The Beginning – Notes From The Ground

From the invention of the microwave oven to that of the potato chips and post-it notes, several vital accomplishments were in fact pure accidents. Ishka Farms’ genesis too in some ways is a tale of serendipity that began in a direction quite different from where it finally came to be.

One cool, sunny day at the start of this millennium, Srikant, the sagacity behind Ishka, was with his father in their ancestral village near Charmarajanagar in Karnataka, attending a small event honoring their family for their contributions of a play ground land to the village school. The thanksgiving function stirred something deep within him – the villagers were acknowledging deep gratitude for a tiny gesture which would be ahuge windfall for the village’s welfare in years to come.

Inspired by the extent to which the villagers’ lives were being changed by a mere donation, Srikant felt this was the kind of population where more resources should be funneled into. He had been mulling a renewable energy project – a work-in-progress that could take shape as a bio-diesel factory, a solar, or wind farm – all of which needed a large parcel of land. One or more of the villages around Charmarajanagar could be the ideal place for his pet project.

Srikant began putting his thoughts into action immediately upon returning home to Kochi. A series of organized and spontaneous occurrences started taking shape. While impediments prevented situating the project in Karnataka, land acquiring and procedures seem to fall into place on their own when he started looking at options that would benefit less developed areas in the Tuticorin district of Tamilnadu. Renewable energy professionals were invited to assess the tract of land acquired in and around the villages of Neeravipudupatti, Arungulam, Keela Eral, Padarnthapuli and Vilathikulam. How effective will a bio-diesel factory using juliflora (karuvelam) as raw material be? Will the 365 acres suit a wind farm or solar farm? Where is the nearest electric sub-station? What are the cost implications, etc.

While this was happening, also quite by chance another meeting took place between Srikant and a South American agro-engineer in a bar in St.Petersburg (yes, as in Russia – that’s not a typo). The word capers was whispered in his ears and it was not the vodka talking. The more he understood growing capers, the more it became clear that the soil, weather, water and labor requirements in the land he had just bought, would suit, (nay be ideal) for growing organic capers. Producing an essentially Mediterranean-food condiment in southern India was a bit of a stretch by any measure. Can it be done?

Deeper learning about caper farming involved visiting established caper farms. The nearest farms were in Europe, Mexico and South America, not exactly a day trip from Kochi. An exploratory trip was the only way to convince himself he was not stepping into a large undertaking purely on a whistle and a whim. Srikant planned trips to Argentina, Israel, San Diego USA, Baja California in Mexico and Pantelleria in Italy. The farm visits only underscored what he already knew, farming capers was not going tobe a cakewalk. But he was up to the challenge.

To make sure his assessment that the conditions in the land in Tamilnadu was perfect for capers, he then invited his Argentinian acquaintance to Neeravipudupatti. At the meeting, squatting down in the field under a large banyan, the only tree for miles around that had survived several failed monsoons, the soil analysis reports and the water-test paperwork between them under granite-stone paperweights, a decision was made. Ishka Farms was born.

How we started- Founders Perspective

Serendipity lead to the establishment of Ishka Farms as the pioneering Caper farm in India. Srikanth and I had bought the land in 2021 with no clear plan of what or how to grown but with a general idea that we would take our careers and personal life path around the idea of renewable energy and regeneration of the land. Once we narrowed in on farming commercially but with organic principles and certification in mind, we experimented with planting, growing and harvesting of Moringa leaves. It was a steep learning curve for first time farmers. Simultaneously, we studied the global market for a niche in agricultural produce and narrowed down on growing Capparis Spinosa not just as an import replacement but also as a produce that could place India firmly on the international export map of stellar novel agricultural produce.

Our family held farm is a work in progress; in terms of expansion of cropped area and market reach, bettering of processes , automation , value addition of the core ingredients that we grow and being a zero waste farm. That we have chosen to bottle in re-useable glass jars only and that we have stepped away from established food distribution systems and take a more farm-to-fork approach has also thrown up an interesting set of challenges. However, the team Srikanth and I have built up over the years is up to the challenge of learning and tacking the myriad issues that come up.

Why Condiments?

I’ve been asked this so many times since we launched the condiment line. Simply put – at Ishka we believe that farmers should own as much of the value chain as they can and the privilege of education and exposure allows Srikanth and I to do so. The lockdown of 2020 was hard on everyone, including the Ishka family. Abandoned fields yielded odd shaped and sized berries that wouldn’t go in the standardized produce market. Conversations with Chef Divesh who has been a long time champion of the capers from our organic farm lead to the development of the range of easy to use Dry Spices , Sauces and Spreads.

