When 27-year-old Abhishek Dhama first broached the idea of ditching engineering to work on a farm, his family stared in disbelief. “Why did you study so much if you had to do farming,” was a common refrain. Other farmers in north Delhi’s Palla village, mockingly called him ‘Mr Stevia’ when he started cultivating a relatively unknown plant that is used to make a natural sweetener. But Dhama, who gave up a career in electronics and communication engineering, to take up agriculture three years ago, didn’t let any of this bother him.
Like Dhama, many other young engineers are ditching their business suits for farmer togs (not dhotis for these urban kisans but usually just a casual tee, sweatpants and running shoes). Most say it wasn’t the lack of jobs but the search for a more sustainable lifestyle that prompted the move.
Goa-based Ajay Naik, who describes himself as a foodie, was bothered by the steady deterioration in the quality of vegetables. “I researched how to grow better, healthier food without pesticides and using fewer resources as compared to conventional farming,” says the computer science engineer who has worked for over 10 years in IT. It was the beginning of Letcetra Agritech — India’s first indoor vertical hydroponics farm that uses nutrient-rich water rather than soil. “I founded Letcetra out of a passionate commitment to developing innovative and sustainable solutions to benefit consumers, and our planet,” says Naik, who started a software company and sold it.
Naik says his engineering and software technology background has come in handy. “Initially, when we started our first farm, our setup and operations costs were very high. We then used our technology knowledge to build in-house solutions which helped us bring down the costs a lot. It also helps us improve our processes. We believe that engineering will play a big role in the next green revolution,” he says.
Like Naik, personal experiences nudged Kolkata-based Abhishek Singhania into the field of agriculture. His father’s illness prompted him to research cheap organic food that was not laden with chemicals. He also spent time on farms to see things first hand. Four years after graduating from IIT in metallurgy, Singhania quit his fat salary check and air-conditioned office for a sweaty farm near Kolkata and sweat pants. His Kolkata farm, Echoes, works as a model farm for crops and practices and Singhania uses it not just to experiment on techniques he picks up along his travels but also to teach and train farmers around him. “Farmers should be able to make a sustainable income,” he says.
It’s not easy going. Dhama remembers the time when he found that there was no one willing to buy his bumper stevia crop but says he is not ready to throw in the towel yet. He has moved to growing at least four crops at a time, such as bok choy, drumsticks, radish and broccoli. In the last two years, he has also been working on an excel sheet that records daily crop prices, hoping he can predict pricing and take advantage of it.
Dhama is not alone in putting his degree to good use. His cousin Vishal Shaukeen, who is also an engineer, studied and set up a polyhouse, a greenhouse made from polythene, last year on his own. The two also used online tutorials to install a drip irrigation system saving water, power and bringing down input costs. Both come from farming families but had never shown interest in agriculture till a couple of years back. Now, they spend most of their tiime reading up about the subject online.
It is a much quieter life and not for every 25-year-old, but Vishal, an electrical and electronics engineer, has no regrets. In nine short months, he found that the razzle-dazzle of corporate life was not for him. “No party, club or regular pay check can beat the satisfaction that you get from watching a plant grow,” he says. He now grows an array of crops including cherry tomatoes, capsicum, celery, lettuce and watermelons that he sells to online retailers but admits that he barely recovers cost.
For former IBM executive Venkat Iyer, 53, the only cloud of doubt came a year after he quit his job in 2003 when his first crop was ruined. “I immediately slipped into depression thinking I had made a huge mistake and a risk that I would not be able to recover from,” he recalls. But Iyer, who bought 4.5 acres in Peth village in Dahanu taluka about 100 km from Mumbai, soon learned that hedging his bets with multiple crops and experimenting on a smaller scale was the way forward. Nearly 16 years later, he has written a book titled Moong over Microchips Adventures of a Techie-Turned-Farmer about his agricultural adventures, and survives solely on his land, happy to have given up city life and its pressures for good.
However, these newbie farmers emphasise that farming is hard labour and they are barely able to break even.
Most of his friends though continue to think he is on a holiday. “It is very hard work. You have to sow at the right time, check for disease and weeds, harvest, manage so many things amidst poor infrastructure, erratic power supply and other handicaps,” he says.
But despite the many hardships, there are still professionals embracing their green thumbs.
With additional reporting by Newton Sequeira in Goa