About 100km south of Chennai, as a road branches off the Grand Southern Trunk Road near Kancheepuram, an agricultural patch emerges, different from the rest. Amid pulses and paddy that struggle to stay alive in the summer, teak and casuarina trees stand tall.
The farmer, Suresh Kumar, doesn’t fit the stereotype. A chemistry graduate, he left a private job in 2003 for farming. “My father was ailing,” he says, “and the land beckoned”. Unlike others who cultivated water-intensive cash crops like paddy and pulses, drilling bore wells when the nearby Palar river dried up, Kumar raised teak and casuarina that need less water.
“I read somewhere about growing trees,” says Kumar, who owns 16 acres. Three years ago, he sought tips from Isha Foundation’s Project Green Hands. Today he cultivates paddy only on five acres, irrigated by water from wells. The rest of the land provides a lesson in mixed cultivation. “Besides the value of timber, these casuarina trees are nitrogen-fixers that increase soil fertility,” he says.
About 90km further south at Sirugramam in Cuddalore, Kasturibai Bhaskaran, 74, follows a similar model. “Trees act as wind-breakers, protect crops, and attract birds which, in turn, help control pests,” says the retired college principal who inherited 50 acres from her father.
Her husband, Bhaskaran, says, “My father-in-law grew paddy. Now the river is dry. We tried digging borewells but got only salt water.” The nearby river, which locals call kataru (forest river), is seasonal.
Over 16 years, the couple has worked to create a lush canopy over much of their land, with casuarina, teak, rosewood, red sandalwood, mahogany, along with fruit-bearing ones such as coconut, guava and sapota. The reforestation is aimed at improving rainfall, reducing run-off, and helping the soil retain moisture.
That this is a more sustainable form of agriculture in a region with a looming water crisis is becoming evident to many in the Cauvery delta. R Narasimman, 63, has a 50-acre land in Pudukottai where red sanders, mahogany and silver oaks are interspersed with mango and banana plantations. “I harvest close to 200 tonnes of mangoes and 60 tonnes of bananas a year.Most of it is exported,” he says.
Narasimman spent two years preparing the land and setting up irrigation facilities. “Production started in the fourth year,” he says. “I wanted to show how to set up a farm that yields a fortune for ten generations.”
As carried in timesofindia on 4.9.2017