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A Chat With Urban Farming Expert Adrienne Thadani

In a world cramped with concrete, with food blasted by pesticide, it’s everyone’s dream, lately, to have a garden to call their own. Sadly, city life makes it an impossible dream — or does it? Adrienne Thadani keeps a thriving garden in the thick of Mumbai and teaches others how to do the same. We chatted with her about her workshops, her venture to design, plant and maintain home gardens, and all the myths — and possibilities — around keeping a garden in the city.

The Swaddle: How did Fresh and Local begin?

Adrienne Thadani: When I moved to India  six and a half years ago, my only experience in growing food was planting a few cucumbers in my grandmother’s backyard and germinating a lima bean in science class. Where I lived [Washington D.C.], I grew up around organic food, without consciously knowing it. I was used to always eating fresh food. When I moved to Bombay, I loved the city and everything that came with the move, but in a few months I was really craving a fresh, green salad. Everyone I spoke to, who purchased any kind of organic food, had personal connections with the source. Organic was not easily accessible otherwise.

I began spending time at the Hiranandani Gardens’ Horticulture Centre, and fell in love with everything they were doing. We were doing landscaping, but everyone there knew how to grow food. So, I asked why we couldn’t do that instead. After persisting with my questions, they eventually they helped me set up a garden to grow my own food. We started simply with lemongrass and mint.

A few months later, I moved, and my new house didn’t have space for a garden. Someone put me in touch with [enterprise incubator] Bombay Connect. They had a terrace space they allowed me to use, and I started growing food there. In the process, I found that this wasn’t easy to do; I had to rely on personal contacts for any kind of information. That’s how it began: very simple and very personal. Because of the challenges, I ended up creating a huge network to do something very simple. Somewhere along the way, I began sharing what I learned and my personal experiences, through workshops. And that’s where the idea for Fresh and Local was born. I realized there was a dearth of information, and people really needed reliable first-hand information, to start something like this by themselves.

TS: What Is Flyover Farm?

AT: When Fresh and Local began, I assumed I would take it to an NGO at some point, and someone would pay to help me research and develop this idea. But it was hard to find any kind of investment or backing, [but finally] Unltd India invested in us. After that, people heard about Fresh and Local and what we were doing, and everyone who heard wanted us to come help them grow.

In 2012, I met Naheed Carimjee. She had a huge terrace and wanted us to use it to grow something. So we took over her terrace, and raised funds to start Flyover Farm, which is a community garden where we grow our own produce. The idea behind Fresh and Local was to share the skills necessary for people to grow their own food. And when we started Flyover Farm, we realized there are so many people who really want to do this, they just need someone to learn from. When people come to Flyover Farm, they see that it’s possible to grow something even in a small space, and that gives them the confidence to do it themselves.

TS: Do you have any gardening tips for our readers?

AT: Urban farming is not impossible. I’ve seen a lot of people get overwhelmed with all the different information everywhere and wondering if they can do it. The first thing is to make it sound less daunting. Call it kitchen gardening, for starters. With my own experience, I can say that it is possible to grow food in the city. And once you begin to do it, even on a small scale, you will be reconnected to your food. You’ll want to know your farmer, you’ll want to support him, because you’ll see how much effort goes into creating food. And the other thing about kitchen gardening is that it’s a smart way to make the city greener. You plant something, you get something back, and the city gets more green. It’s a win-win.

Work around pollution. A lot of people ask how the pollution in the air affects the crops. Well, it is a real problem in the cities, but there are ways to work around it. You have to adapt to the space. You can grow plants that filter the air on a screen, and all your produce is guarded by the screen. Or you can grow root vegetables, or something that has a hard exterior. For example, a fruit like a banana has a thick skin that you peel off. Studies show these are less likely to absorb the pollutants from the air.

Don’t worry about the yield. At Flyover Farm, we don’t use any kind of chemical pesticide. We use natural fertilizer, which also works as a pesticide. When working with any space, we have noticed that it takes about two years for the space to get into balance, and then it settles down. The good thing about growing something at home is that you’re not dependent on the outcome as much as a farmer. So why put chemicals if you’re growing your own fresh food? How we tackle this at Flyover Farm is we have a diverse array of things growing. So, if a pest does come, it won’t destroy everything because different pests go after different crops. And if you have healthy soil, you have fewer pests.

TS: Any parting words of advice?

AT: I’d say, get to know your food. Form a relationship with it. The biggest thing I noticed with Fresh and Local and Flyover Farm is how much growing food changes how people view it and value the cost of it. And everyone comments on the taste. Eating food within 24 hours of harvesting it means you aren’t losing any flavor during transportation. And food is definitely more nutritious when it’s fresh.

Also, think about the impact of eating organic on the environment. At the moment, the reasons for eating organic aren’t as holistic as they could be. People are aware that eating organic is beneficial for them, but the whole picture is not necessarily talked about all the time. We need to think about the benefit of not using pesticides on the environment as well. Think about the chemicals that aren’t being put in the air, about how the farmers aren’t inhaling those chemicals. It goes much further than the direct benefit to the consumer.

Lastly, don’t be scared to get your hands dirty. Come to a workshop at Flyover Farm, come touch the soil, see how a healthy farm looks, and you might soon be growing your own tomatoes!

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