Everyone is back from their school trips and the Ragi farm awaits. It has been a very rainy October in Bangalore and after all this water scarcity the worries soon turned to waterlogging at the farm. Luckily the rains have stopped now and the October sun shines with all its force. Hopefully there has been not too much damage to the crop although the scarecrows are all droopy.
Vasantha who stays closer to the farm visits the farm before all of us can . We get to see pictures on social media and are all excited. The Ragi and Tuwar are flowering, butterflies are visiting, and the beans are ready. Between text messages , Roshni and I are wondering if we can encourage the kids to pluck the beans and get them to taste them raw at the farm itself. A rare treat from an organic farm sort of behaviour.
While we are busy mulling over this, news comes in that Vasantha and Sammitha have already gone ahead in enthusiasm and plucked all the beans that were ready! They show it to everyone, even the kids... almost 2 kgs of produce!!!
It is hilarious as I try imagining this hardworking duo - all on their own - in this hot forenoon sun ,harvesting beans themselves. We argue in jest- "we also wanted to go and pluck beans- hope you left some for us?!!" but their enthusiasm comes in handy. Next day is community lunch and there is no Ragi dish this time on the menu. The school is just coming back to its rhythm after the trips and having fresh beans to cook is a blessing.
And so, the kids ended up having delicious beans palya for their community lunch.
Farm to Table anyone?
We let a week go by after transplanting since the rain gods had smiled at us and every other day it was a rainy evening,
We visited the farm with some compost that Vasantha arranged for us from FRLHT , Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions ( http://envis.frlht.org/frlht.php) and decided to give our little plants an organic boost.
We line up near the main gate right before we go to the farm. While the children line up, the teachers run around collecting our equipment- tools, bucket and usually each other. We should get better and better at this but somehow we don't .
There were some groans and "oh nos!" from some of the kids. 3-4 boys of Class 6 had revolted earlier as well and said they didn't want to come. We decided to give the kids who felt "feverish" and "had sudden stomach aches" an option and stay back but do something constructive with their time. I quipped - let's make them do 20 Maths word problems!
To both actions- Indira, my colleague at APU and the founder of the school , had something to say when I later discussed this with her. She hinted that we should have more time to talk it out with children who refuse to participate in a school activity before we take their 'Nos' at face value and she chided me about demonising Maths as an inferior /harder alternative. hmmm.
Laksh was able to come this time. The farm looked happy and green. The adjoining space also had got tilled (by the tractor) and Ragi and beans were sown by a seasoned farmer that Radha had contracted her land to. We had to walk with care around the plot and leave our shoes behind. He was amused at our efforts and was enthusiastic to talk with us about the varieties of Ragi seeds. Jalaja decided to ask him to come to school and talk to us about his farming experience. She also quickly noted down the cost of farming conventionally which I thought was very useful for our future discussions( the tractor/ the seeds/ urea/ water /labour)
Together we all mixed the compost with the soil (the kids were very enthusiastic about the mix) and filled smaller buckets . We used hands to shovel some of the mix and spread it around the plants row by row. After Seena's intervention, we always stop and look more carefully at the diverse insect population that plays peekaboo with us. All this took us less than an hour to do so. We decided not to water this time as the rains were plenty and also as Radha and Laksh both reassured us- "Ragi doesn't need too much water. Now it will survive!"
As I walked back with Laksh while the students and teachers went to school , Laksh confessed, " I didn't think you guys would make it so far. I doubted the seed quality, your watering was erratic, and the soil needed nutrients. But look at the farm now! Now it will grow and you will surely harvest some Ragi!" And then he went on to mention: "The teachers in the group knew what they were doing.. You didn't need me at all actually!" Yes! Yes!! Yes!!!
