This MBA quit his job for pomegranate farming in Sangli; gets 40% more than market rates

Akshay Sagar took up pomegranate farming after rains devastated thousands of fruit farms in Sangli in 2020. Over 400 farmers in Maharashtra are now replicating his farming techniques and wholesalers queue up at his farm to purchase the fruits

Rashmi Pratap
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Akshay Sagar at his farm in Atpadi, Sangli

Akshay Sagar at his farm in Atpadi, Sangli

After completing his MBA in 2016, Akshay Sagar began working with the agricultural company Coromandel International in Maharashtra and then moved to Dayal Fertilizers to look after marketing and advisory services. In his interaction with clients across Satara, Nashik, Sangli, and Solapur, which are drought-prone districts, he understood the problems being faced by farmers.

“But while working there, I realised that farmers in my village in Atpadi, Sangli, were not connected to the latest farming inputs and technologies, which I was marketing. In 2019, after working for over three years in the corporate world, I decided to get back home to work with farmers in and around my village,” says Akshay, who completed his MBA from MIT College of Management, Pune. He is currently also pursuing an LLB from the YC Chavan Law College, Pune.

Akshay belongs to an agrarian family, that owns 10 acres of land in Atpadi. Traditionally, they had grown sugarcane, custard apples, and pomegranates on the farm. 

“When I came back in 2019, I began giving free advisory services to farmers on the cultivation and marketing of capsicum, pomegranate, watermelon, musk melon, and other crops,” he says. 

“From sowing to selling the produce, I helped them as they did not know about marketing and were exploited by middlemen,” he says. With his network in Pune where he studied and in other places, where he worked, Akshay began to ensure good market rates for local farmers. “Their earnings increased by more than 30 percent through these simple interventions,” says the 31-year-old farmer. 

fruits at akshay's farm
Pomegranate tree and produce at Akshay Sagar's Farm in Atpadi

Rebuilding the farms 

However, in 2020, the year COVID-19 hit India, incessant rains in Sangli spoilt the pomegranate crop for Akshay’s family and other farmers in the region. “The crops were hit by wilt and pinhole borer. Trees over 10,000 acres were lost in Atpadi. Our family also lost an acre out of the two acres under pomegranate farming,” he recollects.

Also Read: How organic fruit farming made Rajasthan’s Santosh Devi a millionaire

That’s when Akshay approached the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) for guidance. “First I rebuilt my farm of two acres, giving up the traditional method where a lot of space is wasted,” he says.

“With climate change becoming all too visible in 2020, I understood that the older ways of farming alone would not work as there were more plant diseases and pests now,” he says.

So from readying the farm to preparing the inputs, Akshay brought in changes in all aspects. “In 2020, I bought pomegranate saplings from a nursery authorized by KVK. They prepare saplings using the gutti kalam (air layering) method,” the agripreneur says.

Air layering propagates new trees and shrubs from stems still attached to the parent plant. The stem is wrapped with damp moss to help root formation. The method reduces the length of the trunk to grow a better surface root and creates a large tree quickly.

dense cultivation
The trees are densely planted and drip irrigation is used. Pic: Courtesy of Akshay Sagar

The economics of pomegranate farming

“These saplings are priced at Rs30 each. Earlier, farmers would keep a difference of 10 ft between two plants and 14 ft between the rows that could accommodate 320 plants per acre. I changed it to 8 ft and 12 ft, respectively, resulting in a denser plantation with 520 trees. It increases the per acre income for farmers,” says Akshay, who has won many awards for this work.

He also began promoting the use of organic inputs for horticulture. “Since people are more health conscious and organic food is gaining popularity, I decided to use natural inputs wherever possible,” he says. He added cow dung manure to the land before the plantation. “About 2 kg of organic manure per plant is the ideal quantity to ensure naturally healthy pomegranate plants,” he says. 

The saplings he planted in 2020 gave the first harvest last year. “The production was around 7 tonnes from two acres in the first year. This year, we expect around 11 tonnes of production from two acres,” says Akshay.

In pomegranate farming, the yield increases by one tonne to 1.5 tonnes per acre annually for the first five to six years. Pomegranate trees continue to give fruits for 17-18 years and a well-maintained orchard can continue fruiting for up to 25 years. 

Last year, Akshay sold his pomegranates at Rs110 per kg, about 40 percent higher than the average market rate of Rs80 per kg. His income was Rs 7.70 lakh. “Our fruits are bigger, sweeter and do not contain traces of chemicals or fertilizers. That’s why we get higher market rates,” he says. 

Also Read: This 29-year-old grows organic exotic fruits in his backyard, gets bumper crops

At Rs110 per kg, he expects to earn around Rs10 lakh to Rs11 lakh from two acres or about Rs5.5 lakh per acre. He has increased the area under pomegranate cultivation to 4 acres by planting more trees, which will begin fruiting in two years.

Akshay Sagar giving advisory services to farmers. Pic: Courtesy Akshay Sagar

The cost of saplings for one acre of plantation is Rs 15,600 (520 saplings X Rs30 each) and the organic cow dung manure and spray costs Rs 30,000 for this area. With costs of labour, irrigation, and other inputs, the per-acre investment in the first year is Rs1.5 lakh. Income generation starts from the third year, he points out. 

Akshay uses drip irrigation on his farm as it minimizes water wastage and keeps the growth of weeds in check. “The water must be released about 3 feet away from the plant root because pomegranate does not require too much water. In soil with good water-holding capacity, watering just twice a week is sufficient,” he explains. Farmers can avail of government subsidies for drip irrigation.

He has also built a pond over one acre of land for rainwater harvesting. 

The underground aquifers help improve the overall moisture content of soil and reduce the need for irrigation even further.

Also Read: The class 10 dropout from Rajasthan who won the Padma Shri for his Chauka system of water harvesting

Organic inputs

Akshay began using organic inputs like biofertilizers and bacterial cultures on his farm in 2020 and other farmers are now replicating their use. “About 60 percent of the inputs I use are organic. In the next two years, I plan to completely transition to organic farming,” he adds. 

Akshay uses organic bacterial cultures, potassium-mobilizing biofertilizers and Azotobacter bacteria, which can fix atmospheric nitrogen. He also uses Pseudomonas fluorescens biofertilizer to improve the soil permeability and increase oxygen availability to the roots.

  Akshay Sagar giving a lecture at the PVDP College of Agriculture, Pune

Interestingly, he does not sell anything directly to customers or in markets. “Wholesalers come to my farm with their packaging material. We show them the produce and package it here itself,” he says.

“Our pomegranates are sold in Jharkhand, Kerala, West Bengal, Delhi and even Bangladesh. They make the payment on the spot,” Akshay says.

His knowledge has also benefitted other farmers in Sangli. “Around 250 wholesalers are procuring fruits directly from the farms in Atpadi. Now I want to make a group of organic farmers and benefit more growers with collection action,” he says.

After giving free advisory services for three years, Akshay has now started charging to weed out non-serious participants. “About 400 acres of farmland is currently under my advisory services. I charge Rs 3,000 per acre per season. Around 400 farmers are currently working with me,” he adds.

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

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