How much can my organic farm earn?

This is a question that’s asked (or in people’s minds) almost every time we have a conversation with them. Every one has heard that agriculture is unpredictable and difficult to turn a profit on and no one knows what to expect.

It’s a virtually impossible question to answer when you are starting out on your farm, because it depends on so many unpredictable things.

  • How interested are you and how involved will YOU personally be?
  • How much do you know about growing and how much time can you give to learn?
  • What style of agriculture are you planning to adopt – there are so many different ways that you can choose to grow.
  • What do you want to grow, and how conducive is your climate to growing?
  • What kind of land do you have, and how much will it need to be adapted to grow what you want to grow?
  • What’s your farm business model going to be – just selling produce or will you have other ways to monetise your farm?
  • What are your manpower costs going to be, this depends a lot on your location?
  • How complicated are the logistics of getting your produce to markets? How often can you afford to go there?
  • Are you selling your produce directly, or via an intermediary? How much of your profit are they “taking away”?
  • Are supporting agriculture services available to you, or will you need to be 100% self sufficient?
  • What are your capabilities across the different activities you have to undertake in growing, managing operations, farm “maintenance” and selling your produce?

Can anyone know the answer to all these questions (for you)? Mostly this requires time for you to figure out — and a lot will change on your farm once you get started.

So how can one succeed and be profitable? Learn fast, stay engaged, identify your best customers, keep costs low and margins high. The same as any other business.

Mumbai Workshop: Reviving Family Farms (12th February, 2017)

People with a new interest in organic farming (either because they inherited a family farm, or recently acquired one), often struggle with making them self-sustaining and profitable. The reasons for problems can be varied — limitations of time, constraints of capital, inability to find the right market, lack of knowledge or reliable manpower, high costs of inputs — and while solutions are achievable it takes time and experience to address them.

Through this (full-day) interactive workshop we help participants understand what they need to do to make their Family Farms sustainable and productive. This is NOT a session for kitchen gardeners, but for folks with a serious and active interest in running their own farms.

Note: Only 10 participants can be accommodated in this workshop.

The workshop will cover the following broad areas:
1. Farm management processes
2. Farm Design and Technical Growing Topics
3. Farm Business planning and marketing

Topics covered will also include:
– Biggest (and most expensive) mistakes new farmers make – poor farm management
– Organic farm case studies
– Soil improvement strategies and practices
– Planning of succession crops

Sign Up – http://imojo.in/6kkpt9

Pre-registration is compulsory for this session

Registration Fee is Rs. 4,000.00 per head (includes lunch and tea)
Call/SMS Yogita: +919960643245 OR
Email: yogitamehra@gmail.com to pre-register
When: Sunday, 12th February, 2017 from 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Where: At Beard Design, Mumbai Studio, Prabhadevi, Mumbai (contact for directions)

NOTE: Due to limited seats, NO REFUNDS on registration fee will be offered in case of cancellations for this session. 

Is Goa finally getting serious about agriculture?

Is Goa finally getting serious about agriculture?

If one were to go by what one sees in the local media, Goa’s agricultural scene seems to be going through a renaissance of sorts. Virtually every day brings a new story of agricultural success and initiative – whether it’s strawberries in Sanguem, greenhouse capsicums in Saligao, organic mangoes in Chorao, SRI rice in Salcete, the Mango Fest at Kala Academy or a Farmers’ Federation website on the internet.

Considering the perennial backdrop of bleak news that usually accompanies agriculture, and the reality of Goa’s food insecurity, this is a silver lining that undoubtedly creates a welcome bit of optimism. However, a closer look at the bigger picture reveals that there is little impact on the larger realities of our situation.

A formal agricultural vision or policy to begin with?

Common sense suggests that the ambition of Goa’s agriculture must be to create food self-sufficiency through a reliable supply of good quality – that covers taste and nutrition, by the way, – food, which is reasonably priced and of varieties preferred for local cuisine. If this goal is worthwhile, then the reality is that today, we are very, very far from achieving this aim – and have made little sustainable progress towards it.

