The students at Sai Sankalp Nursery and Primary School were all set to begin their farming class, undoubtedly their favourite one. The lesson for the day was sowing, but just before the class, the children broke out into a traditional Tamil song. With hands on their hips, they moved around in circles, and some clapped to keep the beat. Everybody seemed to be having a great time. The excitement grew when they got down to the soil and got their hands dirty.

Kalpana Manivanan, the farming teacher at Sai Sankalp is an urban farmer and sustainability coach. She quit her full time job as a biology teacher to pursue farming.

Like Kalpana, there have been several people who, over the years, have left their high paying corporate jobs and become farmers. While this is an encouraging trend, the attitude towards farming is still negative.

India has more than 36 million farmers, most of whose families have been in the profession for generations. But a majority of the next generation of these farming families are not interested in carrying the occupation forward. No surprises there, considering the extremely challenging lives farmers in the country have to lead, with unfair wages and toilsome work.

For instance, Tamil Selvan is a famer whose family has been into farming for more than three generations. But he never encouraged his children to take up farming. “There's no future here. I always tell them to study well so they can make something out of their lives and maybe move to the city. My younger son wants to be a collector some day. I don't want them to live like how we are.” This is the story of several farming families across the country.

This begs the question: will India have any farmers left in a few years from now? Will we ever be able to achieve our lofty goals of zero hunger when there are plenty of fields, but no one to cultivate it? Why is farming losing its value? How can we make the next generation understand the importance of this occupation and how can we make it more lucrative?

While these still need to be addressed, it is encouraging to see a positive change in perspectives around farming emerge over the last few years. This has mainly been due to several educated young professionals across the country turning into farmers and thriving. They are paving the way for others to take up farming, by showing that it can be financially viable and fulfilling.

Archana Stalin and her husband Stalin are one such couple. They are engineering graduates who decided to become farming entrepreneurs instead. In 2014, they established myHarvest Farms, a start-up that helps people set up their own farms, provides organic food, educates children on the basics of farming, and also helps farmers in several parts of the state achieve a more fulfilling life.

The couple started farming six years ago, and say that they were the only ones doing organic farming in the area then. Other farmers were much older, and many others had instead taken to selling top soil to brick kilns instead of farming to earn a living.

In contrast, the Stalins had a young team. Today, they have 13 farmers, all between 26 to 38 years of age, which is when compared to India's average famer's age of 50 is reasonably young. A lot of them have college degrees, but they feel they have a lot more freedom and control working on their own land.

"We need more young farmers. Every farmer that works with us encourages others to take up farming. We have had a lot of people who have quit corporate jobs and taken up farming because they understand how important it is.

“It has been a challenge to make people understand that we are doing something serious. What is driving us is the fact that the problem is huge. For some of the farmers to be convinced is challenging.

“Anyone who takes up farming now has to break stereotypes. So it's a challenge, especially to convince the parents that they're doing a different kind of farming, they're working on soil health, that they're able to make money,” said Archana.

She and her team constantly engage people in conversations about farming and about how food grows because she feels children these days have no clue as to where their food comes from. "A sixth grader I teach was just so surprised to know that dosa is made out of rice. We need more conversations around food. We need to let children play in the dirt. We need to let them feel the soil.

“Only when farming is incorporated in the school curriculum, will they learn. Just giving them textbook knowledge about earthworms won't help, they need to get dirty and play with earthworms. They need to have farm experiences to connect with good food, this will also help them make good food choices."

But when asked if farming can be made as lucrative as other jobs, she said, “the problem starts when we just look at it as a profession. Farming is a way of life. A lot of kids who study abroad today have been able to go because their parents sold their agricultural land to afford their children's education fee. Agriculture was once enough to run the family.

“But today if someone wants to quit an IT job and take up farming, he cannot expect the same pay. Farming can definitely give you enough money to live a normal life. But if you set up high expectations, you may be disappointed. So I think there needs to be lifestyle change when one decides to become a farmer.

