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December 2004

From pioneers to providers?

edited by Brooks

A conversation between John, who is a member of the farms’ assessment team and Brooks, a farmer who questions some of the report’s main findings

Brooks: What are the worst bottlenecks constraining the development of agriculture in Auroville?

John: There are several. One constraint is that yields on many farms are lower than we believe they should be. Many crops should yield more if given more nutrients and water. The farmers' present tendency to under-apply nutrients and water means that soils remain hungry, so we're not seeing the continuous improvements in productivity that we expected. Farmers have difficulty keeping their fertility up partly because decomposition of organic matter in the soil happens rapidly in our conditions.

John at Discipline farmAgricultural development is also constrained by the uncertainty and seasonal fluctuations in demand for farm products. This discourages farmers from scaling-up production. The Solar Kitchen has reduced this problem for some farmers because it provides an assured and steady demand. Farmers are also under-funded. After looking at the funding that has gone into the farms over time, I feel that it would have been more effective if it had been better targeted. In other words, it would be better if each year the needs of one farm could be met more fully rather than, as at present, sharing the funding more or less equally between all the farms: this creates dependency.

Finally, organic farming is not easy. It is management-intensive, demanding constant attention from the farmer. There is still much to learn about how to successfully develop and manage an organic farm in this environment.

Brooks in front of the Annapurna kolamBrooks: In my time in Auroville, I've observed that there is disagreement among the members of the AVFG about the primary purpose of farming in Auroville. There are some farmers who believe that the purpose is to cover costs. There are others who are farming to feed Aurovilians, and there are others who are farming to regenerate the land. I feel that the assessment report's recommendations place more emphasis on covering the farms' costs than on the other two objectives.

 

John: The assessment team went into this open-mindedly and responded to the priorities that were ranked by the farmers. All farmers gave a high priority to supplying food for the community, but largely within the context of the market: this reflects the reality. Farmers are struggling and the response of the community is not, “OK, let's help you out.” Rather, the response is, “What's wrong with you farmers? Why don't you guys do your job properly?” And people buy their food elsewhere. So farmers have to try to stay afloat in the market as it is now, a market where preference is given to consumer choice.

So, although we should be growing food for Aurovilians we've got this situation that we're producing food that some people cannot afford. There is a dilemma because if the farmers are driven by the need to make a profit or at least generate funds for their own investment then the temptation is to produce value-added expensive products because that's where the profit is.

Brooks: I am sceptical about the suggestion in the report that Auroville's farmers will be able to pull themselves up by their profits. Generating such profits seems highly unlikely considering the high costs of doing business here, the often unfavourable environment for farming, and the rather small and largely low-budget consumer base in Auroville. Is competing in the market a realistic strategy for Auroville's agriculture?

John: If farming is to thrive in the present environment then it can only come from the efforts of the farmers themselves, both individually and collectively. At present they supply only a small proportion of Auroville's food requirements, so there would seem to be scope to fill this gap to everyone's advantage. We were asked to assess the viability of farming in Auroville and I don't think it would have been good enough to say viability is dependent on increased subsidies from the Central Fund, particularly given its present parlous state. In our view, albeit with far greater difficulty, viability can be achieved by a mix of improved output, lower unit costs, better management and a collective approach to marketing, growing and distribution. Initially, investment and hence funding will need to increase, but the long-term aim has to be to reduce dependence on external funding, the supply of which is ultimately beyond the farms' control.

At the same time, there are various schemes under discussion by the Economy Group. The farmers would be only too pleased to participate in any community-led scheme that enabled them to provide food for the community. Meanwhile, however, they have to pay the wages. If we produce a first class value-added product that we sell to the market outside Auroville, this will enable Auroville's farmers to provide less expensive food within the township.

Brooks: I was surprised that the assessment report devotes little attention to some of the alternative economic arrangements that are supporting farms in Auroville, such as the subscription agriculture experiment in Buddha Garden and Maroma's free food experiment.

John: The free food experiment was not mentioned because the farms were assessed according to the priorities which the farmers identified. The free food arrangement was not something that the farmers could see being extended, so it was not mentioned in the report.

Buddha Garden 's Community Supported Agriculture arrangement has succeeded largely because it runs on volunteer labour, but this requires considerable planning and participation by Priya Vincent. Such as it is, we didn't regard it as a suitable model for many farms. However, Buddha Garden 's development of close links with a group of consumers makes great sense. Aurogreen has also developed such links by direct marketing. The township is small and the farms are scattered, so direct marketing from farm to consumer is a system that is good for the farms and good for the consumers. This is an approach to marketing that other Auroville farms should try to develop.

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