I was meeting Shankar (Shankar Kotian M) after a long gap of 16 years. Shankar is no longer a techie; He had ended his decade-and-a-half-year-old tech career in 2012 to become a full-time farmer. Time had taken away a lot of his hair, but nothing else about him had changed. This is his story, distilled from a two-hour conversation I had with him. I think what he is doing is different and inspirational; hence this feature on him.
“There was this reporter who had come to the santhe (market), and spotting a new species among the farmers there, spent some time chatting up with me”, said Shankar, smiling and pointing at himself when he mentioned ‘new species’. Shankar was telling me how the article in ‘The Hindu’ had come about. (Here’s the report: http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Mangalore/once-a-software-engineer-now-a-farmer/article7804873.ece). Shankar is indeed part of a rare, but an emerging crop of techie turned farmers who are returning to nature in search of their true calling.
A bit of history
Shankar and I were among the 15 odd software engineers who were drafted in as the ‘3rd batch’ of Infosys, Mangalore branch back in 1996. While I was one of those uninitiated engineers taking my baby steps in the world of programming, Shankar was already creating rotating patterns and graphics (using C). He was one of those true techies, born to program. Our first project, code-named BKB2DB2, was insane – it had about ten of us working 16-18 hour days for close to 6 months straight. Shankar, with his saintly demeanour and soft, firm voice was the only calm presence amidst all the madness. After that project, we had drifted apart and lost touch with each other.
The newspaper report
It was a Whatsapp message a few days ago from a common friend of ours that reminded me of Shankar again. The message had the link to the newspaper report I mentioned earlier. The report had a picture of a goatee sporting Shankar, selling yam in a market in Mangalore.
What?! The programming ace was now after bugs of a different kind? The guy who used to give us ‘knowledge dumps’ was now dipping his hands in the real dump? I had to find out first-hand; so I tracked down his phone number and got myself invited to his farm.
Following the precise directions he had given, I drove up to his farm in Moodbidre, about 35 km from Mangalore. There he was, sporting the same cap I’d seen him wear in the report. He had built his house in the centre of his farm. I parked my car and settled comfortably on a couch on his veranda. Over a cup of coffee, we went back in time to our BKB2DB2 days, exchanged notes on hair loss and played with his 3-month-old puppy (which he hoped would grow into an aggressive watchdog. Seeing how friendly it was with me, I have my doubts).
“I always thought I was more of a research person; so after college, I wanted to get into Texas Instruments – which in the 90s was the Mecca for systems programmers”, he said, “but as fate would have it, I got selected to create business software at Infosys. Looking back, I think that was the best thing that happened to me because it exposed me to people and places and broadened my horizons”. His stint at Infosys had taken him to places like Australia, Switzerland and Japan which came in handy later when he decided to get into farming.
I asked him what made him quit his well-paying job, and why he chose to get back to nature.
“After the first 7-8 years, I started feeling a lack of challenge, … a lack of purpose. The excessive travel was also taking a toll on my health – I had a slipped disc and had to slow myself down. It was during that time that I decided I would take up farming. I started buying farmland here”.
His journey as a farmer
He started researching more on crops, and farming methods and started talking to other farmers. He realized that most farmers just tended to follow what others were doing, and some of the natural farming practices our ancestors had developed had gotten lost in the last 30-40 years after the introduction of chemical farming. He is developing his land in stages, in a much-planned manner – typical of an engineer. He currently has rubber (his main bet), areca, paddy and maize. He is also growing vegetables on a small scale for his own consumption, and to sell in the local market.
He, like many of the young farmers today, is moving away from using chemicals and is using organic techniques. But his aim is to move up to ‘Natural farming’, since the effort to output ratio is much better there. Natural farming, as I learned from him, is about being in harmony with nature, and making nature do most of the work that a farmer otherwise expedites using machines. Natural farming observes the law of nature and respects the rights of crops and livestock. This technique, interestingly also called ‘Do-nothing farming’ (now that sounds like something I could do) heals the soil slashed by chemicals, herbicides and machines, and is considered a natural next step after organic farming.
