Fiona Arakal


Farmer

Ishka Farms, Kochi, Kerala

We are familiar with people who have a sea change or a tree change, when they give up an urban life for a new rhythm. Fiona Arakal and Srikant Suryanarayan instead had a farm change and today, a decade later, are India’s largest producer of organic capers. I met Fiona for a coffee one morning near her home in Kochi early in 2019 and loved hearing their journey from corporate life to that of farmers. Together with a team from the local village, they have worked hard to turn over 350 acres of barren land in the adjacent state of Tamil Nadu, into a green and renewable farm where they grow world-class capers and also the super food, moringa. All of the produce is hand harvested, dried and packed at the farm .

Our conversation took place In July 2020 during the Covid-19 Pandemic

What were you just thinking of?
I am always thinking about a way forward. The ways and means for our family to stay productive and how to look after the people who depend on us now. We currently have eleven full-time staff at the farm, who in turn support their extended families. In the long harvest season, we employ 45 people from the villages around our farm and I feel a real responsibility for their well-being.

What are you doing for the rest of today?
I am constantly in touch with the farm via WhatsApp and also have a number of cameras at the farm, so I can monitor work via the CCTV footage. I am also working on sales and distribution of our products. We have our first international shipment, a whole container (over 25,000 bottles of our product) enroute to Seattle, so I am tracking that carefully. Also, I am extending the product range to include convenient ready to eat products like caper aioli and caper tapenade. To make these I am collaborating with other like-minded producers.

In between the work I seem to be cooking all the time, I have two hungry teenagers, who are now home all the time and doing online schooling. We are making all our food now, even bread and despite some restaurants opening up now we don’t want to take the risk to eat out.

We are allowed out during the day, the curfew is in place only after 9pm, however, we stay home as much as possible. Many of our friends and family work in medical services, and we don’t want to become an additional burden to the system by needlessly taking risks and potentially getting the virus. Also, some members of our family are elderly and have medical issues. In the evening we work out together as a family on our terrace and are all trying to keep our fitness levels up.

How ‘real’ does the threat of the virus feel? Do you know anyone personally who has contracted the virus?

Some neighbours in this apartment building were travelling and have had to quarantine at home for a few weeks. The police and health workers have been checking on them frequently to ensure they do not leave the building. I don’t know of anyone who has tested positive in Kerala and also we are relieved that there has not been a single case in the village around our farm. We have some family friends in London who have tested positive and also some family in Florida, however, they are all doing ok now.

If your own health and that of your family/friends is ok; then what then is the greatest impact on your life (and on your work) of the pandemic?
As well as a new way of working and being home with the family all the time, the other big change is a closer connection with old friends. I make sure to speak to at least a few friends each day.

What are you looking forward to post pandemic?
As soon as I am able, I want to visit our closest friends in Bombay. I have lived in Kerala for most of my life, however, my heart is in Bombay and I am eager to visit.

Has there been anything positive from the pandemic?
Yes, there is a great emphasis now on buying food directly from the grower. Part of the overall movement that encourages people to understand the source of what they buy and support makers. Here in Kerala many farmers were badly impacted by the pandemic as the borders were closed and they were unable to meet orders from other states or countries. Local people gathered together to buy fruits, vegetables and rice in bulk directly from the farmers. Our Chief Minister, Mr.Pinarayi Vijayan, has a weekly Naam Munttu programme, which aims to build Kerala into a self-reliant and food secure state. He invited a friend of mine to share her #lovelocalbuylocal initiative as a great example of a business to consumer system.

Is there an innovation (service, product, science, media) that you have been impressed with? Have you made any changes or thought of any that you will implement going forward?
I am amazed that we can work from home and not miss a beat thanks to technology. Our marketing, accounting and export management have all been done remotely. The women who work at the farm, who grow, harvest, process and pack our products, have done an amazing job and are staying safe, wearing masks and social distancing. We stay in touch via WhatsApp.

What does your personal future of travel look like? When and where will you go first? What are you dreaming of?
Whilst dreaming of a visit to Bombay, I am very keen to get to the farm. Though its just six hours drive away, the farm is in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. This means a trip there would result in at least a month away from the family, due to a strict 14-day quarantine period in each place. This is difficult with my family commitments, with an elderly father and also the kids at home. Friends of ours, here in Kochi, spent last weekend at the CGH Marari Beach Resort, just an hour south of here. They were keen to spend some time on the beach. I was tempted, however, my husband, Srikant was not.

What are you finding inspiring now?
The innovative way people are finding to work, such as yoga teachers offering online classes and restaurant chefs teaching online. Also, the way that schools moved the curriculum online so that the kids can continue with their education. I think it is great that the Government of Kerala moved to providing provision packs for kids, who were used to getting their major meal at school. The Government has done a lot with rations to ensure every person in the state is looked after and does not go hungry. The state health minister, who everyone calls Shailaja Teacher, has done an amazing job. She had built her reputation with the handling of the Nipah Virus in 2018 and the impact of the floods in 2019, so when Covid-19 hit, no one questioned her authority or instructions. When she asks people to jump, everyone responds with, how high?

What has made you laugh out loud most recently?
We laugh all the time at home, impossible not to with two teenage kids who love comics.

If a reader would like to make a contribution, can you recommend a specific organisation/ initiative that could do with the support?
I would recommend Bodhini, a counselling service based locally here in Ernakulam, Kochi. They offer a wide range of excellent counselling services and now with the pandemic they have seen a huge demand and are also offering online and phone counselling. www.bodhini.in

Contact
Website: ishkafarms.com
Instagram: instagram.com/ishkafarms/
Facebook: facebook.com/ishkafarms/

If you would like to buy directly from Ishka Farms, please take my reference, and contact Fiona via email fiona@ishkafarms.com or via WhatsApp+91 93886 04434. In India you can buy online https://ishkafarms.com/organic-farm-fresh-products/#products and via Amazon India. Ishka Farms products can also be found at leading organic stores in India and Fiona can let you know your closest retailer.

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