Lawyer quits job to grow raspberry and blueberry in Pune; gets bumper harvest

Corporate lawyer Keya Salot quit her job and began raspberry and blueberry farming in Pune in 2020. Her Farm2Fam farm supplies the berries to India’s top retailers and the yield of these exotic fruits is expected to be 1.35 lakh kg in the coming year

Rashmi Pratap
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Lawyer-turned-urban farmer Keya Salota at her Farm2Fam farm in Pune

Lawyer-turned-urban farmer Keya Salota at her Farm2Fam farm in Pune

Right from her childhood, Keya Salot wanted to be an entrepreneur. Coming from a Gujarati family, she had grown up amid businesses and entrepreneurs. But Keya and her family knew that a good education was necessary for a sound foundation in life, including entrepreneurship.

“I studied in an IB (International Baccalaureate) school in Mumbai. It gave me a global perspective and I then decided to study law,” says Keya, now 32.

She pursued the five-year BLS and LLB course at Mumbai’s Government Law College and specialised in corporate law to get exposure to the world of business. “At college, I had my first internship in the first year. By the time I graduated at 23, I already had a good internship experience spread over 4 to 5 years. It gave me the platform to network, and taught me how to build businesses within a legal framework,” she says.

She completed the course in 2014 and then worked with some of India’s top law firms for 3.5 years. “By then, the entrepreneur in me was becoming eager to get started,” says Keya, who is mother to twin boys.

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Starting with microgreens

While she was clear about taking up impactful entrepreneurship, Keya knew the venture had to be commercially successful also to reduce financial dependence on others. 

“I wanted to set up an enterprise with a combination of good revenues while bringing about positive transformation,” she says.

In 2018, she took a break from work to understand all facets of agriculture as she was drawn towards farming though nobody in her family or friend circle had ever ventured into the space. “I was always interested in new-age farming methods. So I started a small business of growing microgreens on the terrace of my family office in Powai,” she says.

keya solaot
Keya Salot next to raspberry plantations at her farm. Pic: Farm2Fam

Keya grew 25-30 varieties of microgreens in a vertical set-up made on the terrace. Living microgreens remain alive until used and they are not cut beforehand. Grown in a natural fibre medium, they're ready for the plate. “It increases their shelf life. I began supplying them to top hotels and speciality restaurants. In six months, we on-boarded 50 clients,” she says.

The microgreens venture was undertaken as a proof of concept and gave Keya good returns in terms of market accessibility and establishing retail connections.

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Zeroing in on blueberry and raspberry farming

In November 2019, she and her husband Vimal Salot travelled to Mexico and Europe. Among other agricultural innovations, she saw farms of raspberries and blueberries. “During our overseas travels, we saw large-scale raspberry and blueberry farms and decided to cultivate them in India,” she says.

Blueberry and raspberry are considered superfoods. Berries are rich in fibre and antioxidants and can help lower blood pressure and prevent heart disease. With high demand from health-conscious consumers, India is one of the world’s top importers of blueberry. 

In 2020, India imported 1900 tonnes of blueberry from the US in dry, frozen and fresh form, according to the US Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC). And the numbers are rising annually.

Yet, blueberry farming, like many other exotic fruit farming, is currently at a nascent stage in India as it requires cold winters and moderate to high rainfall throughout the growing season. Raspberries are also not widely grown domestically as they are typically suited to temperate regions with cool summers and mild winters. 

harvested bluberry
Keya grows blueberry over 13 acres. Pic: Farm2Fam

Parts of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Jammu and Kashmir in the north, Nilgiris and Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, Munnar in Kerala and Sikkim in the North East are suitable for raspberry farming. Both the Himalayan raspberry (Rubus ellipticus) and Mysore raspberry (Rubus neveus) are more sour than sweet. 

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On February 20, 2024 (yesterday), the government cut import duty on blueberries and cranberries from 30 percent to 10 percent in some cases and 5 percent in other cases given the rising demand.

How raspberry and blueberry farming is done

Given the huge domestic market, Keya decided to import saplings of blueberry and raspberry to cultivate them. “In July 2020, we imported our first set of plants, adaptable to Indian weather conditions, and harvested the first commercial yield in 2021. We sold the produce to Star Bazaar. The harvest within one year gave us the confidence that we could do it on a larger scale,” says the urban farmer.

The lawyer-turned-farmer then took 20 acres of land on lease from farmers in Talegaon, Pune, in Maharashtra and named it Farm2Fam. 

The total berry production at Farm2Fam will be 135 tonnes (1.35 lakh kg) in the coming year, she says.

growbags in tunnel
The berries are grown in grow bags in tunnels. Pic: Farm2Fam

Keya has opted for the tunnel method of cultivation, which overcomes the drawbacks of extreme weather conditions. 

“Growing blueberries under high tunnels protects them from extremes of temperature, require less water to grow and yield more fruit,” she says. 

Blueberries also ripen earlier and can give yields for four to five months instead of the usual harvest period that lasts only a few weeks. “We have developed low-cost tunnels using our technology. Around 80 percent of the farm is currently covered by tunnels and before the next monsoon, we hope to cover the complete farm,” Keya says.

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She cultivates blueberries in grow bags. Blueberries require a higher soil acid level (4.5 to 5.5 pH) and it is much easier to maintain this level in a grow bag and ensure optimum fruit production. 

“We do protected cultivation where we follow the EU (European Union) standards of residue testing,” she says. This farming method does not leave any traces of fertilisers behind and is gaining popularity due to high yields and food safety.

Majority of the workforce at Farm2Fam comprises women. Pic: Farm2Fam

Currently, raspberries are produced around the year over seven acres under cultivation at Farm2Fam. “Blueberries are grown over 13 acres and have a January to May harvest cycle,” Keya says.

The 75-member team at Farm2Fam is not only led by a woman entrepreneur but also comprises mostly women. “I have always believed that financial empowerment of women is the best way to ensure good health and education of the next generation,” the agripreneur says.

Keya continues to import the saplings instead of propagating them on her own to ensure high-quality produce. Farm2Fam buyers are some of India's leading retailers. “We supply online to Swiggy, and Zepto and in the offline space, we are suppliers to Star Bazaar, KisanKonnect, Reliance Retail and Nature’s Basket,” Keya points out.

(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial, and socio-economic reporting)

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