If I asked you to draw a picture of a farmer in India, what would you envision? Think for a minute. OK, would you draw a man or a woman? The truth is that women actually do most of the agricultural work in rural India, but they are not recognized for their hard labor and contributions! I figured it’s high time to write about my work, which focuses on these strong women farmers, at Jagori Grameen. I spent the first two months here listening, pushing my brain through the hoops of the Hindi language, drinking steaming hot chai and getting to know my co-workers, working in the gardens here, shuttling out to villages on toaster-rollercoaster buses with our team for farmers’ meetings, and hopping about from project idea to idea like a frog in a frying pan. In the past few weeks I have begun to develop upon my long-term project, which will be connecting small farmers growing organically to a market for organic produce. After many team meetings and discussions, I am thrilled that my project has become “our project,” and that Jagori is excited and committed to working together and investing time and resources in making this vision a reality.
So I work with the SAFAL (Sustainable Agriculture, Forest And Land) Team here at Jagori, and they engage with some 40 farmers groups, mostly consisting of women, in villages throughout the Kangra Valley in Himachal Pradesh. After organizing the farmers, the team provides information on government agricultural subsidies, distributes seeds and encourages traditional seed preservation, and demonstrates organic practices such as making vermi-compost pits. In a survey done by the previous AIF Fellow here, 91% of the farmers surveyed currently grow their kitchen gardens totally organically. However, for their larger fields or market gardens they still use chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The more chemicals they put on the fields, the more dependent they become the next year and the next year, because the soil loses its natural productivity with the heavy chemical usage. People have also suffered from health problems due to chemical usage, which is usually unregulated. In these villages, however, there is often not an easily accessible market for surplus produce, let alone one for organic vegetables, so farmers don’t really have a financial incentive to grow and sell organically. If they do sell their extra produce, they usually sell it at a low price to “mandis” (middlemen), who will transport it and sell it in towns for a much higher price. For example, the mandi might give the farmers 30 rupees per kg for cauliflower, then sell it at the market for 50 rupees per kg!!! It’s a rip-off, but the farmer has no choice because they don’t have the time or means to go sell it in the market. The inefficiencies, waste, and extortion in the vegetable supply chain hurt the farmers, who cannot access the market directly.
Basically we are looking to create a new supply chain as a sort of social enterprise to directly connect farmers to the market. If we can tell them, “We will buy your produce if you grow it totally organically, and we will buy it at a slightly higher rate than the mandi,” then this will provide a real incentive for them to use organic methods. Farmers can earn more money, spend less money on chemical inputs, utilize organic methods on a larger scale, and our system will take care of the transportation and marketing for them. I know creating this system will be difficult, indeed—equipping and supporting the farmers, ensuring that organic methods are used, creating a rural logistics route, organizing and financing means of transportation, processing and packaging, developing a marketing strategy—but I believe that with careful planning and organization, we can create a system to benefit all the stakeholders involved. Our potential achievements could be directly enhancing livelihood development by providing an opportunity for income generation, raising the status of women farmers as earners, spreading the usage of organic methods, and getting wholesome food into the market. On the demand side, we are beginning with our target market of foreign residents in nearby McCleod Ganj/Dharamsala, but hopefully expanding to the Indian and Tibetan populations if we can keep the price low and actively engage with the media to spread awareness about this alternative to chemically produced vegetables.
Right now our SAFAL team is identifying the farmers most interested and likely to be able to produce organically on a larger scale. In the coming months we will provide trainings on how to make additional low-cost, organic and all-natural bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers to equip them to grow for the next season, in which they will begin to plant in March and begin to harvest in mid-April. This gives us time on both ends to organize and lay down the logistical and financial details of this project. Our upcoming market analysis survey will give us information about what type of produce our customer base prefers, and we can relay that feedback to the farmers so they can know what quantities and varieties would sell well. We are developing a business plan that will provide more parameters, such as the crucial financial estimates, for our long-term vision to make this project professional, effective, and self-sustaining, with the potential to grow. This is definitely not a project that is neat and tidy, that I can tie up and put a bow on in July, but I am hopeful that Jagori will be able to carry it forward and expand it in the next several years. This project has energized the entrepreneurial spirit within me, and I am eager to continue meeting and overcoming (hopefully) the challenges ahead alongside my team and the women farmers of the Kangra Valley.