“I'm not saying you need to make big sacrifices, but you will have to start thinking about reducing waste. Farming is definitely viable, not just money-wise. It is always an aspirational stage to be, but you can't expect it to replace another job."

As an entrepreneur, she believes that it is easy to make farming financially viable. When entrepreneurs think of starting businesses, the first step is an idea, which most often stems from finding a problem and figuring out the solution.

Every problem is an opportunity and according to Archana, agriculture has plenty of problems, some have existing solutions that not everyone knows about and some are unsolved. "So if you get into the right sector and figure out the problem and solution, entrepreneurship in agriculture is huge," she adds.

For Archana, her focus was on solving soil fertility, fair prices and unpredictable income. "There is a problem that farmers are living a miserable life, so I focus on improving the farmer market access and helping them live a happier life."

Archana's team also plays a big role in encouraging young children to take interest in farming. Speaking about her sessions in Velammal School in Chennai, she said, "The farming class is what the children were most excited about. When they saw a tomato growing from a seed that they grew, they were so excited. Once we had a peppermint farm, they would go eat herbs. Kids would talk about the benefits of these herbs to their families."

Speaking about the importance of getting the next generation to take up farming, Dr J Radhakrishnan, Principal Secretary Cooperation, Food and consumer Protection, Government of Tamil Nadu said, "This is one sector we cannot afford to ignore. The recent international conflicts have made an impact on food availability, it has hit certain nations very badly.

“Luckily in India, because of the milk revolution, green revolution, we have had sufficient resilience. At this point, we have so many agricultural universities and fisheries universities. It is crucial to learn more about scientific farming, protecting natural or native germplasm and also judiciously using the various advancements which help in food and nutrition security."

"Governments are making conscious efforts to ensure that this sector doesn't lose its importance, adequate budget representation is there. It is also heartening to see youngsters opting for these courses. To encourage it further, we need to ensure that risk insurance is popularised.

“We have to look at advancements through biotechnology. We need to provide easy access to finance, not only short term but also infrastructure based finance. NABARD offers a lot of medium and long term support. Another strategy would be to encourage people to form cooperatives to ensure investment is reasonable."

There are many advancements in technology that can make the lives of farmers much easier today. For instance, Adithya Mohanavel, an MS Robotics student comes from a family of farmers. Mohanavel was moved by the plight of elderly farmers back in his hometown.

He saw how they do back-breaking work throughout the day without any help, as their children have moved to bigger cities in pursuit of better lives. Soon, Mohanavel founded Tradent, an automated electric tractor or agricultural robot that can be used for sowing, ploughing, seeding and harvesting. It can be controlled via a phone or computer.

Mohanavel said that this was also intended to encourage the younger generation of farming families, who may own land, but are not interested in living in their villages. According to him, Tradent can help such people cultivate their land remotely. It even has a light based radar called lidar which will help it understand the environment and react accordingly.

Organic farmers like Kalpana Manivanan also believe that it is crucial to teach young children to farm because it will help them make better food choices. "I feel there is no awareness of what we are eating. The maximum exposure kids these days get to farming is probably going to a farmers market. They have no idea as to what goes into cultivating their food and what it is really that they are eating.

“How can an apple that comes all the way from Washington or Himachal, surviving days or weeks of travel, look so fresh? There is obviously so much that goes into making it look that way. It is always better to buy local food and seasonal food."

Because of the path paved by new-age organic farmers like Kalpana, and initiatives taken by schools to introduce farming in their curriculum, the narrative that a farmer’s life is miserable is slowly, but surely changing.

Kalpana says that a lot of children in her class have begun to consider a career in farming. This is a welcome change, she feels, adding that it will hopefully help children understand the adverse impact of chemical farming and choose healthier lifestyles.

Meanwhile, according to a report by the World Food programme released earlier this week, the number of people facing acute food insecurity across the world has more than doubled since 2019 to 345 million.

All Photographs Kalpana Manivanan