The Call of the Earth

A new generation of farmers are leaving behind well-paid jobs in cities and abroad, and taking up agriculture as an ethical and business choice. With innovation and technology on their side, the trend is changing lifestyle and attitudes.

Published: 15th November 2014 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 15th November 2014 02:46 PM   |  A+A-

The bucolic landscape of India is witnessing a vast change with many professionals stepping off the fast track to trudge rural paths that lead to the endless green of agricultural territory. Many of them are from the IT industry, and faced with erratic time schedules, the burnout that comes with Silicon Valley work style, are preferring the idyllic peace of India’s countryside. A reverse migration is taking place, however small, but important, from the cities to the countryside. From organic crops to the cash crop market, educated professionals are turning into gentleman farmers, a declining breed in erstwhile Socialist India.

Earth-1.jpgForty-five-year-old Ramesh Shetty from Mangalore found selling televisions, refrigerators and microwaves in a stagnant market stressful. He decided to grow roses and gerberas on a five-acre plot his father left him near Whitefield in Bangalore. In the first year, he made Rs 45 lakh. He is happy. “No more handling difficult customers,” he says, relaxing in the lawns of his farmhouse. Sprinklers water the grass, and the scent of flowers is in the air. Subsidies to build greenhouses for cultivation of roses, carnations, chrysanthemums and other cut flowers have made floriculture lucrative. In the last few years, flower greenhouses have tripled and even quadrupled in some areas, leading to a growth rate of over 30 per cent.

Earth-2.jpgIn Gujarat, the number of farmers have grown by 9 per cent over the last seven years. For many, profit is not the only incentive. Some, like retired scientist D Vinod, found growing pepper a good idea to fill his time. He sank all his pension into it, much to the disapproval of his family, but he is laughing all the way to the bank. Black pepper price crossed the Rs 700 mark and the Indian Pepper and Spice Trade Association registered a record Rs 710 per kg for garbled pepper in April. He is expecting better profits next time.

ag1.JPGAgriculture is a sunrise industry, and that includes organic as well. Food consumption is spearheading the boom with India expected to overtake China as the world’s largest agricultural nation. By 2020, India’s food and agri sector is set to triple from $328 to $895 billion (IFAMA 2012). Horticulture, floriculture and livestock farming are set for spectacular growth, the first getting a leg-up from retail giants. Experts say agriculture over the long term will be recession proof. Changing dietary habits mean farming is no longer restricted to just wheat and rice, but includes exotic vegetables and fruits, herbs and grass. Ragi, once a down-market food, is gracing posh tables after its clever makeover. Farmers have found organic haats as receptive market venues as well as stores. In cities, terraces, balconies and kitchen gardens boast organic produce. Agriculture is attracting the best brains—well educated and committed individuals who are merging ancient wisdom with modern-day techniques. Each one’s motivation, however, varies: for some, it’s an opportunity to inhale the country air. Many neo-farmers are driven by the desire to be in a position to control what they consume. For others, it is a yearning for one’s own land.

Earth-4.jpgFor Mumbai-based Sabita Rajendran and Julius Rego, it was the need to eat healthy, pesticide-free food that motivated them towards becoming organic farmers. Says Sabita, “Pesticides contaminate soil, water and food and the solution is to grow food organically.” That is the reason why the 30-year-old copywriter chucked her job and teamed up with Rego, a furniture dealer, to found Green Souls. Started in 2011 in Navi Mumbai, the project was set up within four months with an investment of `20,000. They produce around 50 to 60 varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs, medicinal and flowering plants that go to Tata Memorial Hospital. The profits from sale of seeds, manure and organic workshops are ploughed back into the venture. Recalls Julius, “Our most memorable moment was when the first banana crop showed 90 fruits in a bunch.”

5.jpgThe urban farmer as a trend is picking up. Santhosh D Singh, who worked in the IT sector for nine years decided to turn software into ploughshares. Says he, “One day my brothers Rajesh and Sathish and I decided to go on a two-year sabbatical to try farming. We had three acres of ancestral land that seemed perfect for a dairy.” It took a year to set it up. Amrutha Dairy Farms backed by the necessary training was born with an initial investment of Rs 20 lakh. Situated 40 km off Bangalore in Haalenahalli, the enterprise started with three cows in 2010. In no time the count expanded to 50, which encouraged them to seek the help of NABARD to set up a commercial dairy with 100 cows. The produce was sold to Karnataka Milk Federation and Hatsun, a milk procurement and processing unit. A three-year drought caused milk production to dwindle, but the dairy did not shut down. The brothers started a heifer rearing project. “Compared to cows, maintenance of heifers costs less and they fetch a good price. We will expand our business at the right time,” adds the 38-year-old, revealing plans to launch paneer, khoya and cheese production units in November.

