I still remember the night I started praying. It was the month of August, the year 1988. The monsoons had failed for the second year in a row, the stream that flowed by the house had gone dry, and all our plants started withering. The first to go were the clove trees, all twenty one of them. Each tree had an earthen pot buried with a jute string leading to the root zone for the water to trickle down (this reduces the rate of evaporation). Normally the pots would have been filled every fortnight, but there was no water now.
The people living on the farm needed water, the plants needed water, the cattle needed water, and above all, the household needed water. My neighbour from the other side of the stream said he was putting his property up for sale and heading to a city. If we were to move, we had to take our people, cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, chicken, and geese with us—and there wasn’t any place we could possibly go. It reminded me of the stories I read in school, where people would abandon their village homes and move with their belongings in search of food and water because of drought and famine.
I didn’t want to move. So, like all wise men, I asked my wife for advice. ‘Why don’t you pray for a change instead of cribbing all the time?’ she said.
We had a picture of a deity on a window sill and occasionally, I would throw it a kiss when I passed by. But that evening, Anita, the children and I put our hands together and prayed for rain. As it turned out, it did rain that night. The stream started flowing again, and we did not have to move, after all.
Where I live, in a place called Pattiveeranpatti, in the lower Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu, we receive an average of 60 inches of rainfall in about 90 days of a year. Some of this is during the south-west monsoon in June–July, and the major share is during the north-east monsoon in October–November and early December. In addition to this, most parts of the Western Ghats, including the Palani Hills, receive summer showers in late March, April, and May.
I have lived here my entire life, and. I earn my livelihood by growing produce, like my father, and his father before him. At present, we have hill bananas, coffee, pepper, avocados, paddy, jowar, coconuts, and amla—all grown naturally, without any chemical pesticides. Coffee happens to be the main crop in a three-tier permanent cropping pattern with banana trees, orange trees and dadaps (erythrina lithosperma) forming the middle-tier and native trees like wild fig and navel forming the upper canopy. It’s only in India that we find such a system of coffee being grown in the shade of other trees under rain-fed conditions. We also raise cattle for dung, and run a small nursery.
For a long time, I thought that climate change wouldn’t affect people living in the hills. But I can see the effect it is having on our lives. The rainfall patterns haven’t changed much, but we are witnessing more rainy days now. Normally we do most of our planting in April and then in September (before the typical monsoons), but in the last few years we’ve been able to plant in the months in between as well. On the flip side, the weather is getting more extreme, and we are now experiencing increasingly hot summers and cold winters in the last two decades.
For food growers like us, water is the beginning and the end. It dictates our schedules of work and rest, sowing and harvests, wins and losses. Some locals jokingly say that umbrellas are taboo in these areas, for the belief that it won’t rain if you walk around with one. Take for example, the summer rains, also called the ‘blossom showers’ by coffee-planters. They trigger the flowering process for the plant, and determine the year’s production of coffee beans. Here’s how it works:
Around where I live, the flower buds on the coffee plant initiate in October, remain dormant during the cold and dry winter, and burst into flowers on the ninth day after the blossom showers. Blossom time in plantations is excitement time, with everyone trading notes about the amount of rain and what their blossom estimates and crop prospects for the year are. The working of the plantation is based on the blossom estimates. If the blossom is healthy, a high crop is expected at harvest 240 days later, though hailstones sometimes play spoilsport by damaging the flowers and thereby the crop. That being said, there’s never ever been a case of the blossom showers failing. You look after nature and nature looks after you.
No one goes into the fields at blossom time, one must avoid knocking down the strong scented flowers before they set into fruit. Another reason for staying away is to let the bees do their work. Strangely, it’s the wild bees that know when the first summer rains would come. Hoards of them arrive two to three weeks before the rains, buzzing and swarming, and make their hives high above on the tall nellarai trees. The more the number of hives, the better the blossom.
My coffee-planter neighbour further up the stream, who is very passionate about his job, was so happy that his daughter was born on the day of the coffee blossoms blooming that he named her Blooming Blossom, or something like that. Luckily for his son, he was born on another day.
Coffee is a shade-loving plant, which is grown under the canopy of taller trees around the Palani Hills region. To keep the plants cool, I used to maintain 40 trees per acre of coffee. These trees were grown to a height of 30 feet or more, to provide shade for the 1,200 coffee plants on every acre of land. Now with the hotter summers and colder winters we’ve been witnessing over the past two decades, I’ve increased the number of shade-providing trees in the upper-tier from 40 to a 100 trees per acre to protect the coffee.
The hotter the climate the more water plants will need. For this purpose, saving and storing water becomes essential to combat the climate crisis. With rising temperatures, the soil moisture gets depleted faster. Periodical application of farm yard manure or compost will not only improve the soil structure, it will also enhance the water-holding capacity of the soil. Mulching with dry leaves around the drip circle of plants to prevent evaporation is a must. Normally, the upper canopy of shade trees is lopped and pruned every year and the lower canopy twice a year and this brings a lot of leaf litter around the coffee plants, which adds to the humus content of the soil and also suppresses weeds. Once a visiting agronomist seeing all the mulch and organic matter in the field remarked, ‘You stick a finger in there, it is bound to root.’
Drip irrigation is another effective way to save water, and the government centre in Reddiarchattram, near Dindigul, is a wonderful resource to understand its benefits. At this centre, vegetable plants are produced in climate-controlled greenhouses and distributed to farmers free of cost. The rainwater is harvested off the greenhouses and a computerised drip system irrigates the plants. A visit to this centre is well worth it. Also noteworthy is the fact that the cost of drip irrigation systems are currently subsidised by the government, though subsidy offered depends on land usage and category.
Climate change is here to stay, and we as farmers have to adapt ourselves to the change, in the systems we use, but also the very crops we choose to grow. For example, the mandarin oranges in the lower altitudes do not flower anymore because of the higher summer temperatures. Avocado trees are a suitable replacement for mandarin oranges, and one can also consider sun-loving fruit trees like durian and rambutan that were previously not suited to these environs.
Irrigation is essential and the time to augment our water resources is now. With a little more attention to water management and temperature control, we might be able to grow a greater range of produce than before—but this requires us to embrace diversity, be open to change, and ultimately, be more connected to our habitat. If we can facilitate moisture in the root zone, and make use of the sun’s heat and light, we can bring about the magical phenomenon called ‘growth’ in plants. And this is, ultimately, what each one of us farmers prays for.