Interestingly, Goa still lacks a clearly stated agricultural policy – which would seem like a necessary pre-requisite if a larger and more sustainable impetus is to be provided to agriculture. In the absence of this, and with a system that is only subsidy-focussed, it sometimes seems like the approach is to bribe people to continue farming.

Five years of a reasonably involved participation in Goan agriculture have given us a sense that the key problems remain – a lack of ambitious vision and goals, complacency about the current state of agriculture, poor strategic decisions and a systemic lack of execution. However, it is also equally apparent that Goa has several assets that make it capable of dramatic improvement – its locational advantages, many genuinely sincere agricultural officers, sufficient financial resources, great natural advantages and a continuing deep cultural affinity to agriculture.

Too much novelty, distracts from things that really work

However, before attempting to begin an agricultural revolution in Goa, it’s important to undertake some serious introspection into which current approaches are clearly not working – because our resources may be adequate, but are certainly not enough to permit waste. While there are several useful schemes offered by the Department of Agriculture, the ICAR and the Horticultural Corporation, there are some which clearly require re-evaluation. These are listed here.

The ‘improvement through exports’ approach: There is a perennial desire to encourage growing for export amongst agricultural departments in the hope that the premium that markets pay abroad are a way to achieve better income for farmers. This is misplaced because for anything but the large-scale, export-focussed operations, paperwork is a full-time job. There is also little evidence that Goa has the quality of produce (except for select crops), the quantity of produce or the marketing skills required to achieve this. A better approach would be to serve the local market in Goa (which we know also pays well) and treat our annual influx of tourists as an export market. This would mean that we need to start growing to deliver real quality and variety of produce that only local farms can deliver – while also serving the goal of food security that local growers provide.

The ‘improvement through technology’ approach: As a solution to the high costs and lack of availability of agricultural labour, the Department of Agriculture has been on a technology drive. Mechanisation is riding a wave in Goa, which initially seems like a boon for the ’hard-working farmer‘. Except that many of the wonderful tractors, power tillers and other equipment that taxpayers subsidise end up hardly working (through our experience in Chorao and elsewhere). In a state where farm sizes are very small, farmer-owned machinery is often hopelessly under-utilised, poorly-maintained and often of limited assistance to farmers.

Similarly, technology-oriented schemes like those that provide for electric fencing and sophisticated greenhouses are very popular (90% subsidy available), but it’s questionable if they provide good value for money in the context of Goa. At Rs 8-10 lakh per unit we already see that the growing model for greenhouses – gerbera, capsicum and cucumbers – is overly simplistic.

The ‘improvement through growing exotics’ approach: Growing strawberries and capsicums in Goa is novel and frankly pretty amazing – and we can’t pretend that we’re immune to growing them, because we have. But experimenting in a garden as a hobby and cultivating on a farm for income are two very different things. It seems unlikely that it will be the most profitable one for local farmers, because mono-crops of cash crops rarely work in the long run. Eventually the competition from cheaper sources with a climate or cost-of-labour advantage like Mahabaleshwar will probably win over. Also, the pricing of cash crops is often volatile – because of variable demand due to external factors.

Crucial problems that continue to go un-addressed

  • The state continues to have no formal farming policy – in the absence of which a cohesive strategy and clear goals seem absent. The policy is necessary given the deficit of food production which threatens long-term food quality and availability, especially as relations with Karnataka decline due to water disputes.
  • Legal issues related to use of the land itself continue to go unaddressed thus creating a great deal of insecurity that prevents land from being leased out to people actually interested in agriculture. The subsidies also continue to be tied to land ownership instead of to farming activity, creating challenges for farmers.
  • Irrigation is another key issue and there seem to be few solutions for this on the ground – despite all the rainfall we get and the considerable expenditure on dams that were intended to provide a fillip to agriculture (but may not as the water will be demanded for urban use). Larger scale activities for improving watershed and water management do not see sufficient investment and are largely neglected.
  • Farmer’s access to markets remains limited and a crucial impediment – the Farmers Market policy seems to have made little headway though it’s a great idea. Other online initiatives like the Farmers’ Federation website cannot have a widespread impact because government fundamentally lacks the skills to market.

