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.
Agricultural 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 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
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
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.