So You Want To Buy A Farm?

I get a few calls every week these days from folks wanting to buy a small farm, start growing food, and even maybe settle down there now or later. This is a lot from folks around Bangalore, but there’s been lots of calls from Delhi, Indore, Chennai, Hyderabad and elsewhere too. Am writing this as a collection of my personal views, thoughts and learnings that have been shared over these calls over time — think of it as a primer or an FAQ to run through before you decide to buy a piece of land somewhere and dive in.

Go get a cup of chai or coffee and switch off notifications — this will be a slightly long, slow read and I’d love you to not rush it :)

First some quick background. And Full Disclosure.

I’m no star farmer and have more belief than “success”. We had bought about 5 acres in Coorg a decade ago and kind of left it alone, adding dozens of trees every now and then. This year we started paddy as well. I later got together with a bunch of friends and kicked off The Tamarind Valley Collective (TVC). The idea appealed to many and this is now a 51 member farm that has turned around from being a barren, degraded landscape to a forest ecosystem that’s robust and on its way to maturity. Given the interest in this I co-founded Beforest with a couple of people — this has 2 collectives under its banner now; a coffee (being diversified) + wilderness at Coorg and the other near Hyderabad. The friend who helped us execute TVC went on to create WeCommunites which is creating the Rose Valley Collective.

I have since quit Beforest primarily to chase what I’m calling the the “Six Dots on the Map Problem” — I’ll elaborate this in a separate post and link this to that later (now done). I have no continued commercial interest in creating the collectives, but I continue to be a champion of the idea and support them all. I am, of course, hoping that these farms, the members and the companies that benefit from it will help with the efforts towards solving the problem I mentioned above once a plan emerges and needs more to get involved. More on that later.

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Reasons?

“I am from a farming background, and want to reconnect with agriculture.”

“I want to grow my own food.”

“I want to go live a slower life and move there permanently. Eventually.”

“We want to leave something valuable behind for the kids.”

“I want to get out of the city.”

People have many different reasons some of which I paraphrased above. What are yours? Some easy ones to go with and an avoid -

Don’t do it in lieu of a mutual fund investment. It’s not that kind of an investment. It’s something you do for your life, for your lifestyle, because you want to do a little bit of fixing what you can, and so on. Not for the “investment portfolio” your wealth advisor will track.

Don’t do it as an escape. Or to go spend some time in a green, nice place. You can always visit these farms, volunteer there or (plug alert!) visit the Linger locations. Do it to learn, to get AND stay involved, to plant a tree for the future in the shade of which you may never sit. It does need a long term view and commitment.

Definitely don’t do it as a mere real estate investment of the short term returns kind. The number of pieces of land that are locked up in this — neither used for living nor farmed, and “cleaned” regularly to desert levels — is just heartbreaking.

Do it like you’d bring up a child. There will be ups and downs and challenges and battles. There will be wins and losses. And if all of this adds up to joy, it’s worth it. Else you’re merely setting yourself up for frustration.

Expectations and RoI

Is farming viable? What returns can I expect?

Let’s face it — (gyaan alert!) — we’re all products of an education system and corporate world and financial setup that is numbers driven, and the numbers have forced a shorter and shorter term view of everything around us. This deep seated instinct and the training of years in everything we do automatically gives rise to this RoI question for the farm as well. Especially since the sum of money you’re investing into it is not small.

This, though, is not that kind of an investment. It’s an investment into your life, into your and the kids’ future and that of the planet. It’s soil security, water security, food security and health, both for yourself and in the larger context.

And it’s almost incumbent upon those that can afford it to heal the soil and ecosystem — and that’s a slow change. A farmer today cannot afford to wait the 3–4 years it may take to turn the degraded soil/ecosystem around to a healthy one since their lives depend on the next crop, even as it gets worse and worse for them.

As you start on this journey, it’s like sending a kid to kindergarten — you got to have the patience and determination to get the foundational bits right, focus on the learning and education before you think about what professional course the kid should focus on or what salary it can lead to. You should think of your farm similarly. Build the value in it in terms of the core natural processes and ecosystem services that will keep it strong in the face of various climatic conditions — diverse and robust — and the valuation of this bit of that will automatically follow and happen based on a variety of factors including the opportunities in the market at various points, the creativity one has, the value addition one can drive and so on. You should really focus on creating abundance at the farm, along various dimensions.

