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Far from the madding crowd

Saguna Baug, a 55-acre farm in Neral, just about 100 kilometres from Mumbai, tells you all that you wanted to know about rural life but were afraid to ask. You can walk down to the mushy heart of a shallow pond and learn the uses of lotuses ' the stems of which you might well be served for lunch ' under clumps of bamboo. For a light snack, you could amble down to the fields and chomp on sweet and juicy Vietnamese long beans or lick off the surprisingly sweet heart of a ripe bitter gourd. And if you’re feeling hot and sweaty, simply squeeze out the juice of the fleshy marbitti leaf and rub it on your body.

The farm is just one of the many rural resorts that the city dweller is seeking out for a quiet break. As farmers, at least the more affluent kinds, open up their doors to the urban tourist, agro-tourism is fast becoming the new buzzword in the hospitality sector.

“Since the last two to three years, there has been an increase of middle and upper-level farmers taking up agro-tourism,” says Vijay Chavan, deputy general manager, Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC). “We have registered about 250 of these under the bed and breakfast providers category,” he says.

For tired Mumbai-ites seeking to unwind, the rural setting ' complete with cows, fields and hand-pumps ' is fast becoming a popular destination for holidays. Saguna Baug, run by agriculturist Chandrashekhar Bhadasawale, is one such farm where you can actually hear your own breathing and listen to birdsong. The closest you’ll get to the sounds of civilisation are through the sonorous hum of a water motor or the rumble of an occasional train passing by.

“What I enjoy most here are the sounds of silence,” says a visitor and a faculty member of the department of computer sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai. The break from the city, he says, helps him focus better on the week ahead.

Holidaying at Saguna Baug, computer professional Seema Madamani discovered some other simple pleasures of life ' like being greeted by passersby. It was also here that she took her first buffalo ride, encountered a male turkey and got to know that the Doberman was born with a tail. When she goes back to Saguna Baug for another holiday, Madamani plans to do some farming.

“One of the best things about staying on a farm is that guests can contribute to the place through their involvement,” says Thomas Vivian, training co-ordinator of the Agriclinics and Agribusiness Training Centre, College of Agriculture, Pune. As a bonus, they also see some novelties ' short fruit trees like the pomegranate being irrigated by pitchers placed at the base of the trunk, leaves producing sugar (stevia) and seeds producing diesel (jetropa).

Farm life also has more profound messages. At Karpe’s Wadi, a three-acre beachfront farm in Alibaug, a three-hour drive from Mumbai, you could take a lesson in good fathering from Tom ' the resident gander who fiercely guards his woman and child. And in the garden abounding in coconuts and spices, you could watch the owner, Shekhar Karpe, pollinate the vanilla flower, or, if you are lucky, even watch the rare vanilla orchid bloom once in three years.

Clearly, tourists opting to visit agro-tourism ventures are nature lovers, or those who get to see little of nature’s bounty in the concrete jungles of big cities. Though industry insiders admit that some tourists are appalled to find that there is no television to watch or liquor to drink at the farms, most like to spend their time pottering around. Some try out farming; others devote their time trying to distinguish birds and bird calls. Many of the farms are home to exquisite migratory birds.

Bhadasawale, an ardent champion of agro-tourism and a winner of several agricultural awards, says it does not take much, for even a farmer with as little as an acre of green land, to get started. In DiveAgar, a beach and temple town in Konkan’s Raigad district, about 70 farmers, each with a plot of land measuring an acre or so, have ventured into agro-tourism.

Uday Bapat, one such small farmer with a coconut and betel nut plantation on 3.5 acres, says he has been reaping good results from his investment of Rs 5 lakh in the four rooms he constructed for visitors seven years ago. His annual turnover is about Rs 1 lakh.

“Farmers can even let out a couple of rooms in their own homes, as nature lovers mostly seek clean and basic accommodation,” adds Prabhakar Save, a farmer with a 30-acre chikoo, mango and coconut plantation along the Maharashtra-Gujarat border.

But agro-tourism is no child’s play. If cottages are to be built, a farmer has to go through complicated procedures to convert his agricultural land. “It is up to the government to ease these regulations,” says Bapat, who has had to routinely shell out fines for having by-passed government procedures.

But the government, the farmers complain, has been anything but forthcoming in promoting agro-tourism. So it’s not surprising that MTDC’s Chavan is not greatly enthused by the subject. “Agro-tourism should be addressed by the agricultural department,” he says.

Still, with tourists showing interest, entreprising farmers are reaping financial gains. Save’s initial investment of Rs 5 lakh in constructing rooms with a 20-guest capacity has paid off. His annual turnover of Rs 7 lakh has more than doubled from the previous year. The three-year-old Karpe Wadi rakes in Rs 4 lakh annually from an average of 20-25 guests a week. He invested Rs 5 lakh for his nine guest rooms.

Bhadasawale’s Saguna Baug’s turnover, too, has seen an annual growth of roughly 15 per cent over the last four years. Though he will not spell out his income, his four-year-old guest list of 3,000 increased to 5,000 last year.

One of the country’s bigger players in the agro-tourism business is the 130-acre Sahakari Spice Farm in Goa, whose turnover doubled in the last couple of years to reach the Rs 1 crore mark. And business this year is expected to climb by 10-15 per cent, says its manager, Anil Priolkar.

Clearly, holidays are not what they used to be. What are the amenities, an average tourist used to once ask a hotel owner. Hope they are none, is what rural holiday-makers now say.

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