Do you feel strongly about healthy and natural food?
At 135 acres, Annapurna is Auroville’s largest farm. Besides serving as Auroville’s granary, it is also an essential source of fresh dairy, cheese and fruits for the City of Dawn.
The quest for wholeness has naturally led Tomas to make Annapurna a certified organic farm, designed to provide the highest quality food for Aurovilians while being conscious of the longer term. Tomas, Madhuri and Nidhin walk us through Annapurna’s history and current practices.
Tomas on the origins of Annapurna
Back in the 60’s, the Ashram had many big farms to support it, scattered around Pondicherry and Ousteri, with Auroville originally planned more to the west. This land was purchased at that time and developed by an ashramite called Dyuman, who did conventional farming. Some people came from Orissa to farm for the ashram in the 70s, and then the land was abandoned for 10 years.
Anna means food, and especially rice, Tomas explains. Poorna is integral, just as integral yoga is Poorna Yoga. And so, Annapurna means complete food. Nobody knows for sure where the name came from – most people say The Mother gave it, some say it was Dyuman. Auroville got this land in the early 80s, and it is probably the biggest piece of outlying land it has, located quite far from the centre where not many people come.
Aurovilians were working on the green belt, but mostly to turn it into the lush forest that it is today. Auroville was never as focused on food as the Ashram was. Peter Clarence-Smith used the land to test out trees for planting in Auroville, but, as Tomas points out, the soil at Annapurna is black clay, unlike Auroville’s red laterite and yellow loamy clay.
Tomas came to Annapurna in 1986, when there was nothing on the land. He was on his own, and it was too far out for anyone to want to manage it. Different people have been here over the years, such as Bernard, who is now in Pebble Garden, and Krishna from Solitude, in his first few years in Auroville. André, who is in charge of construction and infrastructure, came in 1989. The farm with its different functions has been built up slowly over time, and Annapurna now has 17 permanent workers, and 40 in the peak season.
A Different Philosophy
Being certified organic means that the products have to go through a strict certification process, to look at the practices and see where all the ingredients come from. “But I would actually go beyond”, adds Madhuri, a long term volunteer working with the cows. “When you talk about an organic farm, it becomes a certain framework, a system where you buy organic compost and put that for your crops.”
“At Annapurna it goes beyond, our focus is on creating an intertwined system where a lot of the facilities are created within the farm in regenerative ways. For example, green manuring for the rice, and leguminous fodder crop rotation for the dairy. With green manuring, you are making your own nutrients. We do water conservation, and the farm grows as the rain harvesting capacity expands. I would call Annapurna a regenerative farm.”
A fun process
The best-selling products are yogurt, paneer and cheese spread, with Aurovilians being the largest market through Auroville’s internal shop, PTDC. Yogurt is made overnight and brought there the next morning, and the fresh cheeses have to be consumed within 2-3 weeks. The farm also sells to other Auroville shops, to some outlets in Pondicherry, and even to one in Bangalore.
But Annapurna’s main crop continues to be rice. Besides its own 20 acres, all the grains from the smaller Auroville farms are brought to its granary, and whenever needed, they are taken out and processed.
“It doesn’t make sense to get water from bore-wells for agriculture”, says Nidhin, “because rice needs a lot of water. People are doing that in this part of the world, and that means that in a few years, there won’t be water. The yearly monsoons aren’t going to refill the deeper reservoirs, which have been filling over decades or hundreds of years.”
Instead, rainwater is collected in three large catchment ponds, totaling about 50,000 cubic meters. Starting this year, a new elevated tank will make it possible to irrigate the paddy fields and orchards using gravity. Annapurna’s ability to grow rice in this dry climate using stored rainwater makes it very unique.
Apart from rice and dairy, Annapurna grows a lot of bananas, which are made into banana compote. Marmalade is made from lemons. “It’s fun to make processed products”, Nidhin remarks. There are also papayas, passionfruit, guavas, and kumquats, and depending on the year, rosella or sesame.
