It is a sunny, windy January morning. A group of children has gathered at a farm in Palla village; their eyes fixed on red, ripened strawberries. “Please let us pluck a few,” they request the caretaker. He says no but the children do not budge; they are now planning how to sneak into the farm, pick the berries and make good their escape. They decide to defer their plan and disperse when they spot an SUV driving in. Inside the vehicle is Arvind Beniwal, the owner of the farm.
While the children wanted strawberries, it is the curiosity about the seeming incongruity of growing the exotic fruit in Delhi that took us to his farmland. “I get a lot of visitors – farmers, foreigners and researchers, who want to see the farm and know how I manage to produce strawberries here,” says Beniwal, who grows many varieties of the fruit such as San Adrian, Winter Down, Sweet Session, Winter Star, Sweet Charlie on his 20-acre farm in Palla. These days, his daily strawberry sale is 500 kg, which by FebruaryMarch goes up to 3,000 kg. Beniwal’s produce fetches him ?300-350 per kg. “Not just strawberries, one can grow everything here. Palla is a farming paradise.”
Palla, indeed, presents a pleasant contrast in Delhi, one of the most urbanised cities in India where farmland has been fast decreasing over the years. This bucolic riverside village, about 35 km from Connaught Place, on the northern fringes of the city, has steadfastly stuck to an agrarian way of life. It is a village where the Yamuna enters Delhi and boasts the cleanest water in the river’s 28 km stretch in the city. Here, almost every family is into farming. There are many youngsters who have given up engineering for farming, and grow everything from wheat, paddy, exotic vegetables, to aromatic and medicinal plants.
“Unlike most other villages, farming is the principal passion and source of livelihood here; farmers here are progressive, innovative and highly knowledgeable,” says Abhishek Dhama, 26, an electronics engineer by education and a farmer by profession. He grows Stevia (candy leaf), chamomile, (a herbal plant) Brahmi,
Moringa, among others. Dhama, who got into farming three years ago, took his initial lessons in farming on Google and YouTube, interacted with scientists at Pusa Institute, and attended agricultural festivals. “Though I belong to a traditional farming family, I wanted to grow something different. I learnt everything through the trial-and-error method. Now farming is my first love,” he says.
Dhama is not the only engineer in Palla with a passion for farming. Vishal Shaukeen, 25, is another electrical engineerturned-farmer who owns 20 acres of land in the village, and has set up three greenhouses where he grows everything from coloured bell pepper to cucumber, broccoli, among others. He has an air-conditioned office next to his massive greenhouses.
A whiteboard on the wall—like the one in classrooms–has information such as the field layout, the number of fields, the crop distribution, what is next day’s task, what supplements are to be given to which crop. “I also keep all this information on my laptop; it helps me manage various aspects of farming such as crop rotation,” says the former engineer who talks like an accomplished farmer in fluent English. On an average, he produces about 600 kg vegetables every day
“I happened to attend a workshop on micro-farming while visiting a friend in Rajasthan, which got me interested in agriculture. In February last year, I decided to quit my job as an engineer to take up farming. I set up greenhouses to ensure crop sustainability, higher yield and fruit quality, and efficient use of water,” says Shaukeen, who is quite passionate about drip irrigation. “Palla is the reason I became a farmer. It is such a beautiful, peaceful, multi-cultural village, where people from different parts of the country have come to take up farming,” adds Dhama. “Urbanisation has not affected it yet, and unlike other villages in the capital, you will not hear stories of crime here. Many fascinating aspects of rural life such as chaupal are alive here.”
Surinder Singh, 61, another farmer, says what has also worked for them is the availability of a ready market to sell their produce. Companies such as Mother Dairy, Reliance Fresh, Big Basket and others have their collection centres in Bakhtawarpur, about 3 km from the village. Besides, Azadpur Mandi, one of Asia’s biggest vegetable markets, is only 17 km away. “Farmers here are too happy to sell their produce directly to these companies at their collection centres; they never have to worry about selling or getting the right price for their produce,” says Singh, standing in his wheat field.
“Unlike there,” says Tilak Raj, 42, a farmer, pointing to agricultural fields a few hundred metres away in Haryana, “Electric supply here is good, and so is the water quality. In most villages in Delhi, the soil is saline, but not here.” Pawan Kumar, 44, another farmer who grows everything from wheat, paddy and all kinds of vegetables, says agriculture in Palla is a perennially profitable enterprise. There is no way a farmer can lose money in Palla even though they get no support from the government,” he says. He has already sown bitter gourd and ridge gourd, which he says will be ready by March, a month before it will be available in the market. “I will get a very good premium on them in March. I think farmers across the country need to be smarter and more business-savvy,” says Kumar, sitting outside the tube well room of Tilak Raj, his friend.
From where they are sitting, one can see acres of cultivated fields, with hundreds of people working in them. The fields are dotted with greenhouses and freshly prepared large mounds of manure. “A lot of farmers from outside come looking for agriculture land and are willing to pay very high rent. If anything, it proves, given the right conditions, people are willing to engage in farming,” says Raj, who belongs to a neighbouring village in a Haryana and has both bought and rented land in Palla.
In fact, Palla has also been a laboratory for experimenting with sustainable agricultural models. In 2010, Carrefour, a French retail giant, chose Palla to launch a project, now defunct, involving vegetable production, implemented within a cooperative. The then French agriculture minister had visited Palla village to launch the project.
Back at the strawberry farm, Beniwal is busy supervising the packing of strawberries that are sold in cities such as Jabalpur, Kolkata, Jalandhar, Lucknow, Jaipur and Amritsar. “Strawberry farming in Delhi is a costly and complex affair. It takes about Rs 6 lakh to cultivate strawberry on an acre of land,” says Beniwal. “I import seedlings from California and multiply them in my nursery in Manali and then plant them in Delhi. February and March are the best months, a period when the temperature is between 25 and 30 degrees, the best for fruit to ripen fast.”
A few hundred metres away flows the Yamuna. Under the clear, almost azure skies, there are acres of fields with blooming flowers — marigold jafri of different colours– undulating in the strong wind. Walking on the narrow mud-paths between the flower fields along the river, it is difficult to believe one is in Delhi. Rajender Singh, who grows flowers on about four acres of land, says Palla is a perfect place for flower cultivation. “We sow the seeds in September and October and the flowers are ready by December. Marigold is much sought-after during the wedding season,” says Singh, who produces about 300 kgs every day in his fields in Palla and a neighbouring village.