Speeding down a highway and weaving through Bangalore’s traffic, I clutched my luggage and held on tight to the back of the motorcycle. I remember thinking, “Well, this is already off to a very exciting start.” The driver, John Fennessy, was taking me to Hamsah Farm, his permaculture farm outside of Bangalore. After setting down my stuff, we had some lunch and talked while touring Hamsah’s two and a half acres. The velocity might have changed, but the experience was just as exciting.
John, originally from New York state, first came to India in 2001 through a university study program. After university, he returned to India and started living in Auroville, a spiritual community devoted to humanity, unity and ecological harmony. He lived and worked in Auroville for nearly two years at a farm called Solitude. It was at this farm that he met and fell in love with his wife, Swetha. They were married in Bangalore and then moved to California with the intention of saving money. With money saved they moved back to Bangalore and purchased the farm in 2008.
For the first three years of the farm, it was mainly John doing most of the work, with occasional workers and WWOOFers’ assistance. In 2011, they were invited to a farmers’ market in Bangalore, where people really took notice of this organic farm, which was no more than 30 kilometers outside of the city. It wasn’t until then, John feels, that the farm fully blossomed. “I’m pretty pleased with how things have developed,” John said after discussing the history of Hamsah.
At Hamsah, the casual visitor will be pretty pleased as well. We strolled the garden while I ate a delicious mango — my last of the season. The budding food forest is host to mango, papaya, banana, soursop, fig, drumstick, coconut and chickoo trees. Vegetables are grown abundantly, including tomatoes, beans, potatoes, basil, lemongrass and corn, with finger millet and peanuts grown in the rainy season. The farm has two cows, one of which has given the Hamsah Farm its name. The cows produce milk and plow the land, as well as provide an excellent source of fertilizer.
John plows the land about three or four times per year due to the dry climate and the heavy, compacted soil he works with. Some permaculturists argue against tilling, but after some internal debate, John decided to go ahead and till. “We’ve got to plow after rain to allow more moisture in the soil,” John said reluctantly. “I’m working with too big of a space to not plow.” For additional cover crops, he uses horse gram and cow pea, both of which are edible and fantastic nitrogen fixers.
A personal challenge of John’s, which I think all of us can relate to, is finding a balance between overwork and no work. He certainly is busy. After showing me around the farm, John told me that a class of 12 kindergarten students would be coming early the next morning for a tour. Offering my help, we then set out to the peanut field to widen the path in hopes to make the farm more ‘kid friendly’. We hoped to minimize the damage to the young peanut plants that the six-year-olds were bound to do, and did. So goes life on the farm.
Over our dinner of veggies and ragi (finger millet), we further discussed challenges that John faces or has faced in the past. The biggest challenge, he admits, is organization. “I am juggling a lot of projects at the same time. I also want to visit other farms in the area to learn and get more ideas about what to do here.” Raja, a friend visiting from a nearby organic farm, said that he too struggles with multitasking on his farm. Working on a large farm with an international community, he also faces challenges in terms of language and cultural differences between his farming companions. And like all true farmers, they both admitted that the weather and most of all the rain is a constant concern for any farmer in southern India.
Yet with great challenges come great rewards.“The most rewarding part about the farm is having land that you are surviving and deriving an income from,” John said thoughtfully. His passion was fully demonstrated the next day as he patiently explained to the large group of energetic kindergarten students about the different fruits and vegetables grown on the farm. We managed to help chaperone the children, their parents and teachers through the farm without mishap. Afterward, John gave a humble explanation of why he does what he does. “I’m doing this because there’s nothing else my heart would be okay with.”
His hard work and dedication have not gone unnoticed either. John has had several articles written about his farm in local papers. People are starting to recognize him and his products. He is influencing the city of Bangalore in a small, meaningful way.
The best part about the farm, my personal favorite, is the young, alternative community of Indian artists and activists that Hamsah hosts and that John is proud to call friends. I enjoyed listening to Raja talking about his permaculture experiences on his farm. I played music with Sudeesh. I learned about the Gao Cyan organization that Joshine and Kaushik run. They work to raise awareness of the highly illegal Indian beef market. The Selembu cow is native to India and is increasingly slaughtered and shipped to Middle Eastern countries as a luxury item. The Selembu population has gone from 10 million to two million in just 15 years. All of these friends of John’s contributed something to my experience and I am very grateful to have met them.
If I had to change one thing about the experience, it would have been to stay longer. I got on the bus to go on to my next destination and thanked John for the inspiration. I meant it when I said a big reason for my trip is to stay inspired and remain hopeful about the future. Hamsah provides both hope and inspiration from one person doing what he can to make a difference.