabholkar, a maverick inventor who was a mathematician who was heavily into city farming. Doshi learned from Dabholkar and today the legacy continues through a group called Urban Leaves. Every city has an active community of city farmers, Siddharth tells me. It transpires that a National alliance of City farmers had a convention in Mumbai last year.

Why does he do this, I ask Siddharth. Good health is the obvious and immediate answer. “my kids don’t waste any food anymore, because they are helping grow this, that makes a huge difference,” he adds.

How do I get started, I ask him. “Start small and when you see the first success, you will be driven to more,” he assures me.

Will it take up too much time? After al, I am not a full time farmer, nor do I want to be one.

Siddharth points to his own CV, he is no full time farmer either. He is actually one of India’s leading social media experts. According to him, the initial set up will take some time, may be upto 1-2 hours a day for the first 3 weeks or so. “After which you will spend a maximum of 2 hours over a weekend. Also during week days you could spend about 10 minutes watering them,” he tells me.

Looks doable, wouldn’t you say?

References amp; links

  1.  these are pictures from siddharth’s garden

  2.  Interview with Dr Doshi

  3.  BBC Story on how city farming transformed Cuba

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