Flying enthusiasts who pick up Simply Fly, the 2010 autobiography of captain Gorur Gopinath, former army officer and founder of India’s first budget airline, Deccan Air, might learn far more about rural farming than they were expecting. A significant chunk of the book is dedicated to the silkworm farm in Karnataka, south-west India, that captain Gopi, as he likes to be called, set up after leaving the army, aged 44. Despite the airline and the other businesses he runs, Gopinath is passionate about the farm and makes time to visit it once or twice a month.

In 1996, a decade after he started his farm, he won a Rolex award for developing eco-friendly methods of silkworm rearing that work with the environment, rather than destroying it with pesticides as farmers had been doing. What’s more, since then, he has never lost a single harvest, and his costs are less than half those of neighbouring farmers who rely heavily on chemical fertilizers and insecticides.

Gopinath’s success is striking, given his tough starting point of working with 16 hectares (40 acres) of sparse brush given as compensation by the Indian government after a dam submerged his family’s lands in the Hassan district. Despite his best efforts, he had no luck farming bananas, cereals and vegetables, and, in the early years, he actually slept under canvas on the farm trying to make it work. Without much to lose, he turned to rearing silkworms.

In many ways, his achievement seems astonishing when set against the context of rural farming in India, which is often beset with problems of unpredictable rainfall and poor yields, so much so that suicide rates among farmers have risen to a devastating degree. Agriculture in India, like much of the world, has become enormously chemically driven, and companies such as Monsanto are also trying to encourage farmers to grow genetically modified crops such as aubergine.

Well before the resurgence of organic farming in recent years, Gopinath became convinced that returning to an organic way of farming would be better, both for the soil and labourers. “Farmers in India don’t use machines to spray chemical fertilizer or insecticides; labourers do this work, often with no eye protection. They are constantly exposed to the chemicals because they live on the farms, and, because much of their body is bare when they work due to the heat, they absorb the pollutants through their skin,” says Gopinath.

The ecological methods are low-tech. For instance, he uses a thatched roof to regulate temperature and sundried paddy straw instead of expensive bamboo trays for the silkworms to spin their cocoons. To cope with low rainfall – a problem that is increasing as climate change makes weather patterns unpredictable – he uses organic water conservation practices on the farm, putting the mulch from the coconut palms that also grow there back on the soil to stop rainwater draining away.

Courtesy of G.R.I. Gopinath

Eco-techniques are also used on other crops such as banana and areca nut that are now grown on the farm. For instance, while farmers use toxic chemicals to kill termites that attack coconut trees, the termites are crucial in the ecosystem, as they convert the trees back into soil. And, as Gopinath points out, chemicals introduced into the environment do not just affect the pests. “When it rains, the chemicals run off into the streams used by the local villagers, and, in addition to polluting the water, you need to apply the chemicals a second, third, or fourth time.”

This sets off a deadly chain effect, he says, as you then poison other insects, and birds that eat those insects. Birds are critical in spreading seeds from the fruit they eat, and, by leaving the seeds that they drop untouched, Gopinath has seen his farm flourish with neem, sandalwood and jamun trees. Leaf-eating caterpillars may be pests, but the moths they grow into cross-pollinate the plants. “You need to take a holistic approach to farming,” he says.

Gopinath realized that the termites actually attacked the trees when the surrounding debris of leaves and fallen branches on the forest floor were cleared, which farmers conventionally do. By simply leaving this debris where it fell, Gopinath protected the trees. “The best farming is sometimes no farming.”

Gopinath’s organic evangelism has had a ripple effect in the area. Dr K. Shiva Shankar, a Bangalore-based Fellow of the Indian Society of Agronomy and of the National Academy of Biological Sciences, says: “a decade-and-a-half back, when farmers were in the fanatic grip of using high amounts of fertilizers and chemicals, Gopinath was a truly gallant fighter for the cause of natural farming. He rightly said that ‘farming practice which is ecologically unsound is economically unsound too.’ His pioneering example deserves much kudos.”

Gopinath now shares his knowledge with other farmers, giving talks and demonstrations and writing newsletters on organic agricultural practices. He also invites farmers and agricultural specialists to visit the farm to learn about his methods.

Ever the energetic entrepreneur, Gopinath has, amongst other things, run a motorcycle business, a donkey farm and a helicopter rental company; he also rents out his farm as a holiday homestay. He is particularly proud that Raju, an uneducated boy whom he initially employed, at age 15, to help on the farm, is now its supervisor. “I am in touch with him by phone almost on a daily basis. Farming, like everywhere in the world, is extremely tough to make financially viable, but also very satisfying. Ultimately we have to find a way to farm with nature and save the planet. We are all stakeholders.”

Priya Shetty

Learn more about Gorur R. Iyengar Gopinath

“Farming practice that is ecologically unsound is economically unsound too.”

Gorur R. Iyengar Gopinath

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