Thirty devotees from ISKCON farms all over Europe attended the fourth annual ISKCON European Farm Conference from May 10th through 12th this year, hoping to gain inspiration as well as practical advice for their various rural projects.
Devotees hailed from farms in England, Sweden, Czech, Slovakia, New Mayapur in France, and Hungary. Some wanted to establish ox programs, some were developing businesses based on selling vegetables and other natural products, and some simply wanted to learn more about the principles of agriculture and sustainable living.
While previous farm conferences were held in Prabhupadadesa, Northeast Italy, and New Vraja Dhama, Hungary, this year’s was hosted by Bhaktivedanta Manor, England.
“The Manor has probably the second most active farm in ISKCON, after New Vraja Dhama,” says conference organizer Shyamasundara Dasa, who also serves as ISKCON’s European Minister for Cow Protection and Agriculture, and has overseen cow protection at the Manor since 1992.
“We have fifty-six cows, milk thirteen of them a day by hand, and produce about 42,000 litres of milk a year,” he continues. “We also have a very active ox-working program, with ten working oxen that logged in about 3,000 ‘ox hours’ last year—as a comparison, New Vraja Dhama, which has a similar-sized herd, logged in 4,200 ox hours, while the next largest farm in ISKCON Europe, New Mayapur, logged in about 480 ox hours.”
Eight of Bhaktivedanta Manor’s 100 acres of farming land—mainly grazing pastures—are ploughed by oxen, and yield enough vegetables for the Deity’s kitchen. While the farm has a long way to go to provide all the vegetables needed by the temple—which feeds 2,000 people each week—it’s still an impressive effort. And there are future plans to harness the strength of the ox in another way, with an ox-powered mill expected to start providing energy to the community within the next few months.
It was in the setting of this inspired agricultural community that devotees from all over Europe attempted to learn new skills and get encouragement to boost their own efforts.
“On each of the three days of the conference, we’d start at 10am, and have four or five different presentations before lunch,” says Shyamasundara. “Some related to different projects going on around Europe, but many were concerned with the Manor, since there’s a lot going on here.”
Japa Yajna Dasa gave a presentation about the Manor’s care farm program, established with the Lotus Trust, a parallel charity to ISKCON. Created in connection with government care organizations, it arranges for people with special needs to get exercise, fresh air, good company and fulfilling work by coming to the Manor and working on its farm.
Japa Yajna also spoke about a recently established program wherein people serving a non-custodial sentence can do the community service required of them at the Manor’s farm and Goshala. He also explained how other farms around Europe could set up similar programs if they wished.
“Another program that can be set up to draw volunteer workers to our farms is WWOOF—or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms,” says Shyamasundara. “Prabhupada-Prana, the temple president of Karuna Bhavan in Scotland, which has had quite a lot of success with the program, gave a presentation on it.”
WWOOF doesn’t provide financial compensation for work, but instead gives volunteers—often traveling students—food and accommodation in return for learning and an experience of the organic, sustainable lifestyle. As well as explaining how devotees could set this program up at their own farms, Prabhupada-
Prana gave another presentation on natural energy technologies being used at Karuna Bhavan, such as wind turbines and biomass burners.
Meanwhile on the subject of cow protection, Sita Rama Dasa, one of the senior managers at Bhaktivedanta Manor, described the Ahimsa Milk Initiative, another project executed along with the Lotus Trust charity.
“It’s a very bold initiative, considered controversial by some,” Shayamasundara says. “He has created a partnership with a conventional farmer who has agreed to enter a certain number of his cows into a protected system, so that they’ll be taken care of by the Ahimsa project once they’re finished milking. In the meantime, their milk will be sold as Ahimsa milk. Sita-Rama has also created partnerships with a production company and a delivery company, so that the cruelty-free milk can be delivered weekly by subscription to devotees and cow-lovers around North London. It’s a program that takes some compromises, but saves a lot of cows.”
Presentations were also given on a community-centered lifestyle and the use of oxen by devotees from New Mayapur and Hungary. Dhanesvara Dasa, a popular speaker on the Varnashrama lifestyle and author of Spritiual Economics, gave a thought-provoking talk about Vedic culture and the importance of living on the land.
Afternoons during the conference were devoted to practical learning on the Manor’s farm, an extremely important element.
“On the first day, I gave a tour of the Goshala, explaining in great detail how we run the farm and take care of the cows and calves,” says Shyamasundara. “I explained how the cows are milked, and how the milk is tested and properly sterilized according to local health regulations. I also described how the calves are cared for duing the different cycles of their lives. For the first two weeks, the calf stays with its mother and drinks her milk, and we take the surplus. After that, the cow and calf are put in separate pens, but the calf still has access to its mother at milking times until it’s about six months old.”
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Shyamasundara also showed the conference attendees the cow ‘sick bay,’ equipped with a crane for lifting old cows or oxen that needed medical attention. He demonstrated an Amish-invented contraption that enabled five oxen to pull one load by harnessing them all to one unit. And he explained how the roof of the Goshala building collected rain water which was then used to wash the cows down and to provide them with drinking water.
The next afternoon, workshops were given on how to run a dairy, how to make a yoke, and how to drive oxen.
“A lot of the participants had never driven oxen before, so they were given an apportunity to actually drive the ox carts and use the plows, and to see how simple it is,” Shyamasundara says. “We also showed them the Manor’s technique of harnessing the bulls by the nose, and explained the benefits of it.”
The day concluded with a tour of the polytunnels where vegetables were grown, wherein Krishna Chaitanya Dasa showed attendees the various crops, the tools, and the facilities used for special needs groups in the “care farm” project.
“On the final afternoon, Uddhava and Janakula gave us a tour of both the formal flower gardens and those in which we grow flowers for the Deities, and explained how we grow them,” says Shyamasundara. “We then concluded the conference, with everyone expressing their appreciation for it, and the enthusiasm it gave them. They were all chomping at the bit to get back on their farms!”
Shyamasundara explains that the annual Farm Conference is very practical—it gives devotees a chance to see what people on other farms are doing, and the knowledge to implement new initiatives on their own farms. But it’s also a very important event for rejuvenating devotee farmers, for leaving them feeling that their project is important and an essential part of the ISKCON mission. For, unfortunately, it seems that they don’t get that inspiration much elsewhere.
“Recently, when I did a tour of all the European farms, it became clear that temples are not supporting agriculture or cow protection—and ISKCON leaders are not talking about their importance anymore,” Shyamasundara says.
He explains that this is because of an unrealistic expectation of farms, which also stunts the growth of farm projects in ISKCON.
“Leaders are not getting behind farms because they’re trapped in the idea of farmers living in mud huts and not earning anything from their work,” he says.
“Even though you can’t have farming in today’s times unless people can make a living from it. And temples are not buying the food that ISKCON farms produce, because it’s double or triple the price they’d pay in supermarkets, and comes with some dirt and insects on it, some natural elements. The same goes for milk from protected cows—it has a naturally higher cost.
“So farms can be very successful, and do wonderful preaching as they are in Hungary—but only if ISKCON leaders accept the naturally higher prices of protected-cow milk and homegrown food, and tell the temples to buy it. It would also help if they spoke more about farms during their regular preaching tours, which would support and energize the farmers.”
Until then, the ISKCON European Farm Conference will continue in its job of inspiring and providing practical advice for farmers.
Next year, the Conference will be held in New Vraja Mandala, Spain. Shyamasundara hopes that gradually it will catch on beyond Europe as well.
“North America and India should have their own, too,” he says. “This principle of farmers coming together and getting practical experience and enthusiasm for their service is very important.”