Son, father farm to feed neighbours during lockdown in India

Emily Leshner

AP – The garden that Sijo Zachariah and his father planted was a desperate measure in response to the pandemic.

But it became so much more: sustenance for a community, and a great inspiration for Zachariah to make a major change in his life.

A 22-year-old aircraft maintenance engineer living in Dubai, Zachariah was visiting the southwest India state of Kerala for a family wedding when a lockdown was declared. “That’s when the whole thing struck me … What’s going to happen?” he said. “You know, how are we going to feed ourselves?”

Store shelves were emptying and plant nurseries were closed, so Zachariah and his father collected seeds from whatever fruits and vegetables they could find at the grocery store and planted them on their family’s plot of land. Coconuts, jackfruit and rambutan, a lychee-like fruit, were already growing there.

Using YouTube videos and techniques Zachariah’s grandfather had passed down to his father as a guide, they began a garden that eventually helped feed 20 neighbouring households during the pandemic.

Zachariah stands behind an elephant ear plant on a farm that he and his father started during coronavirus lockdown in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. PHOTO: AP

“We started teaching others how to grow their own crops so that everyone can have some sort of crop growing in the land,” he said. The tropical climate of Kerala, he said, provides plenty of rain and sun, making farming relatively hands-off until it’s time to harvest.

That laissez-faire style of farming jibes with Zachariah’s growing interest in permaculture, a movement that promotes working with nature instead of imposing man’s will on the land.

Zachariah said he learned permaculture techniques by watching YouTube videos and by listening to the lessons his dad passed down from his grandfather, who once owned rice paddies.

“My dad would say, ‘Your grandfather used to do this. When I was your age, I used to do this,’” Zachariah said as he mimicked gardening.

Zachariah recalled having to adapt to a few cultural differences when he was studying and working in Wales. The easiest adjustment, he said, was to the food.

Somehow the meals were tastier than the food he had eaten as a child, he said.

Zachariah came to grasp that the food was fresher — it was local and didn’t need to be treated with preservatives before travelling by truck or plane to a faraway destination.

What he didn’t realise was that a seed had been planted, one that would eventually lead him to re-think his career in engineering and consider one in farming.

Online, Zachariah connected with others who are thinking of a future in farming.

“I’ve been making videos. I’ve been trying to educate others. There’s many people like me who are genuinely curious or genuinely want to do something, but they are stuck somewhere, with their work or in a city life.”

Zachariah has left the farm in the hands of his neighbours since returning to Dubai. He’s decided to switch careers, from serving the skies to working the soil.

“It’s a big change for me. But this is what makes me happy — helping others and being in nature.”