An interview with an Indian farmer about cows and sugarcane

Ms. Kalai, a farmer in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, talks about growing sugarcane and the importance of the traditional Pongal harvest festival in January. The purpose of Pongal is to express gratitude to the sun god for the harvest and offer him the first harvested grains.   I was born and live in a small village near Kavandhapadi. During the day I work at the school, and in the evening I take care of our family farm. My family is hereditary farmers. My great-grandfather, father and one of the brothers are engaged in agriculture. I helped them in their work as a child. You know, I never played with dolls, my toys were pebbles, earth and kuruwai (small coconut fruit). All games and fun were related to harvesting and caring for animals on our farm. So, it’s no wonder that I have connected my life with farming. We grow sugarcane and various varieties of bananas. For both cultures, the ripening period is 10 months. Sugarcane is very important to reap at the right time, when it is as saturated as possible with the juice from which sugar is subsequently made. We know how to tell when it’s harvest time: Sugarcane leaves change color and turn light green. Along with bananas, we also plant karamani (a type of bean). However, they are not for sale, but remain for our use. We have 2 cows, a buffalo, 20 sheep and about 20 chickens on the farm. Every morning I milk cows and buffalo, after which I sell the milk at the local local cooperative. The milk sold goes to Aavin, a dairy producer in Tamil Nadu. After returning from work, I again milk the cows and in the evening I sell for ordinary buyers, mostly families. There is no machinery on our farm, everything is done by hand – from sowing to harvesting. We hire workers to harvest sugar cane and make sugar. As for bananas, a broker comes to us and buys bananas by weight. First, the reeds are cut and passed through a special machine that presses them, while the stems release juice. This juice is collected in large cylinders. Each cylinder produces 80-90 kg of sugar. We dry the cake from pressed reeds and use it to maintain the fire, on which we boil the juice. During boiling, the juice goes through several stages, forming different products. First comes molasses, then jaggery. We have a special sugar market in Kavandapadi, one of the largest in India. Sugar cane farmers must be registered in this market. Our main headache is the weather. If there is too little or too much rain, this negatively affects our harvest. In fact, in our family, we prioritize the celebration of Mattu Pongal. We are nothing without cows. During the festival we dress up our cows, clean our barns and pray to the holy animal. For us, Mattu Pongal is more important than Diwali. With dressed-up cows, we go out for a walk through the streets. All farmers celebrate Mattu Pongal very solemnly and brightly.

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