Organic Vegetable Growing and Marketing - A model linking city consumers to farmers
D.N.Jha | 04 Apr 2008

Organic Vegetable ....... picking up in Bangalore, India

Vegetables in Bangalore are available throughout the year, thanks to the cooler temperatures. This also allows a wide variety of vegetables to be grown for about 10 month period. But, then what are the problems? Many consumers in the city are concerned about the indiscriminate use of pesticides and fungicides posing health hazards. Vegetables are washed in dirty and many times in sewage waters. These are some of the concerns. The farmers gamble by growing one vegetable only to find out that the prices are so low that it doesn't even cover the transport cost if they are to bring the vegetables to market. There is a lot of vegetable waste in the city which can be composted and used in the vegetable fields. Some NGOs are doing this. Collecting vegetable waste, separating plastics, batteries etc. and turning the vegetable waste into vermicompost. Why not link this NGO and concerned city consumer group and the farmers. That's what we did at AME program funded by the Dutch Government bilateral program and implemented by ETC Consultants. In 1996, we started preparing for the pilot project.

Consumer Survey ... first step

The survey with about 50 families indicated that they want to buy more than 10 varieties of vegetables every week, but in varying quantity. Potatoes and onions were required in larger quantities and beans, carrots, radish and greens in smaller quantities to name a few. Our plan had to include this requirement.

How to price the organic vegetables......

This was an issue. Should it be priced higher because it is organic? We wanted the vegetables to be available to all the cross section of the society and not only a few elite or higher middle class section of the society. We had to study the price dynamics to fix proper price. We went by the market, analysing the vegetable prices of the Horticulture Coopperative Marketing Society (HOPCOMS) in Bangalore which decides the price based on demand and supply. There is a wide fluctuation of prices over any given year and no specific pattern between the years could be found. The price structure of this co-operative society, keeps 30% above the procurement price as retail price to cover the overheads and staff salaries and wastage. Since the project was linking the producers and consumers directly and aimed to work on no profit basis, there was no need for high margin. Therefore, we could devise a price structure which allowed 20% higher price to be paid to the farmers than the market price and at the same time the consumers could buy the organic vegetables at the market price. There was no certification involved as it was a direct linkage.

Planning organic vegetable production ..... satisfying market and organic principles

Before starting the production with a group of farmers, we took up production at an NGO (ACTS Institute) farm. ACTS was collecting garbage from Bangalore city and turning it into vermicompost. They were looking for making use of the vermicompost on their own farm and an organic vegetable project was a good way to start with. The organic vegetable production pilot project was started on 1 ha. land. In December 1996, we started getting the harvest. The vegetables were harvested, cleaned and packed at the farm itself as per individual consumer indent list. In the course of time, we also experienced many problems both on the production and marketing side. The land had been used for many years for dumping waste. The land was slopy and soil analysis showed that it was acidic and low in organic matter. Land treatment to reduce water run off and erosion, increase infiltration was done. Bund planting of biomass was undertaken to increase the quanity of compost. Availability of water throughout the year was a problem. We implemented drip irrigation system. So, we had all the initial teethin problems and some of the consumers were getting impatient with not so regular supply of vegetables.

The next step was to move to the farmers. While the production was being organized at ACTS institute farm, a group of 10 farmers around the village was being organized to undertake the production. In the first planning meeting with the farmers, we focused on whether farmers wanted to grow one vegetable in a large area or several vegetables in a small area. In the later case, we would help the farmers in linking with the consumer group and marketing. The farmers opted for the second option. Most of the farmers who joined were young and liked the idea of experimenting with a new system of round the year production of several vegetables and linking directly with the consumer group.

Each farmer offered about 1/4 acre of land for organic vegetable cultivation. We divided this into four blocks. We laid out 12 plots in each block. Each block was planted with about 15 to 18 vegetables including intercrops in the 12 plots. The extent of each plot devoted to each vegetable was adjusted in such a way that the production would meet the average weekly demand given by the consumer groups. Planting in each block was staggered by one month. This would ensure continous harvest of each vegetable. This is a very simplified description of the entire planning of continous production. We took into consideration several complexities based on time of harvesting after planting, the total harvest period for each crop, total crop duration etc. in planning continous production. We gave considerable importance to soil fertility management. We based the application of manures, compost and bio-fertilizers based on nutrient balance calculations for each crop. For pest management, we used trap crops. For diseases, we used botanical sprays. We took preventive measures against viral diseases for healthy seedling. In the beginning farmers prefered to use hybrid seeds for some of the vegetables. Slowly, we changed to open pollinated seeds for crops like cabbage and local varieties for tomato and other crops. In the end, production was very successful with regular supply of vegetables. In fact, production was more than we had planned for based on the experience at ACTS institute. The farmers were used to apply organic manure and organic matter content of soil was moderate to high. So, we had a problem of excess vegetables. We started looking for more consumers like schools and in an around our office. Twice a week, sharp at 2:00 p.m. consumers from the neighbourhood would gather to buy the pesticides and synthetic fertilizer free vegetables. We preferred to call it that way as they were not certified organic.

What happened next .....

It had so happened that the project was growing at a fast pace and now it was the time for scaling up. We were a support organization and therefore we were not allowed to implement a project directly by the funding agency. The consumer group did not want to grow bigger beyond 25 person membership. We couldn't find a suitable NGO and consumer groups or other organize other consumers and find new markets like caterers, hotels, schools etc. to scale up the project. Also, the original plan was to develop new ideas and implement it as a pilot project. It was meant for learning and knowledge generation. It was one among several other projects and activities at AME.

Unfinished agenda!........    What next .......

Meanwhile, we continued with offering and expanding PTD backstoping services to several NGOs and projects. Several individual big farmers have approached us in the past for advise. Unfortunately, we have not been in a position to provide consistent support to these farmers. We could only give some advise and share experience with them. Since we are a development consultancy, our focus is small and marginal farmers.

I still look for an opportunity to revive the project somewhere, sometime as we originally designed and implemented.