From engineer to organic farming evangelist: Hemal Patel of Urban Soil

Techie turned urban farmer Hemal Patel quit his job as a computer engineer, to pursue his passion for organic farming and through his venture Urban Soil, conducts workshops and guides others to grow organic foods

Although a computer engineer by profession, Hemal Patel always loved being amidst nature. After seven years of working as a techie, he realised his passion for organic farming and quit his 9 to 5 job, to promote and educate others about organic farming. “I initially started growing vegetables in small spaces. In 2013, I grew vegetables for my neighbour who lived on the ground floor. Happy and confident with the result, I started teaching children and then, adults. From 100 sq ft to one acre of urban farming, I took baby steps,” recalls Pune-based Patel, who started Urban Soil in 2014, an initiative to spread knowledge and awareness on growing one’s own food in urban areas.

As a child, Patel remembers spending time with his grandparents in Gujarat, where they grew their own vegetables. He spent a lot of time in researching organic farming, studying the vegetables that could be easily grown and how various seasons impacted the vegetation. Today, Patel along with his wife Janki, organise and conduct workshops, to teach people the techniques required to grow their own food on their terraces, gardens, balconies and even farms. Urban Soil’s workshops include various aspects of gardening, such as soil science, ecology, composting, mulching, green manures, insect management and planting seasons.

“After attending this workshop, even people with no knowledge about organic gardening, can set up food gardens in their terrace, balcony or backyard, or even in the gardens of schools, colleges or offices. One can easily grow vegetables such as fenugreek, spinach, chilly, curry leaves, mint, tomatoes, brinjal, etc.,” says Patel. Another crop that is ideal for our ecosystem, is millets, as it needs less irrigation and hence, are sustainable. “The natural roughness of millets comes from its high fiber content and it can grow in arid weather. Millets are healthy, easy to digest and gluten-free. Moreover, their slow composting nature helps in maintaining soil make up and preserving water, thereby, conserving soil health for long,” says the green crusader, who has conducted workshops in Pune and Mumbai, which have been attended by over a thousand participants.

See also: Tips for ‘green’ living in an urban environment

Benefits of organic food

Organic foods are grown through farming practices that only use natural substances. As compared to conventional farming, organic farming reduces water, soil and air pollution, conserves water, increases the fertility of the soil and reduces erosion of the soil. “Growing food organically does not harm the surrounding community in which it is grown. Organic produce causes no harm to the plant, soil or the environment. We do not use any chemical fertiliser or pesticide. We use kitchen compost and cow dung as manure. Many studies show that organic produce is more nutritious, richer in vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, than non-organic foods. Food that is close to nature, with least intervention, maintains its nutrient content and this gives better health and immunity. I had regular throat infection when I had vegetables loaded with pesticides. Now, over a period of time, I feel that eating organic food has helped me to develop better immunity. It is also a satisfying feeling, to grow veggies at home and see them blossom,” maintains Patel.

Aiming for a sustainable future through future generations

Urban Soil is part of the Sustainable Urban Living Eco-system, also founded by Patel, to connect, educate and empower urban citizens to live conscious, interdependent and sustainable lifestyles in cities. “We also have various WhatsApp groups, where we send eco-friendly ideas to people, to create awareness,” he adds. According to Patel, it is important to teach the benefits of organic farming to children. With this aim in mind, he conducts regular classes on gardening, at Millennium school in Pune, besides conducting workshops for other schools and institutes. “To create a better world, we have to educate children, as they are tomorrow’s leaders. Our vision, at Urban Soil, is to see every home in the city converting their domestic waste into their own food,” he explains.

How home owners and housing societies can ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’

While disposing of waste, Patel insists that all households must segregate wet waste, dry waste and domestic hazardous waste. “It is important to separate the kitchen waste and convert into compost. This can be added to the top soil of the earth and is good for gardening, as it provide plants with nutrition. Moreover, this completes the cycle – from food to food – and also reduce the burden on local municipalities. Composting of waste is easy to practice at an individual level, with the help of kitchen waste as the raw material,” he elaborates. Among other tips, Patel says that one should try and lead a chemical-free life. For example, one can use home-cleaners which are chemical-free. Also, housing societies should go in for sewage treatment plants and recycle water, he suggests. “To practice a sustainable lifestyle, one must ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’. Making small changes, will give rise to larger ones and eventually, leading a sustainable lifestyle, will become an everyday conscious habit,” he concludes.

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