• You harvest turmeric when the plant withers and marigolds bloom.
• Birds always pick the best pepper berries.
• Indigenous plants are most adjusted for climate change.
• The more you use chemicals, the more you need to use chemicals.
• The modern spice trade was founded on exploitation.
This is some of the wisdom that Prabhu Kasaraneni of Andhra Pradesh and Akash Parameswaran of Kerala have gathered in the decades their families have farmed. It’s this knowledge that they’re building upon and expanding as they partner with California-based Diaspora Co., a single-origin boutique spice company, to develop an alternative model for the spice trade, one that is sustainable and benefits both farmers and consumers.
In the traditional commercial model, says 30-year-old Parameswaran, “people are getting low prices, so the only way to increase profit is to better the quantity”. This is done by picking the pepper berries early, when they weigh the most and by using hybrid plants developed and released by the government.
Though these plants have high yields, they can trap farmers in cycles of relying on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and needing new varieties each year. “These are not native plants and aren’t meant to withstand climate change,” he says.
Parameswaran’s greatest concerns are withstanding climate change and continuing to produce high-quality pepper. His partnership with Diaspora Co. allows him to do both. He obsessively maintains the moisture level of his soil, picks the vines up to seven times to ensure each berry is harvested when most ripe, and cultivates a multi-crop ecosystem, wherein the waste of one plant fertilises the growth of another. He maintains this labour-intensive system by paying his workers 25 per cent more than the average rate.
That the spice trade must get better for the earth is Diaspora Co.’s founder and CEO Sana Javeri Kadri’s biggest goal. “It’s currently an exploitative system and industrial agriculture is not helping the earth. The spice market supply chain is a product of colonialism, set up to disadvantage farmers.”
This led her to ask herself: “What if we just rebuilt this whole thing?” The answer is her company today pays farmers more than four times the average rate, providing them with healthcare, and emphasising on sustainable and natural farming methods.
Diaspora Co. supports this system by supplying the highest quality spices to Western consumers who care about both the quality of the spices and the conditions under which they are farmed. “The supply chain starts with the farmer who sells his produce to a local trader who sells it to a bigger one, who, in turn, sells it to an exporter. Kadri side-stepped this system by going directly to farms when she began her company in 2017, as she cared about regenerative agriculture, land stewardship and farmers making money.
Kasaraneni, like Parameswaran, uses only natural, sustainable farming methods and monitors every step of the process, from the initial planting to harvesting to processing in mills. “I won’t use any chemicals,” says the 40-year-old third-generation farmer. “Quantity is most important.” Kasaraneni’s Pragati turmeric produces 25 per cent of the yield of the more common turmeric varieties. Parameswaran’s pepper produces around half.
He routinely works with neighbouring farmers and he says they use many of his techniques, as long as they don’t lower production. “People are not ready to do what we are doing, because the production
is low,” shares Parameswaran.
Lijo Thomas, a senior scientist at the Indian Institute of Spices Research in Kerala, says the spice industry is gradually shifting towards a model prioritising farmer profits over crop yield. “The earlier focus was mainly on increased output. Now it’s on increasing farmers’ income. We are even looking at varieties with a lower yield, which can increase the farmer income by 10 to 15 per cent,” says Thomas, who specialises in agricultural economics.
Diaspora Co.’s model can be challenging to replicate, according to him, since there is no guarantee that farmers will find buyers willing to pay higher prices for their spices. “That’s a system-related problem,” Thomas says. The Kerala-based Peermade Development Society works with women and indigenous communities to develop sustainable farming and business models. The Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems conducts similar work in Tamil Nadu. Additionally, farmer-producer organisations, wherein groups of farmers pool resources to increase their bargaining power, are gaining support from the government.
Kadri, for one, has her eyes set on the target. She hopes to expand the company’s customer base, get into grocery stores and continue to build on her philosophy through different mediums, one such being a cookbook set to release in 2024. Parameswaran, on the other hand, has only one thing in mind—ecology rather than economics. And that is a good place to start.