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A new crop of farmers takes root in Bharat

Urbanites, who have quit corporate careers to work in farms, are changing more than just their occupations

Jasodhara Banerjee
Published: Jun 23, 2018 10:36:15 AM IST
Updated: Jun 28, 2018 04:48:34 PM IST

A new crop of farmers takes root in BharatSanmitra Pandharpur (right) and Amrita Chaudhury quit as software professionals to turn full-time farmers in Pune ; Image: Gaurav Thombre for Forbes India

In India, 3 lakh farmers committed suicide between 1995 and 2015, indicating the debilitating conditions plaguing the rural economy. As innumerable people abandon their traditional occupations on farms and move to urban areas, it is difficult to imagine hardcore urban people with cushy jobs turning to the farm sector to make a living; to till the land and nurture what it grows, or help others do it. And yet, they are.
Educated and experienced in myriad professions—from software engineering and chartered accountancy, to marketing and sales—they have chosen to learn everything from scratch, and, in turn, bring a fresh perspective. The change that this new crop of farmers is bringing about is hardly confined to their own lives: Not only are they brining in new techniques of farming and marketing, they are turning to age-old traditions, techniques and tastes that have been long forgotten in the ever-increasing pressure to increase yields of a limited number of crops.

“Farmers used to know what to do, and how to do it, when they did sustenance farming,” says Vishalakshi Padmanabhan, a chartered accountant who started Buffalo Back, a Bengaluru-based collective of farmers and entrepreneurs, in 2013. “But trade and market forces have changed all of that.” She gives the example of how Bengaluru used to consume a lot of ragi, and farmers in the surrounding regions would supply it. “But with an increasingly cosmopolitan population, and the consequent culture shift, ragi consumption fell, while that of rice increased.” The farmers who had grown ragi for generations began to find themselves grappling with a crop they had little knowledge of.

A new crop of farmers takes root in Bharat
Vishalakshi Padmanabhan started Buffalo Back, which has reintroduced forgotten grains among consumers and growers ;  Image: Nishant Ratnakar for Forbes India

Farming even familiar crops—wheat, rice, cotton—has not spared the farmers in Punjab and Haryana. The Green Revolution, which started in the 1960s and saw farm yields increase manifold thanks to new strains of crops, extensive use of water, and, more significantly, the increased use of pesticides, have had an impact that was perhaps not imagined: The soil and groundwater in areas of Punjab—most prominently the cotton-growing region of Malwa—have absorbed pesticides for years, poisoning the very people who grow these crops. In January 2013, when the state government published the findings of its first door-to-door survey of cancer, it was found that Malwa had 107 patients per 1 lakh population, compared to a national average of 80 per 1 lakh population.

In the late 1990s, Sunil Gupta, an operations manager with a Netherlands-based geographic information systems manufacturing company, was taking a train through Punjab. After having worked for about six years in the finance and IT sectors in Delhi and Noida, he was thinking of starting something of his own. Gupta began chatting with a few fellow passengers who were returning from medical centres. “It is not just the people here who have fallen ill,” said a farmer. “Even the land has become cancerous.”

“Suddenly,” says Gupta, “I found my purpose.”

In 2002, at the age of 29, with no experience in farming, and a rather bewildered family, Gupta shifted to Mandi Dabwali in the Sirsa district of Haryana, and began work on forming a farmers’ cooperative. “I spent time in villages, and a year practising farming myself,” recalls Gupta. “I travelled to Uttarakhand, and Rajasthan, and spoke to farmers from before the Green Revolution. They remembered how things were done before the use of pesticides.” He compiled his learnings into a booklet, which he then distributed for free among farmers.

In 2008, he registered Dharani Suphalam as a society for farmers, with about 1,000 farmers from across Punjab and Haryana within its fold. These farmers today cultivate organic crops such as wheat, rice, mustard, sugarcane, pulses, gram, spices, vegetables and mangoes. “One of the purposes of this society is to be self-sufficient. We don’t want to be dependent on government subsidies,” says Gupta, adding that the cooperative forms long-term contracts with retailers in urban areas, such as Delhi, to sell their produce.