Again, I remembered Narayan Reddy's words to Roshni over the phone which were something like -- 'you are doing it all wrong but may God be with you! '
When we had returned from transplanting last week , random conversations in the staff room were about the rural-urban divide. Madhu had poignantly remarked, " Never in my 26 years of existence , somebody even mentioned to me that agriculture is important.. my success in life was all about getting away from my rural farmer identity... "
Sreeja remembered how practices like releasing ducks in paddy were common in her farm when she was growing up, The connections between this gift economy- pastoral communities letting loose their ducks in villagers farms in exchange of a few days of shelter benefited all- their dung added free compost; the ducks got to eat worms, and the farmers' children got duck eggs to eat and if they were lucky got to keep a duckling or two who had strayed behind !
These gently ways then are only romantic ideas now. Or are they? Can we not take the good of the past based on gentle , frugal, sustainable lifestyles and reinvent it in these times? If you have watched "The Story of Stuff", http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/ you might remember the hope that the anchor, Annie Leonard, gives at the end...
"Some people say it’s unrealistic, idealistic, that it can’t happen. But I say the ones who are unrealistic are those that want to continue on the old path. That’s dreaming. Remember that old way didn’t just happen by itself. It’s not like gravity that we just gotta live with. People created it. And we’re people too. So let’s create something new."
The kids of class 5 have been asking Roshni about why we are doing Ragi and how little of farming are they actually doing. A seed here, a hole punch there, some digging, a bit of watering and that's all. Worrying about this lack of razzmatazz in farming and the lull in a group activity, I got down the school bus on Wednesday slightly apprehensive about what the day would bring. Not to mention , it continues to be very bright and sunny . Not a cloud in sight.
But, to my delight, the next one hour turns out to be very engaging. Sreeja, Vasantha, Indu, Jalaja, Roshni, and Ashwini come along. We bring over the leaves that Vasantha has stored at school the night before ( Neem and Pongamia leaves (honge in kannada- which have a very sweet smell) in the school bus and gather at the farm to MULCH.
Vasantha explains why we mulch- to improve soil nutrition and retain water. Here is some more detail on why and how we mulch: https://permaculturenews.org/2016/01/22/mulching-with-purpose-and-precision/.
An excerpt : "Mulching is a top priority for a healthy garden. It does so much work that it’s hard to oversell the importance. A proper mulch maintains the integrity of the soil beneath it, protecting the earth from drying out under the sun and/or washing away when the rains come and/or blowing away in the wind. It creates water retention, mulched gardens credited with requiring as little as ten percent of the watering that other gardens do. Mulching prevents weeds, provides habitats for useful insects and microorganisms, and moderates soil temperatures. The right type even feeds the soil as it decomposes. In other words, it’s a good idea."
We discuss the lack of rain. And what people/ governments do to entice rain( sing songs/ pray/ seed clouds!) Later we pick up rain and the lack of it as the month's theme for classroom activities that teachers might do with students.
(Indira later in the week sends me some facts from the recently published newspaper article : http://bangaloremirror.indiatimes.com/news/state/another-drought-year/articleshow/59851744.cms indicating that Karnataka faces a severe water crises in the next few months. We expereince it visually every week when we go to the farm. Laskh reassures me later that Tuwar and Ragi will survive. They are draught resistant, hardy crops . But the farm caretakers are not watering enough.The drip can is not prepped well and so the water woes of being completely dependent on rainfall continue)
Kids have a go at spreading the leaves around the Tuwar plant. Jalaja quips that the care shown to Tuwar more than Ragi makes her think this is the Tuwar project. HAHA! Yes, Ragi looked like a stepchild indeed. It had only grown to 13 cms. -growth measured and quickly noted down by kids in their books.
I looked around to see who was not having fun. I saw kids collecting the seeds from the honge branches and thinking of making a craft out of them. I saw kids making a green tunnel of leaves ably supported by Vasantha and Sreeja; some running to get water to fill in the can, some digging insects out, some making tall claims about kind of insects they or their dads (!) have eaten ; some going ewww about many claims( "I once ate a scorpion, my dad once ate termites etc, etc!")
It wasn't that bad! Everyone was engaged even if it was to trace out the termites and follow the line of ants and being on the farm was nice and open despite it being sunny.
Sreeja and Vasantha have another go at fixing the drip pipe to the water can. the m-seal around the hole still leaks because we didn't give it time to dry. Chandru feels we didn't cut the hole properly. We might have to redo this but for now Sreeja ingenuously decides to make a small tunnel for the leaky water to go. Vasantha volunteers to do it as she lives nearby.
