Dunedin, Otago

Sustainable Landscape & Ecological Restoration, Design & Consultancy


Fulfilling a Vision


After twice traveling in India as a backpacker, I conjured up romantic ideas of living in a small village, learning to speak Hindi and losing myself in the simplicity of rural Indian life.

My background is in horticulture with an unshakeable passion for sustainable organic farming. I began my training as a Horticulture Cadet in Tauranga, NZ and went on to do the National Certificate in Horticulture and the Biological Crop Production certificate by correspondence. Later, in Australia, I completed the Associate Diploma in Landscape Design and the National Bush Regeneration Certificate.

I spent a few years establishing an Environmental Center for a local town Council with the emphasis on recycling through composting, worm farming and organic gardening. I went on to run my own sustainable landscape design business and tried my hand at growing vegetables in glass houses back in New Zealand.

Eventually, I was able to explore the idea of offering my services as a volunteer in India. I searched the web for possible volunteer horticulture opportunities and found the Morarka Foundation (www.morakango.org), a Charitable Trust set up by in 1993 to conduct scientific research on innovative solutions for industries involved in sustainability. The Foundation is responsible for establishing vermicomposting units all over India. In 1995 they began an integrated intervention program for organic food production and marketing, covering over 100,000 farm families in different agro-climatic zones.

I met with the welcoming Morarka Foundation staff in a small village named Watika, 10 kilometers from Jaipur, Rajasthan. The office is in a lovely setting down a sandy road amongst large Neem trees, surrounded by numerous well tended and efficiently operated worm beds. The smell of Neem permeates the air - they use it as a deodorizing material in the worm beds.

After an initial interview with Mukesh Gupta, the Managing Director, (quite intense with many questions about what I could offer the Foundation and what experience I expected to receive), I agreed to return in August.

I arrived as agreed, courtesy of an auto rickshaw driver who kicked me and my backpack out in the intense heat at the beginning of the long (1 km) sandy drive. I arrived at the office hot and sweaty, but was soon calmed down by the genuinely friendly hospitality of the Foundation staff.

Mr. Gupta was set on a “High Tech” system to grow organic vegetables out of season. I explained that nothing I do or know is High Tech, just old fashioned, sustainable techniques based on observation and plant stress preventative methods.  He was silent for a while then said, “I want you to set up an organic demonstration farm.”



Setting up a Demonstration Farm


At the site he had in mind, most of the land was planted in rows of 3-4 year old Amla and Drumstick trees, native to India’s arid region (and used in everything from pickles to shampoo, and curry). There was ample space for crops in between the rows until the trees got bigger, but the soil structure was poor and the soil and water had a high pH.

Average August-November temperature is 36°C to 42°C (97°F-107°F) but it was often hotter. Total rainfall consisted of two heavy storms lasting two hours. Groundwater powered by an electric pump was available at irregular times.

One area already had raised beds covered in weeds, with a partially completed gravity-fed drip irrigation system and a 500-liter tank on the roof of the house.  We re-laid the drip irrigation and installed another tank on the roof. When the power was on we filled both tanks to give us enough water to irrigate morning and night.

The farm was producing its own vermicast from out-sourced cow manure, but there was no compost on site. My previous experience taught me that compost and vermicast are best used together, so the first priority was to get the composting process started.

My assitant arranged for three local village women to come work on the farm (women do the manual labor there) and one large trailer-load of fresh cow manure to be delivered for making compost. After the first day with these hard working ladies we had ample weeds to be used as carbon material and the next day we made the first compost pile.

These local village women worked in the fields six (seven if I let them) days a week. The clothing they are wearing in the photo is what they work in most days. I worked with them until 10 a.m. when I retreated into the fan cooled house to work on trial notes and reports. The women worked outside in the heat all day, singing, laughing, and having a pretty good time. I made them chai three times a day and we swapped food.

I am 5 ft 9” so you can see these women are tiny, but very strong. I never saw any men work in the fields. They wouldn’t carry anything themselves, but would call the women to come carry items on their heads. This horrified me, so I had a wheelbarrow built to ease the weight of the load. They had never used one before and after a few uncoordinated attempts went back to carrying things on their heads. They enjoyed laughing at me using my wheelbarrow.



The Mulch Trials


The main brief was to trial different organic methods for extending the growing season of temperate vegetables such as broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes, cauliflower, gourds, and beans. We had to choose methods that could be used easily and cost effectively by local farmers. Keep in mind that temperatures often reached 114º F by 10 a.m. My philosophy for healthy plant growth (one I share with many others) is to provide the optimum growing conditions for the plant, thereby reducing plant stress. We trialed many different ways to do this, but the trial that had the most impact was reducing soil temperature with mulching.

Basically, we laid down a mulch of newspaper two to three layers thick on top of half of the beds and topped it with banana leaves.  The rest of the beds were left uncovered as is normally done in the local fields.  

We monitored soil temperature three times a day on the surface of the unmulched beds, under the newspaper on the mulched beds, and 1” and 4” deep in both mulched and unmulched beds.  After two months we could see that the average temperature in the top 4” of soil was reduced by 15% with mulch, and the temperature on the soil surface was reduced by as much as 21%.

Some of the benefits we saw from using mulch were:

• Using less water less often. By reducing soil temperature, the amount of water lost through evaporation was reduced.

• Plants’ root zones were kept comfortably moist and cool, ensuring adequate soil moisture for the busy organisms that convert soil nutrients into a plant-available form, and thereby helping prevent plant disease.

• Soil erosion and compaction from rain and wind was reduced.  

• As mulch breaks down it supplies organic matter, which provides a favorite breeding environment for friendly soil organisms and a storage facility for soil, water and oxygen - all essential for plant health.

• Beds without mulch were weeded three times in two months, but the mulched beds required none.


Cultural Differences


The farm continues to run as a trial and demonstration area. The Morarka Foundation envisions a tourist education/volunteer center next door and hopes to work with other countries like New Zealand in a student exchange system.

When I left, I was told I was one of the most self-motivated and helpful volunteers they had hosted. I believe it was because I’ve had my own business and years of experience to offer. I was also willing to learn the language and get my hands dirty.

I consider myself a fairly hardy and adaptable person but towards the end of three months I was definitely struggling with lonliness. Along with other cultural differences, I was laughed at each time I went to the village because I was a single women and wore trousers, I never got comfortable with that.

For anyone considering volunteer work in a country like India, there are valuable contributions to be made and much to be learned and experienced. Before you set out, I suggest looking carefully at what you have to offer and what you expect.

A Horticulture Volunteer in India

By Toni McErlane

Toni With local Rajasthan ladies. Community gardens in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, Marin County