Mr. Sunny Babu has a lot on his plate. Serving the needs of 1000 Fairtrade farmers in the Kottayam and Idukkidistricts , for the Manarcadu Social Services Society (MASS) of Kerala is not a small task. As the resident “Plant Doctor”, a service supported by the community’s Fairtrade Premium, he’s called on daily to help them with the business of growing food, sustainably, in somewhat complex conditions.
Lately , he’s dealing with challenges that come around monsoon season, such as drying and processing spices in wet conditions. But this year, the challenges are even greater: climate change has altered weather patterns. Thus, the harvesting of spices, like nutmeg or cocoa, which normally takes place between May andSeptember, will be delayed. In most cases it will start a month late, but in some places, it may extend even to December
A regular day sees him rising with the birds: 4am is the best time to really see what’s happening with plants. He might check out the banana or spice cultivation for small pests or signs of disease. The early morning is also a good time to irrigate plants. Then by 8am, he’s at his desk in Kottayam, ready to answer his phone from the farmers with their questions.
“Farmers call me and ask me what to do. They are worried about their incomes, and want to ensure the best prices. In most cases, I try to provide them with answers. If I can’t, I’ll do some research and get back to them, and may need to visit them in the field.”
“Storage and processing are often the biggest issues,” says Sunny, “but lately we’ve seen changes to pollination patterns. As they’re not getting the proper rain, as in the case of the pepper plant,there isn’t proper pollination, so yields are decreasing.”
The same thing, he says, is happening with rice. “Also because of the lower monsoon, we find more problems with rice.” Rice cultivation demands decent rains in order to succeed, which is why, traditionally; the crop has been well suited to the moist and warm monsoon conditions of Kerala.
MASS, and Sunny, are fully committed to organic principles. So his task has been to find alternative organic pesticides and organic solutions to disease in rice paddies, vegetables&spices.
Fortunately, he’s well trained. Sunny studied Microbiology at Karpagam College under Bharathiar University in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, before becoming the Plant Doctor in 2010. He’s also a Senior Research Fellow at Regional Agricultural Research Station, Kumarakumin Kerala. His training and current research has led to some success in finding organic solutions.
For example, he worked with a farmer, Kunjumon, in Hyrange, where they found leaf spot and fruit rot on the nutmeg plant.. It was treated successfully with neem oil and garlic emulsion, and his crop is now in good condition.
Aside from being a very proud new father with a 10 month old daughter,
Joahna. S. Muricken, he is clearly passionate about his work, “I enjoy my work, and working with the farmers and MASS has been very rewarding,” he says. “The farmers tell me that they’re making a loss. If they improve their growing, they can improve their income. I feel very proud when I see a farmer who has taken on my advice and is now doing well.”