Simrit Malhi on a Sustainable Life in Kodaikanal

What is your background and how did you first get involved with farming?

I grew up in a great school, Rishi Valley, 300 acres for 300 children. In the 60 years before I arrived there, it had been transformed from an arid, desert landscape to a bird sanctuary with thousands of trees and even its own monsoon pattern. I remember stealing watermelons from the garden and having my first date under a solar panel. So I guess it's an environment that feels comfortable for me. It's more like I hung out in the city for a while before I felt it was time to come home. I went to study under one of the first bio-dynamic farmers in the country around 2007 and never looked back.

When did you leave the city and what have you been doing since?

I left around 4 - 5 years ago; if you don't count Goa as a city. I do. (And by the way, so should the government. It's still being run by Village Panchayats that get village budgets for tiny villages that swell into these buzzing cities during the season. It's resulted in a break down of civic maintenance - basically, garbage. I left Goa coz there was too much garbage.)

I had started a boutique landscaping company in Bombay which did well, and I managed to move to Goa while still working in Bombay. So it was a gradual move. Eventually I moved to Goa permanently; got pregnant and decided it was time to move out to the farm and start work on it.

I've been focusing on life. Creating a future for my child. Planting trees, building a house; a pond. The life is simple but the quality of everything is just better. I've just started work on a project to document and hopefully collect and save the seeds of India's oldest trees. Especially indigenous fruit and medicinal trees. Collecting original clonal germoplasm is going to become very important soon because of the amazingly fast pace food varieties are dying at. I want to start an online database for our trees and am on the look out for people to help me with this.

Workwise, I'm consulting a few farms, but mainly prepping for things to start at Roundstone Farms next year. We will be hosting our first Permaculture Design Course in 2017 taught by my teacher and awesome person, John Champagne from Australia. It's going to be held in anticipation of the International Permaculture Convergence which is going to be in India for the first time, so I'm excited.

You recently moved to Kodaikanal with your family. What is it like?

I've never worked harder, or been happier. It's tough, no doubt. Forest fires, leopards, changing weather patterns.. there is always something new and nothing ever goes according to how you plan it.  

The farm is bordered by a national reserve forest through which elephants enter almost daily. Along with bison, deer, leopards, wild boar, even bears! We want wildlife experts and researchers to come to document the wildlife and hopefully create solutions to minimise human-wildlife conflict which is becoming a bigger and bigger problem in this part of the country.

But there are rewards. The mountains mean beautiful views and great food. Avocados and peaches and leeks, and carrying guavas or lemons over to your neighbour's because you got so many. There's a great organic community, with a farmers market every week and lots of friends living in beautiful places, making delicious things with their produce.  So, it's an inspiring bunch of people to be around.

Why did you choose Kodai as your base? 

My very good friend and mentor, Brooklyn John, was the reason I chose Kodaikanal. He basically showed me what an awesome life a farmer's life could be. He had a roaring fireplace and roaring friends and his wife was an amazing cook. He was part of the first crew in Kodai, a bunch of activist-lawyer-writer-farmers that legally fought for Kodaikanal and kept it small and organic. Kodai has an organic, bio-dynamic 18 hole golf course, thanks to them! It's perfect land for farming; lots of water; good soil; most of it still untouched. There are gorgeous views and the weather is perfect. I had wanted something in the mountains because of the rising water levels and global warming that is going to effect the geography of our planet. Already the altitude at which coconuts grow is getting higher and higher; so I think I did well.

You mentioned you are setting up a permaculture farm. What is permaculture and what does that entail? Does it carry on to other aspects of living?

It took a 600 page manual for the founder, Bill Mollisson to explain all that permaculture entails! It encompasses every part of life - from politics or economics to farming and building. There's no one right way to be a permaculturist - you use the code of ethics and basic principles to design your space and life according to the resources and limitations around you.

Keeping things open-source, creating a community, and taking care of the planet and those around you, are its cornerstones, I would say.

It goes without saying that a permaculture farm is organic; so it's not about how you are growing your food but also what you grow, where you grow it, who you sell it to, how much money you make and what you do with that money.

In regards to the farm, the basic idea is to observe and replicate the wild nature around a way that is even more 'fruitful' than a natural forest.

You preach self sufficiency in your own way - “grow ur food, build ur house, make ur own energy and fuk the police” How else are you setting up a self-sufficient life?

