Eye on agriculture
Agri-entrepreneurs are finding innovative solutions to increasing crop yield via sustainable farming practices Jyoti Pande Lavakare / August 27, 2011, 0:43 IST Imagine getting fresh produce at your table that has been locally and sustainably grown in hygienic, disease-free conditions. Now add to that the knowledge that while you’re eating, you are involuntarily conserving resources, reducing your carbon footprint and participating in ecological farming, perhaps even providing landless women and marginalised farmers with jobs.
Okay, it may not make your palak paneer, pesto or rocket salad taste any sweeter, but if you’re like me, you will be ready to pay more for the privilege of this choice. And now the best part – suppose you don’t actually have to pay more – all this is available for the same price as your pesticide-ridden, chemically-fertilised produce coming from farms located several hundred miles away? I’d make the switch in a heartbeat — I can’t imagine why others wouldn’t. This isn’t just an imaginary scenario of a utopian farming commune but something we could see happening around urban pockets, if a couple of agri-entrepreneurs succeed in their attempts to find creative solutions in a sector ignored by policy-makers and educators alike. Anju Srivastava is a former advertising professional and a first-time entrepreneur with big ideas and a desire to do good. As founder, WinGreens Farms, she has positioned herself as an ethical intermediary between farmers and retailers, straddling the rural-urban divide with empathy and compassion. And a sharp business model. Cutting straight through to the essence of what’s troubling the agriculture sector – fragmented land holdings, the controversial land ceiling Act, lower returns on investment, high dependence on monsoons and crop cycles, distorting fertiliser subsidies, lack of education and thus, investment into modern farming techniques – Srivastava has devised an innovative solution for farmers with small land holdings. Instead of outright buying or even contracting, Srivastava rents land from farmers at higher than their existing revenues. Then, for an additional salary, she hires those same farmers’ families to work the land, thus providing them with not just a rental income, but also a fixed salary. She employs their women as casual labour, which further helps augment family income. By doing all this, she takes the risk away from exactly those people who are at highest risk. And by making them her employees, she makes skilling them acceptable. But this column is about entrepreneurship, not philanthropy, so what does WinGreens get out of this? Plenty, it appears. Srivastava is able to explode productivity by introducing high-value, low-water use crops and modern farming techniques. When Srivastava tweaks traditional cropping pattern, swapping jowar and bajra for herbs and salads, converting to drip irrigation to save gallons of water and bring down electricity bills, using composting and other sustainable farming techniques to conserve and improve soil, she gets exponentially higher output of already high-value produce. “Jab zameen sone ke bhaav hai, to uspe sona ugaana chahiye, na?” (When the land is worth the price of gold, then shouldn’t we grow gold on it?) she says as we sit at a coffee shop in New Delhi, less than 50 miles from the three villages where her pilot project has been functional for the past three years . Where farmers were able to get a revenue of '20,000 per acre per annum, Srivastava, through these techniques, has managed to get '12 lakh per acre per annum, thus creating wealth. “My farmer’s family incomes have gone up from '20,000 to '3 lakh per annum,” for every acre of land they continue to own, Srivastava says, pride in her voice. And in the process, she ends up educating her farmer-employees, teaching by demonstration. But because she is a newbie to farming, Srivastava has been circumspect in her growth. She has limited herself to renting 4 acres in Haryana, experimenting with inter-cropping high-value plants like garlic and turmeric with traditional crops, focusing on improving yields. But come November and she will have another 20 acres under her belt and ready to produce winter vegetables such as carrot, cauliflower and bok choy. “We’re on the verge of take-off. Our aim is to minimise food miles and supply the freshest, ethical and traceable produce. And we want this model to be replicable in all parts of India,” Srivastava says. She will limit herself to 50 acres over the next three years, but believes that other farmers will be inspired as they learn how to improve yields, and hundreds of acres of farmland will begin to be cultivated more efficiently. But breaking into traditional cropping patterns requires patience. Embedded inefficiencies become part of the farmer’s DNA, and inertia won’t let him switch to new crops. And change seems too risky. “We found an innovative way of taking risk away from the farmer,” says Srivastava. With the help of one of the world’s largest irrigation companies, Jain Irrigation Systems, Srivastava is helping farms switch to drip irrigation, which waters only the root of plants. This has cut her water and electricity use by almost half. And a 90 per cent subsidy on drip irrigation that the Haryana government offers makes this even more profitable. But what’s really practical is the forward linkage she has created with large retailers — Spencers, Reliance Retail, Big Bazaar and Bharti-Walmart’s Easy Day. Currently, she supplies edible greens as well as oxy-generators in garden pots through rented branded kiosk space. And has recently expanded to set up live counters to demonstrate preparation and test-marketing of chutneys, dips and pestos from her farm-grown fresh produce while she waits for various government licenses that will allow her to stock her processed produce on retail shelves. Srivastava is pulling in all the weight of her past-life corporate networks and personal contacts as she plans her business strategy. Mentor-friends like Technopak’s Arvind Singhal have been helping her. Coincidentally, he, too, is experimenting with his own farm-to-market initiative in Uttarakhand — Amrylis Farmworks, currently being handled by son, Aditya. “We’ve bought 20 acres in Uttarakhand and are experimenting with 30 different fruit and vegetables, as well as exotic flowers, trying to find the right crop mix,” says the 26-year old.”Once our project becomes viable, we’ll transfer all the technology and know-how to local farmers, free of charge,” Singhal tells me over a very strong double espressso. Singhal is also experimenting with sustainable techniques. Amrylis uses greenhouses or polyhouses, which the government subsidises, to increase yields. “Output has increased 10-20 times,” he says. Both these entrepreneurs are taking risks in a sector that’s never been considered exciting. Ideas such as Srivastava’s are brilliant in their simplicity — doing well by doing good? C K Prahalad would approve!