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Kerala’s growing obsession with vegetable farming in homes
By LEENA GITA REGHUNATH
ON A RECENT TRIP to my hometown Thalassery, in Kerala, I set out of my parents’ house to do the rounds of my relatives’ houses, as one is expected to do on such visits. At the house of one aunt, I enquired politely after the health of the flower garden in her front yard. “This is nothing,” she said, before grabbing me by the hand and leading me up the stairs behind the house. “The best things are here now,” she declared when we had reached the back terrace. On the cramped terrace lay 25 white sacks filled with fresh amaranthus, green chillies, tomatoes, brinjal, ladies’ fingers and green beans. “Try my vegetables,” my aunt said. “After that, your Delhi vegetables won’t suit you.”
My aunt’s pet project had always been her flower garden; this passion for homegrown vegetables was new. But she wasn’t alone—I found that everyone I visited either had a vegetable garden, or was planning to start one. Vegetable plants had even become a hot topic of conversation, their growth, health and, sometimes, death discussed with the kind of excitement usually reserved for the rise and fall of gold prices.
This was surprising, since Kerala has over the past few decades moved away from its traditional farming culture. A 2001 report of the state’s Department of Agriculture had noted that 68 percent of vegetables traded in the state came from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Many men and women of my parents’ generation had worked in white-collar jobs, and let their ancestral land lie fallow, never really seeing farming as a source of a regular food supply. The occasional household terrace garden was enough of a novelty to feature as a story in Grihalakshmi or Vanitha, popular fortnightlies aimed at women. In the last few years, these gardens appear to have become commonplace.
The present change has its origins in a Rs. 7 crore project run by the central-government-funded State Horticulture Mission (SHM), termed ‘vegetable initiative for urban clusters’. In Kerala, the project aims to produce, in the current financial year, 22,500 tonnes of vegetables, worth Rs. 33.75 crore, through rooftop cultivation in urban areas, and an additional 18,698 tonnes of vegetables, worth Rs. 28 crore, in peri-urban areas.