The ultimate dream for any farmer is to sell his produce directly to consumers for a maximum retail price fixed by him. There are some in Punjab trying to realise this utopia. Tarsem Singh turned full-time farmer in 2008, after retiring as principal of a government senior secondary school.
“We were earlier growing kinnow (citrus), but marketing was a problem, as the fruit was prone to price crash. My job, too, prevented me from devoting much time,” says the 69-year-old, who started experimenting with organic sugarcane cultivation on three out of his 17-acre holding in Nila Naloya village of Hoshiarpur district.
Cane yields from organic farming — using only animal dung, vermicompost and jeev amrit (a cow dung-urine-jaggery-water mixture), as opposed to chemical fertilisers — were hardly 200 quintals per acre, as against 300 quintals-plus through the regular inorganic route. But Singh also began making organic gur (jaggery) and shakkar (powder) — employing vegetable extracts, instead of sodium hydrosulphite, as juice clarification agent — from his sugarcane.
“I could produce about 12 kg from every quintal of cane and sell at Rs 90-120 per kg, almost three times that for normal gur. Marketing wasn’t an issue. There were teachers, doctors, lawyers and businessmen in Hoshiarpur and Jalandhar, whom I knew from my service days. They didn’t mind paying for a natural and healthy product. I now have regular customers who place direct orders and even lift from my farm,” claims Singh, who is now growing sugarcane on 12 acres and organic seasonal vegetables on his remaining five acres.
In October 2016, Singh met Bhupesh Saini, an advertising professional who had returned to India after 15 years in Japan. “I wanted to work with farmers and build a brand based on produce grown, processed and packed at the farm itself,” notes Saini, who was given space for experimentation and product development by Singh.
In about a year’s time, Saini came out with a 0.5-inch jaggery candy cube. He, along with a fellow adman from Chandigarh Navdeep Khera, decided to market the product under the ‘Jaggic’ brand name. The duo availed a Rs 25-lakh financial assistance under the Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme to put up a small unit for production and packing of ‘Jaggic’ candy in a 500 square-feet area in Singh’s farm. “I was already making one-inch gur cubes, whose size they had halved. They now buy my gur and sell their product through a separate marketing channel. It is a win-win for both,” adds Singh.
Saini and Khera began producing ‘Jaggic’ candy during the current sugarcane season from November, even getting the Punjab Governor V P Singh Badnore to formally launch the product on January 18. “We are pricing it in the Rs 120-150 range for a pack of 60 candies weighing 180 grams, available in five flavours — amla, haldi, saunf, ginger and moringa. The product is being stocked in Sindhi Sweets’ outlets at Chandigarh and we are also selling it through Amazon online shopping,” informs Saini, who has now entered into a similar tie-up with Rahul Kamboj, a sugarcane grower from Takipur village of Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district.
“He is producing organic shakkar from his sugarcane. We will pack this jaggery powder in 5 gram sachets and sell under the same Jaggic brand. In our model, the farmer supplies the raw material and space, while we take the risk of investing in the machinery and also marketing,” points out Saini.
Tarsem Singh isn’t the only one attempting direct marketing of his produce. Ravi Dhingra has a 25-acre orchard at Muhammad Pira, a village in Fazilka district close to the India-Pakistan border. He grows as many as 39 types of fruits — from kinnow, mango and guava to lemon, Malta lemon, sweet lime, pear, ber, date palm and papaya. The most recent introduction is dragon fruit, which he first planted in 2016 on three acres and plans to add another eight acres this year.
“I invested Rs 4.5 lakh per acre for transplanting the cuttings of about 20 cm length from stems. These cuttings, which I sourced from Bhuj in Gujarat, bear fruits in about 13 months. By the second year, I had recovered my entire planting expenses. This year, I expect an income of not less than Rs 20 lakh per acre,” states Dhingra.
Dragon fruit, being from the cactus family, does not require much water. Moreover, it can grow well in the water-logged areas of south-west Punjab, since the roots do not penetrate beyond 2-3 feet in the soil. Dhingra is even supplying dragon fruit saplings to other farmers, including from neighbouring Haryana. “They are growing it, seeing the crop on my orchard. I had sent my fruits to the Punjab Agricultural University, which even got exhibited in their Kisan Melas (farmers’ fairs). But neither they nor the state horticulture department people have tried planting it in their research farms. There isn’t much interest from the government in promoting this fruit crop,” he remarks.
Again, Dhingra’s marketing model is what’s interesting: “I avoid selling any fruit in the wholesale mandis. My buyers are mainly fruit retailers from Fazilka, Ferozepur, Sri Ganganagar and other nearby towns, who lift their stock straight from my orchard. Besides, I sell through FarmerUncle (a Gurgaon-based online direct-to-consumer fruit trading platform) and also the biweekly organic farmers’ markets of Kheti Virasat Mission (a natural agriculture-promoting NGO) at Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Chandigarh. I send my fruits in AC passenger buses plying these routes”.
Like Tarsem Singh, Dhingra is exclusively into organic cultivation and also decides the price of his product. The dragon fruit whose inside is white he sells at Rs 150-200 a kg, while the more premium one with red inside fetches Rs 305/kg. He hopes to realise an even better rate for the variety with yellow inside — which he plans to plant next.
Dhingra, like most Punjab farmers, was growing only wheat and paddy until 2010. That year, he planted guava and sweet lime trees, before gradually expanding his horticulture portfolio by adding more fruits. “The future for farmers is in selling from fields and not selling in mandis. We should be price makers, not price takers,” he asserts.
Dhingra, however, admits that not all farmers can afford horticulture investments, which can range from Rs 2.5 lakh per acre in date palm to Rs 4.5 lakh for dragon fruit. “The government must subsidise investment in crops that will ultimately generate good income. If that is guaranteed, there will be no farmer suicides or any need to waive-off loans,” is his advice — which might be well worth considering.