Earth-6.jpgSometimes serendipity causes an unexpected turn. 31-year-old techie Arun Mehendale’ wife got a job as a physics lecturer at the Aladangady Government College close to his village. He found himself on the horns of a dilemma. “Should I sell my 4.5-acre property and relocate to Bangalore where a senior technical position at Oracle awaited me, or chuck my job and explore my agrarian roots?” he wondered. He decided being with his wife was better than being with his iMac. In January 2014, which coincided with the UN declaring 2014 as the ‘International Year of Family Farming’, Arun chucked his job and returned to his village Thenkakarandur, near Mangalore. With just under `1 lakh, Arun convinced his father to invest in hybrid varieties of horticultural crops. He now plans to take up contract farming in a big way. Right now, the Mehendales grow areca nut, coconut and cocoa on their farm with an indigenous variety of brown rice. Buyers purchase this rice right from their doorstep; the surplus is sold to an organic outlet 50km away. “I am content to work beside my son, who is now a third-generation farmer,” says Seetharama. “Otherwise he would just have remained cooped up in the city.”

Earth-7.jpgSuccess stories of organic farmers starting off with a small investment and making it big are new on the horizon. Muniaswamy aka Aala was a poet and educationist. One day, he met organic scientist Nammalvar, which got him interested in farming. Picking up the basics from Nammalvar, Aala leveraged his educational background and farming knowledge to train villagers and students in schools and colleges in farming. In 2011, the 47-year-old leased five acres in Killianur in Puducherry to create a model farm growing vegetables and millets, with an initial investment of `1 lakh. Says Aala: “Within six months,  the crops started growing, but it took about a year for the project to develop. On our initial investment we earned Rs 2 lakh. Actually, the business model is based on affordability and rotation of finances—spinach can be reaped and sold in a month, and ladies fingers can grow and be sold in 45 days. It’s the basic farm equipment and farm animals that take up the chunk of the investment.” Aala, who has authored five books on agriculture, says his plan is to make people aware of where their food is coming from. He plans an institute where children will spend time learning agriculture.

Earth-8.jpgApart from homegrown professionals turning farmers, NRIs are returning to their origins to “give back” to their country. Anand Choudhary from Bihar, an MBA from one of UK’s top management schools, had a well paying job in London. On a visit home, he was hit by the abject poverty around. The 32-year-old packed his bags and returned to pursue his dream of turning his native Rampur into a model village. Farming was first on the agenda. A novice, Anand researched new farming methods and techniques. After a year, he started a mango orchard late last year. Says Anand: “I engaged the best experts and the latest technology, spending Rs 10 lakh. On one acre, I planted 120 trees while the usual number is 43 trees an acre”. Besides an annual turnover of Rs 50 lakh, Anand’s Maldah mango farm was declared a model orchard and the largest high-density orchard in Bihar. Next in the pipeline is pisciculture and duck rearing as well as a rural dispensary and food processing unit.

Nikhil Kuruganti’s connect with agriculture was tenuous—his house was situated on the outskirts of Hyderabad where there were plenty of fields to romp around. His decision to get into farming came when he met Perigreen Mohan in 2011. “Mohan not only taught me basics of farming but also the relevance of sustainable farming, ” says Nikhil. Propagating low-cost farming, better water management and low usage of chemicals on field, Nikhil and his team took up the metaphorical hoe in Vikaravad, around 70km from Hyderabad on 25 acres. Six types of pulses, 25 varieties of vegetables and spices are being grown here. It is sold under the label Perigreen Safe Foods. Says Nikhil: “We had to spend `35,000 per acre and it took us two years to break even and more for profits. Adopting natural farming techniques, we had to spare three-four months for pre-farming.” The 26-year-old hopes to establish more collaborations with farmers in future. Another person who had a well paying job in the city and decided to embrace farming in home town Thiruchegodu, some 400 km from Chennai, is Raja Murugan. Says the 27-year-old MBA: “The land belonged to us so I did not invest heavily.” He did not quit his job immediately, but would go to his village to make changes on the farm. “It took a while for my parents to accept the organic way of farming but they did,” he says. Raja met the Nalla Keerai team, who were helping farmers grow short-term crops to generate greater revenue. Raja had already researched millets. Inspired by Nalla Keerai, he started Nalla Soaru. He uses it to make people aware about the economic and nutritional benefits of millets. On his three-acre farm, he grows toor dal, great millets and varieties of vegetables sufficient for his family of three, while the animals provide milk. “My plan is to work on how to reduce the price of millets,” says Raja.

