The 'No Man's Land' story in the year 2011
In the past, my mid-year and year-end updates used to be a few weeks late. Now, the mid-year update has run into the year-end one and together, they have spilled into the new year. If I keep this up, you will be getting year-old news in the near future. However, a certain friend (you know who you are) has been cracking the whip to get me to maintain a journal or a blog. So I hope to rectify this deficiency in the coming months.

Here's the 2-minute capsule of the highlights of the year thus far :

  • We had our sugarcane harvest and jaggery making season in February. We planted our next crop of sugarcane in March. The jaggery has been very well received by the people who have bought from us.
  • Our dog Veeru (Veerappan) met with a sticky end. Since then, we've taken in another abandoned puppy Ozzy (Osama) who now has the enormous responsibility of inducing terror in the hearts of the local stray cattle and random people that happen to wander onto our farm. He has been an utter failure thus far.
  • Our cow Gowri gave birth to a male calf in July.This was the 5th calving on our farm and all 5 have unfortunately been males! What are the chances of that?
  • We have completed all the construction activity that has been dragging on for the past 2 years. The cottage for our farm-stay visitors is ready and we have hosted our first paying farm-stay guests. Visitors will no more have to spread the mat on the floor and grin and bear it, when they visit us.
  • At the start of the monsoon, we completed planting the cashew nut orchard and the mango orchard. Also planted several mahogany and jackfruit trees as part of our retirement planning (good timber).
  • Our poultry population has increased and we have a busy time searching out the eggs from all the new hiding places that the hens lay them in.
  • Our organic product list now boasts of rice, jaggery, banana, arecanut, elephant yam, free ranging country eggs, milk and milk products (ghee, paneer, butter). We have started selling our produce in Bangalore for the first time, among friends and friends-of-friends. The response has been encouraging.
  • The final significant news item is that the IT industry no longer bankrolls my farming misadventures. I had quit my corporate IT job early in the year and have joined Sushie as a full time farmer and home maker, trying to make a living from our farm. I'm hoping to devote more time to writing too.
The long story now - It has been an eventful first half of the year for us, both on the farm and off it. During December-January, we finished our arecanut harvest and processing. Prices have been fluctuating a great deal and deciding when to sell the produce was like timing the stock market. We couldn't take the risk of hanging on to it for too long, lest it starts spoiling from bad storage. We finally sold it at a fairly bad price. We are still learning about the maintenance required for arecanut trees. Our reluctance to use chemical sprays and follow other environmentally destructive local practices like topping up the soil every few years with new topsoil taken from the forests around us, has made things a bit harder. So we'll just have to live with what we get.

The sugarcane harvest and jaggery making season was in February. This activity is called aalé mané locally and is a fairly exciting event. We booked our turn for the sugarcane crusher and the jaggery making equipment. In the past few years, we had to cart our harvested sugarcane further out to another farmer's field. This year was much easier since we had the equipment brought over to our neighbouring field. Our friend Rajan and cousin Prashant visited us around this time and were able to give us a hand with the harvest. (They promised to return next year too.... so I presume they enjoyed it.) There is also a tradition of inviting all the neighbours for this event and everyone comes with containers and bottles to take home sugarcane juice in. The belief is that the more juice you give away to people, the better will be the quality and quantity of your jaggery. I've heard stories about some farmer who turned away people who had come to drink sugarcane juice and that year his jaggery got all burnt. What is essentially an act of hospitality in the local culture gets further enforced with these stories. When we harvest our sugarcane, we only cut it at ground level. The stem below the ground puts out new shoots which then forms our next crop. This method is called ratooning. This saves us a lot of effort in replanting and the crop also establishes faster. Last year's crop was planted too far apart. So this year, we ratooned that crop and also planted fresh intermediate rows.