The brief was seemingly simple but it took a whole team of people to bring it to fruition – highlight the produce of the farm, use ingredients from like minded farmers as much as possible, no added colour or preservatives and just to make it a little more challenging , we decided it had to be shelf stable at ambient temperature !! It was a tall ask, but 18 months into starting off, we had our 6 condiments ready to market. Convenient, delicious condiments that make putting together a snack or meal easy with the assurance of no nasty additives.

Seasonality of Condiments

While we developed the condiment line based on the perennial availability of the capers from our farm, a critical factor that we didn’t account for was the availability of all the other fresh ingredients used in the lineup of condiments. All of our understanding of the farming and produce cycle was limited to the area around our farmland and the villagers we work with daily. Supply chain issues of key fresh ingredients like the white Kandhari chilli and the red bell peppers had us stumped, and it has taken us the better part of a year to partner with other landholders to grow our requirements for us.

Developing and stabilizing recipes, finally reaching the market with it and then having some of the items go out of stock with no realistic timelines on when we would be able to get it all back on shelves was a hard lesson learnt. But learn we did, and partnerships and collaborations we had thought we would eventually work on once we were better positioned quickly became a priority!! While the vagaries of the weather will continue to dictate the availability of ingredients, and our timelines will have to accommodate that, we are learning to do better. Working with small landholders is satisfying on so many levels. While it ensures good quality of products for our product line, more importantly, it helps our work to have a more significant social impact than just the community and village we directly farm in. Ensuring livelihood and income in other villages engaged in agricultural activities ticks all the right boxes for us.

Livestock at the farm

It’s often asked and stands to reason that a working organic farm as expansive as ours would be expected to have cows or goats. We, however, do not. Simply put, we do not have water or other resources to ensure nutrition, environmental comfort and good health for farm animals. Water is universally a precious resource and a scant one where we are; add to it that the quality of water available from all sources on our land isn’t conducive for animal welfare.

So, we have focused instead on long-term activities to increase the water table, plant trees that provide green fodder for those in the nearby villages who do have other resources to keep livestock and permit free grazing on our land for the village goats. In turn, we buy the goat droppings from the villagers, thereby adding to the general household income in our community while having continued access to one of the essential nutrients for our fields. It’s a win for all and the makings of a circular economy!!

Farm Visits

We are a first-generation family-owned working farm in a small village in Ettayapuram Taluk, South Tamil Nadu. That means that while it is picturesque, resources and infrastructure are scarce. So our focus has been on setting up the farm for the actual growing of capers while encouraging biodiversity on our land and building the physical infrastructure for its running. From harvest to curing, to processing, to bottling, the final step of packing in cartons happens with the same team on the farm itself.

We do not have the capacity at this point to indulge visitors, day picnics or tourists. Friends passing by the area are also told that they cannot “drop in” to have a look or say hello. Although we would love for the company and be able to show and tell, it distracts from the daily working of the farm much too much. Our vehicles and tractors that ferry labour and material and whose use is scheduled to the optimum at any time must be relocated to transport visitors. At present, we cannot afford that. A responsible person from our staff has to be allocated to chaperone visitors, speak of safety in the field and the factory, and ensure hygiene and food safety standards inside our factory premises.

Hence for these reasons, it is a firm no visitors policy. We have enough traffic of people from various certifying and inspecting agencies and buyer’s representatives, and our resources can scarcely keep up with that !! In the year, we are freeing updates for students from culinary schools to visit, and hopefully, in the coming years, we will be able to accommodate well-wishers and visitors too.

The Kerala Hot Sauce

The focus while developing the Kerala Hot Sauce was not to play up on the extreme heat potential of the chillies we could choose from. Our focal point was to highlight and showcase the flavour complexity of the Ishka Farms Capers, balancing the heat and floral notes of the chillies with the tanginess of our signature Capers.

As with all the condiments in the Ishka Farms range, the Kerala Hot sauce is versatile and takes up multiple roles depending on how you like it. Drip, drizzle, dip, or dunk! Use it as a marinade or add heat to any sauce, dip or salad dressing.

We aimed for a well-rounded experience that, while championing the capers, also ticked off all the expectations one would have from a hot sauce. While our sauce scores only a 2546 SHU on the Scoville scale, the potent combination of the green peppercorns and two varieties of birds eye chilly will make the Kerala Hot Sauce your go-to everyday hot sauce.