Another huge way the farm can help from the financial pov is by reducing the need and role of money in your personal life as your become more and more of a producer of your food, your water, your energy needs, your leisure, better health and more. A key way to look at farming right is to grow for one’s own needs at the farm first, and take the surplus to market. As the farm starts becoming abundant in various things in various seasons, there will always be surplus — that’s typically how nature works.

The returns will be magical and come in unexpected ways — only if you do not pressurize the ecosystem early on to produce those conventionally for you. And no — large scale teak monocultures that will eventually get chopped down for timber don’t help :)

It’s never as Amazing or Scary as it sounds. And needs Patience.

You’ve read those wonderful , encouraging stories on TheBetterIndia etc about farmers who are making 10 lakhs of a couple of acres of land after “leaving their lucrative jobs in tech/finance”. I am starting to think that while it encourages many in the immediate term, it may be beginning to do the same kind of damage to farming long term that the glossies did to our expectations around our lives, jobs etc.

Farming is dependent on a gazillion variables which are all changing rapidly with the climate. In terms of monetization — the supply chain today is designed for the usual crops and produce, around large volumes of a few things and thus against diversity, soil and the farmer him/herself. So you’ll be battling that reality all the time.

Some farmers will be able to find the sweet spot amidst all these variables once every few cycles and crack it. Do not start expecting this to be the default state, or start optimizing for that one thing that has a lot of value in the market today. Many others will be doing exactly the same and it’ll not only not become a market reality just because of that (numerous earlier instances of a glut) but also harm your farm and the soil.

Your most valuable input at the farm, and tool in this shift, is patience. That, and working with nature to create abundance, not trying to impose one’s will on “produce this one thing” on it. Starting with sensible, not-too-high expectations will surely help get somewhere nice.

But hey, don’t get scared! You have multiple things on your side — nature, more resources than an average farmer, a growing community for support and know-how and post reading this, hopefully the right motivations and expectations :)

A forest like ecosystem takes time, iterations and un-and-relearning to get to. It is a lot more shock proof than conventional farms, and if you include the diversity of plants and foods you can grow in a mature 7 layer farm (yep, it doesn’t have to be a 2 dimensional one), will produce a lot more, all round the year and with far less work and inputs than regular farms do. Think beyond just organic. It gets easier and easier as the ecosystem develops, and your effort shifts to harvesting, value addition and figuring out ways to take it to market. It starts needing fewer and fewer inputs from outside, manage it’s own moisture and soil fertility and keep surprising you positively.

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Collectives Vs Homesteading Alone

Many who call in want to “buy a couple of acres and live off the land.” It’s a lovely, noble and slightly romantic thought. Before we kicked off TVC, I tried to understand the process at over a dozen farms friends had bought — only a couple who moved immediately made it work with huge levels of commitment and the rest went into limp-mode beyond a few months or a year at most.

Small farms are also a lot more fragile ecologically. Everything that happens outside your boundary impacts your farm too so the larger the farm is, the less the impact. (Ideally, a village scale collective with the villagers divesting part of their degraded land would be ideal, but it’s non trivial to pull that off at this point.)

As a collective — many buying, planning, operating a large farm as one — makes a lot more sense. It’s more robust as I explained earlier — it allows for a more sensible and logical use of the landscape to create edges, forested patches, waterbodies etc. You will not always have free time but in a larger group, someone or the other will, for sure. There’s also shared learning, knowledge, experimentation and enthusiasm — we account too little for the last bit in the face of frustrating times and troughs.

Financially too, it’s a tough battle. You might easily be able to buy a 2–5–7–10 acres yourself, of course, depending on the cash you have. Then there’s the cost of building all the essential bits out — a borewell/well, a pipeline for the various parts of the farm, a store, a shed, the fence, the pump room, electrical lines, backups, a shed for the cattle, a little house for yourself, one extra room for your guests, a house for the staff, the firewood shed …. it keeps adding up. Then you get to the farming inputs, operational costs, caretakers’ salaries, repair costs for the blown pumpsets etc, tools, and so on. When all of these are shared amongst a few dozen people, one’s able to lower the costs to a fraction and also afford a permaculture consultant, an architect (pick one who is ecologically aware and conscious and pushed your boundaries on this) (I have linked to the ones who helped us plan things at TVC) and so on. It is just a lot more sensible way to do this.

