Two years ago, Naganna, then 34 years old, abandoned his 30 guntas (0.75 acre) of drought-ravaged agriculture land at Uppulgerikopplu village in Mandya district in Karnataka and moved with his wife and two children to the big, bright city of Bengaluru. He took up work as a decoration assistant for weddings and earned Rs 6,000 a month.
“I had to pay for food and other expenses even during work hours.” He stuck it out for two months and the wedding season came to an end, along with his work. Disheartened, “I realised I could not maintain my family in that big city,” he said. “We came back to our village.” At that time, a young agriculture graduate, Anand L, from the neighbouring Hassan district, was brimming with ideas, talking to every farmer he could lay his eyes on.
Naganna listened with disbelief as Anand, an employee of a fresh produce supply chain company called Lawrencedale Agro Processing (LEAF), dished out advice on how to improve crop yields from his small holding by using better seeds, less fertiliser, science, technology and inter-cropping. He also spoke of better packaging of vegetables that Naganna used to grow on his land, better marketing and better returns. “I decided to take a chance,” Naganna told ET Magazine.
He bought a share in the newly set up Malavalli Horticulture Farmer Producers Company Limited by paying Rs 1,000, diligently shelled out higher amounts for seeds that were identified by Anand and his fellow workers, drastically reduced and changed the fertilisers that he normally used, and watered and harvested his crop exactly in line with the pattern given.
“I sowed a crop of okra over 20 guntas. They asked me to separate the rows more than I normally do. They did a soil test before I planted the seeds they supplied and told me the exact amount of fertiliser that I should put in, much less than usual. I put the fertiliser as soon as I sowed the crop and then watered it, a new technique that Anand taught me,” says Naganna.
“The shoots started to come out in four days and 95% of the seeds sprouted. Happy, I called Anand and asked whether I could put in the urea. He said, don’t put anything at all for 21 days, just water it correctly. I was shocked. But I had decided to do what he said, even if I lost the entire crop.”
Naganna’s bounty was way beyond his imagination. Against the normal yield of sixseven harvests of about 600 kg of okra, he got 24 harvests, a jaw-dropping 1,830 kg and a profit of Rs 48,000 from a two-month crop in a drought year with lower input costs. The cabbage that he planted in the remaining 10 guntas of his land yielded a profit of Rs 22,000.
“I don’t feel the drought at all! I have brought six-seven members of my family into this project. I want to go from village to village, explaining what I have experienced,” he says. Naganna is just one of the 130 farmers adopted from a pool of 964 members in the Malavalli Farmer Producer Organisation (FPO), which is working with LEAF and Karnataka’s Horticulture Department in a project called Public Private Partnership-Integrated Horticulture Development (PPPIHD), a Central government scheme announced by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in its second term (see “Joining Hands”).
The Congress government in Karnataka gave a push to the PPPIHD scheme late in 2015, after two years of drought, in the hope that it will help keep the farming community afloat.
Kshama Patil, Karnataka’s deputy director of horticulture, FPO & PPP-IHD Project Monitoring Unit, has registered 76 of the proposed 92 FPOs in Karnataka, while the rest are “in the process”. All 76 are functioning to improve the lot of farmers, while seven have taken the giant step to link up with big companies with agriculture knowledge and marketing facilities and push their crop. Three are inking such contracts, 15 are in the pipeline.
“The PPP-IHD is quite successful as a project, though some FPOs are facing initial problems,” Patil says, cautiously. “We can only see results in the long term. But it has helped farmers, particularly those struggling with drought.”
Turning a New Leaf
Malavalli, where Naganna farms, has irrigates his district of Mandya is almost dry, following six successive drought seasons. LEAF has worked in over 404 acres with farmers that have tube wells or borewells on their land to get their model in place and to improve the farmers’ lot.
Now, flush with success, LEAF plans to work with farmers that have no water sources in the next round. Vikram Global Commodities Private Limited, though, does not have this felicity as they are working with the Sadalamma Horticulture Farmers Producers Company Limited in the arid Sidlaghatta taluk of Chikballapur district. They are growing the rose onion crop purely for export — with 250 farmers across 350 acres.
They have managed to drought-proof them despite bad yields to the extent that farmers are not running losses and all the payments for their crop are promptly made to their banks. Like LEAF, Vikram Global’s focus is also on improving the quality of the crop, not the quantity, over a multi-year period.