Some alternative guidelines for agricultural development

While it’s pretty simple to criticise what is happening to agriculture in Goa, we believe that this can be constructive only when it is accompanied by reasonable alternatives – and not just ideas that can never be implemented.

If there is an agreement that Goan agriculture should aim to achieve a significant degree of food self-sufficiency (say 50% to begin with) over the next couple of decades, then it’s important to set some broader guidelines to enable this to happen.

Set the focus on urban agriculture to bring quality to food production – the fields around the cities of Goa (for example, in Taleigao) must be preserved and aggressively developed for agriculture. This reduces the costs and logistics required for growing and also dramatically improves the quality and freshness of the produce applicable to its citizens (as well as farmers’ access to markets). A special policy that encourages and supports market gardens for growing vegetables and fruits is the key to this, along with setting up spaces for farmers’ markets. Models like development-supported agriculture provide several useful ideas for this.

Agriculture in Goa needs to focus on diversity and quality

Agriculture in Goa needs to focus on diversity and quality

Invest in the software and not just in the hardware: In developing economies like ours, too much investment is made in hardware (technology and products) and not in the software (the local knowledge, skills and experience) that is critical for achieving the results. In this area Goa has failed considerably, with local traditional knowledge fading and not documented in a meaningful way, a lack of effectiveness of skill development initiatives for key skills related to agriculture and the absence of a broadly accepted, professional knowledge forum like an agricultural university.

Invest in building a new model of agriculture for the youth: The revival of agriculture across the globe is visible from the thriving organic farming movements – which are driven not by the old and experienced, but by a youthful new generation of wannabe farmers. Goa needs to similarly create an ecosystem that encourages farm entrepreneurship amongst a younger generation and to develop schemes, spaces and education to engage them with farming.

Invest in special agricultural zones in rural areas: Small city farms cannot produce enough of everything needed for the state, but farms in rural areas need to have simplified access to logistics, processing and supporting agricultural services. A system of several decentralised special agricultural zones (in areas where farming activity is strong) can create sufficient economies of scale without becoming unwieldy and will enable more efficient use of mechanisation that the present situation suggests.

Innovation to differentiating Goa’s agricultural produce: When it comes to markets of any kind, differentiation is critical to achieving success. Goa has the opportunity to really differentiate itself in a meaningful way by becoming a hub for organic farming in India – by producing organic fruits and processed food products. There exists a local affinity for organic produce in our state, a tourist market that appreciates it, and reasonable proximity to urban centres that value it (Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai) too.

Yogita Mehra and Karan Manral have been working across different areas related to agriculture since 2009. This includes working with the Chorao Island Farmers Club to conduct several marketing experiments and to create support and infrastructure for farmers on the island of Chorao. They have also been working on different community initiatives to re-connect consumers with local produce and farming – through workshops (via Green Essentials), farm visits, agricultural events like the Konkan Fruit Fest, and most recently through their own Yogi Farms and Goa’s first organic market for vegetables.

Towards greener pastures (by Bharati Pawaskar)

By Bharati Pawaskar / The Goan

Hanish Khan, Chandu Rathod and Vipul Karanjawkar may not be the sons of this soil but they toil in the Goan farms to produce organic vegetables, fruits and crops that have an increasing demand in the local market.

“My father polishes marble in Goa for 18 years but after my 12th exam I chose to opt for organic farming,” says Hanish, 23 whose family owns ‘dhai beegha jameen’ at Mainpuri in UP which he wishes to revive making it a way of life.

Labour is not scarce as farmers from neighbouring states willingly move to Goa in search of farm jobs, whenever monsoons fail them. “I grow onions, cotton, kidney beans, ground nuts, moong, toor, sunflower, chilies and jowar in my farm and am now offering my labour to Goans. All I need is monthly salary and farm food,” says Chandu, a born farmer from Karnataka.

And young enthusiastic graduates like Vipul who have understood that organic is the mantra of the future, physical labour in the farm is equal to doing an expensive MBA course. Vipul plans to spend five years working in Goan farms. “My father is a goldsmith in Maharashtra but I chose to be in Goa to experiment in organic farming,” he shares.

