Today is officially the last day of Summer 09, in this part of the country. Dark rain clouds have been gathering all evening and I’m sure the first Monsoon rains will hit the ground before I send out this email. (I actually wrote this a week ago and it was a false alarm. We haven’t had anything more than a couple of passing showers. The big rains are held up somewhere.) This is the start of 4 months of wet, miserable, slushy, musty, cold life. It’s actually not as bad as that all the time, though. It’s wonderful to curl up in a chair on our verandah with a hot drink and a book and watch the rains sweep across the valley in front. But for me, the commute to town Monday-to-Friday in a Jeep with a leaky roof and open doors can be all those things I listed earlier.

It’s been a while since our last email and we thought it was time to send out a Summer update describing our past few months on the farm. At the time of our last update in December 2008, we had just moved into our new house on the farm. So the past few months were mainly spent in settling down and getting into a routine with office work and farm work and trying to enjoy ourselves.

It has been a fairly normal summer here in Sirsi, though some other parts of the country have had it rough. Delhi, this year, had its hottest April day in 50 years and many deaths from heat stroke have been reported in Orissa and other parts of the country. We had a couple of showers in March and April which helped the place look much greener during Summer, than the brown, leafless scenery that is a feature of Summer.

We’ve now been living on the farm for more than 6 months. The farm still doesn’t have a name and so we continue to refer to it as ‘the farm’. That's why we still don't have a website either. Suggestions are welcome and the winner gets a 3 days & 2 nights farm-stay package for 2 adults and will have an opportunity to do lots of hands-on farm work ;-) (You are welcome to visit even otherwise. Treat this as an invitation) Guidelines for the name - should be funny/amusing/non-serious or slightly irreverent ...

It has been hectic, trying to get all the routine farm work, infrastructure work and my job going at the same time. We had been relying on a large natural tank in the orchard for our water requirements. But there is a fig tree overhanging the tank, which kept dropping leaves and ripe and rotting fruit into the well. Fed up with this filthy water, we dug a well halfway up the hill. A well digger who is also a skilled water diviner scanned the area with his ‘water-divining coconut’ and marked the spot where water was to be found (which was where the coconut that was lying on its side on his outstretched palm, stood up magically). He also doubled checked with the forked stick that dipped down at the same spot. Sure enough, clear water was struck at a depth of 35 feet. Many of us tried the ‘coconut trick’ – to get it to stand above the spot where water was detected. Sushie managed to elicit some reaction from the coconut whereas my coconut showed no sign of life. Apparently, it had something to do with the amount of iron in the person’s body. I’ve still got a few steel wires embedded in my shoulder and elbow from my accident, but that didn’t seem to help. It was amazing to see how he managed to dig a geometrically perfect cylindrical hole in the ground, 35 Ft deep and 5 Ft across, using just a pickaxe and a pointy iron rod. That was the first of our infrastructure projects this year.

During summer, most of the fresh grass dries up and many farmers let their cattle loose in the forest for grazing. We had been trying to grow a ‘live fence’ which consists of cuttings (of certain plant species) planted very close to each other along the boundary. Once the plants grow, they form a thick hedge that then takes care of itself and also provides green manure and mulch. However, the wandering cattle, seeing a nice green patch of land on our farm, would break through after finding a weak spot in our fence. They were often found feeding on our banana plants. After a lot of chasing and yelling, we’d finally get them off the land. In the process, they would break through another part of the fence to get out. So each intrusion resulted in two parts of the fence that needed mending. Much time was spent chasing marauding cattle, mending fences, surveying the damage and assuaging the accompanying heartache. When we were more vigilant during the day, the invasions started happening at night. This time, it was buffaloes. We’d find in the morning that a herd of buffaloes had wandered through our farm, munching on whatever was within biting reach. Often, they would venture right up to our front yard and destroy our veggie patch and other special plants we had planted around the house. Our dogs weren’t much use as a deterrent. Sometimes, they didn’t even bark to warn us. So for some weeks, I’d go on patrol around the farm, before going to bed at night. Sometimes, if the dogs started barking in the middle of the night, I’d go on yet another patrol, risking life (from getting bitten by any justifiably annoyed snake that I inadvertently stepped on; and mind you, there are many lying around, waiting to be stepped on) and limb (from falling into ditches and trenches that liberally dot our landscape). As soon as I woke up in the morning, I’d do my morning patrol, which often turned into a damage assessment exercise, since the buffaloes still managed to get in and out. I suspect they had a more advanced system of sentries, lookouts and signalling. Getting desperate, we finally decided to install an electric fence that would give out pulses of high voltage. Coming in contact with it would give the animal a nasty shock and deter it from further explorations, without causing any injury. Well, that did the trick and we’ve managed to get back our uninterrupted night’s sleep.