Yea I think it is the most revolutionary thing you can do. Provide for yourself so you don't have to be dependent on a system which seems to be heading for a meltdown, anyway. Someone said, permaculture is revolution disguised as organic gardening, and I thought that said it best. You can grow your own tomatoes and have your own water, but you still need to interact with the outside world. So, how do you learn to understand and maneuver your way around this flawed system? There are many ways of doing that maneuvering - and farming is just one of them. I love that permaculture addresses that. It's about creating healthy, sustainable systems for every area of life - from how to make large group decisions to non-monetary-based economies. Creating solutions that work for every stakeholder and result in a surplus.

You can use the system though, like we have solar energy but are sticking to the grid because here in Tamil Nadu, you can sell it back to the government. Water is the other big concern - we've built water tanks for rain water (even one bio gas tank for the house) and dug out ponds, swales and drains to save the majority of our water in the soil. And, lastly, the trees.

Creating a food forest from scratch takes decades so we are on our way but in no way finished. I'm growing this blessed trio of my favourite foods - avocadoes, coffee and peaches; plus a whole lot of guava, pomegranate, passionfruit, starfruit, lemons, oranges, chikoos, lots of flowering trees, nitrogen fixers, timber, a smattering of experiments (coconut!). We planted almost 2000 trees last year!

I remember you having a long hard think about which material to build your home from. From my last visit to Kodaikanal, I remember visiting both an Earthship and cob homes so you're in sustainable company, what have you decided to build and why?

It was an easy decision; there's so much stone on the land. It just made sense to use it. Permaculture to the rescue - use all the resources you got. As I learnt more, it got better and better. The sub-soil is perfect as a binder - especially when used with the gum of a tree that happens to grow all over the farm. I'm not sure it's luck - humans have found incredibly clever ways to build shelter over the centuries. So, I think it makes sense to get inspiration from the traditional houses in the area.

The house will be made of stone, lime and mud with timber from the land. We've also been having an amazing time discovering the vintage timber markets around Chettinad - choosing doors and windows from these gorgeous 100-200 year old mansions. Recycle when you can!

What do you hope your daughter Aeko learns about the environment? What should children be taught about sustainable living?

More than learning about the environment; the point was for her to have an environment conducive to learning. Children need space, exercise, fresh air; it sounds so obvious but it is something that kids in the city seem to be lacking. They learn best through example - so, I'm doing most of the learning for now. But, I do hope that she learns not to be afraid of it. I am sad to see many children having the fear of the outside being instilled into them by their parents. Kids just need to get dirty and run around - learn on their own, what they do. It's just the experience that's important. Eating under a tree, or running down a hill. Otherwise, trying to save it has no meaning.

This question actually touches on something that has pre-occupied me since the beginning of the year. James Lovelock, the guy that proposed the Gaia Theory wrote a book called The Revenge Of Gaia, in which he states that by 2020, extreme weather will be the cause of mass global destruction. He basically said that there was nothing we could do anymore. There was no saving of the planet. It was already doomed; we have around 20 years left and then life as we know it is going to come to a complete halt. Carbon offsetting, ethical living, no plastic -- it would make no difference, global warming has already passed a tipping point. His advice was to enjoy life while you can and to make the most of the few years left.

As the mother of a young child, it was very troubling to read. Was there any point in setting up this life if it was going to come to nought, anyway? Would it make more sense to just travel the world and give up these responsibilities? After a lot of soul searching, I realised living out on the farm was still the best way for her to grow up - whether it taught her anything or not. It just makes for a great childhood.


I remember you doing a bit of urban garden design when you were in the city. What can city people grow in their balconies and on their windowsills?

I actually think that cities have to become the main produce growing areas on the planet today. For millenia, man has grown food where he has lived - and that needs to start happening in the cities today. Too much food gets lost in transport and there's too much transport bringing it all in. Plus, it'll make cities prettier places to live in :)

It depends on climatic conditions but with good soil, water and some love, almost everything will grow. I would say, start small and try your hand at whatever is close - lettuce head cuttings, onions or potatoes that are sprouting, seeds of an especially tasty tomato. Aloe Vera, Lemongrass, Passionfruit and Basil are especially easy to grow.

What else are some simple ways city people can live more sustainably?

Foremost, we have the Power of the Consumer. Support local and small - anything that gives you some idea of where or how your product was made. Choose organic when you can. Buy your food from the local guy instead of a supermarket. Use whatever space you have to grow what you can - even if its a money plant to improve the air in your apartment. Share cars. Walk! Talk to your neighbours, create a community - it leads to sharing.  


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