Hanish and Vipul handwater saplings early in the morning

Hanish and Vipul handwater saplings early in the morning

For Christabel Pinto, the abandoned family farm at Taleigao turned out to be a boon since the time she revived it with the help of a catalyst couple – Yogita Mehra and Karan Manral who has been dedicatedly helping out those who wish to do organic farming in its various forms – paddy crops, fruits, vegetables, kitchen gardens, terrace gardens, herbal and spice plantations.

“Though the returns are not immediate and one has to keep pumping money in for the initial period till the soil condition is restored, but once the soil regains its original richness, we can expect golden harvest,” admits Christabel, an IT professional who is determined to give a new lease of life to the 200-year-old ancestral farmland of her in-laws.

“I have open budget for my farm,” affirms green messenger Vito Gomes who flies back every month to his ancestral farm at Taleigaon from whichever corner of the globe he is and this for the past 10 years.

People in Goa have been restoring their fallow farms by ‘green manuring’, a process of growing certain crops on land/garden in order to improve soil fertility. It consists of growing mainly leguminous crops that are known to fix nitrogen into the soil as they grow. In addition, other seeds are also grown so that they can add bio-mass into the soil, which on decomposing improves soil texture.

Cattle are scarce and so is cow dung in urban areas. Hence composting and green manuring are easier and cheaper ways of improving soil. “Remember, if you are growing organically then use more compost for productive and healthy plants,” advises Yogita while Karan offers valuable tips on composting, “Use garden waste (mix green and brown materials with panchagavya (cow dung slurry) in alternating layers or kitchen waste. Regularly manage the moisture and provide aeration by turning the pile over to avoid a bad smell. It can attract rodents, especially if there is non-veg waste.”

“The Goan soil is very receptive. It takes less time to turn fertile and gives good yield, ” agrees Yogita and Karan who began experiments with the Goan soil two years ago in Albertina Almeida’s ancestral farm at Taleigaon. This farm has remained as a base for their experimentation where Deer’s Tongue, Salad Bowl, Lettuce, Chinese Cabbage, Greeshma, Cluster Beans, Round Red Radish, Tomatoes, Brinjal, Carrots, Palak, Methi, Tambdi Bhaji, Radish etc are grown. The couple has been instrumental in initiating a successful organic movement in the state like Chorao Farmer’s Club and share free healthy tips with agro-growers for easy marketing.

By Bharati Pawaskar / The Goan

How Global Food and Market Trends are Creating Closer Relationships between Organic Farmers and Consumers

Agriculture in Goa seems to be having a difficult time recently, with farmers finding their traditional farming activity unsustainable due to increasing costs, difficulties related to farm labour and lack of direct access to markets for their produce. However, our recent trip with OFAI (Organic Farmers Association of India) members to the 17th IFOAM Organic World Congress 2011 at Yangpyeong, Korea revealed that our situation here is not at all unique.

Small and medium scale organic farmers from all over the world (from developed nations like USA, France and Australia to the developing ones like Nigeria, Malaysia and India) reported very similar challenges in each of their countries. The same factors that have made agriculture the last choice of occupation for younger people here in India, led to exclusion of the current generation from agriculture in the more developed countries over the last couple of decades.

However, as food quality is declining (and that seems to be the feeling everywhere) and costs are increasing (again a global trend), there is a growing awareness that farmers provide a critical service to the community, and that the community can help themselves and their farmers by assisting in making local farms more sustainable. The interactions with organic farmers from all over the globe at the Korea conference, provides us with some very interesting ideas for Goa, where agricultural traditions are still present in the older generation even if the younger ones have already opted out.

A partnership between Consumers and Farmers
The most interesting of the ideas to help sustainable organic farming actually comes from the most developed nations (in Europe and the Americas). There the pressure on small and medium farmers and the awareness about declining food quality amongst consumers has driven models for Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA) that have matured considerably and are working very well. These systems allow the creation of an alternative market where consumers have access to high-quality, fresh and organic vegetables directly from farmers that are growing it in their localities, usually less than 100 miles away.

