Plant Of Action: How Vrindavan Farm’s Gaytri Bhatia Aims To Safeguard ‘The Future Of Food’
Before you see the mango orchard in Vrindavan Farm, you smell it. A heady whiff of the clusters of Rajapuri, kesar, hapoos, totapuri, Ratna and batli mangoes pervades the property crowded with fruit and vegetable trees. There are over 500 mango trees on the 10.5 acre farm located in Palghar, which is about two-and-a-half hours away from Mumbai by road. The fruit will be ripe for harvest at the end of May.
Harvesting this abundance of mangoes – Vrindavan yields between 3,000 to 5,000 kilos per season – will keep farm owner Gaytri Bhatia occupied until mid-June. Bhatia has built a steady clientele for the fruit in Mumbai, which we can attest are among the best we’ve tried. She supplies them to restaurants such as Olive Bar and Kitchen, The Pantry, Kala Ghoda Cafe, 212 All Good, The Sassy Spoon chain, Theobroma and the Indigo Deli chain to name a few.
As we walk around her farm, Bhatia’s attention, keeps drifting towards tomatoes. She’s been obsessed with the fruit, ever since she planted heirloom varieties such as cherry currant, cherry rose pink, Paul Robeson, orange banana, Principe Borghese and pear-shaped cherry tomatoes in October 2015. Evidence of her passion for tomatoes is everywhere. Two blank A4-size sheets of paper stained with tomato seeds and pulp are left to dry on the arched verandah of her house. Baskets of these assorted varieties that we haven’t seen in markets back in Mumbai lie around her front yard.
Tomato patches sprout unexpectedly around the farm. “We’re guerrilla farmers right now, looking for any available patches of sun for our tomatoes,” said Bhatia with near mania in her eyes. The few thumb- and bead-sized varieties that she offers us are plump with juice and taste sweet, like seasonal berries in their prime and rather unlike the typically tart and firm kind that we consume daily.
Cultivating tomatoes is laborious. Bhatia is currently harvesting about two kilos at a time for sale. Most of this is promised to Rishim Sachdeva, the executive chef at Olive Bar and Kitchen in Khar and some of the crop goes to Shilarna Vaze, who runs Gaia Gourmet, a catering company in Mumbai. The yield is more than what is being sold, but the excess is preserved for seeds. Seed banking is Bhatia’s other craze. Under her bed fitted with an uncomfortably slim mattress is a rust-splotched trunk with her treasure of seeds. The stash is split between the trunk and a small wooden cabinet in the verandah, where she prefers to sleep.
Bhatia lives a minimal life, consciously devoid of modern frills including the internet. Lean and barely over five feet, she roams the farm clad in comfortable but basic cotton clothing and a deep tan that speaks of her long hours in the sun. A laptop, a dongle, a car and an iPhone3 are the only luxuries in her possession, each of which facilitates her work on the farm. Her collection of seeds, it appears, is her only real wealth here.
The seeds are preserved in ash in zip-locked plastic pouches with labels that list the year of the seed, the original source and what generation seed it is. The tomatoes gradually colonising her farm, for instance, are second generation seeds from her land. In one generation, a seed, which is sown, flowers, yields fruit and subsequently a new round of seeds. It worries her that more and more farmers are buying genetically modified (GMO) market seeds that are giving them higher yields in the short term but in the long term starving the soil owing to their heavy dependence on chemicals. “Most local farmers have lost the knowledge and interest in banking gavathi (local) seeds,” said Bhatia ruefully. She has been hunting down and buying traditional seeds from farmers. With this practice of hoarding traditional seeds or seeds that are typically open pollinated, native to a given land and passed down through farming generations, she believes she is safeguarding the future of food.
Vrindavan Farm is over 20 years old. Bhatia, who previously consulted for the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Boston in her capacity as an environmental analyst, volunteered to manage the family land six years ago. From sowing and harvesting, which were her primary duties when she started out, she has moved on to farm management, seed selection and banking. She employs five farm hands from Palghar village located on the periphery of the plot. They work from 8am to 6pm, after which the care of the vast property falls on Bhatia. Petite and athletic, she nimbly negotiates the densely forested farm, sometimes barefoot. Her knowledge of the lay of the farm is particularly astounding by night, when she begins watering trees armed with nothing but a pen-sized flashlight. She starts her rounds at 6pm and winds up at 8am daily. The middle of the day is when she catches up on sleep.