We came back and talked of how hot it was and that the real farmer would never have worked on her field at this time. By this time s/he would be napping after a thindi of ragi mudde and perhaps buttermilk?
This week was also a discussion amongst all of us involved around visiting Narayan Reddy's farm to see how farming can be done ecologically . Laksh had pointed this possibility out and I think it would be good if students can "see " a farm.
All this talk of insects prompts me and Roshni to explore farm based insects as a next week topic. Perhaps only one class can go and we can give others a break.
At lunch time, a quick meeting with the teachers was very very useful to plan a bit for the coming months. Here is what we decided:
1. Vasantha: will refix a new can.
2. Roshni : will check dates for Narayan Reddy’s farm visit ( 5th /12th); also will update notice board with outputs of other classes.
3. Roshni +sreeja: will make a DIY instrument for making music accompanying rain songs
4. Ashwini: tackles her topic on monsoon/ sawan, explains nature/animal/farming through nagapanchmi,. talks a bit about monsoon and limits to diet and prepares two students who will talk about monsoon and limits to Vasantha’s class who will then use this to prepare their rain related performance next month.
5. Madhu will prepare a script for a drama around rain/appeasement to rain god.
6. Jalaja will focus on 2 rain songs or prayer songs for rain- explain context of water woes and farm
7. Madhu will remember to get a " Frog wedding " organised when kids visit her family farm to give a sense of how culture deals with nature , especially rain.
8. Dipika is already doing rain guage so all 3 ragi groups need to get that data and talk abt lack of rain. Maybe Dipika can come and talk in class about her results?
8. Madhu will set up a system whereby we systematically have conversations with kids saround the why of Ragi project.
To me , as a coordinator of this project, this was a fantastic meet! These bright,enthusiastic and very involved teachers coming together to think of ways and what to teach around the theme of food!
Oh, And I almost forgot, Asha's class was cooking and the small kids made Ragi Payasam. Almost like chocolate pudding. Almost. I saw some kids going ewww and some asking for second helpings.
This Wednesday was about fixing a drip to irrigate the Tuwar plants. Our watering woes are not ending and the rain has been dismal this monsoon. Ragi will survive but Tuwar / legume saplings need water. Preetam was visiting the city market on the weekend and agreed to haul back the 35 metre pipe and distributors. He also gave me the Mseal, There is a shop called Karthik Enterprises on S.P road which specialises in equipment for setting up drips at home or on farms. (In case, any reader would like to know). Vasantha arranged for a used 25 litre Bisleri bottle and we were set.(later , we needed a scale to measure the plant - I luckily had it. A knife to cut the plastic --I only had a paper cutter, put in last minute which we had to make do, and scissors for cutting the twine- which we managed with the cutter; small things that we don't think of beforehand and are always struggling with at the farm)
Class 5 kids were prepped with what to observe by Roshni and this worked very well . They came in with their journals and recorded their observations. The Ragi plant had grown to 9.5 cms!!! Yay! Laksh got the kids to punch holes in the pipe and fix the distributors while Vasantha and a few children fixed the pipe on the 25 litre drum. Some of the kids turned the soil, others observed termites eating their boundary ropes, and others played in the free space. I again found kids very sweetly tipping their water bottles over the Tuwar plants while worrying about lack of water. They have adopted one Tuwar plant each (why?!) and talk of it as their own! It was a rushed one hour and it got over so soon. Back to school with scheduled classes . Zeta ( class 4) missed the farm visit because they were cooking. Their Ragi dish was Ragi Muthia- tried and perfected by Ashwini. Here is the day in pictures:
I reach school to find the Ragi seedlings sprouted in two big pots arranged by Vasantha. What a happy picture it was - the tiny plants looking very happy- swishing away in the lovely Bangalore morning breeze. And such a lovely green.
