A Day In The Life Of Gaytri Bhatia At Vrindavan Farm
Gaytri Bhatia, environmental analyst/grower, as she titles herself, picks mulberries and heirloom tomatoes with her bare hands and pops a couple of them directly into her mouth. Thirty-eight varieties of heirloom tomatoes (under the larger umbrella of cherry and beefsteak varieties) seem to have overrun Vrindavan Farm, a maze of trees, plants and crops, and today she is tasting some of them — cherry lemon, cherry currant, and cherry rose pink — even as she continues with her work. These little red, white, orange and pink beauties are scrumptious enough to eat as fruit, which tomatoes in fact are.
Making a conscious and drastic lifestyle change, Bhatia left her corporate job in America to run her family farm in Wada, Maharashtra. “In 2009 I returned to India and found that what we were eating no longer nourished us. It was a lab-spawned, unnaturally modified (for face value at that), chemically-fed, hormone-pumped, early-harvested, chemically-ripened, coloured-and-sometimes-sweetened, fast-forwarded ‘something’. My love for the earth and my own health, I guess, turned into the growing of food. Farmers are naturally stewards of the environment. Our practices directly feed into the health of humanity and the earth,” she says.
“I noticed that we were on track to becoming a toxic wasteland, fed by misinformed foreign farming practices that included using leftover chemicals from World War II, such as DDT. But our nation was once 77 per cent agricultural; we knew how to grow food sustainably while nurturing the earth. Around me, I’d seen our native evergreens, that didn’t require tending to or more than the water from the Monsoons, reduce in number. They were being replaced with plants that required maintenance — care and water across the year,” she recounts, about her initial years at the farm. “From the fruit of one such native shrub, we crafted a jam, and taught the recipe to the women of the village, and today, we bring the jam to the city to sell. Now, they’re less likely to pull out the plants. And their kids, they wipe out kilos of it, in days.”
Another issue that initially bothered her was the easy availability of the Monsanto seed in remote villages, including her own. “Not only is the government allowing the sale of this GM seed, but it also gives with it accessories like Roundup (a weed killer). The Western world has caught onto the ill effects, but due to the lack of education and information, Indian farmers are falling prey to this. I had to raise awareness and the best way to do it was by exemplifying a simplistic model that worked.” She is happy with even the small differences that she sees around her, adding, “I didn’t choose to be a farmer; it chose me.”
Bhatia decided to become the change that she desired. She has, in fact, emerged as an inspirational figure for those who haven’t yet gotten around to making the same kind of holistic shift. Today, the fully organic farm grows indigenous produce like moringa, tomatoes and mangoes using sustainable methods without artificial fertilisers and pesticides and she supplies these to families and well-known restaurants in Mumbai. For Bhatia, this has become the basis for a healthy and sustainable lifestyle as well. Take a look at her day, and find your inspiration….
The day starts with a cup of tea and reading a book in bed. Bhatia’s face wash is silt collected from the bottom of the farm’s well and reetha seeds soaked in water overnight is the wash for clothes.
“The water from the drain goes into the soil directly feeding into our trees, so we use natural soaps…vessels are washed with ash from the burning wood that is used to cook food.”
It’s time now for the farm’s four cows (two are calves) to be taken out to roam and graze in the nearby pastures. These animals have a very special relationship and dynamic with their owner (it is fitting that her name is Gay-tri); especially the one named Aai which means ‘mother’ in the local language, Marathi. She was pregnant when she joined Bhatia on the land and allowed only Bhatia to bathe her post-delivery, even as Aai licked the cuts and bruises on Bhatia’s arms, an action cows do with their kin.
“When we began to milk her, aware that we were taking some intended for her calf, I asked Aai to let me know when she wanted us to stop, which she did, about five months later, as her calf reached size and needed all the milk.”
The entire team is involved in picking flowers. These are then taken to a room built of cow dung and mud, in the middle of the farm, aptly named Sugandha Ghar (Fragrance House). Here, the flowers are peeled, dried and sorted to be stored in neatly stacked and labelled containers.
“We make a lot of infusions from our botanicals, like kombuchas and teas and like to keep this activity for when the mind and flowers are fresh and perky first thing in the morning.”
The rice and dal for the evening meal is placed in a solar cooker. It would normally be ready by the afternoon, but this depends on the weather and especially on how strong the sun is. The dal is consumed after adding the tadka (tempered spices) while it cooks further on a wood fire outdoors in the evening. Lunch is usually a salad made of a mixture of freshly picked raw vegetables, depending on what’s ready to be consumed, and kombucha.
“At the farm — we pluck only what we can consume.”
