Farm Fresh

Mumbai, Nergish Sunavala:

Urban professionals are paying money to milk cows on Raigad farms.

Many city-dwellers spend hours ploughing virtual fields and harvesting pixelated crops on Facebook’s popular game FarmVille. Farm owner Hemant Chhabra targets this audience on his Facebook page advertising his farm, Hide Out, as a tourist destination, or “The real FarmVille”. At Hide Out, a five-acre organic farm located in a tribal hamlet in Thane district, city folks pay between `1,500 and `2,000 a night to sow seeds and dehusk rice. They can stay in a mud or brick house or an eco-cottage. The most popular activity, Chhabra said, is drawing water from the well and pouring it over one’s head. Saguna Baug, a similar venture in Raigad district, even offers water buffalo rides to tourists.

Paying to do menial labour would have been unthinkable 20 years ago when urban folk still had ancestral homes in villages. Now, they’re flocking to farm and village homestays. “Most of us are second, third or fourth generation migrants,” said Inir Pinheiro from Grassroutes, a village tourism venture, “some of us might have seen villages or heard stories, but we haven’t really lived in a village.”

There are now 90 agritourism centres, or farms which double up as B&Bs, in Maharashtra, according to The Energy and Resources Institute. Agritourism has also caught on in Kerala, Goa and Haryana. Pinheiro said the number of tourists spending a night in Grassroutes’ villages has doubled from 2009 to 2010. The popularity of agritourism has prompted TERI to promote agritourism as part of its green initiative, “Krishi Dhan”, at the Bombay Exhibition Centre, this fortnight. Displays on farm tourism, village tourism and rural tourism are part of the exhibition.

TERI’s western region head, Dr Anjali Parasnis, considers agritourism a “win-win” since it gives urban Indians a chance to revisit their roots and allows farmers to earn more without giving up agriculture. “We need to preserve our farmland, whatever percentage of land is available for farming should be retained,” she explained. “Otherwise what about food security, what will we eat?”

But agritourism is a mixed blessing for rural India, warns Aditi Chanchani, coordinator programmes for Equitable Tourism Options (Equations). “Tourism is rarely a substantive solution to socio-economic problems. Its own nature of being fickle and vulnerable to externalities often results in it not delivering on the goals for which it is usually introduced – greater local economic benefits and stability.”

Groups like Grassroutes try to involve the entire village community and give a more embedded experience of rural life. In the Grassroutes model, villagers get 30 per cent of what visitors pay. Tourists live with the villagers and if they happen to come across a farmer ploughing his field, they can give him a hand. Edwin Francis was eager to travel with Grassroutes because he had never milked a cow or ploughed a field. He eventually chickened out of milking the cow but he did work the plough. “It has a mind of its own, it’s not like a machine …where you can press a break and it will stop. The two animals were running faster than me,” he said.

The decision to involve the village community was taken because Pinheiro has witnessed the conflicts that can arise otherwise. He recalled visiting a place called Devbagh on the Konkan coast where only ten families were involved in tourism. They would leave the lights on all night for the tourists and this led to a smaller catch for the fisherfolk because the fish, scared by the glow on the beach, evaded the net.

To minimise the impact of tourism, Grassroutes has put a cap on the number of tourists allowed to visit a village at a time and in a year. Also, guests are asked to conserve water. This last point is very important because even in places facing acute water shortage like Ladakh, tourists demand western toilets, which require more water, explained Equations’ Chanchani.

Judging by Chhabra’s anecdotes, playing farmer for the weekend isn’t that easy for creepy-crawly-fearing city-dwellers. Some go back the same day after paying the full amount because they find the experience too raw. “Last monsoon we had two couples, the women saw an earthworm curled up in their bathroom,” said Chhabra, “both of them  insisted to their husbands, ‘It’s a baby snake’.