The herd is a family
Annapurna’s dairy herd are a crossbred mix of mostly Gir, Sahiwal, and Jersey breeds, with a bit of Sindhi and Holstein-Friesian. Tomas started from a single cow, slowly expanding it to the present group of 28. There is one bull, Mirabeau, who comes from the Ashram. There aren’t many certified organic dairy farms in south India, which makes Annapurna products unique in strictly avoiding any preservatives or additives.
After milking, the cows go into the corral, which is a social space for them. “It’s a meet and greet”, says Madhuri.”We observe a lot of inner dynamics within the herd, since they were all born and raised here. There are life-long friendships happening, where particular cows prefer being with each other, or a mother and daughter stand together. There are also minor conflicts, which are forgotten within a few hours. We try to give a good life to the herd, so that they are a family.”
The cows get a lot of roaming space, and are taken to graze on different parts of the farm during the day. For grazing space, the same fields used for rice are replanted with Sesbania and leguminous cover crop in the off-season, and become a nutrition-dense ‘salad bar’ for the cows.
Large areas of land are used to grow green matter such as leguminous plants, which are then harvested, cut and shredded for green compost. This green manure is used in the rice fields and outlying areas, and besides feeding the cows, the species rotation improves the soil and fixes nitrogen. As the organic matter decays, it generates humus (topsoil).
Besides green fodder, Annapurna cows eat an organic mix of locally sourced millets and grain-seeds, and straw from the farm’s rice. This nutritious and balanced diet keeps the cows healthy, largely avoiding the use of medications. When intervention does become necessary, homeopathic medicine is used. This is slow acting, but works most of the time. Antibiotics – which are routinely used on most dairy farms – are only a last resort here, and then all necessary precautions are taken, such as discarding the milk for 7 days.
Turning a Problem into an Asset
“In Auroville we have this problem generally with milk”, says Nidhin. “In the summer a lot of people go out, and the schools are closed. The cows are there on the farms. What do we do with the excess milk? Thankfully, we have a cheesemaking process. Because we make cheese, we are able to use the surplus milk and store it. Cheesemaking is a great way to absorb the surplus, and also to get a premium for our products.”
It takes a few months from the day the fresh milk is processed until the cheese is ready. The milk needs to be heated and pasteurized, with the culture and rennet added later. Then the curd is separated from the whey, before putting it in moulds. It is a 3-6 month ripening process.
Annapurna makes three types of cheese. Annafromage is a young cheese, semisoft and rindless, aged for a minimum of three months. Its mildness can be complemented with pepper or nigella seeds, and is good to use in sandwiches. Annafeta is stored and matured in brine which makes it salty and tangy, perfect for raw salads or pasta. Finally, Annagio is a dry hard cheese which is first soaked in brine, allowing it to stay good for a long time. As it dries for at least 3 months it becomes hard, and then it is grated into a product one can sprinkle on salads. It has a very good shelf life, and you can keep it for weeks and months at room temperature.
Food in the Future
“We’ve built up all this in the past 30 years, but we can do much more”, says Tomas. “More people have to be involved, younger people to step in and drive it. But it’s a commitment. More and more robotics are coming into agriculture, and they have to be employed at some point because labour is getting costly. That can be very challenging and interesting.”
“Food is going to be very important in the future, but bad things are happening in the grain world with big companies taking over. It’s not about being economically viable, but about the intrinsic value of your own food. Hopefully these values will change over time. If you want healthy food, clean food, we have to have our own grain processing and growing.”
At the moment, Annapurna needs 8 km’s of good boundary fence, since many deer, boars and peacocks are coming into the farm. But a boundary fence around the entire farm is a very costly project, which Tomas estimates at 2 crores.
“There’s a need to communicate all of this, so people can relate to us”, says Nidhin. “We can produce more, but only if there is a commitment to buying from Auroville. Because in the Pondy market, the farmer gets a very low price, and you are paying for a lot of wastage and middlemen.
“Here we want to stick to certain values. We aspire to create a healthy ecological system. You are not just paying for the yogurt, you are paying for a resilient system which is nourishing the community. You’re not really focused on yields, but on how to create a balance.“
Do you want to learn more about Annapurna products? Check out their catalogue of cheeses and fruit compotes at the Online Store.