Military Farms: The Doyens of Farm to Table Concept

Designed originally as tools to self sufficiency when it came to food, these large swaths of land have not just been the backbone of supplies during the World War but at the foundation of the famous White Revolution.

By Madhulika Dash; Picture Archives

Last week saw the curtain call on one of the oldest, most efficient models of food sustainability as close to 130 plus Military Farms across India were disbanded. Thus, pulling the sheet on not just an establishment of 132 years, but also on one of the most effective agro-based models created (and perfected) by the British. The reason for decommissioning, a process that began somewhere around the early 2017, was economics. The farm, 39 of which were built on 20,000 acres of land that included prime real estate in New Delhi and other big cities, had turned into a white elephant. Comprising of large swath of lands and 30,000 high maintenance cows and hundreds of workers, these farms had outlived its purpose of just supplying premium quality milk and milk products to an army of nearly 1.2 million strong men (and women). And in doing this, the 130 Military Farms of various sizes demanded close to than $46 million a year to run.

But did it really? While pragmatist agree with the closure considering Military Farms were given the prime land in every cantonment area which can be put to better use rather than just as homes to hybrid cows; other few questioned the rash move convinced that the farms could be retweaked for greater goal. After all, in their defence, the farms had, for nearly a century, made Army, food sustainable.

Incidentally, self-sufficiency was the prime reason with which the British designed the first Military farm in Allahabad on February 1, 1889. Started under the Ministry of Agriculture, the farms were managed by Imperial Diary Expert (Officer ranked) who along with a team of soldiers who would supply milk and milk produce to the various army stations around the farm. This move some believe was an obvious graduation from the Dak Bangalow days where a scaled down version of the same was at every of the Bangalow that took care of the officer and his family travelling. And with the Great War of Independence of 1857, the British, now the undisputed ruler of India, had reasons to continue being self-dependent. The difference however was unlike the Dak Bangalow that were created as these low maintenance, transitory set ups, the Military Farms were done with much thought and a vision. In fact, even back then there was this whole process of recording, reviewing and the goal of earning their upkeep and making a small profit. Fascinatingly, the farms became self-reliant within a decade of the setup, thanks to not just the army strength back then but also establishments like Fort Kochi and eventually the Viceroy House for which the milk products had to come from one of Military Farms in Delhi or around it. 

Such was the efficacy of these corporate style management farm systems that by 1923 not just the numbers were increased to one in every cantonment and two if the city held more importance, but the management saw a change as well. Now every Imperial Dairy Expert on deputation had to handle not one but three farms to ensure each of these countryside-styled units produced enough milk and milk products to meet the war demands but also train Indians to become better dairy system managers. In fact, the initial butter factories were part of the Military Farms agenda whose high yield ensured that they could also sell the milk and milk products in the market at a cheaper rate than others. Interestingly, it was around the two World Wars that the vision of setting up these Farms by the British finally came to fore as they began supplying surplus goods to the open market thus creating a need for establishing more farms across India to meet the rise in demand. While new farms were strategically created across India, old ones were consolidated or moved to locations that allowed for better functionality and logistics. As India won independence and these farms were taken over by Indian Army, more of these well accounted units were added to ensure a balance between demand and supply. Such was the efficacy of these farms prior to the White Revolution that they became centers of experiment on high yield produce.  

One such upgrade that gave Military Farms the milk and milk product supremacy was the cross breeding of the Holstein-Friesian cows with the native Sahiwal in 1987 to produce the Frieswal variety. High on maintenance compared to the Gir in India, these cows average yield stood at ,600 litres every 300 days compared to the national average yield of 2,000 litres. The Frieswal became a part of the world’s largest crossbred cattle programme, with farms producing more than 14,000 Frieswal cows through the 1990s. Having such high maintenance cows had its off side as much of the farm land was reserved as feeding patches to these cows who were allowed to roam free in and around the colonial style barrack that often served as the office as well.

Result, Military Farms remained a specialised unit of milk and milk products instead of graduating into farm units that produced a variety of other things as well. And that could have proved the final nail on the coffin for most of these farms that unknowingly served as the foundation for the Milk Revolution that came soon after Independence spearheaded by Amul. In fact, according to some records, where Amul stands today was one of the butter factories of the Military Farms during first war (1914-1918)