A high-powered team is assessing the
viability of Auroville farms
There are four aspects of the farms' assessment.
One focuses upon the history of farming in Auroville, examining
the original vision and how farming has changed over the years.
Another major aspect will examine the situation of the farms today
(comprehensive data will be compiled and analysed for each farm),
while another will ascertain the market for Auroville farm produce.
Finally, strategies will be worked out which attempt to bridge
the gap between the present reality and the farmers' and the community's
The impressive project team comprises John, who has thirty years
of farming experience in the U.K. and southern Europe, David,
who has degrees in tropical soil management and ecological agriculture
and ten years experience of NGO management in Africa and Asia,
Natasha, who has degrees in Biochemistry and Zoology and has farmed
in India, Priya who has a Ph.D. in sociology and 15 years experience
working in market research, and Tomas who has farmed in Auroville
for many years.
Auroville farmers have not always had a good
press. They have been criticized over the years for, among other
things, not producing enough, for always wanting subsidies and
for selling their produce at exorbitant rates. "This is rather
unfair," says John. "Auroville farmers are farming in
the most difficult way under some of the most testing conditions
in the world. Only a limited range of foods can be relatively
easily grown in this area. And while it's true that some farmers
have received significant financial help over the years, there
has always been a chronic lack of funds for basic infrastructure."
Then there is the management issue. "Most
Auroville farmers are stressed-out by the responsibilities they're
carrying," explains John. "The farmers have found it
very difficult to find people to share management responsibilities
because farming is not an attractive option for most Aurovilians,
and Indians who qualify in farm management don't want to go into
There is also the lack of technical input.
John is one of the first professional farmers to farm in Auroville.
While he notes that quite a lot of research has been done by individual
farmers over the years, some of it, he says, has been about reinventing
the wheel. "What astonishes me," says David, "is
that we don't even have a soil map of Auroville. There are so
many gaps in our knowledge. For example, there's a real need for
expert technical input to help us assess what can be grown in
this bioregion, or the options for improved processing and storage
of Auroville farm produce. And while Brooks is doing a first-class
energy audit of Annapurna Farm, this is a ten year project which,
in its present form, is too complex for the average Auroville
farmer to make use of."
Finally, there is the matter of the changing
tastes of Aurovilians. In the early years the community was small,
many Aurovilians were involved in afforestation and farming and
locally-grown food, like ragi and varagu, was the staple diet.
Today, conditions have changed. The population is larger, only
a very small proportion is engaged in farming, and many Aurovilians
seem to prefer processed or imported food to that which can be
grown locally. One aspect of the assessment process will focus
on collecting information concerning what Aurovilians are actually
"The fundamental need as I see it,"
says John, "is to tie the farmers into the market. At present
there is a growing gap between what Auroville farmers grow and
what Aurovilians prefer to eat." Although the Solar Kitchen
takes much of the farms' produce at present, John points out that
the farmers could experiment more with what they grow - "sweetcorn,
for example, which is a popular food and a much-needed source
of carbohydrates would grow well here, as would onions" -
while David notes that locally-grown organic food, which sometimes
looks unattractive on the shelf beside chemically-grown products,
could be made more interesting if it is prepared in innovative
ways: "Dr. Beena's recent Auroville cookbook is a good step
in this direction."
But closing the gap between what our farmers
produce and what many Aurovilians buy is more than just about
changing tastes. "The Auroville farms' pricing system is
badly out of kilter," says John. "It takes no note of
seasonal variations in the market of conventionally-grown food.
Also, many customers don't understand why they have to pay such
high prices for our farmers' produce."
In other words, giving clear and correct information is one of
the keys to rebuilding consumer confidence. For example, the assumption
that food grown or produced in Auroville is of higher quality
than food available in the conventional market allows Auroville
farmers and processors to charge a premium rate for their products.
But is Auroville produce always better? If so, in what way and
how much is it better?