DIY? Managed? Overheads?

My ideal imagined collective is one where folks find each other, come together, evolve a common purpose and agenda, and move ahead with the plans and execution with various people taking on different responsibilities, and the original land owners who’ve divested some part of the land continuing to be a part of the collective and also take on roles in it. If you have a bunch of folks to do this together with and are confident of staying the course and putting in the time needed, this is a great way to create a farm.

But for most folks, getting this going is tough. There’s jobs and committment and know-how speed-breakers. TVC got off the ground because Vivasv/Varun helped us with the tough bits of land acquisition, vetting the paperwork, liaisoning with the panchayat and authorities, figuring out the construction teams and managing them. It is hybrid approach to a completely DIY effort and what traditional builders too wrt pre-decided plans and designs and folks signing up with a take-it-or-leave it. The members have been involved from early on in pretty much every aspect of the farm and collective — including the homes, the farm plans, the structures and rules that will help run the place.

A managed process will of course have it’s overheads — and it’s fair that the team managing it make a living out of this. In any case they’re not loading financing costs or risks on to this unlike for conventional builder projects, so the numbers are a lot saner. Also, if one includes the overheads one would incur for finding, vetting paperwork on and setting up one’s own farm — and I speak from my experience at our Coorg farm — this is likely more cost effective per person by a lot.

Either way, it’s totally worth doing it as a collective.

Pointers and Getting Started/What To Look For and Ask

I’ve already linked to Beforest (collectives in Coorg and near Hyderabad) and WeCommunites (RVC, near Thally, and one not far from Delhi) earlier. Both of these companies are creating permaculture/natural farming based collectives.

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The Poomaale wilderness collective by Beforest

At the time of writing this, there’s one member looking to exit TVC for personal reasons — you can get in touch with me if keen.

I’m not sure of the degree of member participation yet at the various collectives but given that they are born of the TVC template, am quite optimistic that these will take off nicely as well. The community is also something that’s a responsibility and opportunity, and not just something you pick as a consumer — getting involved to drive it a certain way is always possible and much needed. Do ping me and ask for pointers should you need help.

I know of someone trying to stitch up a collective 5–6 hours from Pune, at the base of Mahabaleshwar. Someone approached about a 40 acre piece of land and there’s a bunch of people interested in a collective near Bangalore so you guys could connect and explore this. I am personally helping a few friends set up a micro collective of 6 acres near our farm in Coorg, and happy to help with more (I have no commercial interests, again, and will merely want some help and funding for community projects there — I believe folks investing into these places should help the local community with some capacity building as well.)

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That’s at RVC being done by WeCommunities

There are more conventional farm options as well. Jain Farms (a community of members is starting to take shape to pursue food forests and collective farming, from what I saw) — is a lot closer to Bangalore and one can commute into town multiple times a week easily, but was developed as split plots with roads in between so needs work for ecosystem restoration. Hosachiguru has created many farms (not collectives) but from what I hear, it is split “plots” again and not particularly being done using natural farming methods or ecologically aware design. I’d love to connect with the folks doing this and help reorient the efforts to the extent possible, and the member communities can always come together and move in that direction. Prakruthi farms is another such effort I’ve heard of, amongst others, but these are further from being permaculture or natural farms.

Palaash Farms is experimenting with a “Try before you buy” approach to get people to experience the farm life. I think it’s a great idea so folks understand what they are getting into — Linger is open for this as well!

But the great thing is a focus on farms and green spaces seems to be going mainstream, and I hope it grows even more. I’m happy to assist in any way possible, and I hope this dump of what I’ve learned and felt in my journey helps you.

P.S. If you want to ask qns and find other ppl on the same quest, there’s a WA group : https://chat.whatsapp.com/Ku8Oiv3ENKIDWArKH5NXec

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