Grooming session

We then felt that our cattle were living too Spartan a life and needed some more material comforts in their living quarters. So we decided to upgrade and started building a new cowshed. The plan was to get it up quickly, so that the cattle could move in before the monsoons. But like I said earlier, the monsoons will start today in all likelihood and we’ve made fantastic progress with the building to complete just the foundation!! Like most other things around here, construction takes its own sweet time and workers can’t be rushed. If they turn up to work, consider it your good fortune. Once the cowshed is ready, we’ll build our bio-gas plant and we hope to be self sufficient in cooking gas in a few months from now (which may even be the end of the year, considering the pace at which things have been moving). Nevertheless, that is a milestone we’re looking forward to. No more reliance on fossil fuel for cooking, after that!

We’ve planned a lot of planting for this monsoon season. We’re hoping to plant pepper and cardamom among the banana and areca trees. And also some nutmeg along one edge of the orchard. We’ve also started planting vetiver grass (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vetiver) along a lot of areas to prevent soil erosion and reduce water runoff, which will also increase the amount of water percolating into the soil to recharge groundwater. In addition, we’re hoping to plant more fruit trees and timber trees this year. Our rice crop last year was quite successful and we’re pleased with the organic red rice we’ve been eating this year. So we’re trying some alternate methods of rice growing which seem to require less seed and water and promise higher yields. Sounds too good to be true? We’ll soon find out. We had tried growing some lentils and soy after last year’s rice was harvested. All of it got eaten by the stray cattle – that is, whatever little managed to sprout and grow.

Our other moderate success last year was our trial sugarcane crop. We had a reasonable harvest that we locally made into jaggery. The process of making jaggery locally is an event accompanied by great festivity and excitement. A local grower hires the cane crusher and a huge cauldron. People then take turns bringing in their cane, crushing it and boiling the juice until it thickens and forms jaggery. This happens round the clock and everyone gets to drink sugarcane juice to their hearts’ content.  We made about 70Kg of organic jaggery with our sugarcane, which should last us the year.

After giving up on one of my unfinished ‘do-it-yourself’ projects to make a solar cooker, we bought a Solar cooker late last year and it has served us well this summer. Rice and lentils for our dinner were often put in the cooker around mid-day and it would be nicely cooked by evening. There was no worry about it getting burnt and the beans and lentils cooked really soft and tasted great – like slow cooking on a low flame. But the real treat was the cakes that Sushie baked in the solar cooker. Healthy cakes made of whole wheat flour (Atta instead of Maida) and jaggery (instead of sugar). Variations included banana, walnuts, raisins, carrot etc. thrown into the mix. Some of the other experiments with the solar cooker include sun dried tomatoes, dry bananas and some fruit chutneys. Some of the drying still requires some fine tuning to get the process working.  It’s time to pack away the solar cooker now that the monsoons are upon us. So Sushie is now hoping to continue baking in the wood-fired bath water heater.

Many of the fruit trees we had planted the last few years were struggling through the summer months, without irrigation. So, during much of February and March, my mornings and evenings were spent watering them individually from a large pot. Water had to be carried from the house to each plant. In the process, we were also able to monitor each plant individually and make sure they were mulched and in good health. Many caterpillars found feasting on our citrus plants were in for a nasty shock when they were snatched from the leaves they were feasting on, and flung into the distance without any warning.

Our 'Rogues Gallery' of farm animals have been doing alright, except for Muthu (Muthulakshmi, the kitten) who died. She was very frail to start with and I think I might have had a hand in hastening her end, quite inadvertently, of course. She had a bad tick infestation that was bothering her a lot and I got some medicine from a vet that might've been too strong for her. Her skin started peeling off and she got quite sick and died. With Muthu gone, the rat population at home started to multiply. Just having her at home was a deterrent, even though she was quite incapable of catching any rats. I finally had to buy a rat-trap and start catching the fellows. Many mornings, we'd find a cute little fellow in the trap and I'd take it along with me on my way to work and let it escape into the forest along the way. We're hoping to get another kitten from a neighbour, in a few weeks.

The other activity that kept us busy during February and March mornings was hand-pollinating the vanilla flowers which bloom at this time of the year. Our Vanilla vines had been neglected the past few years. This year, when they started flowering, we ensured that they were better looked after. The vanilla beans have grown fairly well until now. We’re hoping we have something to harvest at the end of the year. Hand pollinating is a fairly tedious task requiring dexterous fingers – each flower that has bloomed that morning has to be individually pollinated. If it isn’t pollinated that morning, the flower withers away. Live entertainment was provided by Ammu’s singing. She’d come along with us and would tunefully sing her own ‘made-up’ songs while we were busy pollinating the flowers.

We often wonder whether this was the ‘slow and relaxed’ life we were looking for. But after a hard day’s work, when the three of us are relaxing on the veranda and enjoying the peaceful evening, watching the setting sun, the birds settling in for the night and the landscape glowing in the soft light of dusk, it definitely seems worth it.

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