Son, father farm to feed neighbors during lockdown in India

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In this photo provided by Sijo Zachariah, Zachariah stands behind an elephant ear plant on Sept. 20, 2020, on a farm that he and his father started during coronavirus lockdown in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. Guided by a combination of online videos and techniques Zachariah’s grandfather passed down to his father, they began a garden that eventually helped feed 20 neighboring households during the pandemic. (Sijo Zachariah via AP)

The garden that Sijo Zachariah and his father planted was a desperate measure in response to the pandemic.

But it became so much more: sustenance for a community, and a great inspiration for Zachariah to make a major change in his life.

A 22-year-old aircraft maintenance engineer living in Dubai, Zachariah was visiting the southwest India state of Kerala for a family wedding when a lockdown was declared. “That’s when the whole thing struck me. … What’s going to happen?” he said. “You know, how are we going to feed ourselves?”

Store shelves were emptying and plant nurseries were closed, so Zachariah and his father collected seeds from whatever fruits and vegetables they could find at the grocery store and planted them on their family’s plot of land. Coconuts, jackfruit and rambutan, a lychee-like fruit, were already growing there.

Using YouTube videos and techniques Zachariah’s grandfather had passed down to his father as a guide, they began a garden that eventually helped feed 20 neighboring households during the pandemic.

“We started teaching others how to grow their own crops so that everyone can have some sort of crop growing in the land,” he said. The tropical climate of Kerala, he said, provides plenty of rain and sun, making farming relatively hands-off until it’s time to harvest.

That laissez-faire style of farming jibes with Zachariah’s growing interest in permaculture, a movement that promotes working with nature instead of imposing man’s will on the land.

Zachariah said he learned permaculture techniques by watching YouTube videos and by listening to the lessons his dad passed down from his grandfather, who once owned rice paddies.

“My dad would say, ’Your grandfather used to do this. When I was your age, I used to do this,’” Zachariah said as he mimicked gardening.

Zachariah recalls having to adapt to a few cultural differences when he was studying and working in Wales. The easiest adjustment, he said, was to the food.

Somehow the meals were tastier than the food he had eaten as a child, he said.

Zachariah came to grasp that the food was fresher — it was local and didn’t need to be treated with preservatives before traveling by truck or plane to a faraway destination.

What he didn’t realize was that a seed had been planted, one that would eventually lead him to rethink his career in engineering and consider one in farming.

Online, Zachariah connected with others who are thinking of a future in farming.

“I’ve been making videos. I’ve been trying to educate others. There’s many people like me who are genuinely curious or genuinely want to do something, but they are stuck somewhere, with their work or in a city life.”

Zachariah has left the farm in the hands of his neighbors since returning to Dubai. He’s decided to switch careers, from serving the skies to working the soil. “It’s a big change for me. But this is what makes me happy — helping others and being in nature.”

The time they’ve spent together has also helped bring Zachariah and his father closer. “We started bonding and I think that’s why I got into gardening,” Zachariah said.

“All of these things used to spark curiosity in me and then I was getting quality time with my dad as well, so it was like a win-win.”

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“One Good Thing” is a series that highlights individuals whose actions provide glimmers of joy in hard times — stories of people who find a way to make a difference, no matter how small. Read the collection of stories at https://apnews.com/hub/one-good-thing

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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