When you hear that 10 women from rural Paterangi, near Te Awamutu, spent three weeks travelling around India with an English-speaking guide in a 26-seater bus, there has to be a story there.
The women met while their children were at Paterangi School, and for around 15 years have shared outings and weekends away.
In March 2018, they decided to embark on something more adventurous. On behalf of the group, Jean Donovan, Rita Cutforth, Carolyne Gatenby, Janet Macky and Sharon Abernethy congregated to discuss some of the farming practices they saw during their journey around southwest India.
The traditional Indian farm
The Wayanad district is the least populated area in Kerala state and is mainly a farming community. The farm the group visited extended to around five acres. They saw numerous fruits and crops being grown, including rubber, spices, coffee, bananas, bamboo, cashew nuts, beans, papaya, pawpaw, peppers, chilli peppers, cardamom and rice.
“There was so much diversification,” says Rita. “Every part of the land was either growing something or being prepared to plant the next crop. There was variation depending on the season.”
“Nothing is wasted,” says Janet, “If it isn't sold at the market, it’s used to feed animals, for medicine or for crafts.”
Unlike New Zealand’s organised farmscapes, the Indian farm has few fences, and crops are separated by raised dust walking tracks, some of which are just wide enough to take a little tuk-tuk van.
“The paths are kept clear and raised because of snakes,” says Carolyne. “We were told not to walk in the grass or leaf litter.”
Wild boar are a huge problem in rural India, causing extensive crop damage and attacking humans. As the boar is considered sacred by Hindus, the dominant religion in the area, they cannot be killed. The farm has a small hut where at night, a watchman keeps guard against any marauding boar.
There was a noticeable drive towards an organic, sustainable environment, with no evidence of spraying.
“The farmer talked about everything working together,” says Sharon. “Certain insects are considered friendly to different crops.”
While some older machinery was being used, the farm was very labour-intensive, with much of the work carried out by women. An ox and cart was still used, and produce was taken to the co-operative in the nearest village on the back of the tuk-tuk. Water came from their own well and there was electricity on the property.
“The people live such a simple and hard-working life,” says Jean. “But there was an air of contentment and they were completely self-sufficient.”
During the visit the women were treated to a traditional vegetarian meal, served from banana leaves, washed down with spiced coffee grown on the farm.
The rice plantation
The group were amazed at the acres and acres of rice grown in the Alleppey area of Kerala, where the 900km of waterways provide the water source for flooding the paddy fields. They toured some of the waterways in a converted kettuvallam houseboat (rice barge).
“We saw some older, smaller machinery used to harvest the paddy fields,” says Rita. “But on the whole, it was another very labour-intensive process with a lot of double-handling.”
“Health and safety was noticeably non-existent,” says Sharon. “Whatever type of work was carried out, no safety gear was worn; they wore jandals, no hats, nothing.”
The fields are drained and the men harvest the rice and deposit it into large piles on tarpaulins to dry by the roadside. It is manually shovelled into jute sacks and transported away in trucks or on traditional rice barges. Women then stack the rice plant stalks into ricks to dry it into straw to feed cattle. The field is burned by hand and the preparation, flooding and planting process begins again.
The tea plantation
Ooty is a hill station in the Nilgiri Hills of the Tamil Nadu state. The higher altitude and accompanying climate are the perfect combination for growing tea.
“The hillsides look like a mosaic of different vegetation,” says Carolyne. “With walking tracks separating the tea bushes and the jungle patches.”
“Camellia sinensis, the camellia variety grown for tea were interspersed with pollarded grevillea robusta trees to shade them. Pepper vines were grown up their tree trunks,” says Jean.
“The tea was picked by the women,” says Sharon. “Some used shears with catchers, while others used a small tea plucking device for the finer picking.”
The men took over once the women brought their tea down from the slopes. Although basic by NZ standards, the tea processing factory had the most automation the group saw during their trip.
The tea was dried on large tables, but the grinding and processing was mechanised. Then the tea is packed and boxed on the premises for sales and export. The group tasted several of the flavoured teas made at the plantation.
Clearly exhilarated by the memories of their adventure, and fascinated by rural practices of another country and culture, these intrepid travellers are already planning their next trip.