Condiment Development- Chef’s Take

My training in Austraila is where I was first introduced on how to use Capers and Caperberries. When I discovered Ishka Farms, I was in awe of the fact that Capers grew in India. This Ingredient is under appreciated here and I have been on a quest since then to educate people about Capers. The condiment line launched in October of 2021 is an extension of that intent and this range of products makes Capers more user friendly without it being an intimidating ingredient. The Ishka team’s vision to come out with an up-scaled product line using their star ingredient helped me create a unique blend of spices and condiments that can be used to spruce up everyday meals. The fundamentals for both Ishka and me was to create something that not only tasted great, but fulfilled the brief of not having any artificial flavours, colours or any chemical preservatives.
With this initial range I have focused on developing condiments that are versatile and can support anyone to cook-up a brilliant & quick meal/snack. The recipes that I am writing with these condiments showcases how they can be used in different ways in every household.

Staying organic

In a bid to progress and prosper, humankind has adopted best-suited methods to achieve that goal in that particular time and place. Unfortunately, the significance and impact of such endeavours in the larger arc of time have either been ignored or just been unavailable.

This awareness prompts us to stay the course of organic management of the land and its resources, despite the myriad temptations to be otherwise. It would be far cheaper in monetary terms and less labour intensive to follow non-organic practices on a large commercial farm. Perhaps it is a foolhardy stand, but time will have to be the judge of that.

The challenges are primarily on two fronts:

  1. Weeds: Plastic mulching sheets offer a bit of respite from the weeds but not around the plant’s stems and not in the area between beds. The former has to be hand-picked, while the latter calls for year-round dedicated mechanical effort with brush cutters and tractors. The number of labour hours dedicated for this activity and hence passing this cost onto the harvested crop is where the issue is.

    Consumers awareness of this issue is scant; information shared is also usually scarce. Weeds growing up along the stems of the saplings do grow faster and sturdier the plant itself and needs to be pulled out before they grow strong or their roots established along with the plant root. Weed killers we have found so far do not meet the requirements of an organic farm, and until the plants grow large enough (10-15 years from planting ), this will be a constant struggle.
  2. Insect infestations: Depending on the season, the insect population varies; some of them are beneficial to the crop, some have to be considered pests as they eat the leaves of the plants and damage the crop. Depending on the species, insect traps and neem oil concoctions are used, but there are plenty of destructive species which do not have pheromone traps developed yet.

    For now, at Ishka Farms, we operate with what sits best on our conscience; follow organic practices, not just for certification, but because such management is better for soil health and produces a delicious and nutritious crop that we are proud of. This approach oftentimes results in us having to share a part of our crop with the insect life that calls our farmlands home. Since we are all part of the same ecosystem, I trust that in the larger scheme of things, it will be a small price to pay for clean water and soil.

To plant a tree is to hope

While right at the outset, we had articulated our intention to green the barren land, not only with commercial crops but also with indigenous biodiverse plant life, and that journey has been interesting though not without challenges. It has taken us six years to figure out a rhythm for sourcing and planting saplings of trees and shrubs. At times it has been prudent to germinate saplings in our own nursery, and sometimes it has proved to be wiser to buy sturdy saplings. We now have a mix of indigenous trees, flowering plants and shrubs that are pleasing to the eye and help break the monotony of the commercial fields while also being a barrier crop between the fields.

So many things have been learnt on the ground- just because a particular tree is endemic to the region, it doesn’t mean it does well in our soil or acclimatises to the water available on our land. I woefully underestimated the length of care that a sapling would need once it was in the ground, the mulching watering and nutritional requirements. These requirements reflect not just the financial and economic outlay but also the allocation of other scant resources – labour, water and time-share of the one water tanker we possess. The goal is to have drip lines in place for afforestation too, which is a whole other can of worms; it calls for valves independent of what runs for the caper crop; it would have to extend into areas of the land that we haven’t cleared and prepped for planting yet. What’s working for the project, though, is the willingness of the on-ground team to put in the effort to make it happen. Seeing the results of the initial efforts now certainly has made the team more enthusiastic about afforestation plans. At the outset, it seemed to run on my constant nagging, whereas since 2019, it has been on the basis of action plans drawn up months before monsoon season commences.

While the afforestation initiative at Ishka Farms is our bit towards off-setting widespread environmental destruction that we see the world over, it is but a tiny step by one enterprise in the face of massive global environmental destruction that has taken place. More needs to be continuously done, and at Ishka, we will continue to do so in the belief that these tiny steps would count.