“When I was a little girl, I wanted to live in a forest, I wanted to live in the hills, I wanted to live on a farm. I wanted to live in a rustic mud house with goats and cows wandering around. I wanted to stare at the clear sky and floating clouds in the daytime and lie under a canopy of stars in the night. I wanted to get up each morning to the sound of birds chirping, to be able to see trees and greenery from every window of the house and to be able to touch nature with my bare feet as soon as I stepped out,” wrote Ramya Ranganathan, a leadership coach and adjunct faculty at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore, in a post on LinkedIn last December.
Like many of us, Ranganathan, a resident of Bengaluru, had dreamt of a back-to-nature kind of life for many years. With degrees from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras and IIM, Ahmedabad under her belt, she had spent several years in the corporate sector and had increasingly found herself asking questions like “Why do we work”, “What makes us happy?” These questions led her to reinvent her career with a PhD in organisational behaviour from the London Business School and become a certified life coach. They also led her to the farm she had always dreamt of owning.
“Covid-19 has had strange effects on many of us, affecting us on the outside in terms of how we work, interact and live, and on the inside in terms of making us take an honest look at the things we deeply value. For me, the lockdown has rekindled my childhood dreams of farm, forest, and also my more adult dreams of growing and eating fresh, communing with nature, working on regenerating the earth …” says Ranganathan, who became part of the Rose Valley farming collective, a managed farmland run by the Bengaluru-based company WeCommunities, earlier this year.
The pandemic has made us more aware of how fragile life is; more practically, it has created a need to have getaways outside the city where you can enjoy a change of scene and a slower pace of life if you can afford it. And while many of us have harboured dreams of spending time in the countryside and waking up to the sound of birds chirping, it always seemed impractical. Who would look after the farm when you returned to your life in the city? How would you know which crops to plant, when to seed and harvest, which animals to keep—essentially, the actual work of farming?
This is where the concept of “managed farmlands”, which made an entry into Bengaluru a few years ago, comes into play. Search for the term on Google and you get several pages of ads and results pointing you to companies that help you own, manage and do all the actual work of raising crops on a plot of land in a farming community, typically situated within a two- to three-hour drive from the city.
There is no consensus on who came up with the term “managed farmlands”. Several of the companies around Bengaluru that are in the process of developing this sector claim that they did; certainly, it is a term that has become increasingly common in conversations among a certain class of Bengalureans, who are looking to not only diversify their investments but also do so more meaningfully. While the concept is showing up in different formats in cities like Delhi, Hyderabad and Pune as well, none of the markets is as well-developed or organised as the one in Bengaluru, which seems to be pioneering the idea.
If the idea does catch on in other parts of the country, the process will take its own form, since the rules on ownership of agricultural land differ from state to state. In Bengaluru, however, several startups and established real estate companies are getting into the game; examples of the former include Hebbevu, Vibez Estates and Santulum Habitat, while some of the older players include Hosachiguru, Jain Farms and Holiday Valley.
How it works
Typically, the farmland is spread over 40-100 acres, with individual buyers being offered plots that range from a quarter-acre to a full acre or more. They can earmark a portion of this to build a house on. Some farm management companies give you the option of building a house; others, like the WeCommunties, make it mandatory. While owners are encouraged to spend as much time on the farm as possible (especially once their homes are built), it’s not essential—the company employs a full-fledged team to take care of every aspect of the actual farming. Most of the labour is drawn locally, from surrounding villages.
Ironically, many of the actual farmers from these areas now work as hired hands on these professionally managed farms, especially those that had smaller land holdings—a ruined soil structure, failing yields, debts, and the paucity of finding labour due to migration to cities made their incomes smaller and smaller, till selling the land to these companies was perhaps the only option left to them. This became even more predominant after the pandemic forced many of them into unemployment and a return to their villages.
The peculiar geography of Bengaluru makes it possible for these farmland to be situated in any of three states—Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh—and still be within a two- to three-hour drive from the city. Although the major catchment area for clients is Bengaluru, the first few managed farmlands came up in nearby rural areas in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
Until recently, people from a non-agricultural background, who would typically not have the required rights, tenancy and crops (RTC) licence, or the pahani khata as it is locally known, were not permitted to buy agricultural land in Karnataka. The removal of this restriction through an ordinance in July 2020 has led to the current boom in real estate and land management companies offering managed farmlands around the city, says Anup Heggar, co-founder of BookAProp Estates Pvt. Ltd. His company is developing a gated farming community, Urban Farmers, on Kanakapura Road, on the outskirts of Bengaluru.
