[ header = Farming's future in India: Havoc and hope] 

My first night on Seetha Raj’s plantation had all the casual pleasantries of a holiday family gathering: multiple helpings of dinner, a half-ignored game on television, and the endless chatter that comes when food and family converge. But this was not a holiday, and these were not my siblings asking for seconds and thirds. I was in Kerala, India, and although we were eating fish curry rather than turkey and watching cricket rather than football, it felt like a homecoming. I was finally soaking up some genuine hospitality after several months of waking up in uninspiring hotel rooms and sharing meals with random travelers. It was nice to be with a family again, even if it wasn’t my own.

Raj manages Ente Veedu (“My Own Home”), a plantation homestay tucked away in the remote agricultural region of Wayanad in the northeastern corner of Kerala. Global competition, unsustainable farming practices, and crippling cycles of droughts and floods have wrought havoc on India’s agriculture over the last decade, and family farms like Raj’s have been hit hard. The situation is so dire, in fact, that another alarming benchmark has also emerged: an all-time high suicide rate among farmers. But recently, a new hybrid of tourism, or “eco-agritourism,” has taken shape and brought some stability to the local economy. Farmers like Raj have begun hosting guests for country vacations. Will homestay tourism be Kerala’s salvation?

In 2003—the most recent year for which there are official data—over 17,000 farmer suicides were reported across India. Anecdotes and local media coverage suggest that there were probably even more in 2006. Most of the suicide victims were single-crop farmers who took out large loans when prices crashed, and never recovered financially. But farmers with larger, more diverse farms have had trouble weathering the volatile market as well. Though they may not be suicidal, many are struggling with debt. Raj and her husband, Raju, jointly own 20 acres of land and grow several different crops—including coffee, coconuts, bananas, and vanilla—but were still greatly affected by the recent decline of the pepper market, which is another key crop for them. High labor costs, an uncooperative climate, and an influx of cheap, imported pepper have drastically reduced the crop’s value in the past few years: From 2001 to 2006, prices dropped from $5.75 per kilogram to just $1.38. To recoup their losses and pay off their debts, the Rajs tried harvesting ginger. “We plucked 30 sacks. It sat in front of the house, but no one bought it. We were crying,” says Seetha. At one point, they even considered selling a portion of their land.

Fixing the broken agricultural system will take time, which is something many farmers can’t spare if they are to pay back their mounting loans. But tourism has recently blossomed in the area. The World Tourism Organization expects the number of visitors to Kerala to grow 11.4 percent per year between 2003 and 2013. That’s not surprising, considering that the region packs cliffside beaches, serene backwater canals, and mist-shrouded tea estates into nearly 39,000 square kilometers, an area slightly larger than the state of Maryland. Its lush foothills are dotted with wildlife reserves, and it is home to a rich culture that blends tribal traditions, a myriad of religions, and colonial influences from both the Dutch and Portuguese. Most of the tourist traffic has been along the coast, but homestays and ecotourism ventures are drawing visitors inland. Farmers like the Rajs are finding that hosting travelers can be a reliable, alternative source of income.

NEXT: Bringing eco-tourism to the farm >

[ header = Bringing eco-tourism to the farm ]

Seetha Raj is one of about 20 homestay owners in Kerala’s Wayanad District, a bucolic farming area nestled between mountains and coastline. Like many others, she was drawn into the business by a local man named K. Ravindran, a former tire salesman who had retired to his wife’s plantation. In 2002, fed up with the economic uncertainties of agriculture, Ravindran decided it was time for his farming community to benefit from tourism just as the rest of the state had. “I hatched the idea to develop tourism,” he explains. “Instead of selling off property, I’d sell the destination.” He turned his modest, one-story home into the Pranavam Homestay—a cozy place for a few days on my trip last fall. He also joined forces with other homestay and hotel owners in the region to form a private group dedicated to promoting the area called the Wayanad Tourism Organization.

A government provision called the Heritage Home Protection Scheme has also helped the homestay concept catch on. The initiative provides incentives for Keralans to convert their homes into tourist accommodations by outfitting at least one room with a Western-style toilet and quality furnishings. Such homestays have also been popping up in more established tourist spots like Kochi and Alleppey on the coast. Urban Indian couples and families with young children are typical guests, but increasingly, Europeans and Australians are showing up, too.