We have a new caretaker family on the farm....... and they're gone......
When the new addition to our family was imminent, we had to move to Bangalore to be closer to 'reliable' medical facilities. Since we were going to be away for about 4 months, the search for a resident caretaker on the farm, which had been fairly lukewarm for the past year, was suddenly intensified. We left word with our local contacts and a few potential candidates were given a tour of the kingdom. One wanted to move in that very day, since he had eloped and married a girl from his village and they didn't have a place to live. One decided not to join because his wife fell ill the day he visited our farm and he took that as a bad omen. It was lucky she didn't fall ill when he was at the market or the bank. Another one was given a generous pay hike and various other enticements to keep him from leaving his current employment. We finally landed up with this young chap and his wife and a 2 year old daughter. He seemed quite enthusiastic about the new assignment and it also gave him an escape from home where his wife wasn't getting along too well with the mother-in-law. That might've accounted for half the enthusiasm. Anyway, I brought them over, with their bed and belongings, the day before we left for Bangalore. After a quick tour of the farm and a hurried description of their duties, they were allowed to settle down. But seeing the new worker-couple join our place, our existing farm worker Ravi decided to look for greener pastures and dropped a bombshell that he wanted to quit. I rushed back to the farm 3 days later and the new couple seemed to have settled in nicely. After some hectic negotiations that culminated in a steep pay rise and also dangling carrots of various hues and shapes, the disgruntled worker changed his mind about leaving. Ruffled feathers were smoothened. The new worker was given his list of tasks for the week and surprisingly, he still seemed enthusiastic. I returned to Bangalore a happy man. No sooner than I had arrived in Bangalore, I got a call from the farm saying that the family was packing up to leave. He had even taken an advance from me while hatching his devious plan to flee the moment I left. So we were worse off than when we started - we still had our two workers and one of them just had a nice pay hike. To make things fair, we made a comparable hike in the lady's wages too. The new wage package seems to have worked wonders. There is newfound enthusiasm in his attitude and work is moving along at a faster pace. That was money well spent.

The other significant change in our lives was that I quit my IT job with Motorola and thereby severed the umbilical cord with the corporate world. Fifteen years in the industry had provided me with many wonderful opportunities to see the world and meet all kinds of people. Many of you are friends I've met on that journey. The time had come to close shop and try something different. I certainly miss the paycheck and the opportunity to travel but the sense of freedom that has come with leaving the industry, is priceless. No more late night conference calls and a Monday-Friday routine that was tolerable because of the weekend that came along. I get to spend more time with the kids and also potter around the farm a lot more.

Lots of chicks around....
We've had a significant increase in our poultry population this year and had several successful hatchings of large broods of chicks. One of our largest broods had 14 lovely little chicks. The mother hen was aggressively protective of her chicks. We had made an enclosure with old fishing net in our front yard, for the mother hen and chicks to graze during the day. That way, we could keep an eye on them and ensure their safety. A few weeks earlier, when a Spectacled Cobra started hanging around the house, it was once seen near this chicken enclosure. (See pictures/video of the cobra encounter). When the cobra was packed off, we thought that the worst was behind us. The chicks were now over a month old and growing really well. There were some lovely coloured ones in the flock.

We were away in Bangalore for over a week, for Good Friday and Easter. When we arrived returned, some horrible news awaited us. The previous evening, a dog from the neighbourhood had come there and it got into the chicken enclosure by tearing the fishing net. It then went about systematically killing the chickens one by one. He didn't even pause to eat the ones he had killed. When Ravi our farm worker heard the commotion and came running over, the dog had just about caught the mother hen too. He managed to chase the dog away. But the damage was already done. We were a dozen chicks short on the rolls. We have been without a dog for the past couple of months and that had emboldened other dogs and cats to wander around our place freely. Our delayed return to the farm provided the murderous dog an opportune evening to carry out the massacre. Ironically, that dog was born on our farm to Frisky, one of our previous dogs. We have since then, built a more secure home for the chicken. When daylight fades and the chicken have retired to their shed, a prison-like routine is followed, which includes taking a headcount and then shutting them in until the next morning. Some rebels and freedom lovers roost in the tamarind tree behind the shed, to evade being locked up.

