Surindar Singh Hara of Haryana proves every day that money does indeed grow on trees
His magical touch has converted the wildest jungles into beautiful agro-treasures. Creator of Hara Farms and a pioneer in agro-forestry, Surindar Singh Hara's passion for farming has changed the forest map of Haryana; in three decades, the state's green cover has risen from 3 per cent to 8 per cent. His agro-forestry initiatives have been applauded world over, with many countries trying to emulate his feat. The remarkable 86 year-old talks to Suparna-Saraswati Puri about agro-forestry, his new project and much more.
Tell us something about your early years.
I was born in Lyallpur [now in Pakistan] on 6 March 1927. I studied at a government school under the watchful eye of my father Sardar Bahadur Lal Singh who expected nothing short of my acing the class! I graduated as a topper from the local Agriculture University with a BSc degree, following which I worked with my father on a variety of projects, including clearing and transforming a jungle in Amadalpur, which is now Hara Farms. My father promised me that after bringing the land under cultivation, he would fund my trip to study agriculture in Europe-which he did. Subsequently, I returned home after a six-month expedition with a vision to improve our farm. In 1953, I went on a Farm Youth Exchange programme to the US and lived in different farms, learning about first-world farming.
What's the difference between farming then and now?
Farming then and farming now are still the same. Till the soil, plant a seed and fertilise it along with suitable water supply, and God willing, you will have a harvestable crop. I always say there is no land that is uncultivable but to find the right crop is important for each acre of land. This is why, in the initial years of Hara Farms, several orchards were planted only to be uprooted.
When did Hara Farms change its trajectory in a substantial way?
The big change came about 30 years ago when matchstick manufacturer WIMCO needed farmers to grow poplar trees for the industry. They supplied the right kind of trees suitable for our north Indian climate and offered an attractive buy-back scheme. Along with another young farmer, Bharat Kalsia, I took on the adventure.
What is the concept of agro- forestry adopted at your farm?
Forests are essential to human existence as they create an ecological balance that influences climate and controls global temperature. Most important, trees are the only source to clean the atmosphere. It has been concluded that 30 million sq km of forests are disappearing every year to meet the requirements of humans. Fortunately, agro-forestry as practiced in the north-western Indian states of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand seems to be proving a valuable asset.
With limited research and development in the private sector, two rapid growing species of timber have been identified: poplar and eucalyptus. At Hara Farms, using superior clones of poplar found suitable for the local soil and climate, 20 tonne per acre can be produced every year on a 10-year cycle. It is estimated that in our local area, 15,000 tonne of timber is marketed every day and products worth $ 5-6 million are manufactured and exported throughout India and the Middle East by about 400 wood processing facilities that have been established since 1992. If we include wood production and factories in other parts of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, an estimated 50,000 tonne of timber is being processed to produce $ 40-50 million worth of products every day. All this has happened with no guidance other than our passion.
How hard has it been to convince other agriculturists in and around your area?
When I started growing poplars, farmers around me observed, “Sardar has gone mad, growing trees?” However, after our first harvest, the collective thinking of those nearby changed. I encourage farmers from around the world to take up agro-forestry; but in the same breath, I tell them that it takes years of dedication to earn an income from the farm. At agro-forestry conferences we attend around the globe, my wife Valerie and I express our earnest desire to share our success story with as many people as possible; I called one of my booklets Agroforestry in Northern India: A Unique Success Story, which it indeed is. At Hara Farms, we have had visitors from all over the world come and study agro-forestry. I am more than happy to share everything as I wish every farmer to be successful.
Tell us about the late Dr Norman Borlaug's visit to Hara Farms?
It was one of the proudest moments at Hara Farms when the 'father of the green revolution' Dr Norman Borlaug visited us in 2005; he stood in our wheat and poplar fields and said, "You have taken my vision of feeding the poor one step further."
How was your experience as an agriculture consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and World Bank?
I was just 40 and it was one of my proudest moments. In fact, the experience was surreal, given the fact that I was just a simple farmer who stood out in the crowd because I cared, because I asked questions, because I wanted to know more. When they asked me to take on my first assignment in 1970, I was both honoured and anxious; I had passion, but no experience. In retrospect, I consider them as my “best memory years”. Truly, the job and the perks they brought were what dreams were made of.
How did you meet Valerie?
We met in Geneva at a friend's place in 1996. I don't know what she saw in me, but whatever she saw, she liked. I tried to persuade her not to marry me because I was 61 then. Also, there were cultural differences, but she convinced me that it would work; we have just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary!
Other than work, what are your other interests?
Travel is my other passion. Valerie and I love to travel and, this winter, we travelled to Brunei, our 100th country of visit. I also enjoy reading as my mind is always thirsty for knowledge. Valerie remarks that I can remember statistics on world population but can't remember her birthday or, for that matter, how to spell her name!
What are the new initiatives at Hara Farms?
At Hara Farms, things are done differently. A few years ago, after a visit to Israel, I carefully pruned back 40 year-old mango trees to the size of 10 year-old trees. Everyone wondered whether the trees would ever bear fruit again. However, today we experience record-breaking mango yields. Our latest project is poplar nurseries. This year, I will be starting on a new book, but I am yet to make up my mind on whether it will be on my life's work or agriculture.