Why Condiments?

Upscaling and Turning Zero Waste

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.

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.

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.

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.

Our First Monsoon

When we think of rains in India, we always seem to picture the monsoon season; starting in June and lasting through till September, the bulk of the subcontinent receives a much-awaited respite from sweltering summer when the south-westerlies hit and drench the arid paddy fields, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Coastal Tamil Nadu, however, gets its share of precipitation only when the monsoon winds “retreat” to bring rains in October/November.

While monsoons fail frequently (the last 50 years have seen failures 14 times),  retreating monsoons fail even more often. The small farmer in Thoothukudi ploughs and prepares the land for planting in late August; hope is his paramount inspiration. He selects crops (tuvar dal or pigeon pea, chilly peppers, and moong dal being three among regional favorites) that will not require abundant water, and at the same time, can survive waterlogging as once the rains fall, the clayey, black soil stays flooded for weeks.

The 25 acres of young moringa at Ishka looked lush and verdant in August 2014. We had designed the farm to receive irrigation from groundwater as the rains were not our main source for watering. Three consecutive years before 2014 had, in fact, seen no significant rains in these villages. But a huge,  unpleasant surprise was coming up. The rains were unusually heavy this year, and the flooding was so severe that all access roads/paths to the farm were underwater for several weeks. Moringa being an arid tree, couldn’t handle this much drenching, and most bushes did not survive.

Once the water receded, there was more bad news. The tinctoria roots still embedded underground grew rapidly, nourished by the abundant rainwater. Weeding them was a military scale operation we were not prepared for. The weed grew taller than the moringa by far, and soon we realized we were fighting a losing battle. Our staff who accessed the farm by motorcycle were forced to wade through knee-deep slush to reach work. Workers from the village just couldn’t keep up with the weeding schedules as well.

Also, we got schooled big time on pest management! Grasshoppers and other insects lay eggs that lie buried in the soil, waiting for the right time to hatch. Once the rain falls, the eggs hatch and in a matter of days, the area is teeming with grasshoppers and bugs that love feasting on moringa leaves!

Lesson learnt. Way forward, we decided to remove the tinctoria roots, this time using the services of a giant JCB excavator that can delve deep and thorough in getting out their roots once and hopefully forever. Also, we used extensive plastic mulching on the plant beds. To keep out smaller weeds without using chemical pesticides was a bigger issue. The pests have posed their share of challenges. Luckily, we found suppliers of chemical-free pesticides.

Also, and more valuable to us in the long run, the villagers taught us to prepare our own organic pesticides using locally available ingredients. They willingly shared with us age-old formulas that have been in their families for generations. This we find extremely precious and endearing. Both moringa and capers are quite pest resistant and don’t require special pest-control protocols. However, the regional brown grasshopper variety (the locals call it vettukili) loves chomping on caper bushes, and timely spraying with homemade organic pesticide is the only reason the bushes survive and thrive as they do now.

Afforestation

Taking the community that we work in, forward along with us, has been the vision at Ishka Farms. We are delighted that our impact on the Community now stretches further than the village we operate in.

The wooden spreaders at Ishka Farms are handcrafted by Bikram Marak of North Garo Hills, Meghalaya. A school teacher by profession, this award winning sculpturer uses simple tools in his wood-crafting atelier to fashion both decorative as well as functional objects from Teak wood. The work commissioned by us enabled him to acquire machinery for the workshop and us to showcase his work with a daily use item. The branding on the spreaders was done by Kochi based Takshan Creatives, the entrepreneurial venture of Oorjja. Oorjja focuses on imparting skills to differently abled individuals to find careers and explore opportunities

Social Change

While the barren piece of land at Niravi Pudhupatti is slowly undergoing a transformation under our watchful eye, there is also an impact on the local socio-economic climate. We provide year-round employment to people in the local villages. The local economy is otherwise subsistence farming, dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon. Since we commenced operations, we have not only demonstrated our short term commitment to the local economy by providing avenues for daily labour irrespective of the climate but have also taken a giant leap of faith by investing in infrastructure. We have built post-harvest processing and bottling facilities within the village and not relied on the facilities available in nearby towns. This infrastructure provides avenues of employment opportunities for the educated youth in the village, who are otherwise headed to cities to realize their employment dreams. An added impetus to create infrastructure within the farm was to maintain a lead-time of “under an hour from harvest to processing” to retain the freshness in the product.

The backbone of our farming endeavours is our group of women. Our strength in the fields, harvest, post-harvest activities and in administrative activities are the women of Niravi Pudhupatti and the surrounding villages. Women from different backgrounds, strata and personal life stories work with us and motivate us with their hard work and perseverance. We are encouraged by their commitment to scale faster, bring in better facilities and help us become a change agent in their life.

Our simple farming endeavor was never fathomed to be a catalyst in the life of the village. All farm hands now have bank accounts, own a vehicle or have dreams of owning one soon. They now dare to dream of a better life and in doing so, alert us to our responsibilities towards them.

We are in an area blessed abundantly with the sun and wind, and our focus has been on tapping into clean sources of energy as we grow.

Bringing back the trees, flowers, birds, bees and butterflies

The environmental impact of every thing we do at the farm has guided our plans, process and practices. It has been a learning curve for us from lessons learnt on the ground as well as from interactions with those who have paved the path of organic, regenerative and sustainable farming practices.

Balancing the negatives of mono-crop plantation with the desire to be a self-sustaining regenerative farm, in the long run, has thrown up interesting challenges and lessons. While we are a mono-crop plantation (acres dedicated purely for Capers or Moringa to achieve efficiency of manpower and infrastructure spend), we rotate crops between beds of the commercial crop with sun hemp, pulses and millets. We also have barrier areas between sections of the farm planted with indigenous tree saplings and flowering shrubs. These not only help in nitrogen-fixing but also provide the green matter for our compost heaps and also get mulched into the soil while being the sacrificial plants for pest attacks.

At the outset of the farming journey, we focused on sturdy plastic mulch sheets to trap moisture, prevent evaporation of precious water from the beds and curb weeds. Over the years, we have experimented in the new areas being cropped with planting in planters created from discarded roof tiles, cylindrical planters made from clay, and bed covers  of bio-waste. This approach has helped us enrich the soil and curb the weeds that come up during the monsoon in a more holistic fashion. The health of our plants points to the balance that has been achieved with the environment.

The land we procured in 2012 was bereft of trees, shrubs or any avian life. To correct that imbalance and encourage the symbiosis of birds – insects-flowers-trees, we commenced an afforestation plan. We are focused on planting trees endemic to that region in the hope that the parrots, peacocks and kingfishers that make the nearby villages their home, will soon choose to dwell on our land too. We look forward to their role in pest control so that we continue to be organic in all aspects of our functioning.

The trees (saplings) that are now flourishing on the farm will not only increase the water table in the years to come but will also provide the biomass needed to enrich the land.

We are committed to water conservation and water recharge – a commitment made even before farming operations commenced. This not only led us to identify crops that we would grow but also guided us in investing in state-of-the-art drip line systems for irrigation and fertigation. The natural slope of the terrain is being used to our advantage to channelise water in monsoon towards old dried-up springs. While we use bore wells, we are delighted to note that our peak summer yield of water has been significantly improving since we started working the land in 2014.

Fertigation is done using only certified organic products with an emphasis on time tested formulations made on the farm – cow dung, cow urine, neem, chilly, garlic, and other natural ingredients play a major role in our operations to save the crops from pests. We have fostered relationships with local self-help groups to make some of our fertigation requirements, thereby fostering relationships within the community we work with.