“Earlier, people would find loopholes to buy farmlands but it was always under a cloud of illegality, and they didn’t know how to manage it. Now there’s a solution for both these problems and it has led to the current spike in interest. Of course, because of the pandemic, suddenly a lot of people want to get closer to nature,” says Heggar, a former IT consultant who got into land and farm management about a decade ago.
Of course, you need to be careful about what you are buying. Most of the professionally managed companies will be transparent and share detailed land records, mutation records, updates on the legal status of the land, its topography and layout, and details of physical features like soil quality, aridity, rainfall data and a lot more. “Ask for all these documents, and get them checked by your own lawyers. Don’t fall for pitches about high returns and investment growth—farming is risky business, get into it only if you can park away the money for some years,” says Priya Sunder, co-founder of the Bengaluru-based wealth management company PeakAlpha.
Life on the farm
To reach Hosachiguru Bristlecone, a 46-acre farm near Cholemarri village in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur district, you drive about three hours from Bengaluru on a pillowy smooth road, past low hills and windmills, till you reach, incredibly and incongruously, a Korean supermarket. There is a Kia Motors factory, and numerous ancillary factories, nearby and the area has a sizeable Korean population to support a supermarket that sells kimchi and seaweed and a dizzying array of instant ramen alongside regular Indian fast food and soft drinks. Drive another 14km or so from this unmissable landmark and you reach Bristlecone—named after the pine that’s said to be the oldest living tree species on the planet.
The property is managed farmland, developed by the Bengaluru-based Hosachiguru; with 18 farms spread across the three states, it’s the biggest player in this sector. Bristlecone, which was launched in January 2019, was sold out within three months of opening up its farm plots, in parcels of 0.25 acre, 0.5 acre and one acre. It charges its customers a land fee of ₹80 per sq. ft and an annual farm maintenance fee—you can own a 0.25 acre plot (around 10,000 sq. ft) for as little as ₹10-12 lakh. At that price, you can’t even buy a studio apartment anywhere in Bengaluru, points out Srinath Setty, director of business development, Hosachiguru.
“People who already own apartments and homes in the city are tired of buying yet another flat in the ghost towns of Sarjapur and Whitefield,” says Setty, naming massively overdeveloped areas on the outskirts of Bengaluru. “For them, a managed farmland represents not just a way to invest in land, which holds a primitive appeal for all of us, but the comforting knowledge that you are contributing to something larger than yourself, which is benefiting the planet. So why not?”
Taking a walk around the farm with P. Shrikanth, one of the company’s agronomists, I get a small lesson in the principles of the permaculture-based farming practised here. Firstly, my notions about farming being all about edible crops is shattered—Bristlecone, like several of the other farms managed by Hosachiguru, is primarily an organic timber farm. Around 60% of the young trees around us are tissue-culture teak and native teak plants, another 30% are sandalwood trees. Only about 10% of the land is given over to fruit trees like mango. “King of the woods is teak, queen of the woods is sandalwood,” says Shrikanth, proudly displaying a cluster of teak, casuarina and sandalwood trees that support each other in symbiotic ways. “I know each tree and each square foot here,” he says.
Sensing my disappointment at the shattering of a vision of families working together, harvesting ripe red tomatoes and brilliant greens, Shrikanth says that owners of the farm plots have the choice to do that as well, should they wish to. Next, he takes me around the half-acre vegetable garden in a corner of the farm where there are, indeed, ripening tomatoes. Most of the produce from the vegetable patch is used in the community kitchen on the farm, which has four neat cottages that can be booked by owners to get a taste of farm living till their houses are built.
