In the Field with Farmer Kannaiyan Subramanian

by Siena Chrisman

Published: 9/12/17, Last updated: 5/24/19

In the Field is a series we’re running throughout the 2017 farming season, interviewing a diverse group of farmers around the country (and world!) about what growing food looks like from their perspective, what’s happening on their farm and what they’d like consumers to remember when they’re at the grocery store or farmers’ market.

Kannaiyan Subramanian says that his family has been farming in southern India “since time immemorial.” Last year, though, the monsoons didn’t come, and he couldn’t cultivate his family land in the mountainous state of Tamil Nadu for the first time in twenty years. He grows on another 11 rented acres ten miles away in neighboring Karanataka, but is very worried about whether there will be sufficient water there this year, as monsoon rainfall is again predicted to be low.

Kannaiyan is also an activist, working for food sovereignty and the rights of farmers in India and internationally for many years. He is leader with the South Indian Farmers Movements (SIFM), and has traveled extensively for meetings of the peasant movement La Via Campesina, of which SIFM is a member. Last month, Kannaiyan was in the Basque Country of Spain for the Via Campesina VII International Conference, along with 400 farmer and peasant delegates from over 70 countries. We talked with him there about drought, corporate consolidation and his love of farming despite all the risks.

What do you grow?

I’m a vegetable farmer. I grow tomatoes, chili, green pepper and banana. Sometimes watermelon and pumpkins. We used to have milk animals, but now it’s difficult because on our own farm we don’t have water or fodder, and it would be too hard caring for animals at the farm we commute to.

Our farming is very labor intensive. Most of the year, there are 20 people working on our farm, mostly women from the community. We get satisfaction being able to pay them. But also they don’t really think of me as they employer and them as the workers; my mother and I work with them sometimes, and we talk. We share the difficulties of life; the drought and its impact, and all sorts of problems. It’s a friendship too.

Where do you sell your products?

We sell our produce in the local market and take it as far as 150 kilometers (90 miles) to find buyers. We don’t sell directly to the consumers, but rather to various levels of small middlemen.

What ‘s happening on the farm this week?

There’s ongoing harvest of tomatoes and green peppers; taking care of bananas. These are the standing crops. Mostly I’m waiting for a good rain. The monsoon is not predicted to be good this year either, so the water is a big question mark. It’s very scary.

What’s hard about farming?

There are a range of risks: climate risk, financial risk, risk of crop failure, risk of economic collapse of the farm … I have colleagues who are doing zero budget natural farming. [Ed. note: this is the terminology used in India for sustainable, closed-loop farming not reliant on chemicals and other inputs that must be purchased.] The terminology is very attractive, but it is not zero budget. There’s a big budget behind every model of farming. For example, 35 to 40 percent of the cost in Indian agriculture is labor, so while you can reduce inputs, you cannot reduce labor. Even if you replace human labor with machines, you have to make the financial investment in the equipment.

There is no model that is zero budget. The problem is you need money to pay for … everything. For your education, for health care … for your survival. So you have to make money. That’s why you get into entrepreneurial farming, and like all entrepreneurs, we have risk. But the risk in farming is multifaceted, and now it’s compounded by the climate risk, which is unforeseen and very sudden. On many farms, suddenly, one fine morning, the well stops supplying water. Imagine what that means. The farmer spends money to drill another well, and it’s just dust there too. They still have bills to pay, but no water for their crops. What do they do? The drought is really threatening our survival.

I was really broken down a few months ago when our water situation was critical. I didn’t know what to do. But the main problem is that I’m not just a farmer, I’m also an activist, standing for the cause of the farming community at large: landed and landless farmers, for everybody. I’m the general secretary of our coalition, and I wasn’t able to leave my farm for the last year. I’m committed to working for my fellow human beings, but it’s very hard when I’m in such deep distress in my life — how can I think about others when my own farm is facing crisis?

What do you love about farming?

I love farming. Seeing plants growing, flowering, and harvesting … More than anything, irrespective of profit or loss, I enjoy farming.

My mind is rooted in farming: in growing crops, producing food, and working with fellow farmers — landed farmers, landless farmers, all workers. My farm isn’t now sustainable, and I want to become a totally sustainable, self-reliant farmer, not dependent on the agricultural corporations as I still am now. But it takes time.

I continue to farm because I love it and I love working with my fellow farmers.

What do you wish people knew about what it takes to grow food?

The control that corporations over agriculture and the impact on small farmers. With so many companies entering into megamergers — Dow and Dupont merging, Bayer purchasing Monsanto — they are capturing the market. There is no mechanism to control them. Governments want to incentive the companies doing business and so they don’t intervene to set prices in support of the farmers.

With seeds, Monsanto has a lot of control because they hold the patent for the Bt gene. The public sector is basically giving up control; public sector seeds are disappearing while the private sector is capturing the market. The seed market in India is huge, but most companies have an arrangement with Monsanto for the Bt gene and they’re sucking the farmers dry.

And other inputs like crop protection chemicals, from Bayer, Dupont, Dow, Syngenta … they’re all highly priced, and farmers are told to buy them at the risk of their crops dying. We used to have agricultural extension agents, affiliated with universities, who helped farmers with new techniques. They helped the green revolution flourish, but they seem to have died out. So instead now companies directly approach farmers themselves. The farmers don’t have the knowledge of new chemicals otherwise and they trust what the company says, so now they think if they don’t spray, their crop will die, because that’s what the companies tell them.

Supposedly the market fixes the price on all the inputs, but prices are all so similar, it seems like the companies have some sort of collusion. Meanwhile, farmers are in a trap, with huge pressure to make money while spending so much money for inputs. When the pressure becomes unsustainable, many farmers are committing suicide. The reported farmer suicide rates in India are more than 300,000. And farmer suicide numbers are being manipulated now too — many states are saying they have had zero farmer suicides now, and we know that is not true. To address the problem, you need to know there is a problem.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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