In this system families “subscribe” to the CSA service which gives them access to a weekly supply of fresh vegetables. They choose the quantities they need every week and mention specific vegetables that they don’t want. They are then supplied a basket of fresh produce which they collect from a nearby pick-up point on a fixed day (say every Saturday). But the consumers also play another critical role in the system. By allowing the use of their homes for drop-off and pick-up points for weekly produce, they help with promoting the service and in collections of payments from new subscribers. This allows the farmers to focus on the core task of growing fresh and delicious produce.

The CSA system originated over two decades ago but has progressed into an extremely mature, organised and successful system. Consumers seem to love it too, largely because it provides them with much fresher, better tasting and chemical-free vegetables, something the trader and retailer driven markets do not offer.

This article by Yogita originally appeared in Mind & Body, Heart & Soul

Hardening saplings for transplanting

For most farmers and gardeners, there is only one thing more discouraging than the failure of seeds to germinate — and that’s the failure of transplanted saplings to survive the process.Young saplings tend to be badly hit, especially when the weather is on the hotter side, and just wilt to death in a couple of days after transplanting.

But this is entirely avoidable if we accept a few basic principles:

  1. The problem is caused primarily because the plant is unable to adapt to a new situation
  2. We need to use the instinct of self preservation (present in almost any living thing) to assist us
  3. We may need to ‘protect’ the sapling in its early days after the transplanting

Our experience is that plants that are systematically hardened before transplanting consistently achieve over 90% survival rates. The trick is to plan your dates of transplanting, and not just do a transplant when time permits. All transplanting on our farms is done in the late afternoons, so that the plants have time to recover overnight without excessive loss of moisture. But the preparation of the saplings actually begins about a week earlier (ideally).

Here is how it (ideally) goes:

  1. A week before we begin reducing the amount water provided to the saplings (drop by 25% on D-7 and again by 25% on D-5)
  2. Water the saplings on D-2 which is about 48 hours before transplanting (about half of what was being provided before D-7) and don’t water again till its almost transplanting time
  3. Just 30 minutes before transplanting, you should water the saplings very well. Ensure that the roots are not damaged by pulling them out gently
  4. If the weather is really warm, its a good idea to set up a shade net (50%) to protect saplings till they have recovered

Hardening_Transplants

NOTE: If you can retain the soil around the roots, it helps. Put in a fist-full of compost in the pit where you will transplant. Transplanting is also a good time to treat the saplings with panchagavya* (growth promoter) and trichoderma** (protection against fungal disease).

Lastly, be a little patient and wait for a week before giving up on shocked saplings. Often they will recover even though they look extremely poor for the first few days. Put some dry mulch or leaves around every sapling so leaves don’t touch the soil directly. This prevents leaves from rotting and at the same time the roots are protected from direct sun and loss of moisture.

* Treating with Panchagavya: Dip sapling roots in 3% panchagavya for about 3 minutes just before the transplant

** Treating with trichoderma virde: Dip sapling roots in trichoderma solution prepared by putting 1tbsp of the powder in a litre of water. Remember to mulch the beds to protect the beneficial trichoderma fungus from direct sunlight

 

What is food quality?

Defining quality for fresh food is not a simple task – because there are many perspectives to this.

For many the organic label has come to signify quality, but we’ve come to see this as a uni-dimensional viewpoint. There seems to be a lot more to quality, and its probably best measured at the point of our plates.

Variety is quality. The types of a vegetable that you to choose to grow determines quality – because not all tomatoes varieties were created equal taste-wise. Some are just better than others.

Freshness is quality. And the difference in freshness plays a major role in quality, especially for leafy vegetables and herbs. Loss of moisture over time accelerates the drop in quality. Other vegetables like brinjals, gourds, beans, tomatoes retain moisture much better.

Distance is quality. The less distance travelled by your vegetables, the fresher they are and the less chances there are for exposure to pollutants and other materials that aren’t very healthy.

Organic is quality. Food grown without the use of pesticides is definitely healthier, but growing organically is not the only measure of quality.