“Earlier, about 45% of the crop that the farmers were growing was of export quality. We have now pushed it to 65-70%,” Srinivas Magadi, vice president (business development), Vikram Global, told ET Magazine. Sadalamma farmers have just begun to harvest their crop and have delivered about 80 bags of 52 kg each to Vikram Global in a week.
Hard Nut to Crack
However, in both instances, project companies found it tough to earn the initial trust of the farmers. Malavalli FPO’s government-appointed CEO, Sahana SR, an MSc in agriculture, told ET Magazine: “We worked with a local NGO and its representative to convince the farmers to go for this project. It is not easy, particularly because we are going against practices that they have long followed. Getting them to invest Rs 1,000 per share in the FPO, in the middle of a drought, too was difficult.”
Sadalamma is still dealing with the problem. Many farmers who have contracted with Vikram Global to use their knowledge and seeds to grow rose onions and give them half of their produce have succumbed to their old local brokers and sold their entire crop to them. Sadalamma FPO president D Srinivas of Neralemaradahalli told ET Magazine that “it makes no sense because these brokers cheat us on the weighing scales and tell us we have delivered less produce than usual. They promise us high prices but come back with tales that the market has crashed and reduce the amount due to us. They delay payments up to even a year”.
He adds: “Vikram Global pays the amount due to us instantly, fixes prices bimonthly based on the rose onion export market in Malaysia, sticks to these rates even if they fall and has transparent weighing methods. It is more advantageous for us.”
This FPO’s board of directors — comprising two members from each of the 50 farmer interest groups within it — has passed a resolution that the input subsidies given by the state government and by Vikram Global will not be passed on to farmers who have broken the contract and sold their produce elsewhere. “Many of the farmers have taken private loans from brokers and that is why they are selling to them. It will sort itself out,” says Srinivas.
“The problem was that Vikram Global did not do a preparatory phase,” says a state horticulture official. “LEAF did a pilot project for the farmers to see for themselves. They also trained farmers before launching the project. So it was easier for them.”
LEAF knew what it was in for as it had cut its teeth in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district, where it began in a small manner about 10 years ago, growing potatoes. It has now expanded to dealing with 900 farmers across multiple crops, with a special focus on carrots.
Founder-CEO Palat Vijayaraghavan, an automobile engineer with a passion for agriculture, recalls: “We convinced one farmer to work with us. We tested the soil and addressed the nutritional deficiencies, brought the best quality seeds from Jalandhar and got a yield of 17-18 tonnes an acre, against an average of 12-13 tonnes. The quality was amazing. We took it to the market and found that the local mandi cartel was against us. We had to sell the produce at Rs 11-12 a kilo against the regular rate of Rs 18-19 for lower quality products.”
The experience taught them the need to reach non-local markets. LEAF currently sells its products in Bengaluru, Coimbatore, Kerala, Hyderabad and wants to expand in Andhra Pradesh. They approach big retail chains in the city, convince them that they would deliver products consistently. They set up an ozonewash unit to clean the produce from the farms and package it attractively. They ensure that all the produce is transported in reefer (refrigerated) vans so that they retain farm-freshness.
The result: they are able to cushion the farmers working with them from transportation costs to the bigger markets and give them much better returns than what the local market does. They buy only the best quality crop from the farmer and let her sell the rest to anyone she wishes. Since they also give quality seeds and fertilisers, most of the crop is A-grade. It is a win-win for the farmer and the company.
“At Malavalli, currently we are dealing with 7.5 tonnes of fresh produce a day; we are targeting 10 tonnes across multiple crops like chilli, okra, cabbage, ridge gourd (turai), capsicum, watermelon and brinjal,” Vijayaraghavan outlines.
Vikram Global also has big plans for the rose onion crop in Sidlaghatta. “We are convincing farmers under our project in Sidlaghatta to go for bio manure and turn the crop into organic rose onion, which will fetch them much higher returns. Currently, we are taking a portion of their land to grow crop with bio manure while the rest uses regular fertilisers. We want to show them the results,” says Magadi, adding: “Ours is a three-year project and we expect it to reach targets. We are setting up a packing house at Sadali, so that farmers can see for themselves the grading and packaging. This will be ready in a month. We will also use the knowledge we have gained here to work with other crops, both here and elsewhere.”