Centre stage: naturally grown food
Sujata Devadas, April 24 2020
2 foodies with finance and marketing careers dreamt of a fruit forest. Both Naveen and Veena Bhat are Masters in Business Administration. Could they cash in on a dream?
Things looked up when they bought 6 acres of barren land in Kudineeru Muddanahalli village in Hunsur, Mysore district in 2013, dug a bore well and found ground water at 3 inch depth in it, attributed to Mysore geologist Krishnaprasad’s expertise and to Ganesh Kumar, a traditional diviner. The village got copious rainwater during the monsoon. Adhering to the cultivation methods of Nadoja Dr. Narayana Reddy, father of natural farming, a U-shaped bund was dug around the acreage to harvest that water.
While Abhay farm was in its early stages, its owners Veena and Naveen, took up catering services for vegetarians with the farm’s produce. During one mango season, the dinner guests showed huge appreciation for their farm’s mangoes.
As dinner concluded, guests placed orders for the remaining mango crop. The hostess Nitya offered the facility of bringing their farm’s naturally grown produce to her villa for friends and neighbours to pick up. That evening, they got 40 regular customers for their farm produce.
Selling their farm produce directly braced them for unpleasant knocks. “One particularly distressing sale was of 3 tonnes of fresh green chillies at INR7 per kilo when the market price was INR100 per kilo. The chillies were intercropped between our target fruit crops, so we could not harvest it with a machine. Labour charges for plucking it and transportation cost to the market, naturally meant we incurred loss.” says Naveen.
Economic sustainability is naturally the key. To prevent such losses, they supply their crops to two online partners - The Communityfarm and Farmizen - that use apps to facilitate sales and home-deliver to end-users. The additional charge of home-delivering is borne by cultivators using their services.
The ‘Farmers Market’ began with Farmizen’s initiative in Dec 2018. They held 3 at members’ farms in Varthur, Bannerghatta and Kannamangala on the outskirts of Bangalore. Naveen took his agri-produce to all 3 events and met other cultivators using naturally grown farming. Anamika Bist of Village Story, community garden and urban farm fame, also organised Farmers Market at different places to promote naturally grown farm produce during festivals or special occasions.
Veena took charge of managing their fruit farm with bananas, groundnuts, sapota, 5 varieties of mango, jackfruit, avocado, jamun, gooseberry, moringa and papaya crops. Naveen participated in these Farmers Market events. “I met people with an outright preference for purchasing chemical free farm crops,” he says,“I met other cultivators using the same farming technique, many of them following the expert Subhash Palekar. The number of regular customers increased when the appreciable difference between the fresh agri-produce and those bought in supermarkets was noticed. My interest in organising, operating and managing a series of farmers market events just burgeoned from there.”
From strength to strength
Prompted by regular customers, this couple conducts 2 Farmers Market series now. Not just for special occasions but every Sunday morning 7AM to 10AM from September 08, 2019 at Forum Neighbourhood Mall, facilitated after discussions with it’s Centre Manager Anant Patil and every Saturday morning at Brigade Metropolis for 2 hours. 50 Farmers Market sales took place in these two locations in Whitefield, Bangalore before the lockdown.
42 formally registered members currently form this Natural Farmers group selling their crop at these two Farmers Market events. To avoid conflict of interest, Farmers Market at Forum Neighbourhood Mall closes just before shops open for business. The mall spent INR2 lakhs on 10 carts to put the farmers agri-produce for sale. It organised security and free parking for customers every Sunday morning to shop at the Farmers Market.
The registration form to join Natural Farmers group specifies expectations: sell only what they have entered in the registration form. Any business promotion adversely impacting this combined marketing venture disqualifies them. Details of the farm’s location, cultivation method, their commercial crops, whether they help other cultivators in the commercial sale of crops are all in the registration form, enabling it to be validated.
Beginning of each week, Naveen enquires with members whether they wish to market agri-produce at ‘the next FM’. Critical to the market’s success is coordinating and managing vendors. If they don’t get business, members will pull out. Critic can come from the Natural Farmers group as well as from end-users.
