By Jithendri Gomes
In a day and age when we are so used to buying items off the shelf, are attracted to all the imported products, and are looking for what looks good on Instagram, the couple behind “Us On Earth”, a flourishing farm that feeds beyond the founding family and friends, is focused on growing their own food without using toxic fertilisers and focusing on eating better and healthier. “From farm to table” is the principle they live by and the message they hope to share with everyone.
We spoke to Medhini Igoor from Us On Earth about their garden and how they made their way to where they are now. It is certainly an inspirational story and will help anyone who is interested in growing their own food.
“We stumbled into farming about a year ago, with no idea of what it was or what it would lead to. Abishek, my husband, is an engineer and businessman, and I am an architect, and we both had no prior experience or knowledge.
“We had a vacant piece of land in the outskirts of Colombo, and decided to start a small patch of vegetables. Over a few months, we were able to grow more than half the food we cooked at home. By this point, we were in love with the entire process of farming. What started as a small patch grew into an acre of vegetable farm, and we’re still slowly expanding to cover the entire two acres of land we have,” she shared, saying: “After a few months, we decided to set up Us On Earth to be able to sell our produce to more people.”
A learning process
We were curious as to whether either of them had learnt about growing or had any qualifications.
“We have no prior qualifications in the field or any first-hand experience at a farm. We do have a gardener who guides us through things, but most of our ideas are the result of a trial-and-error process,” said Igoor.
She then explained that having no prior knowledge or experience in the industry was one of their biggest challenges. “Time and again, we get reminded of this, when we are clueless about how to deal with a particular situation. But we are learning on the job, and are slowly gaining confidence.”
What they do in the farm and outside is a result of the combination of their beliefs and everything they know from their respective professions, applied into running Us On Earth (UOE).
“More often than not, these ideas have worked to our advantage,” she shared, stating that to begin with, all one needed was the interest to grow your own food and tend to your plants. “Start with five-six pots in your balcony, and chances are that the number will only increase over time.”
The older generation, according to the duo, is the best source of answers to all your questions. “Go find your parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts – no internet or institute has helped us more than the people who have been there and done that before us. Our gardener is a 70-year-old man with no formal education, and he has taught us everything we know today.”
When it comes to buying plants, there are multiple nurseries that sell plants and seeds both in and around Colombo, according to Igoor.
“There are some regular pop-ups like the one next to Waters Edge in Battaramulla, and some temporary pop-ups as well. Most of our seeds are purchased from stores outside Colombo though.
“There are also fairs that the government hosts at BMICH that we personally love visiting to keep ourselves updated on the current trends in agriculture in the country.”
Growing organic food is not without its challenges. “It is very, very difficult and there’s no easy way of saying this. We are chemical-free, and we have decided to be more flexible to ensure that we are not overpriced. For example, we are not rigid in terms of the origins of seeds and most seeds we buy are not 100% organic or heirloom. There are some organic fertilisers and pesticides that are available in stores that can be used. We sometimes use this along with natural manure and fertilisers that we make at the farm.”
The UOE journey
Igoor further shared that, so far, in the UOE journey, what really amazed them was the number of local varieties of fruits and vegetables they discovered. “These are varieties that flourish in Sri Lankan soil and are sometimes widely consumed by the rural population, but we hardly see them in the Colombo markets or stores. This is probably because of the surge in imported products and also changing diets of the people. But discovering these local and indigenous varieties has changed our outlook on food and how we consume it.”
From eating healthier and fresher food in their home, UOE has made its way into a niche market. “We had excess produce, more than what we could give away to friends and family. And selling at a market was an effort in vain because our vegetables didn’t look ‘beautiful’ enough to attract crowds. That is when we set up UOE to educate more people on why our produce was ugly, but more delicious and sustainable than what you get at the market. We managed to strike a chord with a niche market with similar ideologies, and we’d be lying if we said we weren’t surprised by the amount of positive responses we received so far!”
Their jams and chutneys, or “Earth Jars” as they aptly call them, are one of their first steps in working to store their produce for longer and also reduce the waste of excess fresh produce. Their produce is seasonal, with the main ingredients grown in their farm. “Currently, we have tied up with the lovely Aunty Judy, who owns a farm herself, who makes our jams.”
Their immediate goal is to try and reduce wastage of fresh produce and figure out methods to be more efficient in terms of storing produce for longer, she shared.
“We have come to realise that there is a huge disconnect between the consumers and the farm and the farmer. Us On Earth is a brand that aims to bridge that gap.”
Tips for beginners
· Start small. Plant two-three varieties and tend to them before you dive into a full-fledged garden.
· Start with native or local varieties that need little or no care – like pumpkin varieties, brinjal, chilli, and greens like spinach, gotukola, kankun, etc.
· Make sure you have sufficient water supply in case you decide to expand.
· Try to make your own compost pit, or purchase a compost bin. This not only reduces the garbage waste from the kitchen, but is also extremely vital for the growth of the plants.
· Try to make your own pesticides using plants like neem or aloe vera. They are effective, especially in small-scale gardens.
· Patience is key in agriculture. Give plants the time they need ad this will also give you the best produce.
And for people living in apartments or those who have limited space, Igoor shared: “We are working on some small-scale prototypes and ideas that we will be able to share with you soon. They will be tiny steps to a bigger goal as more people get on board.”
Igoor concluded that we need to first make an attempt to understand where our food comes from. “We cannot deny that the demand we create is what drives the market.
Make sure you choose local produce before anything else. You’ll be surprised to see how many local Sri Lankan varieties there are, and their health benefits. Like I always say, we as consumers have the power to drive the market, so choose wisely.”