“This is more satisfying than any pen-and-paper job,” says Gupta. “My family took time to adjust; especially since my income fell to a tenth of what it used to be. But now they have seen the effect of my work, and the respect that it has earned.”

A new crop of farmers takes root in BharatSunil Gupta formed a farmers’ cooperative in Haryana after he was told by a farmer that even their “land had become cancerous”; Image: Madhu Kapparath

Bewildered families is part of such dramatic shifts, it seems. Those who knew Sanmitra Pandharpur, 45, and Amrita Chaudhury, 44, were “left scratching their heads,” says Pandharpur, when the couple decided to quit as software professionals and turn full-time farmers in Pune.

Both went through the beaten path of studying to be engineers, and working in the software industry in India and in the US—Chaudhury, a graduate of National Institute of Technology Silchar, worked with Infosys, Fujitsu and Samsung, while Pandharpur, having studied at Pune University and University of California, Los Angles, worked with ADC Telecom in the US—and even took the startup route. “In 2000, I started a product-based startup after coming back to Pune,” says Pandharpur. “It was about embedded software in network management, and was acquired in 2008.”

To join this startup came Chaudhury. After having volunteered for an organisation in the US that worked with sustainable development in India, she returned to West Bengal in 2002 with the hope of trying her hand at farming. “But in West Bengal, there is a lot of politics with agriculture, and I could not make any progress,” she recalls. After beginning to work with Pandharpur, they both discovered their common dream of “doing something with the land”.

Starting with an acre of barren land that they bought in Bavdhan, on the outskirts of Pune in 2006, they went through a tough phase of experimentation over the next couple of years, during which they started planting trees, developing the soil, and installing rainwater harvesting systems. “We wanted to make the project more eco-friendly and sustainable, and not simply start selling the produce,” says Chaudhury. Having begun with growing salad greens and cherry tomatoes, in 2008 they also became aware of the concept of ‘food as medicine’, and began to grow vegetables such as Malabar spinach and gotu kola.

Although they started placing their products in Dorabjee’s, an established store in Pune known for its healthy food alternatives, by 2008, it was only by the end of 2009 that they took to farming full time. The knowledge they required came from extensive research from books and the internet, visiting organic farms in the Kolhapur and Satara districts of Maharashtra, and a lot of advice from the late environmentalist Kisan Mehta.

In 2010, the couple bought 8 acres of land in Saswad, near Pune, and leased another 7, and now employ around 30 people as salaried workers to work on their farm. The produce—about 1,000 kg per week in the lean months, and between 1,200 kg and 1,400 kg a week in the peak season between December and March—is now supplied to retailers such as Godrej Nature’s Basket, five-star hotels such as the Oberois, Hyatts and Marriotts, and individual restaurants. Most of the farming—they grow about 70 to 80 items—is done on raised beds, which prevent the soil from being trampled upon, thus leaving it well-aerated and letting microorganisms thrive.

But the most important learning, says Pandharpur, has been to practise crop rotation. “Apart from hedging your chances, crop rotation also allows the soil to be revitalised.” This, he says, is harder to see among people with a traditional approach to farming. “Farming a single crop is easier, since you have just one harvest. Farming different kinds of crops means you are harvesting something every day.”

Harvesting something every day is Gaytri Bhatia of Vrindavan Farms, in Palghar, about 85 km north of Mumbai. Having lived in the US for a decade, and having worked as a consultant for the United States Environmental Protection Agency, she came back to India in late 2008, to find that “we have become America”, referring to the country’s faulty and damaging model of agriculture. “Instead of becoming like them, I felt we should be learning from them.”

A new crop of farmers takes root in Bharat
Gaytri Bhatia combines indigenous wisdom with modern knowledge at her Vrindavan Farms in Palghar; Image: Mexy Xavier

This was the thought behind taking up farming organic produce at her family-owned mango orchard in Palghar, spread across 10.5-11 acres. “When we started Vrindavan Farms, no one spoke our language,” she says, remembering how customers could not understand why organic produce could not be sold at the same market price as regular farm produce. Working with restaurants in Mumbai, and directly to families has, however, borne fruit.

