Some people just love their life’s vocation!
Baby Mathew Vallikappen does! Together with his wife Rani, Baby owns Vanilla County Plantation, a charming home stay at the foot hills of Vagamon at Teekoy, Kerala, India.
During a recent visit to India I have the good fortune to stay at Vanilla County and am lucky enough to be the recipient of Baby and Rani’s gracious hospitality. What is of particular interest to me is Baby’s ‘back to nature’ vision for his spice and rubber plantation. I am keen to learn more about his eco project.
Baby is the youngest of six sons and, as such, he inherited his father’s home (Vanilla County). Here he grows vanilla, rubber, coffee, black peppercorns, jackfruit, (all of which he sells commercially), as well as cocoa beans, nutmeg, tapioca, yams, cardamon, mace, vegetables such as eggplant, turmeric, bananas, papaya, cinnamon, screwpine, cashew nuts, betel nuts, ginger, coconut and cloves ( which he keeps for his own use).
These crops are grown on the very extensive grounds that surround his homestead and also on a plantation of 25 acres which is further up the road. On this acreage he grows 600 rubber trees which are interspersed with teak, mahogany, jackfruit, wildjack, banana and coconut trees. He tells us that he could make a lot more money by solely growing rubber trees but he chooses to grow a variety of trees and spices in true eco style as he cares about nature. He tells us that this way he doesn’t have to use pesticides as the companion plants he grows deter the pests and squirrels from attacking the rubber trees and the spices. His plantation is totally organic. Cow dung is used for fertilizer and he grows lantana to attract butterflies.
Wildjack is used for making houseboats, teak and mahogany are valuable woods used to make furniture, and even rubber trees (after 20 years of rubber production) are used to make hardwood furniture.
Baby shows us the rubber being tapped. One side of the tree is tapped over a period of 10 years, and then the other side is tapped for 10 years. Ten trees give one kilo of rubber milk per day or one sheet. However, straight after the monsoon season output increases to one kilo per day from one tree. The waste products of the rubber gathering process are used to make rubber bands. The rubber milk is mixed with formic acid and rolled into squares that look exactly like white rubber bath mats. These mats are hung to dry on a clothes line and the next day are smoked in his rubber smoking house. I rather liked them when they were white bath mats but at the end of the smoking process they look like they are squares of … yep, tyres!
He used to raise poultry but discovered what I already knew, ie that hens, in their never ending search for yummy worms and bugs, destroyed the roots of the vanilla plants. My hens have gobbled up everything that I’ve ever tried to grow. The vanilla has to be hand pollinated as there is no natural pollinator in India. In Mexico, where vanilla originates, it is pollinated by a humming bird. I suppose we could say that this is one of the effects of taking something that flourishes in one land to another… but the story also draws attention to how little things like the fate of a humming bird, can be of paramount importance to the continuation of a species of plant (in this case, vanilla). I suppose it is lucky that the plants can be hand pollinated.
Baby shows us a precarious-looking ladder which the pepper gatherer uses to collect the peppers as the vine twists around very tall trees. He shows us the peppercorns drying on sheets of paper.
Baby tells that Vanilla County is a haven for bird watchers. Birds that can be seen here are the Eurasian Golden Oriole, the Red Vented Bulbul, the Rufous Treepie and the White Throated Kingfisher.
When they have time, Baby and Rani unwind by swimming in natural pools created by mountain streams. Would it be possible to find anything more heavenly?
Baby and Rani have supplemented their income by turning their delightful plantation into a home stay and Rani uses her own spices in the food she cooks. She made us two great curries (fish and beef) and some wonderful fluffy parotta bread.
I just wish we could have stayed longer! But I certainly recommend Vanilla County to anyone who loves nature and really – who wouldn’t want to swim in a rock pool, nap in a garden hammock or eat home cooked Indian food? Believe me, this homestead is as close to heaven as you’ll get!
If only there were more farmers like Baby. In these days when crops are sprayed with dangerous chemicals and seeds are genetically modified, Baby’s plantation is a wonderful example of traditional farming techniques.
Please go to his website www.vanillacounty.in and see more.