The other lesson in how farming is changing across the country comes from seeing a mix of ancient and modern technology at work here too. On the one hand, the farm houses compost pits and large vats of liquid organic fertilisers like panchagavya (a concoction of cow dung, cow urine, milk, curd and ghee) and jeevamrutha (made of cow dung, cow urine, jaggery, pulse flour and garden soil). On the other, it has IoT monitors throughout the farm that continuously collect data related to soil quality, irrigation, humidity, wind speed, pests and diseases, and feed them to an app called Fasal. The app interprets the data in a way that is useful to agronomists like Shrikanth to make crucial decisions: How much irrigation is required for a particular soil type? Is there an imminent threat of plant diseases? What type of fertiliser should be used?
Hosachiguru was founded by former IT executives Ashok Jayanthi and Sriram Chitlur, who started their farming journey as “weekend farmers” in 2005, scouting for land and encountering many of the problems people face even today in buying farmland. Finally, they found some land near Jayanthi’s ancestral village of Rayadurg in Anantapur district, Andhra Pradesh, and set up their semi-experimental project, Jayanthi Farms, growing sandalwood, amla (Indian gooseberry) and other native trees. A few years down the line, after getting a government grant to set up a private sandalwood nursery based on organic farming methods, they quit their jobs at Tech Mahindra and Infosys, respectively, to start Hosachiguru.
Setty, Jayanthi’s nephew, joined the company in 2013 after working in merchandising for a few years. “When people got to know about Ashok and Sriram’s work, they asked for help in managing their farms. It was while doing this that the two realised some people had ancestral farmlands and didn’t know how to manage them, others had the will and resources to buy farms but didn’t know how to go about it,” says Setty. Creating a professionally managed company that would bring together these needs and create a new asset class for those looking to diversify their investment portfolios, seemed like an idea whose time had come.
‘Not a real-estate company’
“The first thing I want to tell you is that we are not a real estate company,” says Varun Kumar Pandey, co-founder of Vivasv Infra Pvt. Ltd, the land management company that owns WeCommunities, during a Zoom call. “What we offer is a way of living and a way to connect back with the earth. Owning a property is just a part of it. The ‘community’ part of WeCommunities is actually its most crucial part.”
WeCommunities is a six-year-old company with two collectives in various stages of completion near Bengaluru. It is expanding with an upcoming project near the Tijara Fort in Rajasthan, about 100km from Delhi.
It started with a 90-acre plot of arid, barren land in Thagathy village in Tamil Nadu, about 90km from Bengaluru, in 2017. After decades of conventional monoculture farming, the soil had been destroyed and nothing much grew there. Along with a few enthusiastic advisers and early adopters who wanted to practise sustainable farming, Pandey and his partner Yathesh Kumar set up a collective to raise money to buy the land. Members of this “seed community” were both investors and evangelists—the 50-plus units of the Tamarind Valley Collective (TVC), as it came to be known, were sold mostly through word-of- mouth and without any formal marketing effort, recalls Pandey.
Three years down the line, through a concerted effort using permaculture and organic forestry methods, there is a small thriving forest on the land. Unlike, say, the timber farms of Hosachiguru, the Tamarind Valley community wants to keep at least 30-40 acres as forested area and use the rest to create a fully self-sustained community that grows its own food, generates its own electricity, harvests its own rainwater—or at least that’s the dream. “It is a bit of a utopia, yes, but the community is involved in every step of decision-making and everything is settled after a lot of debate and discussion. This is not an ‘asset diversification’ thing for them but a way of contributing to land rejuvenation. These intangibles are of immense value to us,” says Pandey. Encouraged by the success and enthusiasm of TVC, the company has launched similar projects, such as the Rose Valley Farming Collective, an 80-acre managed farmland near Thally, Tamil Nadu, of which Ranganathan is a part.
Sunder of PeakAlpha has similar advice. “Go for it if it’s something you are doing for yourself and your family as a lifestyle decision,” she says. That’s largely what compelled Rohan Lobo, a 40-something Bengalurean who is a partner at a Big 4 consulting firm, to look at managed farmlands. “My parents come from farming stock, and although they had to move to the city for jobs while the holdings back home got smaller and smaller, divided among many claimants, they always had this dream of retiring and living on a farm. I am actually doing this for my mother,” says Lobo, who has purchased around four acres on two farms managed by Hosachiguru. “Initially, I thought of it as an investment to be honest, but now as I visit the farms and see barren land being converted into a food or timber forest, I come away with a positive feeling.”