From Monoculture to Polyculture: creating smallholder farmers in Kerala

Aravind Krishnan
Friday, 14th May 2021

Randar Farm in Kerala is an educational centre replicating organic and regenerative farming techniques, to showcase to local farmers the value of polyculture systems on planet health and how these ecological practices can also create sustainable incomes.

At the heart of the Randar project is an effort to transform a small agricultural land holding into a self-sustaining ecosystem.

An underlying theme in permaculture is designing self-sufficient and regenerative land holdings. Such a shift towards bounteous and ecologically sustainable food production in the case of present day Indian agriculture can be a difficult task as the vast majority of agricultural landholdings are fragmented and degraded land, housing highly unsustainable mono-cropping systems; the operations kept afloat by debt and rampant use of chemical additives. It is from this context that the Randar farming model was developed. The model borrows much from the traditional agro-forestry system ‘Homegardens’ and follows some rudimentary qualities so it can be effectively replicated:

  • It has to be low cost to adopt and maintain
  • It should possess a transitory phase where mono-cropping practice is gradually wrapped up and replaced with profitable natural farming (farmers cannot afford periods of no yield or low productivity) 
  • The resultant is a closed loop integrated farming system which is resilient socially, economically and ecologically. 

We currently work in the state of Kerala with a focus on smallholders practicing organic farming and farmers transitioning out of chemical farming (mono-crop farming practice using HYV seeds and chemical inputs that is being subsidised by the state no longer prove viable in the face of diminishing returns, credit risk and resultant environmental degradation). The model finds acceptance because the strategies employed seek to create circular systems; this entails weaning off external inputs and relying on biomass recycling and integrating on-farm systems to complete the energy loop. At later stages, the model matures into a zero cost system that is self regulating where resource producing perennial plant community provides for short term needs such as products for sale and fuel, with the interspaces producing food, fodder and herbs. The ecological services it provides such as biodiversity conservation, conservation of landraces etc. add to its versatility.

The Design and Model in action: A one hectare plot of land (which is the average size of an agricultural land holding in developing parts of Asia) in rural Kerala has been at the centre of our design practice. This property (The Randar Farm*) for years has served as a testing ground where the validity and strength of our land management strategies in practice could be gauged. It serves as a demonstration farm which propagates cash crops, medicinal plants and indigenous plant species that can in turn be passed on to the community. The farm integrates an agro-silvi- pastoral system to generate a yield where both food-crop as well as a surplus (exceeding consumption needs) of commercial crops such as nutmeg, coffee, pepper, turmeric etc. are produced. Local breeds of cows, goats and poultry aid the energy recycling process.


As a sustainable livelihood model the farm yields enough to meet all food and nutritional needs that is required for an average Kerala household (this includes grains, fruits, vegetables, tubers, pulses, milk, eggs and honey year round) as well as creating a source of income through agro-produce and cash crops.

Creating thriving ecosystems: Trees play an integral role in the success of the Randar model, through ecological succession a plant community that resembles a climax forest** is established (this entails a diverse array of species exist at all four layers, annuals are planted in the interspaces of pre-existing perennials). As a result the one hectare of land becomes a thriving micro habit, is stable and is self regulating. Further, services of indigenous species are utilised; for instance the Randar farm hosts over 40 colonies of ‘stingless bees’ (Tetragonula iridipennis) which serve as pollinators. This species local to the region has long been absent in the area as the result of declining environmental health and loss of habitat. Similarly indigenous plants play a major role in building and protecting soil. 


Catching and storing energy: Once circular and self regulatory systems are implemented the scope for human intervention to enrich the land primarily centres on paying attention to the energy cycle and flow of energy through the ecosystem. Harnessing energy is preliminarily accomplished through biomass; the landholder can then intervene and direct its transformation to allow better utilisation of the energy. For example plant matter that can serve as fodder is fed to a cow, this cow then produces milk, urine (which is collected and used as a base to create microbial cultures used to enhance the growth of the annuals) and dung. The dung is then used to generate biogas which is used to meet all the fuel needs at the Randar Farm. The biogas slurry that is generated as a by product is nutrient rich and is added to enhance in-situ composting on the property. In this case human intervention resulted in energy coming into the property to be utilised creatively and to offer a better yield than if it occurred naturally, in which case the energy stored by the plant would have been taken up by decomposers at the end of its lifecycle and returned to the soil as nutrients.


Co-developing similar landholdings: This process involves supporting a landholder in restoring land and developing a sustainable agro-production practice through design support and providing plant germplasm (including neglected and underutilised species and indigenous food crop that are pushed out of production and propagation by conventional farming practice). It also involves orienting a smallholder on the integral role they play in protecting local ecology and biodiversity, in sinking carbon and restoring environmental quality. These smallholder farming models encourage family farming and appreciate the vital role of women in agriculture. Through systems thinking and attaching the smallholders’ rich experiential knowledge as growers to a larger design framework, a positive shift towards climate resilient agro-production that meets a grower’s livelihood needs can be catalysed.    


*The farm is certified organic through an external audit by a certifying agency.

**The tradition of agro-production through land holdings resembling a forest ecosystem is no less than 4000 years old in Kerala. Further India has a rich heritage of regenerative organic farming. Communicating this historical context not only acknowledges the immense cultural wisdom that inspires our work but also serves to counter ill-founded narratives spread through the course of the 20th century depicting Indian farming systems as incompetent and India as a nation of famines.

Randar Farm is one of the 20 finalists in the 2020 Permaculture Magazine Prize.

Useful links

Finalists for the 2020 Permaculture Magazine Prize announced