The conventional notion is that organic is tastier because it is been artificially boosted with chemical nutrients and other enhancers.
Few companies venturing into the retailing of fresh vegetables will forego the “organic” tag, which is a short-cut to higher pricing. However, Nilesh Palresha of Pune’s VTP real estate group believes that “residue-free” can do the trick as well. He, in fact, sees a big opportunity in branded fruits and vegetables. But a market survey revealed that “people had a preconceived notion that organic is not flavourful.” That’s surprising. The conventional notion is that organic is tastier because it is been artificially boosted with chemical nutrients and other enhancers. His other reasons are more believable—organic is expensive to grow because yields are less, and that it takes at least three years to get a farm certified as such. In association with another builder, Rairah, the VTP group is carrying out agriculture on a farm spread over 100 acres at village Malthan, 50 km from Pune, off the highway to Ahmednagar and near the industrial enclave of Ranjangaon. The word “farm” does not accurately describe it. As many as 12 poly houses, ranging from a third of an acre to two acres, are located at the cusp of two hills. In all, they occupy eight acres. Twenty-seven types of vegetables are grown to satisfy the demand for exotic and off-season vegetables all through the year. The soil on the hills is rocky and shallow, with little water-retention capacity. For some of the poly houses, earth had to be brought in.
Farm yard manure is used to improve soil texture, encourage the growth of beneficial microbes in the soil—which help plants absorb nutrients—and build resilience in them against pests and diseases. Drip irrigation reduces water use and keeps disease-promoting humidity low. Water-soluble chemical fertilisers boost the yield. When the pest count goes above a threshold level (measured with the help of sticky films), pesticides are sprayed.
Residue-free does not mean absence of pesticide traces; it is just that they are below the level that can cause harm to humans. To ensure this, there has to be a gap between spraying and harvesting. Vegetables sprayed with neem oil and garlic extract can be harvested immediately. For Imidacloprid, an insect neurotoxin used against sucking pests, the safe period between spraying and harvesting is five days for vegetables. For grain, it is longer, i.e. 21 days. Dichlorvos, which is an organophosphate, should not be sprayed six days before harvesting. It is used against larvae that prey on leafy vegetables, such as cabbage.
Integrated pest management practices are also followed on the farm, says Vinod Gunjal, who looks after operations and supply. A family of vegetables is not grown successively in the same poly house in order to break a pest’s life cycle. Pak choi, or Chinese cabbage, and iceberg lettuce belong to one family. They are attacked by sucking pests. Once harvested, they exchange places with okra, cluster bean and French bean, which tend to attract larval insects. Crops have to be planted in such a manner so as to ensure continuous supply. Palak, or spinach, has a lifespan of three months. So, another patch is sown with it when the crop in the first patch is two months old. Broccoli, iceberg lettuce and red cabbage have to be planted every 10 days. They take two months to grow and are harvested within 10 days. The planning and cultivation, in fact, have to be like clockwork.
Gunjal says that the demand is growing. Vegetables—these are branded as Earth Food—are delivered to homes and large retailers three times a week. Supply has increased from about three tonnes a month, one-and-a-half years ago, to about 18 tonnes now. Prices are about 20% higher than those prevailing in the market. These are justified because they are sorted, so there is little wastage.
About 40 acres has been planted with mango. In addition, a one-acre hydroponics farm is being established at a cost of Rs 1.5 crore. Despite the high upfront investment, soil-less agriculture is paying off because its productivity is six times higher than that of conventional protected agriculture in poly houses. There is also no loss to pests and diseases. In the course of time, the Malthan farm will be converted into an eco-tourism resort where the city-bred can spend time in nature and also dabble in agricultural activities. To keep up with the demand, two new farms are being set up. The 230-acre farm at Belwandi village in Ahmednagar district is devoted to pomegranates, vegetables and spices. At the 35-acre plot in Talegaon, a dairy farm is planned. Both the farm and the products are certified for good agricultural practices by a Germany-based organisation called GLOBALG.A.P. It prescribes food safety and sustainability standards for voluntary compliance. The audit is done on 220 points, says Palresha. The certificate is a passport to European markets, even though Earth Food products are not exported yet.
Residue-free is what India should aim at. As Richard van der Merwe, the vice-chairman & managing director and CEO of Bayer Crop Science, said at a recent press conference: “There is a role for organic farming. But it is a niche role. You cannot feed 10 billion people with organic farming.” That will be world’s population in a few decades. Europeans can afford to be fastidious and organic, he said, because they are wealthy. Organic fits well with the nativist and anti-science mood that is billowing across the country. The leftists deride high-input, high-output Green Revolution technologies for allowing private corporates and multinationals to “colonise” Indian agriculture. Nativists like the Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh, steeped in the RSS culture, are peddling organic and superstition like “yogic farming” because they see science as western—to be shunned. They forget that organic agriculture left us hungry and dependent on American shipments 50 years ago.