(Ardhendu da, founder of the sustainable agriculture organisation, DRCSC informs me, when I ask about poetry/literature around this unique colour green, "Bengal being a Rice growing area ,has many songs about the greenery of young rice seedlings ,often compared with the colour of emerging/young Banana leaf"! A quick internet search revealed a lovely folk tale from Vietnam called, Heaven and Earth, Kitchen recipes in the book, Songs of the Bamboo, by Xuan-Lan Nguyen vividly describing the traditional New year dishes that depict the paddy green of the vegetation. Here is a google book link :https://www.amazon.com/Songs-Bamboo-Xuan-Lan-Nguyen/dp/1625160089/)
Anyhow, to complete the day's chronicle, we had to now check the farm Ragi. Our concerns of under watering Ragi seeds continue and weekly visits begin on a slightly nervous note.
But since it had rained heavily the previous night, there is hope. Mixed with practicalities- the slushy path to the farm is not exciting and when I find that the school bus to the farm cannot be arranged , it is a bit of stress . But nothing like the excitement of kids- barring a few everyone else wants to walk (err run!) . One group (Alpha-class 5) cannot make it as they are busy with their cooking so we manage with two groups.
At the farm, Ragi has sprouted. Not looking as happy as the school one but growing it is. Roshni had flagged the issue of observations a night before so we got the kids to write in their journals about the colour, smell, taste, and the height of the tallest Ragi plant using a small measuring scale. Vasantha did the measurement and explained why she cut off the roots to measure the plant. It was 5 cm tall at the farm. Laksh (who wasn't able to make it this Wednesday) advises us on the phone- "if they reach 10 cms we can transplant". Certainly not yet. Since rains are our only source of water, we have to be monsoon watchers. Rain guage readings in school can help at this point to actually measure the rainfall but setiing it up now is a bit late, I suppose.
Kids had some nice observations about the different shades of green colour of the seedlings and a discussion about chlorophyll can be taken up in the classroom. Here is a nice resource: https://www.scienceabc.com/nature/why-do-you-see-different-shades-of-green-in-a-garden.html
The Tuvar Dal had germinated too and the seedlings were swaying in the breeze as well . Zeta's plot saplings were quite a success -almost every seed had germinated while Alpha and Epsilon didn't see many saplings. Vasantha will discuss these observations in the class -(correct ways to sow the seeds) and the why of school Ragi growth rate is better than the farm Ragi growth rate. Some kids were already able to guess the role of a healthy soil .
The kids deweeded and by then it was an hour already!
Came back to the school to find Roshni and Jalaja and Alpha kids busy prepping and cooking -it was their turn that day and the Ragi dish was something special- Ragi uppitu and they were trying out a recipe belonging to Jalaja's father. Uppitu was a success. I missed documenting the main step of moistening the Ragi flour just enough like the making of "Puttu" so was a bit bah about it. Alpha kids watching the whole process agreed to draw the recipes out for putting it up on the notice board .
Sreeja and Vasantha quickly gave me an update around various soil related experiments they are trying out with kids. Sreeja has divided various agriculture project ideas (soil erosion, weathering, Aquaponics, Hydroponics) amongst students and the classroom is full of interesting contraptions.
There were lots of insightful conversations with Madhu, Suja, Sreeja, Vasantha around agriculture and farming in the teachers room. Suja had come in to school and we discussed the slow food movement, gender dynamics in urban farming, and limits to consumption. I thought maybe an organised session on these perspective would help us all. Time , of course is a serious issue. Also have to start thinking about evaluation- what would we like to evaluate at the end of the term apart from a good harvest!
The day ended with Ashwini showing me the Ragi pot brought by a kid from home- It was lovely and nice to hear about kids's experiences of growing at home.