“Although we are primarily an organic mango orchard—we produced about 6,000 kg in 2017—we now also have about 50 different kinds of seasonal products, including fruit preserves, jams, coolers, herbal teas—which are a big hit—and superfoods,” Bhatia says.

The farm’s produce is grown by combining indigenous wisdom with modern knowledge, which also helps enrich the land. For example, it uses fermented manures that are made in-house, fermented teas as sprays to keep pests at bay, and pairing crops that are best for each other. The farm also encourages species biodiversity, and crop rotation.

The perils of depending on a single crop is something that has come to the fore repeatedly; most recently with onion farmers in Madhya Pradesh first having a bumper crop in 2017, and then seeing the price of their produce fall to a pittance. Alternatively, entire harvests can be wiped out because of weather or pest conditions if a single crop is grown.

I have known about cash crops like sugarcane and onions being dumped on the roads by farmers because prices crashed, but this year it was mangoes being dumped,” says Vishalakshi of Buffalo Back. “And I thought, ‘Where did we go wrong with mangoes, now?’”

This year, a glut in mango production in Karnataka’s mango belt in the Ramanagaram district saw wholesale price at the district’s Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) market fall to a tenth of its retail price, with varieties such as Totapuri and Raspuri touching a low of `4 per kg. The fall in prices is being attributed to a bumper crop, middlemen and lack of storage facilities. “Farmers do not understand market forces,” says Vishalakshi. “I am a chartered accountant, and even I don’t understand them!”

Having worked with villagers and women’s self-help groups (SHGs) on the fringe of the Bannerghatta National Park, about 22 km south of Bengaluru, since 2008-09, Vishalakshi would know. “Nature is easier to comprehend, but humans have off-nature behaviour,” she says.

Vishalakshi bought 2 acres in the area, with the idea of setting up a farm. Although the first three to four years were spent in experimentation, her efforts evolved into the Buffalo Back collective in 2013. It now works with 45 women, divided into three SHGs, depending on the work they do, and 130 farmers across the country. Buffalo Back delivers produce from organic farms, including Vishalakshi’s own, and the products of the SHGs to individual homes and sells from four retail locations in Bengaluru.

Vishalakshi credits a team of urban volunteers—friends working in corporate jobs—who have helped train the women in various skills, and set up finance and accounting systems. Progress is slow, but promising. After two-and-a-half years of learning the ropes of the primary processing of fresh produce—cleaning, grading and storing grains, for instance—an SHG has finally begun to work entirely on its own in the last three months.

As part of her work with Buffalo Back, Vishalakshi has reintroduced forgotten varieties of grains and millets to both farmers and consumers, through a project called Roots to Grains. Among these grains are different strains of rice—jasmine rice, kala bhaat rice, and kala nunia rice. Not only are these strains highly fragrant and flavourful, they are also drought- and flood-tolerant. Wheat varieties, too, have been reintroduced, such as khapli, and kathiya, and pygambari, a sugar-free variant that can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Grains that are unfamiliar, if not unknown, to urban folks is something that Reema Sathe has been working with since quitting a seven-year career in 2014, which included stints with Mahindra in Chennai and Ecolab in Mumbai. She started by working with farmers in Maharashtra and Gujarat to improve their livelihoods, and went on to establish Happy Roots in 2016. “The rural population knows all about these grains,” explains Sathe, who is based in Pune. “The urban population is unaware of these ingredients, but is curious. These ingredients provide a healthy alternative to the processed grains and ingredients that we, in cities, eat.”

A new crop of farmers takes root in Bharat
Reema Sathe established Happy Roots in 2016, which provides alternatives to processed grains and ingredients for urbanites; Image: Gaurav Thombre for Forbes India

Today, by working directly with 20,000 farmers across Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, Happy Roots sources grains such as barley, buckwheat, amaranth, finger millet, indigenous wheat, jowar (sorghum) and bajra (pearl millet). These are then made into baked edibles—such as Finger Millet and Rolled Oats Cookies, Barley Espresso Cookies, Buckwheat Gingersnaps, Amaranth and Flax Seeds Cookies—by rural women’s cooperatives, and sold under the Happy Roots brand. “We also connect farmers with large buyers,” adds Sathe. “The quantity of produce that we cannot absorb is diverted to larger buyers, primarily food manufacturers and exporters.” Although at present the brand retails from online platforms such as Amazon, BigBasket (Pune), Flipkart and Qtrove, Sathe is in talks with a large gourmet retail store to launch co-branded, gluten-free crackers.