The first farm-stay guests arrive...
Our guest cottage was finally ready late in the year. We hosted our first paying farmstay guests during the last few days of the year. Two families, each with 2 kids, stayed with us for 3 nights. We had a great time hosting them and it seemed like they enjoyed their stay too. The kids had a great time splashing around in the stream. Camping in a tent was a new experience for them and the campfire on New Year's eve was the topping to the experience. We're hoping to have more visitors this year, which will give us an opportunity to meet new people too.

Raiders and plunderers...
We had a small crop of Elephant Yam that had to be harvested in a hurry to rescue it from a wild boar that had developed a taste for it. He had wiped out 10% of our crop in one frenzied night's feast. We still struggle to protect out crop from the wild animals around. Monkeys have ravaged our banana and cardamom plants and one bold langur has even been hanging around the house, eating our hibiscus flowers and drumstick tree leaves. I should make sure the kids are chained to something sturdy or fitted with GPS devices, lest the monkeys take off with one of them. I had bought some loud firecrackers during Diwali, to scare the monkeys away. It worked the first few times. Now, they just sit at a safe distance and enjoy the fireworks display I put up for them. They have raided our sugarcane crop a few times and I finally bought old fishing net and built a high fence around the field. That has deterred them to a great extent. Our neighbour's sugarcane crop was completely wiped out over a 3-4 day period by a wild boar. It was heartbreaking to see a whole year's effort get wiped out right at the end when we were so close to the harvest. We're hoping that our flimsy net will dissuade the wild boar from raiding our crop for another couple of weeks, before we harvest it and make our jaggery.

Our dairy operations have been happening on a small scale. We have almost stopped selling our surplus milk and have been making paneer (cottage cheese) and ghee (clarified butter) which can be stored for longer and also fetch a better price. We are also about to start building our gobar gas plant and hope to meet all our cooking energy needs through gobar gas and our solar cooker.

Many things have been planned for the new year. We're hoping the farm-stay activity picks up this year and we're hoping our fruit trees will start yielding too. Hoping to plant a turmeric crop and plant more pepper. There's a chance that Ravi our farmhand will get married this summer. (He's been threatening to get married for the past couple of years) If that does happen, he'll be off work for a couple of months or longer. It will be like flying a 747 on a single engine. We'll have to glide along for a while. Hopefully he'll come back with an extra pair of hands to help with the farm work.


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We had hatched our largest brood of chickens - 14 lovely little chicks. We were told that such a large number wouldn't hatch, when we had 15 eggs being incubated by a hen. After 21 days of singleminded and dedicated incubation by the mother hen, the chicks emerged one by one. The mother hen was aggressively protective of her brood of chicks. We moved them to an enclosure in front of our house, that we built using fishing net. That way, we could keep an eye on them and ensure their safety. A few weeks ago, when the Spectacled Cobra started hanging around the house, it was once seen near this chicken enclosure. (See pictures/video of the cobra encounter). When the cobra was packed off, we thought that the worst was behind us. The chicks were now over a month old and growing really well. There were some lovely coloured ones in the flock.

We were away in Bangalore for over a week, for Good Friday and Easter. We were supposed to return to the farm on the Monday after Easter. But I had fallen ill and we had to postpone our trip by a day. When we arrived here on Tuesday, some horrible news awaited us. The previous evening, a dog from the neighbourhood had come there and it got into the chicken enclosure by tearing the fishing net. It then went about systematically killing the chickens one by one. He didn't even pause to eat the ones he had killed. When Ravi our farm worker heard the commotion and came running over, the dog had just about caught the mother hen too. He managed to chase the dog away. But the damage was already done. We were a dozen chicks short on the rolls. We have been without a dog for the past couple of months and that had emboldened other dogs and cats to wander around our place freely. The chicks were housed right in front of our house and as long as we were home, no dog would wander that close to the house. Our delayed return to the farm provided the murderous dog an opportune evening to carry out the massacre. The poor mother hen now has the two surviving chicks with her. We are planning to build a more secure home for the chicken now. And as for the dog.... a fate worse than death awaits him if he crosses my path again ( I know.... that's an empty threat. Ironically, that dog was born on our farm to Frisky, one of our previous dogs.)

