Sapna E. Thottathil’s book, India’s Organic Farming Revolution, appears in October. Here, she shares with UI Press editor Catherine Cocks why she wrote the book and what Americans can learn from farmers in Kerala, India. This interview will be continued on Wednesday, Sept. 24.
Catherine Cocks: What drew you to Kerala, India, to study organic agriculture?
Sapna E. Thottathil: My parents grew up as farmers in Kerala—working fields, planting rice and vegetables, and being familiar with the seasons. Yet the stories I heard from them about their lives while I was a kid here in the U.S. fell far short of the romantic, pastoral vision I expected of farm life. They instead would tell me about crops dying off, financial hardships, and hunger. To me, the last bit was the most confounding—the idea that people working the land and familiar with growing food could go hungry.
These stories stuck with me as an adult, so I was surprised to see the increasing presence of organic food products from Kerala in grocery store aisles. And some of these foods were grown within a few miles of where my parents were born and raised! To learn more about these organic foods and to better reconcile in my head the absurdities of our food system (how farmers can go hungry, for example), I decided to spend some of my own time in India.
CC: Here in Iowa, many farms are very large, the work is highly mechanized, and only a small percentage of the state’s population is engaged in agriculture. How is farming organized in Kerala by comparison?
ST: The majority of Kerala’s farms are less than 2 to 3 acres in size, and the work is not as mechanized. Part of this is due to Kerala’s land reforms, which took place starting in the 1960s and ‘70s and put a cap on the size of the state’s farms. Prior to the land reforms, much of Kerala’s farmland was feudal, worked by laborers who had insecure tenancy arrangements. These land reforms (instituted by the state government) were the outcome of decades of protests by workers and attempted to redress many of the social inequities that they had been facing.
There is also a lot of intercropping in Kerala—growing coffee underneath areca nut trees alongside pepper vines and other spices, for example. (Areca nut trees produce a fruit that is chewed and has a stimulant effect, like tobacco.) This intercropping, along with the undulating topography of the land and muddy soils from monsoon rains, makes mechanization difficult in Kerala.
There are about two million full-time farmers in Kerala, which is around 5 percent of the population.