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Ancient desert-dwelling culture embraces hydroponics

On a morning in late July, Palu sits in the sandy yard of her brown house. Nearby, in the shade of a sheesham tree, lies Kali, one of her cows. A monsoon rain has just passed through, but now sunlight blazes down from the clear desert sky once again. Here in the Thar Desert, the monsoon season lasts only two months, and summer temperatures sometimes soar to over 120 degrees.

These challenging conditions make Palu’s small, solar-powered oasis, where she can grow fresh greens for her cattle right next to her house, all the more miraculous. In the barn-like structure, multi-level frames are constructed of PVC pipes with tiny sprinklers. What looks like makeshift scaffolding is, in fact, a wellspring of homegrown innovation. Nearby, plastic trays will soon be spread with soaked seeds. In eight days, these seeds will grow roots, stems, and leaves to become animal food — the bedrock of her way of life.

For pastoralist families like theirs, preserving their traditional practices is an uphill battle. Water shortages and erratic rainfall, exacerbated by climate change, have made growing animal food, or fodder, increasingly difficult. But hydroponics –– a method of growing fodder with just a fraction of the water normally required –– is changing that. New hydroponic farms like the one next to Palu’s house appear in the remotest regions of Rajasthan, allowing desert-dwelling pastoralists to grow fodder for their animals nearly year-round. In doing so, these new farms nourish cows and goats and sustain a culture that might otherwise fade into the past.

Until recently, collecting this fodder was no easy task. In the afternoons, Palu would walk to her farm, located four miles away, to collect fresh fodder. After cutting the grasses and crops grown especially for animal feed, she would fill a large sack and carry the load back on her head. It was backbreaking work carried out in scorching heat.

Then, in 2021, Paula’s life took a turn when she visited the campus of Urmul Seemant Samiti, a nonprofit that works to help farmers in the region build self-reliance. In 2017, Urmul Seemant Samiti, along with Bahula Naturals and the advocacy group Desert Resource Centre, asked women farmers what their biggest problem was. “They said it was the time they spent in finding fodder,” says Srivastava.

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