A Family that Farms Together…

How one agricultural family in Karnataka manages life and work on the fields.

By urban standards, the lifestyle of the Reddy family in Gudipalli, an agrarian village about 110 km from Bangalore, may appear lacking in some ways. Prolonged power cuts are common here and water, though available, is not always the running variety. The nearest medical facility, located a few kilometres away in the town of Pathapalzhya, is not equipped to treat serious cases of injury or sickness.

And yet, the Reddys say, they are happy with their circumstances. The extended clan includes the patriarch of the family, MV Narayanappa, his wife, his five sons and their families. At peak occupancy, their house – a compact, old structure with cool and dark interiors – has 26 individuals living together under its roof. Despite this, relations between family members are surprisingly smooth and friction-free.

How do they do it? Lakshman Reddy, the second oldest of the brothers and our guide for the day, attributes it to a clear division of roles within the household. Ravanamma, one of the wives, manages the kitchen while the others work in the fields. On this morning, Ravannama started preparations for a simple lunch consisting of ragi mudde (steamed balls of rice and ragi), a spicy sambar, a side dish of greens, and buttermilk. Her sister-in-law Subbaratnamma, stepped out of the house with a cloth cover to shield her weather beaten face from the late morning sun.
The family is one of the biggest landholders in the village, laying claim to approximately thirty of its total acreage. Nestled in between rocky hills, Gudipalli is picturesque even in the hot summer months when its lake bed and the surrounding hills are dry. The hills have both mythological cache (the Pandavas are rumored to have camped on top of one of them) and historical significance bestowed by passing kings and their armies.

Another way that the brothers and their families steer clear of turf conflict is by keeping all their land holdings registered under their father’s name. “We have decided not to carve up [the land] for now”, Lakshman Reddy said. “The land belongs to our father. We manage it for him”.

Daily life for the Reddy brothers, their wives and their workers is physically demanding. They walk the fields planted with cotton, beetroot, onion, and sunflower to ensure they are weeded and watered on a regular basis. Although tractors are used for tilling, much of the planting is done by hand.

For the most part, the Reddys focus on cash crops with shorter harvest periods of three months or less. Sunflower, for example, needs ninety days while beetroot can be planted and harvested in thirty-five days. This strategy ensures a steady income stream through much of the year and helps tide the family over less productive and hotter months.

Cotton seed production, with a six-month cultivation cycle and higher water requirements, is an exception because of its attractive margins. For yield that will fetch a higher price, cotton seed growers also have to cross-pollinate their crop, a process that
is laborious and time-consuming. As we toured the family fields on this day, Lakshman Reddy demonstrated how pollen from male flowers is dusted onto female flowers to increase the strength and quality of the yield. Timing is key in this operation to keep self-pollination from setting in across the crop.

The Reddys also produce silk, which has
a thirty year cultivation history in
Chikkaballapur District where Gudipalli is located.

Ask him about the most challenging aspects of their working lives and Lakshman Reddy laughs it off: “For hardworking people, nothing is a challenge’, he says. “Everything seems difficult if you are lazy”.

Despite this can-do attitude, there are some aspects that are not easily controlled. Water is one of them. Gudipalli’s borewells do produce water, thanks in part to a lake, the hills and natural green cover. However, it is getting harder to find it. There was a time, Lakshman Reddy said, when they just had to dig 300 feet to hit water. These days, that number is closer to 700 feet.

The threat of water shortage looms over them as it does over many farming communities across the country. Gudipalli residents have tried to stave it off by building a check dam in the vicinity to store water and replenish ground levels. The dam also serves as a watering hole in the summer, both for their livestock as well as the area’s wild animals – bears, deer and peacocks, among other creatures. It is a thoughtful and ecologically sensitive move, in the face of their own working challenges.

Entertainment in the village tends to be centered around the movies and TV serials – mostly in Telugu. Although men may step out to socialise with friends in Bagepalli, a taluk located thirty km away, women rarely have such freedom of movement. However, there is respect for the role that women play and hints of a more progressive outlook beneath the surface. Lakshman Reddy acknowledged that the system is not entirely fair to women: “Women work as hard or harder than men, on the fields,’ he said ‘but they get paid less.’

Perhaps due to inequities such as this as well as the physical nature of the job, the Reddys are anxious to steer their sons and daughters away from farming. Most of their children go to school or college in Bagepalli while others with degrees in hand are ready to explore the job market in
Bangalore.

The walls in the small living room are covered with family photos, including a large one of the entire clan. Ravanamma proudly pointed out her children in the group. “My son has finished his B.E.”, she said, “and my daughter – the one dressed in red – is getting an M.Com degree.”

It looks like theirs might be the last generation to work in Gudipalli. Who will tend to their land after them? For now, the Reddys are not dwelling on that question. “We do what we have to do”, Lakshman Reddy said with a smile. “This is our life and our work. But our children can look for opportunities outside”.