Eager to experience first hand what it is like to be a farmer in rural India, Ariane Lecuyer braves the early morning and heavy rain to spend a day with Gnanasekaran, a farmer in the village of Chinnupatti. She enjoys muddy fields and the chaos of the local flower market while learning about his love of farming and how he is trialling organic methods
4.50am: It’s time to wake up! Half awake, half asleep I am about to meet Gnanasekaran. This 60 year-old farmer has agreed to share a day in his life with me. He lives in the Christian village of Chinnupatti, 65 kilometres from Madurai. Only 150 people live here which gives it a feeling of tranquility. Fortunately for us, the nearby mountains make the weather cooler than in Madurai. This village is also the location of our Projects Abroad conservation project managed by Raisa Dawood. She is helping local farmers convert to organic farming, using the ingenious idea of a model farm. Gnanasekaran has recently decided to try organic methods on his farm. Despite my slow moves due to tiredness, I proudly manage to get ready and prepare myself to work as hard as Gnanasekaran does for the day.
5.40am: Bad weather has instantly killed my goodwill. The rain was so heavy that Gnanasekaran decided to delay work until the rain stopped. I am slightly scared that he will cancel all his morning tasks but, fortunately, some sunshine appeared through the clouds. I set out from my accommodation to meet him in his flower field.
After walking along beside a coconut field, we reach a charming creek on Gnanasekaran’s land. He is the owner of three different fields. One for banana trees, one for Nila Sampangi flowers (commonly known as the Mexican tuberose), and one for jasmine flowers and black lentils (grown as an inter crop). Managing all his duties in each field is a challenge. Raisa even assures me that she never sees him having a rest, and the only time she has, he was lying on the floor totally exhausted.
This morning, Gnanasekaran is working with his Nila Sampangi, a popular flower in Tamil Nadu. It is a new crop for him, having started just a few months ago. It was a difficult start for him, for the first month, his yield was very low and he wanted to destroy all the plants. Worried and upset to lose a lot of money and energy, he spoke to other farmers who reassured him to persist. Indeed, the climate was too cold for this flower during January and February, but the area is perfect for Nila Sampangi. The farmers told him the yield will surely be blossoming for the following months. Today, Gnanasekaran is happy to see that they were all right.
I walk into the middle of the white and green field to meet him and his wife, Selvi, for the first time. They were both already hard at work. His English is not so good and my Tamil is totally non-existent. Yet, even by talking in our own languages, we were able to communicate. With his body language he showed me the right method to pick up flowers quickly but without damaging the stalk. The only difficulty was walking in the muddy ground between the rows of flowers, trying not to crush any plants. Apart from a few scary but funny minor falls, this task was truly pleasant. I didn’t realise that it would need so much delicacy and Gnanasekaran had to repeatedly demonstrate the right method. After a few minutes of working, I rose my head and saw him already at the other side of the field. As he said, he usually needs less than two hours to pick up all flowers. He certainly works fast.
7.00am: Then, with no break, he goes straight to the market in order to sell the fresh flowers. The Nilakkottai market is famous in Tamil Nadu, and even abroad since they export flowers from here for perfume. Every day at 7.00am, Gnanasekaran hops on a bus-truck together with others farmers to travel to the market. The principle of this truck is the same as any bus. It goes from village to village collecting farmers and their new yield. This was the highlight of my day! We spent 30 minutes standing in the open back of the truck… hair blowing in the wind and surrounded by lovely farmers, all trying to talk to me. Luckily, I had Venkatesh, a Projects Abroad staff member with me to translate their questions. Of course, they asked some typical questions, “Are you married?” “Do you like India?”But there were also some unusual questions such as, “Why are you not wearing jewellery?” “Do you have chewing tobacco in France?” I understood quickly the friendly atmosphere created by this group of farmers.
The truck arrived at the market and everybody said goodbye. I followed Gnanasekaran in the direction of the noise. One step into the market and I realised the craziness of this place. Here everything is constantly moving. I couldn’t just stop for a few seconds without being hassled. To be honest even when I was walking through the market I felt like I was in the way of hundreds of people. Behind me somebody shouts “Po! Po! Po!” which I learn means go away. I turn around to see a man walking with a huge flower sac on his head. Immediately I try to get out of his way but another man to my right hustles me and I move quickly to the side.
Along with this chaotic mass of people, there are masses of flowers. I can smell jasmine and can’t stop looking at all the different colours. Red from Roses, yellow from Saamandhi, purple from Vaadamalli, white from Nila Sampangi, and so many other beautiful flowers that I have never seen before.
Gnanasekaran seems to know exactly where he wants to go and only stops walking to check if I’m not lost. He comes to a man, who weighs his yield and gives him money. That’s it! Only a few minutes and Gnanasekaran tells us that we can leave now. I’m so attracted to this mad place that I would like to stay a bit longer, but I’m glad to hear our farmer proposing tea at the corner shop.
