This is a series of deliberations about the politics behind popular market and the opportunities for successful organic agriculture markets as well as alternative markets.
For ages, the popular market has been against small and micro farmers. It has not been possible either to control the markets that sell their products or to bring in a regulation. The farmers get into crisis for the reasons of wrong cultivation practices and not choosing the crops that are suitable for the soil and the weather.
They have been cheated even while weighing their products. There is 15% loss only due to wrong weighing of their products. Unfair pricing of their products and inordinate delay in payments are some of the critical problems faced by the farmers. The popular market burdens the consumers too by providing unsafe food products and unfair pricing of the products. At this juncture of pitiful incidences of farmers’ suicide jolting the whole nation, ‘Restore Organic Shop’ was started in Chennai, with an aim of providing sustainable livelihood for the farmers and also to encourage cultivation of environmental friendly agriculture products, initiated by some volunteers coming together.
We began our journey with many questions pertaining to whether the farmers can decide the price for their products, is it possible to send the quality products grown organically to the city’s markets, is it possible to supply healthy agriculture products at the right price to the consumers and is it possible to recreate the trade model founded on trust in other places.
At the beginning, we organized a food festival using minor millets. Based on the encouragements given by hundreds of participants during the festival we established an organic shop in a car shed.
In 2010, there was an article about the Restore shop in ‘Pasumai Vikatan’ with a title, ‘Here the farmers decide the price of their products’. When the number of consumers increased due to the article, we personally visited the organic agriculture farms to procure cereals, grams, minor millets and spice products. Vegetables and greens reached the shop weekly once.
Aiming to avoid ‘polythene’ bags, we made thick paper bags. Every Saturday, we used to engage actively on unloading the vegetables, segregating, cleaning and stacking them. The relationship among the well intended hearts that concerned about the farmers gradually strengthened, beyond marketing.
Not stopping as a shop, the Restore travelled further to conduct debate on agriculture and environmental issues, film shows, dialogues with farmers, farm trips, training on making food products using minor millets. Weekly markets turned out to be festivals. The urbanites visited the shop not only to buy the products but also to meet others of similar ideas and develop contacts.
We carried forward important services such as to procure products cultivated only through sustainable agriculture and environment friendly methods and also procure products only from the villages neighboring the Chennai city.
We procure products that are 100% organically grown. Even the value added products such as biscuits and pickles are procured after ensuring that they are produced from organic agriculture products. In order to reduce ‘food mileage’ the products are procured from the neighboring villages of Chennai. Only the products that are not grown in Tamil Nadu, such as wheat, spice products, are procured from other states. Those products too are ensured of 100% organically grown. Similarly, priority is given to the agriculture products from small and micro farmers and for traditional varieties. Mostly the producers are able to fix the price. Transparency is followed in choosing the markets for procurement and fixing the price. We strive to focus on connecting the producers directly with the consumers.
As the shop kept growing, workers were employed to share the work burden. While the employees take care of day to day activities, there is considerable support from volunteers till now in maintaining balance sheets, bank related tasks and money transactions. Currently, the shop is managed by the employees. Recently, the shop has grown into a reasonably profit fetching agency, concerned about the farmers with healthy work ambience.
Instead of exploitation and weariness intensive work environments we have created means to facilitate self improvement of non English speaking people, their income and their job satisfaction. A small percentage of profit from the shop is shared with the employees. Besides, we focus on other things including supplying of healthy food products to the employees.
At the beginning of establishing the shop, as there was excess amount to be spent by the farmers to get organic certification, the products were procured based on the trust developed with the organic farmers and directly monitoring the cultivation process. Further, connecting with many organic confederations in other states, we were able to ensure the quality and reliability of the products.
Even when there is no increase in the external markets we keep giving 10-20% more additionally to the farmers while procuring their products. We keep fixed price for vegetables throughout the year. The local vegetables, like bottle gourd, brinjal and tomatoes are sold for a fixed price of Rs 45. High altitude vegetables like carrot, cauliflower, cabbage and beans are sold for Rs 55 throughout the year. By this method farmers are not affected. Instead they are motivated to continue cultivation through organic methods.
There were some hiccups while using paper bags instead of polythene bags. The price of paper bags was high. The products kept in those paper bags tend to develop fungal growth during rainy days. So, at one point of time, we were forced to use thick polythene bags that could be recycled. However, we keep encouraging the customers to bring their own containers and bags in order reduce the use of those recyclable bags. We urge the customers to bring steel containers to buy oils. We also carry forward the services of conducting dialogues about terrace gardens, urban gardens and home education, and organize protests against genetically modified crops and while supporting safe food.
Even though we aspire to do many things, we are not able to buy the agriculture product grown by a farmer fully. This make the farmers search for external markets for the remaining products.
Sometimes, when the farmers get more price from the external markets, they tend to be hesitant in selling their products to us, making the business slow down. It is really a challenge to store and sell the agriculture products and processing them before selling, with the scant space available in Chennai. Only with these tough challenges the organic markets are managing to survive.
(This series of articles written in Tamil by Ananthu for Pasumai Vikatan magazine dt 25th Oct 2017 has been reproduced in English by V Amalan Stanley)