THE EARTH TRUST ANNUAL REPORT APRIL 2020 T0 MARCH 2021
Working with the soil, the wind and the weather and other uncertainties has bestowed The Earth Trust (ET) the special skill of being able to adapt to the most challenging and unexpected situations. The pandemic is just one of many such and in relative terms…. a cake walk.
Our two core programmes are ‘Safe food through Sustainable Agriculture’ and
‘Rural Women's health through skill development’.
Our systems, our team and our stakeholders adapted to the vagaries of the pandemic skillfully and quickly!
Safe Food Through Sustainable Agriculture
We have 2 of our own farms. Holabettu (meaning ‘the land of the mountain or hill’ which dutifully guards over her) and Manaara (meaning ‘abundance’ in the indigenous Badaga language) .Manaara is our Biodynamic Farm nestled in a valley. It is an oasis of sustainable agriculture in a grossly chemically abused zone.
Our raison d'être is a group of about 35 small farmers (both seasonal and regular) who we mentor, monitor and motivate and support with a minimal support price and marketing. Many are women. Typically, they farm a few cents to 2 acres. ET is not in the numbers game. It prioritises significant long term impact on a smaller number of less privileged farmers. Testament to this is that 89 percent of the years purchases came from farmers. The rest being from our own farms. In keeping with our philosophy of supporting similarly oriented initiatives, these purchases include vermicompost from an Nonprofit that is an animal shelter and another that markets produce from tribals such as honey and millets and certain spices .
Our most precious trophy at ET has always the markets recognition of our commitment to the marginalized organic farmer, our guarantees on traceability and our unwavering commitment to the larger vision of safe food and biodiversity.
The state government imposed complete lock down from 24th March to the first week of May where restrictions were relaxed in phases. The crop on the unattended field in the meanwhile became ‘happy safe food’ for wild boars, Nilgiri gaur (local bison), barking deer and sambar and the like. Wild life seem to discern organic produce and though we stand to lose a lot monetarily, we are not complaining. At least these creatures were nourished with toxin-free food for a while.
We reinvented our marketing strategy as transporting outside the district was not an option given pandemic protocols. We became more carbon efficient by default by selling locally. We took our produce on our farm vehicle to gated communities where our patrons (endearing known as ‘Friends of Earth Trust’) reside. A service that was greatly appreciated by Nilgiri citizens who craved our organic fruit, vegetable, grains, spices and condiments from ET farms and from our small farmers across the district.
Two weeks later we transitioned into selling from our assigned selling space in Coonoor with all Covid protocols in place and achieved improvised social distancing for shopping and billing prioritizing safety of the ET team and our patrons.
Our marketing team like all our other staff are aces at thinking on their feet and the pandemic has drawn their best of their talent in terms of maintaining covid protocols, logistics and market planning given the challenges of distance and accessibility in a hilly terrain.
At the end of May we formally reopened farming operations. This began with the veneration of the soil, and all the elements of the universe that make growing of food possible. Our oldest and youngest farmer attended in solidarity with our larger goal and mission.
A Peepul tree was planted by the team on Holabettu resource farm. These trees have a life span of a thousand years or more reiterating its significance to the long term vision of Earth Trust.
On World Bee Day ( 20th of May)’ every year we bring the attention of all our stake holders and the community at large to how important bees are to the whole sustainable agriculture and to safe food. Our own 2 farms are embraced by forests and rich biodiversity and we are able to demonstrate that these little pollinators that flit between the seasonal wild flowers in the neighbouring forest and our crops are catalysts for abundant harvest.
June / July
Many small organic farmers of ET farmer group suffered losses because transport carrying vegetables and fruit had been temporarily discontinued. Our strawberry famers, particularly the oldest (strawberry) farmer in his early eighties sadly witnessed the very strawberries that filled his Polytunnel with their sweet aroma rotting on the plant killing the plants that he had nurtured for months. To help him cut his losses, our staff worked over time braving a spike in the pandemic to preserve them as jam to be sold when markets opened up. As a result, our production and sales of strawberry jam was 365 percent of what it was the previous year. As an ethical intermediary, much of the revenue went back to the farmer given our lucrative buying price for strawberries.
Another farmer from Gudalur supported his farm labour by converting red heirloom to handcrafted/artisanal rice flour and other products of rice flour used in South Indian cuisine. The result was stored labour and sustained livelihood. It helped that logistics eased when limited public transport opened up in October. Despite this, our lean marketing cum logistics cum accounts woman team have chased the only available transport including the one and only newspaper van that returns to the city in the foothills empty. Often times this has been at 3 am on icy cold mornings.
