Aliya Tuzhilin '17: Thoughts on Farming, Mustard, & Self-Sufficiency

Aliya Tuzhilin is the 2017-2019 Shansi Fellow at Jagori Grameen. This is her first year narrative.

Each day I look forward to work at Jagori or in the field for the chance to meet people who are so quick to love and welcome me wholly. My warmest moments are joking with Kamlesh (from the SAFAL team), holding hands with Vimla or Nimbo (Jagori fieldworkers and farmers), eating with Mintu in the kitchen, or working with Ratan (the farm manager) and hearing his stories. On weeks that I help Ashish with deliveries for Jagori’s organic store, Green Leaf, we spend eight hours driving around making deliveries together.

While we work we talk about our lives, share music, and I get to pick his brainabout farming techniques, seeds, and issues relating to providing markets for farmers. In my time here, I’ve learned to humbly listen to people and ask them to be my teachers. I have also learned to connect with people quickly by putting myself out there, making fun of myself, teasing people (always respectfully), and generally chatting about daily happenings. I obsessively ask farmers I meet questions about whatever I have recently read or learned about farming practices, local customs and agricultural politics, and while they find it amusing, they are happy to teach me about their way of life. Mostly I have learned about local culture and their work. However, occasionally people open up to me further and share with me in a frank way their hardships around their work and home lives, which are highly entwined, and their desires. Sometimes when I ask women about their vision for sustainable agriculture in their communities, they remind me of how much the extra work of organic farming depends upon their labor. These are moments of insight that push me to think deeper about sustainable agriculture in a way that reconciles the desires of these agricultural communities, with special consideration of women farmers, with my notions of their sovereignty based on their connection to their land.

Anil Saini, a local farmer who sells his produce to

Jagori's organic store, in his greenhouse with his

tomato plants.

The SAFAL (sustainable agriculture) team is so wonderfully boisterous and close with each other that they are a great joy to be a part of. They love to have team meetings because it’s a chance for them to meet, share their successes and troubles and crack jokes about everything. I’ve become friends with them through working with them in the field, organising their data collection, and writing the team’s six-month report. I have learned the most from them so far, observing their work ethic and commitment to the people they work with. Some of  them are active farmers themselves, meaning they wake up every day at 4:30 to milk their cows before leaving for work, and return from work to farm their own plots. Mamta, another team member, is the local pradhan (village council leader) and it is so inspiring to see the way she conducts her work as a woman in a position of power. Every day they hold meetings in villages or organise farmers to deliver trainings and workshops. They have developed contacts with scientists at the state university’s agricultural extension offices who they engage for regular trainings sessions. One of the best pieces of advice I have received was from a team member, Vimla, who said “Make concrete plans, and deliver upon them. Do not promise anything to a farmer that they cannot count upon, because the outcome of each crop cycle is crucial for them”. Essentially, SAFAL is a team of strong minded farmers who are supporting their community through training them in safer and more sustainable agricultural practices and their commitment to their work is powerful.

Group photo from the workshop led by ASHA on the agrarian crisis at Sambhaavnaa Institute of Public Policy, April 7th

The joy of learning from locals and understanding their community values, relationship to the environment, local economy and infrastructure has culminated in a project I am working on with Aditi, a friend at Jagori, called Himachal Pradesh Does Not Need GM Mustard. This project aims to understand the system around mustard seed cultivation and consumption in our district of Kangra in Himachal Pradesh with the aim of advocating that the state oppose GMO Mustard. Through a short movie and a booklet, we are presenting the multifaceted uses around traditional mustard, mustard farming practices, and the economic and political system within which the mustard farmer operates. This has been such a rich experience for me so far, 

Matru dal, a variety that is intercropped with wheat and mustard - taken at a Jagori farmers’ house

 because it gives me a pretext to approach so many different types of people, from farmers, to oil mill owners, to university agriculturalists and officials from the Public Distribution System(ration) Department. I have learned much more about their views on the trajectory of development in India by talking to them about mustard. Aditi and I have interviewed many farmers, mostly female, about the importance of their own traditional (non-hybrid) mustard and the mixed-cropping style of farming they practice with it. We have also spoken to a mill owner who, with a cigarette in his mouth and Mexican wrestling on tv behind him, told us how he started his shop and that he has seen a  steep decline in families who cultivate mustard seed and flaxseed and consume their own oil. A slightly more daunting experience was conducting interviews with officials from the Public Distribution System about how they

procure mustard oil for sale in ration shops. Our aim was initially to see if we could recommend for them to support local mustard production by procuring mustard oil locally, in a similar model as to how Karnataka has started including local millets in their PDS. However, having met with them and understood the system and the fact that Himachal imports the majority of food from other states because it runs a deficit between food consumption and production, we are working on making this idea more realistic. One of our biggest takeaways is that trade agreements of the ‘90s to import cheap palm and soybean oil, coupled with a weakening of support for rural agriculture that led people to sell their lands, pushed the country away from developing its local oil production systems. The repercussions of this on the ground are either lack of land or desire to grow mustard oil seeds that are supported by the availability of cheap mustard or refined oil in ration shops, which has made Himachal largely dependent on foreign refined oil and industrially produced mustard. However, this can still be mitigated and we hope to propose some strategies for doing so.


I think one thing I have yet to crack is cooking in a way that will garner respect amongst others at Jagori. I am constantly amused by how central food is to culture in the Kangra Valley, where every occasion is celebrated with a public feast called a dham, offering many dishes that use typical local spices. Even in daily life, I’ve noticed that the most common topic of conversation at lunch time is about how people cooked their lunch, specific dishes that everyone loves, or how much work it takes to cook fresh food for every meal. For some reason, of all the cultural differences I encounter, this is one that I have yet to adjust to. Having grown up in New York with two working parents and many meals pulled out of the refrigerator, this culture around making food is very new. Sometimes I think it is all encompassing! Whenever I bring in food I have made for lunch, people politely decline trying it. I used to assume that somehow or another my food did not meet the mark, until one day a local friend told me, “you make a chutney out of your food! If you bring rice and dal, you bring them in mixed already. We don’t eat like that here!” I was amused and tried to explain that it is easier this way and that it tastes the same, but neither of us could be convinced by the other. Until this day, if it’s
nutritious and it tastes alright, I’ll eat it - but others won’t!



























I have noticed that in my time here I have gradually learned and absorbed new ways of thinking and have come to value hard work and self-sufficiency in a way I could never have understood before. Before coming here I had an image of a life that is slow, and perhaps loosely communitarian, and in many ways that has grown stronger. However, I am also trying to understand how to develop or revise such a life with both the reality of hard work and my values of a free society that it tolerant of multifaceted identities.

My friend Aditi and I at the top of the Triund hike.

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