A year and a half after opening Ente Veedu, the Rajs are climbing out of debt and are optimistic that their new venture will keep them solvent. While Raju focuses on running the farm, Seetha handles the homestay. In her first year, she had about 40 guests. With a nightly per-couple fee of 2,500 rupees, she earned about as much by hosting guests as her farm’s pepper crop yielded last year. She also just added a new guest cottage, for which she charges 3,000 rupees per night. The structure was built by local people affiliated with Uravu, a nonprofit dedicated to training bamboo artisans. Ente Veedu guests have been the family’s saving grace, and the Rajs’ welcome each visitor with warmth. “I give visitors what I give my children,” Seetha says. When I stayed at Ente Veedu last fall, I ate organic meals cooked in her kitchen, and slept down the hall from the family.

Wayanad has only recently emerged as a tourist destination, but it is every bit as beautiful as the rest of Kerala, if not more so. Twenty-six percent of Wayanad is protected forestland, and it boasts two major wildlife sanctuaries, a magnificent trek up Chembra Peak, multi-tiered waterfalls, and several ancient temples. It lacks the stunning beaches of tourist hotspots like Alleppey and Varkala, and does not have the infrastructure to support a high volume of tourists (there is no train station, for instance), but in many ways, its inaccessibility is a benefit rather than a drawback. The area is thus perfectly poised for the kind of low-impact, sustainable tourism that works in conjunction with the region’s environmental ethos.

NEXT: The long-term benefits >

[ header = The long-term benefits ]

Because many of these homestays support environmentally-friendly practices, they stand to benefit from increasing interest in eco-tourism. Both Ente Veedu and Pranavam Homestay, for example, use organic farming methods and are fueled partially by biogas. A few more established homestays go even further. Haritha Farms, a former rubber and coconut garden–cum–organic farm in the nearby Midlands region, has used its homestay business to support a return to traditional farming practices. In 1993, Haritha’s owners eliminated chemical fertilizers, which have been misused by many farmers in India, contributing to crop failures.

They’ve reintegrated a plethora of crops (coconut, yam, pineapple, banana, tapioca, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric, vanilla, and various medicinal herbs) that had been displaced by expanding rubber plantations. Their guests stay in solar-powered bungalows and eat traditional Keralan food. Other eco-friendly initiatives at Haritha Farms include the use of low-wattage lightbulbs, as well as local products, services, and labor. The owners also limit the number of guests so that locals do not become dependent on tourism alone.

That’s another reason the approach is so appealing, both socially and environmentally.  No one wants to see Wayanad become an overrun tourist trap, nor does anyone think that its agricultural industry should be abandoned in favor of tourism. Instead, homestays blend with the work of the local farmers and let visitors get an authentic taste of the community. Homestays offer pristine landscapes and a view of Indian life from the inside—a pure and (almost) unadulterated experience of rural Kerala. “We’re not providing anything extra. It’s just a room that tourists join us in,” Ravindran says. And it’s true—life hardly skipped a beat for Ravindran, his wife, and their grandchildren while I occuppied the cozy quarters on the opposite side of their house. While I was there, Ravindran’s wife prepared traditional Keralan feasts served on banana leaves, and one morning I visited with the plantation workers as they harvested coffee, sampled a mouth-scorching chili, paid homage to the family deity, and sipped chai tea with the 86-year-old matriarch of the family.

It won’t be long before Wayanad catches up with the rest of the state and becomes a must-see destination. For now, though, it’s still a virtually undiscovered patch of beauty and intrigue; as with much of rural India, you might pass through on a bus on your way someplace else. Its struggles are veiled by postcard-perfect hillsides, and peaceful-looking tea harvesters wearing brightly colored saris. My trip to Wayanad revealed a more intimate glimpse of India: the daily struggles and heartache of farming life, the joyful moments that keep farmers going, and the sacred bonds of family that, for a brief moment, they shared with me.

Story by Lindsey Reu. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007