Interview with Unnamalai Thiagaraja
Unnamalai Thiagarajan, of India's Balmaadi Estate, began farming biodynamically in October 2002 and received her official certification from Demeter in May of this year. We wrote to her recently with some questions about her experiences with biodynamic agriculture. Here is what she told us...
Why did you decide to go biodynamic?
In my opinion, our food and the environment have changed almost beyond repair. Forty years ago a farmer knew only one way to grow vegetables - by using neem [a tree native to southern India], cow dung and other natural methods. With the demand for increased productivity and low prices, however, farmers have been forced to turn to pesticides and fertilisers. The fruits and vegetables we get today taste different from those that we ate as children - and we had fewer allergies and were far more resilient back then.
I realised that every inch of land that is given back to organics will help to save the environment. Farming this way also helps to show that our food ought to be healthy and full of life, not just filling. So I began my experiments on our coffee estate. Experts in several organic fields visited Balmaadi and helped us to establish their systems. I found that the biodynamic approach was closest to my heart and most effective on the farm.
What does "biodynamic" mean for you? How does it differ from organic farming?
Biodynamic to us is a part of organic farming. It is the harnessing of human, plant, and animal energies, combined with the channeled energies of cosmic forces, to produce preparations of rich healing power that we administer to our farm's environment. Biodynamic farming has a holistic approach which is in tune with our Indian philosophy of man, animal, plant and soil interdependent and influenced by astral forces.
The great advantage is that the quantities used are small, which is perfect for farming in modern India, where there is a shortage of manpower available for farm work. We make most of what we need on the estate - all the biodynamic preparations, compost, liquid manure etc. Although this is demanding and requires a lot of advanced planning, it ensures that we know exactly what we are putting onto our land.
Was converting to biodynamics worth it?
Yes. Every year we do soil tests and our latest report was extremely heartening. All the macro and micro nutrients are available abundantly in our soil. This is quite simply the best that a farmer can ask for.
Almost everyone was very skeptical when I first started, which was hardly encouraging! Nevertheless, I went ahead and did what I believed in and these efforts are now paying off.
In 2004, Balmaadi was judged India's Best Arabica in The Flavour of India, Fine Cup Award, which was a great morale boost. This helped to silence our critics and demonstrate that bio-dynamic agriculture is both sustainable and practical. We have since gone on to win The Flavour of India, Fine Cup Award for India's Best Organic Arabica and India's Best Estate Branded Coffee in 2007. Ultimately, however, we think that our coffee speaks for itself - the quality of the bean and the clarity of its flavours have blossomed since we converted to biodynamics.
There has also been a more unexpected consequence - as a result of my efforts and media publicity awareness of organic methods has increased hugely. The number of organic and biodynamic farmers is growing, and so is the demand for natural food.
Does biodynamic farming have any drawbacks?
Biodynamics takes time and its effects are not immediate. As the soil health builds up the plants - weeds included!! - grow healthier.
We have some weeds on the farm that are extremely virulent and we can't control them using only biodynamic pest control preparations. This means that we have to devote a lot of time and manpower to slash weeding, only to see these weeds come up again as strong as ever. I would be happy to hear from anyone who could suggest how I can get them under control!
Also, in an emergency - if, for example, there is sudden outbreak of a leaf disease - there are no instant remedies. We have to carry out the traditional practices, pray, wait and watch.
Unnamalai Thiagarajan, Balmaadi Estate, Tamil Nadu, India