When you grow up in what is voted “the most liveable town in North America” (Nelson, Canada), which has more organic coffee shops than most cities, where the word(s) on the street are kale, spirulina and maca, and your father started the first WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) in Canada on his homestead, you understand why Jonathan Benda might have developed a green thumb.
On the other hand, half Indian Adrienne Thadani, Benda’s partner in their organic farming and landscape consultancy Thrive, admittedly hadn’t grown anything except maybe a cucumber with her grandmother while growing up in Washington DC. Luckily, as her best friend’s mom opened the first organic restaurant in the city, she always had access to the clean food she would one day want to grow.
Bitten by the travel bug early in his life, Benda always knew he wanted to work outdoors. While he backpacked, and travelled around the world, living in Spain and Thailand for a couple of years each, he found himself working at a sustainable landscaping company in Australia that did “vegetation projects with endemic native vegetation, vertical gardens, living filters, slope stabilization on banks, etc.” He was offered a partnership and considered migrating to Australia, and about four and half years ago came to India to ponder over this life-changing decision. And right about then, he walked into Samata Yoga Retreat in Goa and has been planting seeds there ever since.
In 2009, 22-year-old Thadani decided she wanted to live in India to discover the country “not through my father’s lens, but through my own.” A simple question—“why plant ornamental bananas?” triggered a career path she hadn’t considered till then. “I was just so confused as to why this team of horticulturists didn’t want to grow banana plants that grew bananas! Their answer was that people would then eat them!” She started asking questions like how could we be growing more in unused spaces around the city and started connecting with NGOs who were into nutrition and urban gardening. “The number one counter I would get from people is that there is no space in Mumbai. Which to me was crazy, as I saw nothing but space: we are a city of empty, flat rooftops that can all be used for growing food!” As fate would have it, soon after she started asking these questions, she met Naheed Carrimjee who offered her a 2,500sqft rooftop garden in a building she owned at Muhhamad Ali Road, that led to Flyover Farm.
The farm started in 2012, and has since then seen 3,200 visitors and has now transformed into a show-and-tell space for school kids and volunteers as well as for the community. Around the same time that Thadani was developing micro green kits, restaurateur Gauri Devidayal (from The Table) got in touch with her for help growing the tiny edible saplings for her iconic Mumbai restaurant. The journey as an organic farming consultant, which would eventually lead her to Benda, had begun.
While Benda was working his magic on a small, degraded patch of land attached to Samata Yoga Retreat, growing veggies for their yoga centre as well as their fine-dining restaurant Matsya (remember Gomey Galily?) that was attached to the retreat, he heard about this girl who was doing similar things for The Table in Mumbai. “He cold-called me while I was in Goa and when I went to see the farm at Samata, I could see how organized Jonathan’s brain was when I saw how straight his garden beds were!” laughs Thadani as she describes their first meeting. “We just started helping each other out, sharing ideas, sharing seeds; we both love to share information! Nothing is a secret. Nothing is proprietary. If I have something that works well, I want you to know about it.” They found they were philosophically on the same page, “Even when we weren’t working together, we both wanted each other’s gardens to thrive.”
Their first project together was not at some wealthy person’s farm in Alibaug but in the slums of Dharavi, where Thadani and architect Nicola Antaki had gotten a grant from the UN to work with clean air plants to combat the air pollution being created by potters and their kilns. They managed to get the potters themselves to build a vertical garden, and Thrive was born.
What Thrive essentially does is analize what the purpose of the client is, if they want veggies just for themselves or if it’s for a business or a restaurant. Then they design a whole ecosystem around the needs of the clients and create a farm management and development plan, which they also oversee the execution of. Thadani’s various non-profit efforts continue under Fresh & Local, the non-profit branch of Thrive.
When asked why farming and why India, Benda answers in a language I totally understand—the love of eating. “I love eating, and farming is usually very delicious. And what continues to give me pleasure in farming is the pleasure of eating something that is so sun-sweet, like a tomato that is still warm from the sun. There is nothing quite as nourishing as eating fresh fruit that you have just picked! And I see young kids around me in India, who might have gone to Berkeley to study and eaten some organic kale chips there, and have come back and are wondering what happened to this country with some of the richest histories in organic farming in the world! That motivates me to stay here.”
Find them on Instagram (@thrivegds)
Blog by Shilarna Vaze (you might know her as Chef Chinu) is the owner of Gaia Gourmet, a chef, writer and TV host. Find her on Twitter (@ChefChinu) and on Instagram (@chefchinugaiagourmet)