Here is the week in pictures:
A very eventful day. Class 7 kids cooking and rejecting the idea of making one Ragi dish for their community lunch. Ooops! Ashwini came to the rescue and decided to add an extra sweet item accommodating our Ragi mania! This time it was Ragi Panjeeri a 'prasadam' item . I must say roasting large quantities of Ragi is not an easy task! But the end result of good roasted ragi is always yummm. (As a FYI: I learnt from Jalaja a week back about the perils of stomach disorders because of under roasted Ragi )
I saw many kids eyeing the panjiri with suspicion and a few asking for second servings. Can't wait to see the results of the survey conducted by Roshni and Kalyani about Ragi preferences. ;))
Vasantha , Madhu , Laksha and I visited Radha's farm in the morning to get a grip on the actual modalities of farming. Half an acre is no small land and we quickly realised that we won't be able to cultivate on all that land. Laksha has done similar projects before with Srishti School and gave us several useful ideas. Many things got decided such as :
1. We will make three plots and further subdivide them to get 3 class groups working in smaller groups. This is also an excellent way of teaching standard and non standard measurements.We decided to use hands and legs but later Sujit also suggested that we can use sutli/rassi/ twine. Vasantha will arrange for rangoli powder/ sticks/ and twine for marking when we sow next Tuesday.
2. We will sow Ragi in a small area and then transplant it in the three plots at a later stage - according to Laksh this will allow for some hands on excitement and learning around transplantation as opposed to the traditional method of broadcasting seeds.
3. We decided to do mixed cropping -Ragi with legumes/vegetables and marigolds and get children to see why (marigold is a natural pest repellent and legumes improve soil nutrition)
4. In the beginning when the sowing activities are less we will get a group to make a scarecrow. Vinitha is running with this idea and already the kids of class 5 assembled a structure and painted a face. Some discussion of whether it should be a girl or boy also took place ! ;)
There is a lot on the internet about various aspects surrounding the scarecrow : history/ symbolism / culture / mythology . Some good information can be found here:
c. history because its here.
Julia Donaldson -one of my favourite authors- also has a lovely book on this theme that kids can read up on. And then there is 'The Wizard of Oz' , ofcourse !
5. We will use the Poorna garden as a nursery for the farm and encourage children to learn how to transplant marigold and other vegetables. Naveen, another parent who facilitates the school garden and the rain water harvesting, and us will work together on this synergy
6. We have to arrange for Ragi /Tuwar dal seeds - Radha has been buying it from her family farm in Devanahalli but wont be able to arrange for us in this short time- we need 1 KG and Vasantha is willing to explore her own family stock for that ; some garden tools; and compost /wood ash
7. The class 7-8 kids will do the soil test three times. They did it today and then post compost and then post harvest
8. Kids will keep a journal and record other observations too- for example: observation of insects in the soil and researching on who helps the farmer and who doesn't, At Hebbal there is a Government funded research institute of Agriculturally important insects. Perhaps we can pay them a visit to deepen this understanding some time in the year.
9. We decided to use the school rain gauge in the farm and see the rainfall measure. However need to flesh this activity as to when we measure recordings, who measure it and and how. This is a useful website but I think the teachers will know more on this themselves.
10. It is possible to even compare Rice and Ragi water requirements. We still need to figure out how to do this in a practical manner.
After all this discussion of possibilities, kids guided by Laksh did the soil test. We tested for Ph levels, and the Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium(NPK) test) . All the tests showed that the soil had only medium level contents, Laksh said a healthy soil should be high in these elements and when we got back Radha confirmed our finding by saying that she has not been adding any manure to the land for the past two years.
It was fun; but hot and dry and the kids would get interested in other things too- like going after a small beetle; playing around with the garden tools; and err... even throwing sand at each other!
Perhaps we should start next week with making some non negotiable rules for safety especially concerning garden tools and then allow them some time to explore on their own. We also need to remind class 4-5-6 kids to get caps and water when they visit the fields.
Chandru left us stranded due to some misunderstanding (He only dropped us one way in the bus and was waiting for our call to pick us back- none of us had his number etc.) and so we walked back to school. Not a bad walk despite the sun shining above our heads- it took us 10 minutes as the kids knew all the shortcuts and enjoyed running amok a bit. ;)
A really hilarious sight for me was Poorna kids carrying the garden tools on their shoulders and walking on the road leading back to school. The neighbouring school, DPS North, had finished for the day and parents in their cars were coming in to pick up their kids. I got quite a kick in watching this contrast of walking vs driving and the notions of multiple childhoods. See the last picture in this photo set as reference!