Why is organic food still not popular despite its many merits? Farmers, retailers and users have their say.

Kavya Sridhar knows that organic fruits, vegetables and paruppu taste far better than regular fare. But, her problem is that they are not easily available in the city. Heading to an organic store means a detour of at least five km, not something she can bother with on a regular working day.

But Madhurima Kantjee, who is a recent convert to organic produce, travels 10 km to the city twice a week to buy organic vegetables and other items. She lives in the suburbs, where the organic culture is yet to seep in. Her family wonders if it is worth all the effort and whether it is sensible to guzzle fuel to follow a more ‘eco-friendly’ way of life!

This lack of access has been Coimbatore’s bane when it comes to organic produce. This, when the city has many enlightened farmers who cultivate organic or natural vegetables, and growers who are active in the retail business.

A decade ago, fuelled by the initial boom, many stores came up. But, few survived. Some had to change locations to keep the overheads low, others kept tweaking their business model. Most pulled down their shutters. Only a few have managed to break even, that too after nearly 10 years of struggle.

One of them, K. Baskar of Arya Organic Food Store, feels awareness levels among consumers is still low. “Farmers will cultivate more organic produce if there is demand. We also do not have enough variety,” he says. Baskar says that farmers are willing to go organic even with herbs such as celery, but it does not make business sense when all they can sell is a kilo. “The transportation costs are killing,” says Baskar.

The best thing would be to keep overheads low, so that business is sustained even with low volumes, he says. Price is another factor, but once the numbers come in, that will automatically come down, he adds.

N.G. Prabhuram of Mani Naidu Natural Farm is a member of the Indian Natural Farmers Association. Here, they follow a style of farming that calls for zero inputs. About 25 such farmers got together recently to set up a store in Bharathi Park to sell natural produce. Though they had patronage, they could not sustain it for long. “We could not manage enough supplies of fresh vegetables, and the rent was exorbitant,” he says. Now, they have moved to Peelamedu Pudur where they sell cowdung-based products. Vegetables are no longer stocked because fewer people cultivate them.

“A change will come,” says Prabhuram, if the Government provides incentives to those who farm without abusing the land. For now, he sells produce (bananas) from his farm at the R.S. Puram Uzhavar Sandhai at rates fixed by the Government. “It is still economically feasible as I don’t spend any money to buy pesticides or fertilisers,” he says.

For farmers, selling organic produce in the market is fraught with tension. “People find the vendaikai from my farm pale. They have come to associate freshness with the bright green colour. It’s very sad,” says Saravanan Varadarajan. He recently started an outlet, Iyal, to reduce this gap between the farmer and consumer. There you can pick a terribly disfigured red pumpkin that yields the sweetest flesh and a wrinkled red tomato that bursts with sweet juice.

Kavya says stores should prominently display information about organic food. “I know that the stock that comes out of cooking organic arhar dal is always thicker and tastier. I have also tried organic rajma and it cooks beautifully. If scientific details (such as gain in cooking time, nutrition benefits, etc.) are displayed boldly, you will be tempted to buy the stuff. And, once you use it and experience its benefits firsthand, you’ll go back to it time and again,” she says.

Some customers complain about the distance they have to travel to buy organic produce. But, Aishwarya Rajiv of Sreevatsa Organic Farm Products says her customers (many of them commercial farmers themselves) don’t mind the distance or the time taken, because it is part of an effort towards a healthier lifestyle.

She says shop keepers must not expect early returns and must invest in an organic store for the long haul. “It is almost like social service. You have to open the store every day. You have stock vegetables whether they sell or not. That is how you can win the trust of customers and let them know that you are dependable,” she says.

Aishwarya also says an organic shop is a fair-trade enterprise where farmers are paid their rightful price. So far, they have sold nearly a tonne of vegetables raised on their farm in their two stores. Besides this, they have a group of certified farmers from the Nilgiris from whom they buy their wares.

Another option that is growing in popularity is the setting up of roadside markets on stipulated days; that way, the farmer is assured of a ready market, says Prabhuram.

Aishwarya also feels besides educating the current generation, schools should take up the task of enlightening children. Only then will they grow into an organic way of life, a healthier way of life, she says.

Organic fare

Arya Organic Food Store Mayflower Complex, Nanjundapuram Road. Fresh vegetables every Monday evening. 98940-13207

Sreevatsa Organic Farm Products Mettupalayam Road (near Avanashilingam and Thudiyalur). Daily stock of vegetables from their farm and regular certified suppliers. 0422-2451222

Iyal Puliakulam Road (behind Shree Anandhaas) Fresh stock every day from farm and certified suppliers. 97159-99225 and 96557-92707.

QUOTES

Will farmers work in the field or market their produce? We need to come up with a method that benefits the farmer and buyer.

N.G. Prabhuram

Transportation costs are killing. It is not feasible for a farmer to send you just one kilogram of celery from the hills.

K. Baskar

Running an organic store is almost like social service.

It is also a sort of fair-trade enterprise where farmers are paid their rightful price.

Aishwarya Rajiv

Organic food...

Bulks up better, so you feel full faster

Is invariably fresher and has clocked fewer food miles

Cooks faster

Has longer shelf life

Is sold at a premium of 10 to 20 per cent, but you save on healthcare