The core principles around which he is designing the rest of his life are:
- Leave the land better than you found it (for future generations): Natural farming techniques will make the land better. Additionally, he is also leaving some portions of his forest land as-is, for what he calls ‘lung space’
- Cut out middlemen, and sell directly to the consumers: As per Shankar, middlemen mostly do not add any value and don’t help farmers in any way. He wants to create a clientele initially through friends, engage with them and then expand the network
- Go the cooperative way: Instead of trying to bring about a change single-handedly, work with other farmers in the region for the betterment of all
- Pass on his knowledge through agri-tourism: He plans to build a few cottages and tree houses where his clients could come over, stay, try their hand at farming and experience the lifestyle. He wants to share knowledge that he has gained with people who are contemplating getting into farming. (I have already buttered him up to be the first customer in his treehouse. You can try the other cottages)
On his Cows
Shankar is also a proud owner of 40 cows, of which 15 are yielding close to 150 litres of milk per day. He makes a slurry out of cow dung for use as manure, and also uses gobar gas for cooking.
Now here’s an interesting tidbit I got from Shankar, which could be of use if you ever went cow shopping: The buying price of a cow can roughly be calculated as the number of litres it gives per day times Rs 3,000. So if it gives 30 litres a day, you will have to pay a whopping Rs 90,000 to buy the cow. (and I thought cows went for Rs 8 – 10 thousand).
His experiments, best practices and challenges
He does a lot of farming and dairy experiments, some of which are being emulated by other farmers. Here are some he showed me:
- He is trying to grow paddy without flooding the area (flooding is usually done to keep the weeds and pests out)
- He has created a pipe system that pumps cow dung slurry to nearby fields, for which other farmers pay him
- In his cowshed, he has designed cubicles for his cows (the partitions developed in an ‘S’ shape to help the cows sit and get up with ease), and has rubber flooring for their comfort
- He has installed a car-wash pump to bathe his cows. He adjusts the pressure settings for different cleaning purposes
- He is also in the process of setting up mechanized milking stations, using machinery from Sweden. Once the system is in place, cows can stroll in, connect a pump to their udders (with some human help, of course), get milked and stroll off for another round of grazing. Seeing the wonderful life his cows were leading, I wished I were a cow on his farm.
- By June, he plans to build a smokehouse for getting the best quality rubber
He also faces challenges on a day-to-day basis, for which he develops ingenious solutions, some of them below (Reminded me of that line from the movie ‘The Martian’: “You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home”. Shankar hasn’t got to potatoes yet though).
- Monkeys were eating his maize saplings. He placed a life-sized tiger doll in the centre of the field. The monkeys apparently surveyed the tiger from a distance, screamed, made faces at it and tried their best to drive the tiger away. The tiger stayed put, and the monkeys were never seen again
- When he first bought a few cows, he was conned – the cows weren’t giving anywhere near the amount of milk the seller said they would give. So he started breeding his own cows using the best quality insemination. So most of the cows he has now were bred on his farm
So what are some learning that he could share (with anyone who wants to get into farming)? Here are a few:
- You need to plan for at least 3-to 4 yrs of sustenance money before you can hope to start living off farming alone.
- Don’t just go by the trends, and what other traditional farmers are doing. Experiment with the techniques.
- Read up/ research. There’s a lot of material on the internet.
- Expect delays in schedule. If you estimate something to take 6 months, it usually takes double that. So be prepared for that.
- Getting into farming is really a change in lifestyle.
“Isn’t is a bit lonely here? Don’t you ever miss your old life?”, I asked him. He said: “I am so far away from my old life that a return is no longer possible. I do not want to return to that. This is what I want to do in life”.
Shankar seemed content and happy. He has his plans well laid out and is moving ahead one milestone at a time. I have no doubts that he will soon be very successful as a farmer, and as an agri-tourism entrepreneur.
He saw me off with a 2.5 kg yam; so I know what I will be eating for lunch and dinner for the whole of this week.
- Further reading on Natural farming can be found here (based on Shankar’s inputs):
- If you or someone you know have switched careers (from a tech job) to do something different and interesting please do connect with me. I would love to chat up and feature the story on this blog so it could inspire all of us.