9 A.M. — Noon
Through the day, various activities are carried out based on what is required. At the farm, there is no hierarchy; everyone is equal, and everyone’s opinion matters. Bhatia divides the work according to capability rather than who is the owner or the labourer. She herself could be doing anything from plucking the ripe fruit to sowing seeds. She is also an educator with the Hanifl Centre of Woodstock School that takes students as well as adults on treks in the Himalayas to teach leadership, compatibility, risk mitigation, outdoor and first aid skills.
“I strongly recommend a four-day camping trip in inclement weather to couples intent on marrying. The outdoors has a way of quickly bringing out the best and worst in you. Survive this, and you’ll survive a lifetime together!”
Noon — 4 P.M.
Lunch over, it’s siesta time. Work resumes at 4 p.m. but not without a cup or two of sugary lemongrass kadak chai. The farmers gather and drink their tea together and discuss the happenings of the morning and what needs to be done next. Water is drunk straight out of the tap. No one, even those visiting from abroad, has ever fallen sick by drinking the farm water, Bhatia maintains. They use a bio-sanitiser chip designed by Dr Uday Bhawalkar, a Pune scientist, who mimicked the root enzyme technology of a coconut tree to purify the water. Orders of fruits and vegetables are being packed; the kombucha is being prepared and bottled; turmeric is being hand pounded. For those who call Bhatia the ‘queen of the farm’, she has a quick response which says so much about how she thinks about her entire endeavour….
“I am answerable to the farm; I don’t tell the land what to grow, it tells me what it will or can grow. After all the animals and birds and insects have eaten the fruit, we get the leftovers….”
A.M. and P.M.
Three or four times a day, Bhatia stirs the tub of fermented fertiliser, which is usually a mix of cow dung, eggshells, tea and coffee grinds, kombucha, water, ash and other ingredients off the land. This is how she pours intention into the land, she reveals. The farm is completely self-sustainable with no chemicals, insecticides or pesticides used for the crops. All organic waste is utilised as compost. Marigold, a natural insecticide, and other flowers are planted along with the vegetables to attract bees and enable pollination for a better and healthier yield.
“Unfortunately, due to a lack of education, neighbouring farmers spray insecticide and feed the soil with urea and such. While they grow a variety of flowers that bring pollinators to our area, they are often heavily sprayed.”
This is precious ‘seed time’. Bhatia may venture into the house, where her biggest treasure lies — her seed bank. This is her collection of rare and precious heirloom seeds. These she may use to sow in her own farm or she may distribute them to other farmers. Right now, with the tomatoes being harvested, she spends time cutting some of them and meditatively removing the seeds with a knife. These are then smeared onto a piece of thick paper and left in the sun to dry. After the seeds are dried enough, they will be collected in a jar and labelled according to their type, year, month and the time that they were harvested, in order to make sure that the oldest seeds are used first since they have a short shelf life.
“Farmers are being handed genetically modified seeds, owned by corporations. Saving our own seeds is sovereignty.”
From 5 p.m. onwards, it is time for watering all the fields or transplanting saplings. For Bhatia, this activity goes all the way until sundown, sometimes into the night, much after her team has left. After this, she walks the mutts, Chi and Bhalu, across the land. This is a very busy time of day for her since the watering is done only in the evenings.
“We let nature do its thing and we wait.”
The cows are brought back to their shed by sunset. Bhatia works into the dusk. Dinner is accompanied by some red wine to unwind after the long, hard day; then, she’s off to bed. To dream of what the morning could bring — a new flower blossoming, a snake slithering slowly through the fruit trees, a ‘message’ from a just-born calf or a bee buzzing about its love of the glorious nectar-filled world that she has created by just letting nature be; by following its instinctive lead.
Turn Over A New Leaf
Can you, an urban person, refine your habits so that they benefit the environment? Gaytri Bhatia offers some suggestions to inspire people to make a change…
Connect. Take the time, daily, to connect with yourself, whatever be your method — sit, follow your breath, chant, link thought with action.
Stay active. Incorporate exercise into your daily life rather than make a date with it. For example, if you have a desk job, climb up the three flights of stairs to your office/home.
Keep it simple. We’ve become so used to overthinking things; let simple things remain. And simple solutions are often right below our noses.
Stay curious. For example, open conversations with your grandparents about the food they ate. They probably remember eating spinach only in the winters, leafy greens through the spring, shifting to fruits and grains in the summer, and the mango in the heat of the summer, not in February!
Be the change. Recognise what doesn’t work for you and actively seek to shift it. Sticking with old patterns is easy but this eventually leads to stagnation. Be the shift in yourself and what’s around you will reflect this.