Happy Roots has recently started work with kodo, foxtail and porso millet from Andhra Pradesh. “In Tamil Nadu, we work with a tribal coffee grower group, from whom we source coffee for our Barley Espresso Cookie. We also source our spices like cardamom and cinnamon from Tamil Nadu,” she says.

Sathe works with a model of contract farming, where she first finds a buyer for the agricultural produce, and then gives out a farming contract. She gives the example of how she helped revive the cultivation of barley in Maharashtra. The grain, once widely grown and consumed in the state, had been relegated to the status of cattle feed as people moved away from it. In 2017, Sathe teamed up with Chetana Organics and Brewcrafts Microbrewing (which runs the Doolally chain of craft beer and pubs) to bring barley cultivation back among 1,200 small farmers in the Akola district of Maharashtra. “Microbreweries like Doolally were importing malted barley from Germany, which was proving to be expensive,” she says. “While talking to women at Nirmitee, a women’s cooperative in Sangamner district, I discovered that malting was a process they were familiar with, and used it to make nachni satv for children and pregnant women.”

Another example is the initiation of farming buckwheat among tribal women in Ahmednagar. Given the popularity of the grain—it is rich in protein, antioxidants, minerals, and is gluten-free—Sathe partnered with 50 women to grow the grain, which otherwise grew wild. “We saw a 30 percent increment in yield in 2018 as compared to 2016,” she says. But instead of resting on this success, she is now training the farmers in beekeeping, which will produce buckwheat honey.

“Buckwheat honey is not commercially produced in India, and is imported from the US and Europe, at $200 per kg,” Sathe explains. “The idea is to train the farmers to increase buckwheat production and then we help them connect to potential institutional buyers. This would generate an alternative livelihood source, a highly-profitable one.”

Sathe works with people in places as distant as Ukhrul in Manipur, sourcing ingredients such as sticky rice, black rice, chili (with a smoky fragrance) and Sichuan peppers (with a lemony flavour) from women SHGs in the region. At the moment, Happy Roots is trying to develop these ingredients into products: Rice into crackers, and peppers to garnish whole wheat crackers. Running one such SHG in Manipur, with funding from the International Fund for Agriculture Development, is Ringyuinchon Vashum. Over a flaky phone connection from Ukhrul, she talks passionately about how the SHG—involved in growing organic oranges, lemons, rice and spices—is more about women’s empowerment.

Ground realities, however, are an eye-opener for most urban dwellers. “On paper the villages are electrified, but in reality things are different,” she says. “We cannot run appliances like mixers for making preserves and pickles, ovens for drying spices that would otherwise rot during the rains, or fridges for preserving fruits and vegetables. Consequently, everything has a short shelf-life.” Imphal, which is three hours away by road, can only be reached by private transport, which is too expensive to undertake frequently. Although severely hobbled by these factors, Vashum says, “We are struggling, but alright.”

For instance, to overcome the serious hurdles of logistics and related costs, Vashum simply puts the produce in the post sometimes, for Sathe to receive in Pune. “After it travelled around for a month or so, I received a very large parcel of peppers from her,” says Sathe, adding ironically that it would possibly be easier to route the produce through Bangladesh or Myanmar.

Sitting in India’s burgeoning metropolises, it would be difficult to imagine that the food on our plate has a history that few can imagine. And yet, urbanites are choosing to make this history more meaningful. A banal quote on the internet says: If you ate today, thank a farmer. In a world where consumption of food is increasingly getting removed from its source, stripped of its origins and identity, we could perhaps begin with thinking of farmers, even before thanking them.

(This story appears in the 06 July, 2018 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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