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Everything this year has been on a ‘go-slow’ mode. Everything, including this year-end update and the mid-year update that never got written. Much of the year has been spent on construction activities, or to be more accurate, chasing up workers to get on with our construction activities. We’ve now got a guest cottage for our farm-stay venture, a caretaker’s cottage for the resident caretaker who we’ve not been able to find as yet, a new cowshed, a 35,000 litre water storage tank, a de-silted well/tank, an additional bedroom for our cottage and two store rooms in the basement of our new bedroom. The basement is where we’ll be secretly brewing our own organic country liquor (just kidding; don’t rush here asking for a sample). Other additions to our worldly possessions include a new Bolero Camper 4WD pick-up to ferry family and farm produce around. With all this, it is hardly surprising that very little has been achieved on the ‘farming’ front. The labour market has been tight and we lost 33.33% of our labour force (one guy quit mid-year) and we’re left now with two workers, who have also often been diverted into non-farming activities to keep the construction work ticking along.

That was a summary of all that has happened in the past year. Those of you busy people with a short attention span or with only 2 minutes to devote to reading about a villager’s life story can stop reading now. You’ve got the news headlines already. The rest of you that have more time on your hands and don’t know what to do with it can read on.

If you’re still reading, you either have a slow day today and are looking for ways to fill the time or you are genuinely interested in things that have been going on in our lives.

Since building construction took up most of the year, I’ll continue with the construction story. Our old cowshed was falling apart and was threatening to collapse on the unsuspecting cows below. So we had started out to build a new cowshed 4 terraces below where our current cottage is situated. The plan then was that the current cottage would become the guest cottage and we’d build our home between the cottage and the new cowshed. However, halfway through building the cowshed, I felt that I had dealt with enough construction for a lifetime and decided not to build a new house for ourselves. We decided to stay on in the present house, but extend it to include an additional bedroom. That has resulted in significant savings in stress, lost years of life and avoided hastening the greying and hair-loss. But now, the cowshed was too far away from our house. It needed to be far enough to keep the smells and flies away but close enough to hear them cry in an emergency and rush down to attend to midnight deliveries and other emergencies. So we decided to convert half of it into a caretaker’s cottage so that the caretaker would be close enough to attend to emergencies in the cowshed. Some days later, when we were unsure whether a caretaker would enjoy living in close proximity to the cattle and the flies and smells that accompany them, we changed plans and converted the cowshed into a guest cottage. Taking stock of the situation, we realised that we were still without a cowshed after all this work. So we decided to build the new cowshed closer to the house and got started on that. That had to be ready before the big monsoon rains in July. We made it, though a bit late. During this time, we also started work on the additional bedroom adjacent to our house. The land here was a bit lower than the site of the cottage. So we decided to excavate some more, so that a basement could be built below the bedroom. This would serve as our store room and also a cool cellar since a part of it was underground and enclosed on 3 sides with soil. Another team got started on building a large concrete tank to store water at the top of the small hill on which our house was situated. We wanted to pump water up the hill from the wells that were at the foot of the hill. This could be done during the limited hours when we have 3-phase power. Once the tank was full, we could gravity-irrigate our crops whenever we wanted to. All this has taken up most of the year and the final touches to our additional bedroom and the basement store rooms are still being made, even as I write this. We’re hoping to start using them about a month from now. The guest cottage has hosted a few visitors already and we’ve slept there some nights just for a change.