Besides all our regular customers, there were so many who had taken stock during covid and decided that they needed a reliable source of vegetables, fruit and staples. Our waiting list of potential customers just gets longer all the time.
At any given time our demand is far greater than the supply.
We invigorated our seed saving initiative beginning with Lolla Bionda lettuce seeds that had been collect with such devotion by a lady farmer. We shared these with the larger community on August 15 (Independence Day), in the form of the national flags reminding them of the importance of Seed Sovereignty. The same seeds gave us close to 200 kgs of lettuce. Leaving a lot more seed on our own farms and saved us a lot on our seed budget leaving a lot in stock for use over the year.
A well-wisher rightly recognised one of our long term farm hands for her for dedicated work to save seeds with a donation that supplements her income.
Our seed saving initiative includes multiplying heirloom varieties of corn, wheat, unusual radishes and artichokes from national and international seed saving initiatives and also indigenous varieties of beans, potatoes, peas, amaranthus, and hill garlic.
At Earth trust we measure impact not by statistics but the sincerity with which we attempt to change one life or one situation at a time and the intensity and the permanence of the change for the better.
On August 27th on World Mental health Day we celebrated Nirmala who overcame deep depression stemming from unspeakable abuse. Farming had given her physical health and mental peace.
Similarly we engaged Suruthan a slow learner on Hollabettu our resource farm to help him overcome his learning disabilities through farming and pay for his bus ticket to and from his Marathon training where he is a champ.
In keeping with our ideology, in October we began supplies to a new multilevel woman oriented initiative called ‘Marketing place for Regenerative Agroecology’ (www.krishijanani.org) Krishna Janani. Our spices, rice products and eucalyptus oil found its way directly to homes thanks to this network of women who earned small margins to supplement family incomes. ET, saw this as a marketing platform for value added innovations that happened during lock down and a livelihood opportunity for women who could not continue that jobs during the pandemic too. The shopper also found this a boon with infection rates rising.
Our local customer base in the local towns of Coonoor and Ooty continues to draw crowds that are both safe food seekers and activists in their own right, these farmers’ outlets are effective platforms to create awareness about safe food and the need to protect the Nilgiri biosphere for posterity. Our farmers continue to get their well-deserved protection price. However it leaves us with margins that do not cover our overheads.
Talking of overheads, a heritage hotel in Coonoor was kind to lend us a convenient space (pro bono) to conduct our weekly market sheltered by a large 150 year Eucalyptus. This platform attracts scores of locals who care for their food and for our farmers and these hills.
November saw the culmination of our 11 month effort to gather information and documents required for organic certification by the TNOCD (Tamil Nadu Organic Farmers’ Certification Department). While the ET criteria and standards for organic farming are far more stringent, it helps to have governmental endorsement. Our farmers will be rewarded a SCOPE certificate in the first year based on our internal audits followed full-fledged organic certification.
ET continues to be a member of the Biodynamic Association of India. Manaara our Biodynamic farm saw a new beginning as an all -woman farm. We grow plants like Yarrow, Valerian, Chamomile and Nettle to prepare our yearly Biodynamic inputs. Manaara is one of 3 farms in South India where these inputs are made. The process is complex and we hope to make the inputs to many more farmers in future , especially those in conversion. Our team are well trained in the Biodynamic way and are encouraged to follow the Biodynamic planting calendar.
We transplanted a 9 foot Peepul tree (sacred to many), to a place on the farm where it will spread its shade and radiate its protection for posterity.
We enrolled a new farm help who the daughter of the other lady farm help and who grew up on our farms. She is now a mother of a 3 year old girl. This typically reflects the philosophy of ET that our work is ongoing and needs to be handed over to the next generation.
We refreshed the new recruits high school literacy in language and Maths through farming with the intention of providing her with a skill and a purpose in life that preserve her corner of the world for her young daughter.
On National Farmers Day ( 23rd of December), as the world draws closer to a precipice of food shortages and unequal food distribution amidst an uncertain pandemic, ET drew the attention of its patrons to the slogan, ‘No farmer no food’.
In February ET participated in the 3 day Local food systems workshop organized by the French institute Puducherry (www.ifp.org). It was aimed at a greater understanding of the history, anthropology and economics of food through seminars, photo exhibitions, farmer markets and community cooking of local food.
Partnering With Government Initiatives
The government owned cold storage was useful when immediate sale was not possible, we were able to share some of our produce as part of the district relief work for victims of bad weather compounded by the pandemic. Our vegetable were also sold at the organic outlet organized by the government. ET is seen as a credible partner to mentor the first 4000 organic farmers of the 70,000 Nilgiri farmers who farm over 2500 odd sq kms .
