Five years into direct selling of his vegetable produce to Reliance Retail Limited,small-scale vegetable farmer A Shelvaraj has learned a new culture of cultivation. And this ensures better income for his produce,zero-wastage after harvest,and staggered sowing and harvesting days to prevent any glut in the market. Shelvaraj is one of the 300-odd farmers in this Kerala-Tamil Nadu border village who have identified an alternative market for their produce other than the traditional mandi in the vicinity.
Kozhijnampara,a prominent horticulture region in Palakkad district,is the only place in Kerala where Reliance has managed to retain a collection centre for directly procuring produce from farmers. As the company was forced to scale down its retail operations in Kerala due to protest from political parties and outfits of small-scale retailers,another collection centre in Kottayam was closed down in the initial stage. Besides,the plan to open two other collection centres in Wayanad and Idukki two agriculture belts in Kerala had been dropped as it could not widen the operation in the retail market.
Until 2008,when Reliance opened a collection centre at Kozhinjampara,the vegetable farmers in the region were solely dependent on the traditional mandi at Velanthavalam in Palakkad,one of the major auction centres of farm-fresh vegetables in Kerala.
A farmer who sells his produce at the mandi has to give Rs 10 as commission for every Rs 100 he gets from the sale. Besides,the merchants at the mandi do not properly weigh the produce, says Ram Kumar,a farmer.
A major produce being traded at Velanthavalam market is tomato. On an average,the daily arrival of tomato would go up to 30 to 40 truckloads during a normal season. Farmers bring the produce in small baskets containing 10 kg tomato. After fixing a base price,the commission merchants auction off the produce to retailers from distant places.
While a basket of tomato was sold at Rs 35 one day,the price for the same quantity was Rs 65 the next day. We have no mechanism to know the expected arrival in the market and the corresponding demand. Look at the loss suffered by those who sold tomato on the first day, says another farmer,I Phelix.
Though there is no buyback scheme between farmers and Reliance,the cultivators have got the message that there is a potential buyer if they grow any vegetable produce. For the first time,I have sown beetroot since Reliance is ready to buy it. Since beetroot is not grown in the region,the produce was not traded in the local market, says Shelvaraj.
An ensured buyer in the vicinity has helped several farmers spread the risk across a wide range of produce. Earlier,most farmers cultivated tomato on their entire land,inviting a stiff competition from the growers in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Now,they have begun to grow spinach,cucumber,onion,brinjal and other items,which helped them prevent a tomato glut.
On an average,according to Reliance sources,the company collects 5 to 7 tonnes of produce from the Kozhinjampara collection centre. Farmers on our list are informed the previous day about next days demand. But the prices are fixed at Bangalore at 11 am every day after factoring in the prevailing rate in various markets. We see a 20 to 30 per cent annual increase in the number of farmers who are ready to sell their produce, says a company official.
The company has appointed an agriculture science graduate to give scientific input to farmers. He occasionally goes to the fields in Kozhinjampara village panchayat and nearby areas to advise farmers on using better seed and effective pest control.
These days,all farmers do not sow the seed of a particular crop on a single day or week. We have staggered the sowing to ensure the required quantity of supply throughout the year. This also prevents a glut in the market. Earlier,they used to bring produce in gunny bags which led to damage. After introducing craters in place of bags,there is zero wastage at the points between harvesting and collection, says the official.
In the absence of a commission system,the farmers say,they get better prices for their produce at Reliance. Unlike the local mandi,there is also proper weighing of the vegetable produce,they claim.
However,farmers like D D Prakash also see a major disadvantage with Reliance,which collects only superior quality produce. At the local mandi,there is no segregation. They take whatever produce we bring. Hence,sometimes we have to depend upon the local market when the quality of our produce is not good, he says.