Activities on the farming side started with the sugarcane harvest in February. We took our harvested cane to a farm in the neighbourhood where the crusher and other equipment to make jaggery was set up. I slept there overnight guarding our sugarcane and we started crushing our cane in the morning. Around midday, the sugarcane juice was put to boil and the rest of the day was taken up in boiling the juice to make jaggery and then cooling the jaggery to pack into cans. This year, we are planning to hire the equipment ourselves and get it installed on our farm, so that we don’t have to cart all our sugarcane to someone else’s field. The harvest will happen sometime after 15th Feb 2011. Anyone who enjoys swinging a machete around is welcome to help with the harvest. I’ll just have to make sure I’m at a safe distance from you. We have increased the area under sugarcane this year. So, a few extra hands are welcome. You also get to drink fresh sugarcane juice to your hearts content and if it interests you, to engage in a game of cards and a few drinks with the locals who drop by in the evening after work and stay up through the night gambling away hard-earned money. The nights are chilly and the warmth of the roaring fire where the sugarcane juice is boiling all night draws all sorts of people.

Our preoccupation with the construction didn’t allow us to plant anything new this year and we even had to skip the paddy crop we wanted to do. However, the rest of our paddy field was given this year too, to a neighbour for sharecropping. This means that he plants paddy on our land and gives us about a 15% share in the crop. Paddy requires intensive labour at specific stages of the cycle and we are unable to organise it ourselves. Our banana yield this year was lower than last year. It too suffered from lack of attention.

Our buffalo Yamuna and both our cows Dhanu and Gowri have given birth to calves this year (all male, unfortunately). Yamuna’s delivery was particularly remarkable because it happened late at night and Sushie and I had to assist with the birth. She had been showing signs of the impending delivery all day but nothing happened until our workers left for the day. After that, we kept checking on her frequently to see how she was progressing. At around 10.30pm, she gave birth and we saw this tiny little calf that had just crash landed onto the hard floor of the shed. We wiped him down and dried him with straw since the mother was showing no inclination to lick and dry him. We watched as he struggled to his feet over the next hour or two, and stumbled over to his mother for his first drink. He needed some assistance with this too.

We’ve had plenty of milk for most of the year. I have been supplying milk to the dairy on my way into Sirsi town for work. Sushie has also started milking Dhanu our native breed cow, who grins and bears it while sushie coaxes out streams of warm, frothy milk. In October, Sushie experimented a few times with making Paneer (cottage cheese) and she arrived at a repeatable process. I dropped off a sample with some restaurants in Sirsi town and found one place that wanted us to supply them. So we’ve supplied about 20Kgs of Paneer in November and December to this restaurant. We missed the peak Christmas and New Year weekends this year, since we were away in Bangalore. But this seems like a worthwhile effort since it brings better returns than supplying milk. So some of the days that I don’t go into town, the milk gets made into paneer and this can be refrigerated for a few days.

Our poultry department has had a reasonable year. We lost a lot of chicks early in the year (read ‘The Turkey Scam’ in a previous note). We also bought twenty one 3-day old chicks from a travelling chicken sales guy. He had said that half of them would be females. But every one of them turned out to be male. Half of them got eaten by predators and we managed to sell the rest. Since they were free ranging, they were running all over the place and the verandah was their favourite toilet site. They were locked away in cages for the night. As soon as they were released in the morning, they rushed to the house to be fed and performed their morning toilet jobs on the verandah as a sign of gratitude.  So our verandah was always covered with chicken poop and one had to pick one’s way around like going through a minefield. One wrong step and you’d find something squishy underfoot. Sick of the constant cleaning that this entailed, we sold the worst offenders – the 10 surviving roosters. When the sale was announced and the price was fixed, we found that people came from far and wide, to buy them. We were surprised at the response. Turns out that we had priced it so low that it was a huge discount sale and word was spreading fast. Anway, we were glad to be rid of the mess around the house. The rest of the hens which were a local country breed, have survived and kept up a steady supply of lovely eggs that we enjoy eating. The only problem is that they lay the eggs wherever they please. So somedays, we gather 3-4 eggs and some days, there are no eggs. We are planning to build large movable enclosures so that the chicken will be sort-of-free-ranging but within these enclosures, that can be put in a different spot evey week or so.

In 2011, we’re hoping to tie up all the pending construction loose ends as soon as possible and turn the focus back to the farm and agriculture. We’re also hoping to get our website ready and kick off the home-stay venture on a small scale. That will also enable us to meet new people out in this corner.

 Our two farmgirls :)

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