A devotee farmer near the Gita Nagari farm in Port Royal, Pennsylvania, has received a Farm Ownership Loan from the USDA Farm Service Agency, which offers low rates to help new farmers buy farms. The program offers up to 100% financing on up to $600,000, and encourages people to take up farming and save farmland for future generations.
Considering Srila Prabhupada’s many teachings advocating cow protection, food production and self-sufficiency, Gita Nagari’s leaders as well as ISKCON North America leaders are encouraging interested devotees to avail of the USDA program.
While the program is available nationwide, Gita Nagari leaders say that those who purchase farms near the long-established Gita Nagari project will be able to draw support from its existing network and wealth of experience.
Gita Nagari is a 350-acre farm, established in 1974 to fulfill Srila Prabhupada’s instruction that city temples should be affiliated with farm projects. It is run by temple president Dhruva Maharaj Das and program director Parijata Dasi, a husband and wife team who worked as a mechanical engineer and human resources executive before turning to farming to help realize Prabhupada’s vision.
It was another Gita Nagari program director, Kesi Mardana Das, who recently purchased an 83-acre farm near Gita Nagari with the help of the USDA Farm Ownership Loan.
According to the terms of the loan, Kesi had to have at least three years of experience in farming, as well as a business plan for how to pay the loan off. Gita Nagari helped with both – Kesi, who had been a psychology graduate in Las Vegas, moved to the Pennsylvania farm five years ago to begin his training.
He now plans to grow feed crops on his new farm for the dairy cows at Gita Nagari, keep bees and produce honey, and later grow grains such as wheat, millets and oats.
“The way we’re conceptualizing it is that Gita Nagari is a local economic hub, with cows, a certified dairy, and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) providing food for many families,” Kesi Mardana says. He explains that devotees with an interest in farming as a lifestyle can own their own farms nearby while taking advantage of this infrastructure.
Devotees can gain the minimum three years of practical farming experience required for the USDA Farm Ownership Loan by taking Gita Nagari’s internship program, as Kesi Mardana did. A special safety protocol is applied during the COVID pandemic; as temple president Dhruva Das explains, “Any interns who come get tested, quarantine for two weeks, and then get tested again.”
Gita Nagari is an ideal place to learn, as devotees there have experience in food production for economic sustenance.
Currently the community has a CSA program that provides local fresh and organic vegetables to 120 families every week; and all indications are that demand is on the increase.
Gita Nagari’s dairy, the only certified slaughter-free dairy in the US, produces 400 gallons of milk a week, from 18 active milking cows. This supplies ISKCON communities in the region such as ISKCON of D.C., Towaco, and Plainfield, New Jersey, with milk, cheese, and paneer. Gita Nagari also produces its own honey, and runs a sanctuary for retired cows; the community cares for a total of 85 cows altogether.
Over the past few years, leaders have applied for and received several USDA grants, including a $50,000 irrigation grant in 2014; a grant in 2016 for a solar-powered well on Gita Nagari’s Govardhana Hill where cows graze; and a $150,000 grant in 2017 for a goshala/feedlot that houses 50 to 75 cows and steers. All of these were cost share grants, providing between 50% and 75% funding, with Gita Nagari kicking in the remainder of the cost.
The community has also run a three to-four month internship for volunteers such as students and WWOOFers over the years, which is enlivening for devotees and allows the volunteers to learn farming skills and experience Vaishnava values. According to Dhruva, the same careful COVID safety precautions are applied during this program as during the internship for devotees.
As far as a long-term vision, Gita Nagari leaders hope to build community, provide a way for devotees to maintain their families, and continue growing food and producing milk according to Srila Prabhupada’s desires.
“In Srila Prabhupada’s Conception of Gita Nagari, published in Back to Godhead magazine in 1956 before he came to the United States, he envisioned Gita Nagari as a place where ‘neither God nor the living being nor Nature is in any way antagonistic toward one another, but that all of them exist in harmony as a complete whole unit,’” Kesi Mardana quotes.
“That’s a vision that really stands out for me, and that we always try to meditate on.”
Oct 01, 2022
Gunarnava Sitaram Das for ISKCON Sacramento
Sep 25, 2022
Archbishop Eric Escala, Continuing Anglican Church