In this interview with a farmer from rural Tamil Nadu, students learn about sugarcane farming and how Pongal is celebrated in the villages.
Meet Ms. Kalai, a sugarcane farmer from Tamil Nadu. She answered a list of questions on sugarcane farming and about the importance of the Tamil harvest festival, Pongal. This interview is part of the series of lesson plans on Pongal.
Kalai, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.
Where are you from?
I live in a small village near Kavandhapadi. It is in Bhavani taluk in Tamil Nadu. I have a full time day job in a school and in the evenings I work on our family farm.
What led you to become a farmer?
My family is a family of farmers. My grandfather, my father and one of my brothers are all farmers. I used to help around the farm even as a child. I don’t remember playing with store bought toys as a child. I played mostly with rocks, soil, kuruvai (small coconuts that fall off the tree). My games were all about growing crops and caring for the animals on our farm. So it was natural that I should turn to farming as an adult.
What crops do you grow?
We grow sugarcane and many varieties of bananas.
How many crops do you grow in a year? Do you have more than one growing season?
Both sugarcane and bananas are ten-month crops. So we harvest each of these crops once every ten months. Sugarcane has to be harvested at the right time so that it has plenty of juice to make sugar. We know that the sugarcane is ready for harvest when the leaves change shade—the leaves become a lighter green.
We usually plant karamani (long beans) along with the bananas. We don’t sell the karamani in the market. It is more for our own use.
Do you have any animals on the farm?
Yes, we have two cows and a buffalo, twenty sheep and about 20 chicken. I milk the cows and buffalo in the morning and sell it at the local milk cooperative.
They buy the milk for Aavin, the Tamil Nadu Cooperative Milk Producer’s Federation. I milk them once again after I get back from work. In the evenings, I sell the milk to regular customers, mostly families. We get a better income from selling milk to private customers.
We raise goats for mutton and sell it in the market. The chicken is for our needs.
What about the machines you use?
We don’t use any machines on our farm. Everything is done manually—from planting to harvesting. We hire labourers to harvest the sugarcane and to make sugar. They are specialized in doing that kind of work.
For the bananas, the dealer usually comes to the field and checks the thaar (banana stalk). We sell banana stalks by weight.
You mentioned that the labourers make the sugar. Where do they make the sugar?
Yes, the labourers cut the sugarcane. Then they run the sugarcane through the crusher and extract juice. The juice is collected in a big drum called adasal. One adasal of juice produces about 80-90 kg of sugar.
The remains or the crushed sugarcane is called bagasse. We dry the bagasse and use it to stoke the fire when boiling juice.
As the sugarcane juice boils, it goes through different stages and different products are made. At first, you get paagu (molasses), then jaggery. We actually make sugar on our farm and store it until we collect a sizable quantity. If we sell sugar in bulk we get a better rate.
Where do you sell the sugar? Do you sell this to consumers or businesses directly?
There is a sugar market in Kavandapadi. It is one of the biggest sugar markets in India. Sugarcane farmers have to register themselves at the market because we can sell our produce only through the market.
What are some problems sugarcane farmer face in Tamil Nadu?
Our biggest worry is the weather. If the monsoons fail or if the rains are too heavy it affects the crop.
It is the Pongal festival soon. Are you ready for the celebrations?
Actually, in my family, we give more importance to Maattu Pongal. Without the cows we have nothing; we are nothing. We will decorate the cows, clean the barns and get ready to pray to them. For us Maattu Pongal is even more important than Deepavali. After decorating the cows we usually walk them around the streets. Most of us farmers celebrate Mattu Pongal in a grand manner. I am looking forward to the festival.