Then there is the issue of labelling. Most
Auroville food is either labelled as, or implied to be, organic.
In fact, according to guidelines laid down by organic accreditation
agencies in the West, hardly any Auroville produce would qualify
for this status. One of the potential outcomes of the farms' assessment
is to establish a code of practice in order to guarantee the quality
of Auroville produce.
Then again there is the question of environmental
awareness. David believes that older Aurovilians tend to be more
concerned about what they eat and where it comes from than the
younger generation. In order to partly remedy this situation,
David's wife, Natasha, is currently developing a curriculum which
teaches ecological literacy through farming.
Finally there is the issue of productivity.
While our farms produce significant quantities of seasonal vegetables
and fruit, there is still a huge shortfall in the production of
staples like rice (currently only Annapurna and Siddhartha farm
are producing rice for Auroville). Why is this? Partly it's a
matter of lack of soil fertility. However, as the assessment team
discovered, not all the farmers see producing good food in quantity
as their prime objective: some put more emphasis upon research
or upon preserving the physical environment. The priority they
also give to health, well-being and spirituality reflects, to
some extent, the unique nature of farming in Auroville.
One important question that needs to be answered,
however, is that of food security. Does Auroville want to be self-sufficient
in terms of food? While most Aurovilians appear to favour this
in principle, the issue is complex. If food security means growing
indigenous food locally, then either more Aurovilians would need
to take up farming and we would have to acquire much more farm
land, or we would need to encourage local village farmers to switch
from cash crops and become our organic suppliers.
Such a locally-grown organic diet would be
limited. Could Westerners thrive upon it? In the early years many
Western Aurovilians tried living on a wholly indigenous diet.
Almost all of them fell sick because their metabolisms couldn't
cope. "This is one reason why the assessment group is adopting
a more pragmatic definition of food security," explains David.
"We're defining it not only in terms of what can be grown
locally but also in terms of what many Aurovilians are eating
at present. For example, potatoes and apples are popular but cannot
be grown here. So this wider definition of food security would
imply that Auroville would have its own farms, or links with organic
farmers, up in the hills where such food can be grown."
The farms' assessment project is still in
its early stages. However, the team is already thinking about
other possible strategies for the future. While they emphasize
that they're not interested in forcing all the Auroville farmers
into one mould, they see advantages in the farms marketing and
selling their produce collectively, in developing new markets
outside Auroville and increasing food processing as a means of
selling excess production. They also suggest that additional accommodation
could be provided on all the Auroville farms to encourage young
people with few resources to take up farming (as one Auroville
farmer put it, "We are an ageing population").
As for improved technical input, the assessment
team suggests that institutions which already have links with
Auroville, like the University of Washington, Wageningen Agricultural
University and the GEOCommons organization, could encourage qualified
students to do applied research on topics like food production,
energy efficiency and marketing in Auroville. Additional help
is needed to carry out other, no less important tasks like data
collection and entry.
"The key to the success of all the strategies
we are proposing is how they integrate with each other,"
says David. "We need to become familiar with 'joined-up thinking',
an approach which makes us consider the interconnections and the
larger implications of our choices and actions. If, for example,
we decide to produce more for modern tastes, how will this impact
upon costs and the environment? If our farmers concentrate more
upon supplying a basic indigenous-type diet, how will this affect
consumer behaviour? If we don't attempt to change the low status
accorded to farm work both in Auroville and in India, how can
we expect to attract the brightest and most committed people to
This is not a kind of thinking which comes
naturally to farmers, many of whom are already overwhelmed by
the daily details of their work. "Which is why," says
John, "the farmers are to be praised for agreeing to participate
in this assessment. It will mean a lot more work for them, and
the findings may be painful for some, yet they have been very
cooperative. I sense that the farmers in the Farm Group have reached
a stage where they are able to be honest both with themselves
and with each other in the interests of improving their work.
This could become a model for other groups in Auroville."