After completing his BTech in Mechanical Engineering in 2014, Sumit Kinikar began working in a company in Mumbai. In love with the outdoors, he changed his job after a year to gain experience in fieldwork. Executing client projects for an engineering company, Sumit travelled frequently and got a chance to visit various states including Gujarat, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
“I was growing well professionally. But frequent travels meant eating outside food, which began to hurt my health,” recollects the 30-year-old.
Sumit developed IBS (Irritable bowel syndrome) that affected his stomach and intestines. “It turned so severe that I had to quit in October 2018 and get back home,” says Sumit, who lives in Bhilawadi village of Maharashtra’s Sangli district. He realised that the food grown using chemicals and pesticides contributed largely to his health condition.
While his treatment continued, Sumit decided to take up farming instead of getting back into the corporate world.
“Two factors made me switch to farming. One, I belong to an agrarian family and have grown up playing and working in fields and soil. Two, since it was food that affected my health, I wanted to grow organic food so that others don’t have to suffer as I did,” says the fourth-generation farmer.
Sumit’s family owns 4 acres of land in Bhilawadi on which they had been traditionally growing sugarcane, grapes, turmeric, banana, papaya, peanuts and moong. His 90-year-old grandfather is still actively involved in farming while his father passed away in 2013.
“My grandfather did not use any chemicals during his time but when my father took over the farm, he began to use chemical pesticides and sprays etc.,” he says.
Over the years, the soil’s fertility took a beating and in 2018, when Sumit tested the soil for organic carbon content, it was just one percent. Soil organic carbon or SOC is the amount of carbon stored in soil and is a key component of its health. Soil carbon provides nutrients through mineralisation, increases microbial activity, improves water retention capacity and protects the top layer from erosion.
Soils with around 0.5 percent organic content are mostly in desert areas while organic soils have 12 to 18 percent organic carbon.
Shift to organic farming
Sumit began with strengthening the soil’s fertility by adding Jeevamrit – made by fermenting cow dung, cow urine, jaggery, gram flour and soil with water. This mixture is kept for 21 days and stirred every day. After that, it can be used as a spray. He also used Ghanjeevamrit, the solid version of Jeevarmrit, to increase the SOC. It is prepared using cow dung, cow urine, gram flour, jaggery and soil.
“Alongside, I began crop diversification (addition of new crops or cropping systems). Earlier, we were doing mono-cropping (growing one crop at a time) because our farm did not have direct road access. So we could only grow crops that were harvested when the fields of other people were vacant,” says Sumit.
He began multi-cropping which involves growing multiple crops on a field sequentially within a year. “I began with maize and turmeric, moong for nitrogen fixation, and dhaincha, which is a green mulching material.”
Sumit does multi-cropping in patches like papaya and green chillies over some part of the land and turmeric, sugarcane and peanuts on another chunk.
He procures cow dung and cow urine from his friend, who rears 60 cows and prepares both Jeevamrit and Ghanjeevamrit himself on the farm.
For pest and insect control, Sumit uses Dashparni Ark, a repellant made using ginger, garlic and other ingredients along with ten types of leaves – karanja, custard apple, dhatura, tulsi, papaya, marigold, neem, bael, kaner and oleander.
“I have a small bed for making vermicompost. And I also make my own bio-enzyme, which is excellent for plants.”
I use rotten fruits like guava and custard apples to make it. The fruits are cut and put in a barrel along with jaggery and water and the mixture is allowed to ferment for three months. It is then filtered and used and provides good nutrition to plants,” says Sumit.
He uses only native varieties of seeds and does not use genetically modified or hybrid varieties. “At every step of farming, my aim is to deploy sustainable and eco-friendly techniques and minimise the burden on the environment,” he says.
The economics of sugarcane farming
He cultivates sugarcane along with peanuts on about two acres of farmland. “My yield is around 40 tonnes (40,000kg) from one acre with on-farm organic inputs,” he says.
“I earn around Rs 3.60 lakh per acre because I don’t sell sugarcane to sugar mills. Instead, I process it to make organic jaggery,” Sumit says.
There is a stark difference between the economics of selling sugarcane and jaggery. Sugar mills procure jaggery at Rs 3,000 per quintal or Rs 30 per kg. But organic jaggery is sold at anywhere between Rs90 to Rs175 per kg depending on the type of buyer – wholesaler, retailer or end-customer.
“From 40 tonnes of sugarcane, we extract 4 tonnes (4,000kg) of jaggery. At Rs 90 per kg, the earning amounts to Rs3.60 lakh per acre.”
However, he also cultivates peanuts along with sugarcane, which takes the total income from an acre to nearly Rs4 lakh. After deducting the costs of processing, the profit would be around Rs3 lakh per acre.
Making the most
When Sumit began organic farming, he realised the importance of a steady customer base to avoid the fluctuation of mandi or wholesale market. Through Instagram and WhatsApp groups, he has created a base of buyers who procure from him regularly and place orders ahead of the harvest.
“I sell organic jaggery to bulk buyers at Rs90 per kg. They package and brand it at their end. My direct customers, who place orders through Instagram or WhatsApp, buy it for Rs120 to Rs150 per kg depending on the season, availability and quantity ordered,” he adds.
The products are packaged in eco-friendly materials and sold under the Soil Aroma brand.
His customers are spread across India including Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru and other cities.
Similarly, he processes organic Rajapuri turmeric, the most premium variety, grown in his form into powder, which is sold for Rs 230 plus shipping charges for B2B (business to business or wholesale) customers and at Rs 500 per kg direct to customers (D2C) through Instagram and WhatsApp.
With a growing demand for organic produce, Sumit is now tying up with other organic farmers who don’t have direct market access. “I procure organic millets like jowar, bajra and ragi from growers and sell their flours to customers on a pre-order basis,” he says.
Sumit has also started making chikki (a brittle sweet made using jaggery and peanuts) and millet-jaggery laddus using organic ingredients. All the products are processed on the farm.
“From laddus, I am currently earning around Rs1 lakh per month while chikki is sold at Rs 500 per kg to wholesalers and at Rs 800 per kg to end customers,” he adds.
While Sumit’s late father was growing grapes too, Sumit does not have them on the farm. “I grow grapes in group farming,” he says. In group farming, marginal or small farmers come together to cultivate crops for achieving economies of scale.
Sumit procures grapes from those farmers and processes them into raisins. “One kg of raisins requires 4 kg of grapes. I make raisins from export-quality organic raisins. The premium black raisins sell for Rs 400 to Rs 450 in the B2B segment and at up to Rs 700 directly to customers,” he points out.
He is now considering setting up an FPO (Farmers Producer Organisation), which can benefit the small organic farmers in and around Sangli. FPOs raise farmers' incomes by providing better access to inputs institutional finance and above all, marketing. “It will be good if I am able to help other farmers do better and earn better,” he says.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)