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“If they had the money,” he continues, “they would go to market and purchase chemical fertilizers. It’s easier. So farmers, though they were getting proper education and awareness in the preparation for the manures, were not willing to spend time for the same. So they dropped out early.”

Systemic change is notoriously difficult. But with persistence, patience and education, Father Choorapuzhayil believes it is possible.

“First we have to convince the people,” says the priest. “People are stratified into particular ‘isms.’ There are many who want to exert their influence, make problems, create confusion and misguide the people. But later, after seeing the benefits and advantages, many farmers are practicing organic farming.

“Our goal is to guide the people,” Father Choorapuzhayil continues, “to hand over knowledge, provide training, equip people to address problems and issues by themselves.”

Currently, the eparchial organic farming cooperative has 2,200 members, divided between 19 local chapters — the largest and best–coordinated network of organic farmers in Kerala. A registered fair–trade exporter, the cooperative sells its produce at a premium price and is able to purchase members’ produce at 30 to 40 percent above the market rate for comparable nonorganic goods.

“In three to five years, our expectation is to reach 10,000 farmers,” adds the priest. The Wayanad Social Service Society also administers the complex certification process by which a farmer can officially market his or her produce as organic. At present, the W.S.S.S. has certified as organic only 5 to 10 percent of Wayanad’s farmers, though significantly more use organic farming techniques.

Today, thanks to pioneers such as Father Choorapuzhayil, Wayanad leads the way in organic farming. But no matter how much he and others promote organic farming, the reality is that the critical mass needed to convert the entire agricultural sector requires proof of concept — and that can only come from success in the marketplace.

“Farmers in Wayanad are well aware of the risks of chemical application, the high incidence of cancer and other killer diseases due to chemical–orientated farming systems,” says the young priest.

“But, at present, many see no other viable option for cultivation. With organic farming, they say productivity is affected; it goes down.

“The prices fetched aren’t high enough to make up for it. And organic manure is not enough for new branches. So they’re taking a ‘wait–and–see’ approach.”

But Father Choorapuzhayil has no time for a “wait–and–see” approach. Even as the sun sets, the dynamic priest continues his rounds. He leads a staff meeting at a radio station operated by the eparchy in Mananthavady, then heads to the agroprocessing center that prepares cooperative members’ produce for market. There, cooperative farmers bombard him with questions on how to improve their productivity and better market their produce locally.

The young man listens carefully. He knows their livelihoods hang in the balance.

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Award-winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE.

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Tags: Kerala Farming/Agriculture Economic hardships Socioreligious programs Alcoholism