7.45am: As we sip our tea with a bit less noise than in the market, Gnanasekaran explains to me that he always goes to the same flower seller. Of course, the prices are not so different from seller to seller, but he is sure that this one will not try to cheat him by tampering with the weight. Today, his yield was not amazing - around four kilograms and he knows that it will be the same for the whole Tamil month. On the contrary, he has calculated that his next yield should give him 15 kilograms per day.
It’s true that the flower business is up and down, but one thing is sure: he will always earn money. Even if the seller will not sell everything to buyers, they can always sell it to perfume factories, ensuring there is no waste. It may be up and down, but surely it is safe!
9.00am: We take a rest and have a well deserved breakfast. Project Abroad’s host family prepared some delicious idly for us that we enjoy with the children.
Relief from rain
10.00am: Because it is still raining, Gnanasekaran will not work anymore today and decides to invite me to his house for a chat. He lives with his wife in the center of Chinnupatti, with one of his brothers and his family as neighbours. His three children are all married and live in nearby villages.
I enter a lovely house with walls covered by Christian pictures. I am met by many smiling faces (surely relatives) who warmly welcome me. He explains that his house was a part of his father’s farm, which Gnanasekaran took over to build his own accommodation. I couldn’t imagine this house as a farm. He and his wife have created a modest but cozy atmosphere.
“I want rain!” he said with conviction. Today he has got more rain than he wished for. It keeps raining in heavy bursts. Each day, he has to spend six hours watering his field - three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. Therefore, when it rains the water comes naturally, relieving him of one of his main tasks. Whether it was lucky or not, this rainy day gave me an opportunity to understand the influence of weather on his daily life. The rain may relieve him from a six-hour task, but it means his crops will not receive the necessary sun grow.
In fact, the weather meant my farming experience was over for the day! This exhausted farmer doesn’t normally have time to take a break so I could see his joy to know that today will be his own holiday. Gnanasekaran could now take a rest and fortunately for me, he had more time to speak with me. When I ask him what he usually does during his free time, he said he doesn’t have a hobby or occupation except to sleep. Then, with a shy but entrusting smile, he admitted that he loves to listen to old songs, particularly from Tamil flims. His idol is Sivaji Ganesan, a Tamil actor who has starred in almost 300 films.
11.00am: We have been talking for one hour. Gnanasekaran is now more comfortable with me. Normally at this time, he would be watering his field as he does everyday. Instead, we start to talk about his latest change in his farming life… His first steps into organic farming.
A few months ago, Raisa Dawood came to Gnanasekaran’s house to try to convince him to change his farm to organic. His first reaction was like many other farmers – he refused. As he says, for farmers, the quantity of yield is the most important thing and he couldn’t believe that organic fertilizers will give him as much yield as he has got now using chemical fertilizers. He didn’t care at all about the quality, despite Raisa’s first speech. However, Raisa didn’t give up so easily and came back with the same crops he had, but planted in her model farm. She was able to show him that this crop grows as fast as his, but with organic fertilizers. She also explained to him the importance of quality to receive a good price. For example, the same quantity, chemical bananas can be sold for Rs. 10,000 compared to Rs. 14,000 for organic bananas. This argument was the one which convinced Gnanasekaran to try organic!
He is now at the experimental stage. Last year, he trialed 125 banana trees using organic methods, and it was totally successful. This year, he again trialing 100 banana trees, and if it’s again successful he will go for 3 000! A big difference but not a big risk for him. He has begun to trust these natural methods. He tells me that his two brothers are also farmers. One of them is following his organic lead on his farm, but the second still working with chemicals. Gnanasekaran tried to explain him all the advantages of organic farming and he has promised to try it the next time he changes crops.
After spending a difficult time selling banana leaves, Gnanasekaran finally found work that he can take pleasure in. Of course, any farming has its challenges, but he realized that organic farming is safer and more comfortable. He even said that he actually enjoys digging water ways on his land, and other little tasks like this.
Farming is a family tradition. His father was a farmer, his two brothers are farmers and now his two sons are as well. All of them understand the benefits of working in agriculture. As Gnanasekaran says, you don’t need to invest so much at the beginning when switching to organic, but you are sure to earn something quite fast. Everyday for the past 20 years, he wakes up at 4.30am and only goes to sleep at 11pm. It’s an exhausting life that he loves.
My Farmer friend
12.15pm: After expecting to work well into the afternoon, at 12.15pm, it’s time to leave his house and let him have lunch and a good sleep. He gives me a gentle smile. All his relatives thanked me and I have the feeling that I’m leaving a friend’s house. Slightly disappointed that I didn’t get more time to work hard in his fields, I breathe a sigh of relief as the rain continues to pour throughout the afternoon. I may not have experienced a typical day in his life due to the rain, but as the effects of the early morning start still haunt me, I am convinced that the life of a farmer is tough one.
Gnanasekaran took care of me during our time together, always concerned that following him around may be too exhausting or too fast for me. He tried to explain everything about his daily life with patience and attention. It was a surprise to see so much sweetness in somebody who works so tirelessly everyday in order to feed his family.