Rishi Kumar is not a name you will easily recognize, but the work he does needs wide recognition. In a world still tip-toeing around the consequences of climate change, this Indian American farmer is doing more than his bit not to decrease his carbon footprint but to increase his green footprint. Note the changed upbeat outlook: increased green footprint.
On arid pieces of land in Southern California, Kumar harvests thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables with minimal water expenditure, zero chemicals and lots and lots of recycling and natural composting. The home of his parents has become an ecological community resource. A visit there is to learn to live with the land: butterflies and bees abound; chickens fertilize the land and eat the bugs; ponds and wastewater from showers and laundry run off to the garden. Kumar’s farm in Pomona is fronted by a nursery that sells herbs, plants and trees that every Indian American would be delighted to know about – jamuns, curry plants, moringa, and more.
Soft spoken and deliberate, the environmentalist’s demeanor masks his passion for righting a badly abused earth. Practicing a lifestyle in harmony with nature, Kumar, 31, wants everyone to know how and why the land needs to be nurtured. Teaching, hosting school field trips to his farm, training farmers and working on community gardens, he has been fighting to make a difference. He also believes the earth provides more than physical sustenance for the body and has co-founded “Healing Gardens,” where healing and emotional rejuvenation can take place.
Some years ago, Rishi Kumar was the prototype Indian American youth growing up in Southern California suburbia. While his parents ran a business, he went to school along with his older sibling, and then went on to attend UC San Diego on his own volition, free of parental pressure, to get a degree in computer science. By his sophomore year, he knew staring at a computer screen was not his game.
Health and wellbeing captured his interest and Kumar began experimenting with different foods and diets. That curiosity took him to the source of what he believes leads to the welfare of the individual, the community and, mother earth itself – farming. He pottered around in the home garden and at the community garden in college. In 2008, while a junior, he emailed Vandana Shiva, the well-known ecowarrior and anti-globalist, asking to work on her farm in India. She wrote back inviting him. Kumar willingly toiled in rural India for the next two summers. After graduation, he returned home sure about one thing – he did not want to sit behind a desk for a salary.
Following are excerpts of an interview with Kumar.
Q: What happened after returning home?
A: I told my parents I wanted to be a farmer. They were open-minded but I was still not sure what the next steps were. I thought about interning at farms in San Diego but instead began to work on my parents’ garden; it is the garden that has birthed me. I also started teaching classes on gardening at home to make some money.
Q: What was your takeaway after working on farms in India?
A: I learned that it was very hard work, especially growing rice and wheat. I used to drive by 5 Freeway and see farms…there is always this negative feeling about farming. This experience me showed how wrong that was and how beautiful it actually is.
Q: Why has farming been given short shrift throughout history and across cultures?
A: The fact is the rest of society would not exist without farmers. There is complete dependence on them. If we didn’t treat farmers like slaves, the world would look different. It’s almost purposeful. People in power want to concentrate wealth amongst them but the irony is that at the end of the day, at the very core, wealth doesn’t bring happiness. If you talk to the average farmer in the U.S., most of them do it for the joy of it, not for a living. There is little to no money in it and most can’t even pass it on to the next generation. The tradeoff is fulfillment, though I must say there is much pain in this profession, too.
Q: After your parents’ home garden you founded Sarvodaya Farms…
A: I found someone in Pomona who allowed me to use his backlot. I still did not know what I was going to do with it, just that it had to be regenerative. My work has always included education; I am passionate about it. So my mother Manju, wife Arthi and I began to use the place for farmers’ training, a program which ran for several years.
Q: Sarvodaya literally means upliftment of all. What were you thinking of when you went with that name?
A: I am influenced by Indian philosophy. It is about not see things as competing but the world as one being, one body. I am really thinking of uplifting microbes, bees, birds, peoples, together, as one.
Q: Have we lost our appreciation for nature?
A: We think we need to go back to nature. That is ridiculous. If we come from earth and go back to earth, when did we leave? Most of what we are doing to address the crisis is not long term. What I would offer is: care for the world, which means caring for ourselves. Pay attention to health that will draw you toward food, then plants, bugs, soil. Ask what makes us alive, vibrant and strong. Use that as a guide to live.
Q: Is gardening meditative? What does it do to you?
A: Initially I was in a state of awe, even shock. Seeing, smelling and feeling all these things felt like magic; the scientific world has taken away a lot of this from us. Then you begin to ask questions like why does this beauty exist? The insides come alive for me even after 10 years when I see a bee I haven’t seen before. You are filled with wonder when you get the opportunity to see a butterfly come out of its cocoon. Seeing outside, you learn what’s happening inside.
Q: And working with the elements…
A: Water, light, earth, air, you feel the flow of energy. It’s a physical feeling first and then it becomes more.
Q: What have been your challenges as a farmer?
A: It’s been quite a journey for me. It’s been difficult to make it my work in a world which does not appreciate it. The timelines for me are also so different and not understood. I plant seeds which bear fruit eight years later. There is value in this! Indigenous cultures planted oak seeds knowing it would take decades. It is about caring for the earth and the ones who come later.
Q: What advice do you have for the home gardener?
A: Grow what you love and will eat, and also learn what is local to your area. Ask what you want and what the land wants. I’m starting to learn about native plants. A couple of years ago I learned about the holly leaf cherry. It’s native to California and makes for a delicious fruit. California is one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world and we don’t appreciate it enough.
Q: What is the easiest to grow?
A: Cooking herbs. You need to plant it once and you can use them every day. Oregano, rosemary, curry leaf, cilantro…
Q: You are a computer grad, how much of tech do you use while gardening?
A: (laughing) The smart phone irrigation controller!
For more information, visit: sarvodayainstitute.org