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

Organic farms – to Certify or Not?

Organic certification seems to have recently become a very touchy topic amongst organic farmers across the world. There is an increasing sense that the certification standards applied by many commercial third-party certifications has been watered down too much from the original “sustainability oriented” ideals and practices of the 60s and 70s.

This has supposedly occurred to accommodate the interest of large scale (factory) organic growers and traders – a very powerful group. Several smaller organic farmers with strong local brands are actually choosing to de-certify their farms – partly because of the costs and partly because of the organic principles they believe in.

As relative newcomers, this presents an interesting choice – should we undertake the process to certify our produce as organic or not?

While there is still some time before we have our own farm and seriously consider certification, we’ve formed some views on this subject…

  1. Third-party certification agencies are just to expensive for us to approach for certifying small farms like ours (less than 2 acres)
  2. The PGS certification is a good option and makes a lot of sense if we can get at least 6 other farmers from nearby to join in and apply. Managed well it can be as effective and is recognised widely in India.
  3. If you are looking to export produce, only third-party certification seems to make sense. However, we have no intention of exporting.
  4. But if your customers are largely local, your practices transparent, and you keep your standards high – you don’t really need the certification.

As a result, we’ve decided to take a lot of effort to meet the PGS principles for organic farms and encourage our farm owners to prepare for certification with the help of the Botanical Society of Goa. At the same time, we maintain an open farm for customers to come and see our growing practices fisthand – which helps build a relationship of trust that certification usually provides.

In time, perhaps we will also look to raise our standards Beyond Organic – for real and not just implied sustainability.

Note: Here is another perspective on the reasons to go for Organic Certification – from Nisha and Raghu