Nalla Keerai is the brainchild of two school friends— Jaganathan and Saravanan. With a postgraduate degree in management, Saranavan moved to the US after getting an IT job. Jaganathan worked for a five-star hotel as a development manager and would travel a lot, during which he would interact with farmers, picking up valuable insights. In August 2011, Jaganathan bought six acres, spending two years doing extensive research. By the time he started cultivation in 2013, Saravanan had returned to India and teamed up with him to form Nalla Keerai (Good Greens). On the outskirts of Chennai on eight acres in Thirunenravoor, the team grows 45 varieties of spinach and herbs like mint and turmeric among other crops. Says Jaganathan: “The land cost us `90,000. On an average, we earn `20,000 to `30,000 per month, with the produce being sold to people residing in Ambattur area and to organic stores.” To add to their repertoire, the friends plan to add millets and fruits and finally a cow shelter.

It’s not just MBAs and IT professionals who have literally bitten the dust. Mollywood legend Srinivasan found his true calling as an organic farmer. On his two-and-a-half acres of leased farm at Kandadad on which he grows paddy, cow dung has replaced fertilisers. “Too many pesticides are present in vegetables that are brought from outside. That is the reason why I decided to start this venture,” he reveals. Another unofficial brand ambassador for organic farming is superstar Mammootty, who is pursuing it in his 10-acre field in Kelakkari Pallikkayal with the help of his friend K M Hilal. “Mammooty looks young and healthy because he only consumes homegrown, pesticide-free food,” says Hilal. Director Sathyan Anthikad also farms in his village Anthikad where he grows rice, vegetables, coconut, tuber crops, turmeric and tamarind. “I grew up in a village, so farming has always attracted me,” he says. Actors Kunchacko Boban and Salim Kumar are also keeping the organic flag flying.

For many farmers, the milk of human kindness is overflowing thanks to Dr G N S Reddy who founded Akshayakalpa, an AMUL-like initiative in Tiptur, Karnataka. On five acres with an initial investment of Rs 1.5 crore, 59-year-old Reddy set up his farming venture in two-and-a-half years. Says Reddy: “At Akshayakalpa, the health of cows, milk production capability and treatment protocol are monitored everyday electronically. The milk is collected in the most hygienic way and chilled and transported back to the Akshayakalpa plant in Tiptur where it is packaged and sent to cities. The cold chain cycle is maintained till the doorstep of the consumer.” In Bangalore, Akshayakalpa has increased sales from 15 litres to 4,000 litres a day in two years. In Mysore where it just started, the company is selling 400 litres per day. For farmers, Akshayakalpa is a profitable venture as each farmer who owns 25 cows makes Rs 50,000 per month by selling dairy products.

The New Indian Farmer doesn’t always fly solo. Inspired by the Israeli agricultural model in which high productivity is achieved by large scale farming, three engineer-entrepreneurs from Bangalore, R Srinath Setty, (32) Ashok Kumar (52) and Sriram Chitlur (40) started Hosachiguru (New Sprouts) in 2013 with an investment of Rs 50 lakh. The returns now touch Rs 1 crore. “Our goal is to ensure that people just don’t buy land but also use it in a sustainable way. A big advantage for our clients is that their land is not usurped by land sharks,” says Setty, adding that the venture has provided employment to 100 farmers. The company procures large chunks of arable but unused land and sells them in plots of one or two acres to individuals interested in using it for farming. The owners in turn lease the land back to the company for a period of time for which they get a fixed annual rent and a share of the profits incurred from growing high-value crops like papaya, pomegranate and sandalwood. “Besides exporting and selling in the open market, we have also tied up with some well-known retail brands,” reveals Setty, adding that they are now looking at 10,000 acres of farmland.

Farming brings along with it innumerable challenges. To cut the speed of wind, Kuruganti planted trees not in a straight row but in a zigzag manner. Aala, after digging six feet deep in the ground and planting banana samplings, covered them with straw, which kept away weeds. Nalla Keerai introduced a new method of ploughing by feeding the soil with natural manure initially in large quantities and then intermittently in smaller quantities with the result that the soil remained perpetually ploughed. During drought, Santhosh Singh saw fodder prices hitting the roof. He zeroed in on a new method called Hydroponics wherein plants are grown using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil. Facing labour shortage, Mehendale could not harvest his coconut crop. His solution was to create a low cost tree-climbing device.

The tribe of new-gen farmers is growing, picking up a few karmic brownie points as well. According to the Taittriya Upanishad, all beings on earth are born of food and live by food, while ultimately going back to it and merging to become food. For city-weary successes who heed the call of Nature, it is food for thought.

Inputs from Uma Balasubramaniam, Meera Naik, Harsha and Shevlin Sebastian

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