January 23rd, 2017
Similar to steps we take in our garden to keep our plants free from pest and disease, farmers also utilise herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, etc. as crop protection to control unwanted weeds, harmful insects and diseases that afflict crops. Farmers face the same challenge each growing season whether they have used the organic or inorganic solutions.
Relying on chemical pesticides have a drastic effect on soil and health. When the health of the soil and ground is compromised, the nutritional value of the food yield is compromised as well. Unfortunately, pesticides, when applied on the surface of the crops, travel outside their intended area and pollute the air, water and soil. Farmers are concerned about the food we eat, and they produce. But they have to resort to using chemicals to increase production since their income is dependent on the produce.
We are seeing a movement towards changing this situation for the farmers. More and more people have realised the lasting impact of the chemicals on the health and want to buy organically produced food, even if they have to pay more for it.
Rekha and Partha are one such couple who decided to adopt a healthy lifestyle by only consuming organic products.
The Logical Indian spoke with Mrs Rekha about their inspitation and initiative. Here are the excerpts of the inteview.
What drove you to quit your lucrative career and become organic farmers?
My husband, Partha, and I were both born and brought up in Chennai. We were raised on agricultural income. Though our family was into farming, they always kept us away from their vocation. They felt it was not profitable and dreamt of educating us so that we could lead a comfortable life with our high paying jobs. Well, we both got a good job and settled in Chennai. But our life took a new course when a family member fell ill due to several diseases. We questioned our lifestyle as we didn’t want our children to go through the same. We paused our life for a while and contemplated on the issue. We read as many books and did all the research we could, only to realise that most of the diseases are directly or indirectly linked to the pesticide sprayed food we eat. It was time to change our lifestyle. Eventually, Partha quit his job followed by me.
How did you initiate this journey? What challenges did you face?
Initially, we started to purchase organic food, but we were not satisfied. There was no traceability, and the quality of food was not good enough to be organic. Restore, the only organic store we trusted back then was too far away. Since we both came from the agricultural family background, we decided to go back to our roots. We were inspired by organic scientist G Nammalvar, a green crusader. My husband Partha met him and decided to lead a life in the interest of farmers.
We visited our families and encouraged them to grow organic food, but they were not ready to believe that organic farming could be sustainable. The farmers had forgotten its advantages. We refused to give up, and our family gave us a small land of 2 acres to show them how these ways are better than the conventional one. The challenge and the opportunity were already accepted and by using organic and innovative multi-cropping technique we replaced the mono-crop system. Many villagers had asked us to quit and go back, but the harvest surprised everybody. The quality of food was much better. Unfortunately, even after this, the farmers were not ready to adopt organic farming practices. It is not their fault of course. The farmers today are more concerned about selling their produce rather than eating their food. The only thing that worried them was that the organic produce could not be sold at a local market. We were also unhappy with the way they were being treated. Their payments were delayed by six months, by which time they were expecting the second round of harvest. The condition was worse for small time farmers.
With no support from farmers, how did you take this journey forward?
Farmers had their reasons. They felt that adopting organic ways will reduce their yield, which was already low. With the meagre amount they earned, it was hard to convince them. But, we were not there to give up. To prove a point we used the same seeds that farmers were growing, but we used organic methods. This time too, the harvest came as a surprise to the farmers. While the average yield for the entire village was 29 bags of grain in a one-acre land, we harvested 36 sacks on the same one-acre land. The goal was not achieved yet as we had to find out ways to sell our product in the market at reasonable prices.
What are the advantages of going organic?
There are many advantages. A synthetic chemicals free food is good for health. It keeps unwanted chemicals out of bodies like neurotoxins, hormonal disruptors, neonicotinoids and carcinogens. It protects the future generations, gives better nutrition and taste, reduces environmental pollution and supports farmer’s livelihood and promotes biodiversity. Most importantly it makes our farming sustainable.
How did you sell your produce?
The existing channels were not reliable. Also after the demise of G.Nammalvar, we had a lot of queries as to which direction we had to take. A group of 20 people sat together and decided to form OFM or Organic Farmer Market. Each of us contributed Rs 10000, and with this money, a cooperative was started in the interest of farmers. OFM is a joint initiative which guarantees consistent, continuous availability of safe food and ensures fair pricing of the organic produce. In the last three years, 16 outlets have been initiated in Chennai. We are not able to support all the farmers, but we have covered a good fraction of them. It is a lot to go forward. We are still exploring other ways to support a large number of farmers, rural women, self-help groups and artisans like potters and weavers.
What is the ultimate goal?
We want to ensure sustainable community livelihood. In the interest of both the farmers and consumers, we aim to make organic produce available at a reasonable price to all income groups. With the reduction in processing costs, we will be able to sell organic food at a cheaper rate. We don’t want to affect the profit margin of the farmers, and therefore we are looking at methods to reduce the cost of production and processing. Our ultimate goal is to bring back rural livelihood and a model that can be implemented in any village.
What organic products do you stock?
The current outlets stock and sell traditional rice, millets, spices, pulses, cold pressed oils, whole grain flours, dry fruits, nuts, green vegetables, fresh fruit and sweeteners, pottery, and traditional snacks.