After an 18-year career in the IT sector, Rajesh KG developed health issues and decided to quit his job to return home to Kadakkarappally in Alleppey, Kerala, in 2017. During the next six months, he lost his father and ten other people in the neighbourhood to cancer.
“All this made me contemplate our lifestyle and food habits. Coming from a family rooted in agriculture, I had a natural interest in this field. I aimed to contribute meaningfully to society. Recognising the fundamental importance of nutritious food for good health, I decided to cultivate safe, healthy and fresh vegetables,” says Rajesh.
His neighbour Renjith Das, who also left his job around the same time, was intrigued by the idea and decided to join Rajesh on the farming journey. Initially, the duo's primary goal was to focus on organic farming. However, during their research, they realised that pursuing organic certification for the farmland posed a challenge.
Obtaining organic certification
The terrain in the Alleppey district is predominantly sandy and fragmented, so the farmers lease land for farming. As a result, obtaining organic certification for farmland is difficult because preparing the soil for the same takes four to five years. However, products grown organically can receive organic certification in a shorter time.
"Ideally, almost four to five years is needed to prepare the soil for organic farming. In our case, we acquire land on lease agreements for farming. While the lease term is only 11 months, the practice of readying the soil for certification is not a viable option. So, we opted to go ahead with the organic cultivation of veggies, in whatever farmlands we acquire, without any use of chemical pesticides,” says Rajesh.
The duo began cultivation in 50 cents (0.4 acres) and within a few months started selling 18 varieties of organic vegetables under the 'Eat It Safe' brand.
“Our products have received organic certification," Rajesh shares, clarifying that the process of certifying the products alone as organic (free of chemical pesticides and fertilizers) falls within the ‘safe to eat’ category.
Their products have undergone various tests at the Pesticide Residue Research and Analytical Laboratory in the College of Agriculture, Vellayani. The results revealed a zero-residue certificate, affirming the safety and quality of the produce.
Subsequently, they shared their vision with like-minded individuals, leading to the formation of a 354-member farmer-producer company -- Green EIS FPC Ltd -- in 2021.
Green EIS is Kerala's first FPC, which promotes responsible, organic farming and helps growers find a market for their produce profitably. The products are sold in bulk as well as directly to customers.
They grow long beans, gourds, banana tomato, eggplant, snapmelon, watermelon, yam, pumpkin and other vegetables. Another 60 farmers will soon join the FPC which currently has 354 members.
"This collective includes homestead, small and large scale farmers. The motive behind this initiative is to increase the cultivation of safe-to-eat vegetables by encouraging as many farmers as possible. Agriculture is a means of earning a livelihood, akin to any other profession,” Rajesh says.
The duo empowers the member farmers by guiding them through a structured approach, imparting knowledge on organic farming practices, seasonal demand and strategies to ensure profitable farming.
Under this FPC, the duo has established an 11-member Farmers' Interest Group (FIG), Growmore Agritech. These farmers collaborate and assist each other. While each of them individually cultivates on their respective farmlands, they sell the products through the FIG channel. Such a group is also beneficial while applying for loans.
"In the initial years, Renjith and I were cultivating 2 acres of land each. Now, through this 11-member group, we have scaled the cultivation to 25 acres of land," Rajesh shares.
Financial gain and business expansion
For Rajesh and Renjith, the growth has been gradual yet consistent. In the initial years, their customers were a bunch of doctors, and they also primarily sold their products in local supermarkets. Today, the buyers include wholesalers as well as individual customers.The prices for their products are fixed and do not fluctuate according to market trends.
"Usually, we don't cultivate on the entire plot. For instance, we are now only cultivating salad cucumbers on 10 cents of my land. We produce around 150 kg in a day, selling at Rs 40 per kg, resulting in a daily income of Rs 6000. Cucumbers remain in high demand throughout the year as people are becoming more health conscious.” In a couple of weeks, Rajesh will begin the cultivation of melons for summer.
“Snapmelon has huge demand in our locality. Each piece weighs around 4 kg and is sold at Rs 40 per kg. Chillies are also sold at a high price, at Rs 80 per kg."
Currently, the production from the 11-member group is around 500 kg per day and is anticipated to reach 3,000 kg in the next two months.
Organic farming inputs and technology
Rajesh, along with Renjith, firmly believes that there isn't a singular approach to accomplishing tasks. They dedicated five years to studying and adapting new techniques. They say three decades ago when farming was abundant in Alleppy, the soil boasted of rich carbon content. At that time the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio in organic soil stood at 18 parts carbon to one part nitrogen. However, the carbon content has now drastically reduced to just one-tenth of the former levels.
This degradation in the carbon-nitrogen ratio indicates a decline in soil quality.
“To revitalize the soil, we add compost made using bio and food waste. Moreover, as input costs (for poultry manure) have surged by 50 percent in the past five years, we use compost and natural manure,” he says.
“By enriching the soil and increasing the carbon levels, we aim to restore the soil's vitality and productivity," Rajesh says.
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.
To cut costs and time, Rajesh and Renjith have opted for drip irrigation, which takes water and minerals directly to the roots of the plants. It also facilitates the multiplication of microorganisms by introducing natural bacteria through the drip irrigation system. The remaining organic manure is applied using foliar technology, where nutrients are supplied through the leaves, rather than the roots.
Farming in Alleppy was notably affected last summer due to extreme heat conditions. “Currently, we have taken the necessary precautions to mitigate any potential impact from increased heat in the upcoming season by planting more banana trees for shade and growing vegetables through the inter-cropping method,” Rajesh says.
"Farming is a slow revolution, and it can be challenging. In my IT stint, I earned a substantial income. However, due to health issues, I decided to leave that line of work. Now, when Renjith and I look back at this journey, we feel a sense of fulfillment, and we are eagerly looking forward to the project's expansion: Our next step is to establish an Eat It Safe outlet in Cherthala, Alleppey,” he says.
(Chandhini R is a Kerala-based journalist specialising in human interest, entertainment, and art and culture stories)