Since water is scarce in the state, Bhatia waters plants at night to minimise loss by evaporation in the daytime. “Trees, like humans, like a routine,” said Bhatia, explaining that the plantation has adjusted to this pattern of watering. Though it’s not certified, Vrindavan is a completely organic farm where she has implemented biodynamic practices with which locals are unfamiliar. She makes a nutritious formula of cow dung, cow urine, fish excreta from a pond on the farm, algae, dried leaves and flowers from the land, all of which are fermented with jaggery and used to improve soil fertility and renew degraded soil. Bhatia also treats the flora with a natural fungicide made of garlic and insecticide using neem.
Sowing on the farm is done according to lunar cycles. “The moon as you know affects water,” Bhatia said. “As it waxes, it attracts water towards the surface of the soil making it good for sowing. Conversely, transplants during the waning moon takes roots deeper into the soil following the water.” Her practices have resulted in delicious produce that she has made accessible to city folk in Mumbai. In an effort to minimise the distance between the field and the plate and reach the urban consumer directly, she launched a weekly subscription service for fruits and vegetables in 2013. Over four years, the farm has gathered 300 members who purchase their weekly quota of herbs, herbal teas, preserves and seasonal fruits and greens such as jackfruit, doodhi, papaya, pumpkin, tomatillos, black pepper, brinjal, baby spinach, yam, lemongrass, cashew apple, basil, wild berry jam, mango jam and mango chutney from the farm.
A newsletter, which lists the week’s harvest, is mailed to subscribers. Typically, Thursday afternoon’s harvest is delivered to Mumbai on Friday morning and ready to be picked up on the same day from Bhatia’s home in Churchgate. Last year, Bhatia started retailing her produce on online platforms such as Allthingsorganic.com and Shophop.com. She has also set up a stall selling tisanes and preserves at the month-old The Better Foods Farmer’s Market in Mahalaxmi. To make farming a viable business, in other words, to turn a profit, she had to start harvesting enough produce for sale to restaurants and cafes. Mangoes and tisanes made using moringa, tulsi, frangipani and roselle make up the bulk of her supplies to these establishments.
“I’m a cynic when it comes to produce that I can’t see being sown and harvested,” said Deepti Dadlani, vice president of branding and marketing at Bellona Hospitality that runs 212 All Good, an eatery focused on serving nutritious food. The restaurant gets black pepper, mulberries, moringa, gavathi cha and mango cha from the farm. The moringa is employed to make a ‘super pesto’, the mulberries are infused with their house gin and the cha or teas are served as iced beverages. “With Gaytri there’s 100 per cent trust because of her approach to farming and feeding,” Dadlani said. “She’s also been able to guide us on how to use lesser-known produce such as the moringa for pesto.”
When Bhatia renounced city dwelling to live and work on Vrindavan, the farm was a mango and coconut orchard. Approximately eight acres of the land are still occupied by seasonal fruit trees. “My gig was to change that,” said Bhatia. In addition to her prized tomato patches across the farm, she maintains an experimental gardening plot or her “play area” near the steps of her one-bedroom house. Heirloom is the theme of this patch, which is yielding purple and atomic red carrots, Mexican ingredients such as tomatillo verde, poblano peppers and jalapeno, cape gooseberry, radish, amaranth and beetroot.
“We’re working backwards with Vrindavan,” said Sachdeva of Olive Bar & Kitchen, who has been sourcing from Bhatia for over seven months. “Gaytri tells me what she’s growing or what’s ready to be harvested and then we incorporate that particular ingredient on the menu. It’s better to leave it to the farmer to give us what’s best rather than asking them to grow what we want.” Olive orders the farm’s sorrel, fresh green peppercorns, mango ginger and heirloom tomatoes, the latter of which are used in their house salad with burrata and fermented apricots as well as in the tomato and bocconcini linguine.
Even from her isolated perch, Bhatia is managing to connect with a similar class of growers for her other pet preoccupation, seed exchange. Bartering seeds is as vital to her as gathering. “I exchange them with anyone interested,” she said. To this end, the gates to Vrindavan are never locked. Fellow farmers, restaurateurs, chefs and regular folks raising urban kitchen gardens can reach out to her for seeds and farming advice. “Clients are tapping into my vibe as a farmer,” she said visibly thrilled.
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