A few registered members bring produce from other cultivators following the same farming method. Siribele Naturals support and sell crops from 120 farmers of North Karnataka. Isiriorganic from old Mysore specialise in millets and jaggery.
Catering to different ethnic cuisine is specialised value addition. Madhu Tengin exclusively sells value-added coconut products. House of Prakriti specialises in ingredients for north Indian cuisine. In that same way, by meeting the eligibility criteria of chemical free, natural value addition home-made Granola packets, differently spiced tofu, hand-made soap, paneer or cottage cheese, saffron and dry fruits, gluten-free flour, cold-pressed oils, Praanapoorna Collective’s non-toxic bio-enzyme natural cleaners also make it to Farmers Market.
Naveen owns that “giving all members equal opportunity is my responsibility. To factor in adequate variety, only 2 farmers sell the same crop at a particular event. Previous week’s participants sometimes drop out to give space to another member.”
One recommended vendor was dropped from the group because land record investigations and validation checks revealed he was faking it. Another was disqualified for not meeting the chemical free natural value addition eligibility criteria and for promoting a nearby store. A third was removed due to bad customer feedback and causing some trouble at the Farmers Market.
Reaching for the ideal
To stay clear of fraudulent claims, for quicker validation, the focus is on nearby farms. Ramadhootha Organic Farm, 6 kilometres from Varthur police station; Earthen Motives,5 kms from Hope Farm junction, that produce 10 varieties of greens all fall into this ambit.
The couple’s aim is to hold regular Farmers Market in 2 more locations. It could be "Jayanagar, Banashankari, Koramangala, Malleshwaram ...". Their ideal is to bring more farmers using naturally grown cultivation into this venture. Nadoja Dr. Narayana Reddy died 2 years ago.
The Bhat family: from a fruit forest to Farmers Market.
His son and grandsons cultivate his farms in Varthur and Chikballapura. His grandsons participated in the Farmers Market 4 times with produce from both farms.
Naveen and Veena's support group at the Farmers Market
“To build trust in buyers,” say Veena and Naveen, “we plan to hold complementary programs alongside Farmers Market where a Natural Farmers group member will introduce himself, his cultivated crop, his farming technique (which could be hydroponics or zero budget natural farming ) and his experience. Customers can visit these farms, picnic there or pluck a basket of seasonal fruits.”
Group member Arnab Guha is a food technologist who regularly gives presentations on good vegan produce or on lifestyle with particular reference to autism, diabetes and celiac related diseases. Before the lockdown, parents, undergraduate nutritionists and dieticians attended this talk in Mysore University in February 2020. During the lockdown, he gave an online class to undergraduates in Amity University Noida, Delhi.
Decision to hold back on the farmers market was already taken when schools also shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19 pandemic disease. Everything came to a standstill with the subsequent lock down on inter-district movement by 22nd March.
Harvested crops lay stranded. A government agency’s order for 450 kgs of banana was canceled. “We sold it at 80% less than the market price.” It took days to get government permission for transporting trucks of this essential commodity, food, to warehouses of Farmizen and The Communityfarm in Bangalore. Simultaneously, these partners worked to obtain permission to deliver orders to end-users. Convincing delivery staff to carry on working at such a critical time took just that long.
“Initially, we just stocked items like gluten-free flour at shops, department stores and supermarkets,” says Arnab, “but it is such an essential important part of the autistic person’s diet and for patients with celiac related disease, we found ways to home-deliver it.”
Once permissions arrived, the first produce collected and sent to online partners was from 12 natural farmers in Mysore & Chamarajanagar District. Farmizen and The Communityfarm fulfilled the supply chain management requirement amazingly. While the lock down is still in force, orders made to the Natural Farmers group reach more than 350 Bangalore customers twice weekly.
Farmer’s Market vendors are holding on to economic sustainability as best they can. What happens next ? That remains to be seen.
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