‘No money, no profit. Healthier lives are a return on investment’

Venkat Iyer quit IBM in 2004 to become a farmer. Did foregoing the material comforts of the city for a simpler existence bring happiness? An extract from his upcoming book Moong Over Microchips

I am no scientist nor have I done years of research. All I can vouch for is that the food grown on our farm tastes better and lasts longer compared to what we buy from the market. The ladyfinger grown at the farm does not become sticky when cooked and the rice we grow has an aroma that no rice from the local grocer has been able to match. The idlis my mother makes from our urad dal are softer and fluffier. People who use the oil we sell call back and tell us that they like it a lot and it tastes better than commercially available ones.

The seeds we use are the same the rest of the village uses. The water we use is the same too. The only difference in their produce and ours is that they use chemicals while we do not. Nature has a way of fighting for its own. Once, one of our lemon trees was completely destroyed by the lime butterfly caterpillar. Not a single leaf was left on the plant. A few weeks later, after the lime butterfly had emerged, new leaves appeared miraculously. We got our lemon tree back and were also rewarded with a large number of lime butterflies on the farm.

There are of course some occasions when it may not be enough to sit back and watch Mother Nature. On one occasion, a vicious white grub-like insect attacked our mango tree. These tiny insects get into the trunk of the tree and slowly eat it inside out and huge trees can die in a short while. I tried a concoction of jaggery and water and poured it into the hole made by the insect. Within a few hours, friendly ants rushed into the hole after the sweet solution. It was a matter of time before they reached the insect. The ensuing battle must have been bloody and long but we could not witness it as it was deep inside the trunk. The fact was that the ants emerged victorious since the next day onwards there was no drilling by the insect.

Nature has an entire range of chemical substances available in various plants that grow around us. One of our coconut trees kept fruiting but none of the fruits survived. A bit of research revealed that this could be because of the lack of boron, a chemical substance. The option was to use boron, which is available in the market, or turn to nature for help. We read that one particular plant, calotropis, which grew wild around our village, was rich in boron. We just plucked a few stalks and put it around the coconut tree and that has made a dramatic difference.

Author Venkat Iyer (Image courtesy: Penguin Random House)

We also realized that this kind of a setting and lifestyle does not work for everyone. One of Meena’s cousins had visited us with his family. The entire family was having a roaring time at the river when we noticed that her cousin was missing. I went back to the house looking for him only to find him sitting in his car, reading the day’s paper with the radio on full blast. Here was a guy who just could not adjust to the open space around him. He still needed his tiny tin space and loud music to keep him happy. There are different kinds of people in this world.

Whenever I speak to people about my experiences at the village and the new lifestyle we were leading, they would all ask me about the returns from the farm. Did you manage to ‘break-even’? What is the kind of ‘return on investment’? Some have even gone to the extent of trying to work out the interest I would have earned if I had put the money we invested into a financial instrument.

I have no answers to these questions. There is no money and there is no profit. All we have is a piece of land that we love and it gives us enough food to keep us both from being hungry. There is a lovely house to live in and the air is pure. We have pets we love and it’s a joy living with them. The people in the village are nice and we are part of the community. I think that is more than ‘break-even’. Where in the city would we be able to buy this kind of space and peace?

As for ‘return on investment’, the fact that we now lead healthier lives is itself a major return. Yes, I do agree that our income is low and we do have to be a little careful in our spending as compared to the IBM days when we could spend without care. Over the last few years we have realized that this did not actually affect us and we still did not miss any of the things we did earlier. It is a clear indication that all those things were not exactly essential and we could live without them. It is just a question of adjusting your lifestyle to suit your pocket.

After staying in the village for years, I also realized that you did not need much money to survive. Anyway there was hardly anything one could buy or spend on at the village. The nearest theatre is a good 40 kilometres away and there is no shopping mall around for miles. All you can buy are essentials that you need to survive. Of course, the local transport is expensive, but when at the farm we hardly travel around on a daily basis. There is an occasional expense in the form of a broken fence or a burnt-out motor but these are manageable.

(Extracted from Moong Over Microchips Adventures of a Techie-Turned-Farmer by Venkat Iyer, with permission from Penguin Random House)

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