As a pioneer in sustainable agriculture, ET has been actively involved with the district horticultural department and district administration in steering the district towards becoming a fully organic one. ET is represented on an executive committee for the Nilgiri Organic Mission. In a pandemic year it has contributed towards district policy on organic farming and sustainable agriculture, encouraged new organic farmers, helped with technical inputs and liaisoned with experts outside the district to popularize safe food and organic farming.
It facilitated a gathering of farmers presided by the district collector (administrative head) at the biggest government horticultural farm in the district. This meeting for stake holders to interact with Anantha Sayanan a nationally renowned activist for safe food and heirloom cotton. A similar meeting was organized for our own famers from across the district to meet him to understand the national status of the safe food movement, marketing of organic produce and related issues needed to grow the movement further.
Significant among our other visitors was Chennai and Pondicherry based Gratitude farms and Coimbatore based Biobasics. We at ET take pride in associating with similarly oriented buyers who understand sustainable agriculture and who are aligned with our philosophy as an ethical middle man with long term intentions for the larger objective of the biodiversity of the district, wellness of her people and vibrant livelihoods.
Gratitude farms is a sustainable initiative engaging rural women and ex service men in farming and sale of produce, Biobasics is a safe food initiative that is deeply committed to the organic farmer and movement and a supportive ET customer.
Womens Health and Skill Development Programme
Covid hit when we had just begun to train a new group of women in Kengumudi village. This included some from the Toda tribe, a first for ET.
The village community hall where we normally conduct our classes was given to those returning from the cities to quarantine. Understandably it was the duty of the village headman to protect his flock.
ET has trained women in over 75 villages in the past. Arcadis a leading global design and consultancy organisation for natural and built assets found our rural women's programme deserving of a small grant that bought us 10 sewing machines and funds our running costs. They were also kind enough to give us computers to initiate our trainees to using a computers.
The pandemic left our resource person clearing doubts and coaching of past trainees on the phone as all their villages were in ‘lock down’. (They were encouraged to sew face masks for their fellow villagers among other things. It is this human touch and warmth that has made our program very popular over the years).
Several months later, In November when the covid situation improved, we began classes along an enclosed verandah of a local convent where it was safe to conduct classes with covid protocols like temperature checks hand washing and mask wearing in place. We cut down enrollment again to maintain physical distancing etc. Our profile of trainees in this batch differed from those in the past. It consisted mostly of daughters of helpers housed in quarters attached to homes of the well to do. Also those who can walk from safe settlements, within walking distance away from the training. This ensured safety and traceability. We even adapted our schedule to the online classes of three college students who were given the adjacent room to attend their routine classes as and when they happened. A young ‘online’ tutor who volunteered with ET a year ago conducted health and body awareness classes online from 400 km away from the city of Madurai . She used technology to her advantage and even conducted fun activities that reinforce memory of what is taught on a Whatsapp video call!
We also taught herbal remedies to revive the precious gift of indigenous healing techniques lost to these indigenous folk for over two decades. Pain balm and a wild flower remedy made using a traditional formula found their way to customers along with our herbs and spices both locally and in other Indian towns and cities.
We use a skill development platform to educate these young women on their health. Our resource person (from the indigenous community herself) teaches the basics of crochet, knitting and tailoring. The sale of craft along with the herbal remedies give the women an opportunity to be self-employed.
In the first week of February we conducted our valedictory ceremony at the Capitiano convent, Wellington where 9 women were given course completion certificates for health and skill development. ET also facilitated the donation of a hand operated machine from the district government to one of the trainees who cannot use her legs. This not only fulfilled her lifelong desire to own a tailoring machine but also gives her an avenue to earn income from tailoring. The convent has subsequently started their own training programme for underprivileged girls using the skills of the 2 nuns who qualified at the Et programme.
Our recent ‘graduates’ have been making good use of their newly acquired skills. Our youngest a school girl who is all of 12 has begun to earn money. She is the youngest trainee we have ever had. She goes to the market with her dad and buys the wool for her ‘order’ and makes a 100 percent profit selling her mufflers caps etc! This has made us consider including school children in future programmes.
Another trainee has found the perfect captive customers in her neighbours who prefer to pay her and save themselves the risk of exposure to covid at their regular tailor.
The impact of our work is ongoing and cannot really be quantified in numbers or over a short period. A testament to this is the story of Sangeetha from Kadanadu village. We had trained Sangeetha and her village few ago. She is grateful that we equipped her with the skill of tailoring which earns her a livelihood after her young husband a bus conductor succumbed to covid a year ago leaving behind 2 young children.
It is stories like Sangeetha’s that energises us each year to continue doing what we do against all odds!
We are grateful for your thoughtful contribution towards making it happen!Attachments: