A team of youngsters silently carry out an organic food revolution in the outskirts of our city through their venture Nallakeerai. Akila Kannadasan reports

Two young men walked door-to-door selling keerai (greens) one morning in Ambattur. For every bundle they sold, they earned hope. For, the keerai was an experiment. It was grown organically on a leased plot of land near Thirunindravur, some 30 km from Chennai. They explained this to customers who cared to listen; some even invited them in for tea. Today, nearly two years later, the men drive their own car to deliver their keerai and have over 2,000 customers in and around Chennai. More like-minded youngsters have joined them in their agricultural quest — Nallakeerai.

“I once saw a farmer sleep with a damp towel over his stomach to overcome hunger,” says R. Jaganathan, who started it all. The fact that the people who produce food for the rest of the country sometimes go to bed hungry, haunted him. He decided to do something about it and started by studying the economy of farmers in his village of Melappedu. Along with a few children, he conducted a survey on the daily expenses of some 210 agricultural families in the village. The results were shocking. “Farmers spend about 1.6 crore per annum on fertilizers, pesticides, medicines and alcohol,” he says. Was there a way out? Jagan travelled to farms across Tamil Nadu to find out.

He met pioneering organic farmers such as G. Nammalvar and saw first-hand the magic that organic farming was. Luscious-looking coconuts, radiant bananas… Jagan saw how farmers could raise more than what they did if they went organic. They could save the mammoth chunk of expenses that went towards pesticides and fertilizers, be healthy and lead a comfortable life.

The solution was right there — but why weren’t people keen on embracing it? The problem, discovered Jagan, was the time it took for a farmer to turn organic — he/she had to forgo the regular income from their land for almost two years. They would need a way to sustain their family in the meantime. “Organic keerai is ideal for that period,” says Jagan. When he discovered this, Jagan quit his job in Chennai and took the leap into farming on a leased 5.5 acre farm.

He was later joined by S. Saravanan, Thirumalai, Gowtham Balaji, Arivukkarasan, A. Punitha, Salome Yesudas, Sivakumar, Shyam, Vishu, Rajumurugan, Radhakrishnan and S. Venkatraman, most of them in their late twenties and early thirties who gave up high-paying jobs to take to farming. From selling keerai in a koodai, to selling it from a car, Nallakeerai has come a long way. After a lot of trial and error, they now raise 30 varieties of greens that are harvested twice a week.

They learned as they grew. Jagan once discovered arai keerai standing over three feet tall at a spot where they dumped cow-dung. “Nature taught us a lesson and we followed it.” They spread cow-dung on their planting beds and harvested three bundles from an area of one sq.ft.!

Jagan and friends found that organic greens had a huge market — Chennai alone consumes 10 lakh bundles every day. All they had to do was create a customer base. That’s where agriculture marketing consultant Thirumalai pitched in. He used Facebook to promote Nallakeerai. Their greens are delivered at organic stores and apartments on Saturdays and Tuesdays — Thirumalai gathers volunteers online to pick them up from certain points and sell it in their localities. The team has an interesting bunch of volunteers from various fields, including an IT couple who sell their greens on a bike in Velachery.

For software professional S. Venkatraman, the Nallakeerai model is a way of life. “See how happy we are. There is no guilt since our needs are minimal — we make our own food.” But to attract more farmers into the initiative, he feels that they have to show that their methods are commercially viable. Today, about 10 people have invested on their land for their yearly produce. They work in the farm with farmer Karuppuswamy during weekends — imagine giving a farmer a hand at growing your food!”

“Keerai is a tool to build customers. It can be used to sell fruits, vegetables, poultry, and milk,” says Jagan. It is with this in mind that the team is starting Nallasandhai, a producer company. “Farmers will produce as per demand and reap maximum benefits,” he adds. More customers to serve, more farmers to help, more produce — this is all that Nallakeerai hopes for. “We want people to emulate our model,” says Venkatraman.

- Nallakeerai conducts weekend workshops at its farm on organic farming and eco-friendly lifestyles.

- Its organic greens are available at Adyar, Thiruvanmiyur, Anna Nagar, Velachery, Ambattur, T.Nagar, Kodambakkam, Virugambakkam and Vadapalani.

- They are assisting a community of Irula farmers in Uthukottai to market the produce raise in their 30-acre farm.

- Rajumurugan has started the Nallasoru venture that promotes millet-based food. He conducts cooking workshops across the state to teach traditional South Indian recipes.

- For details, call 99626 11767, visit NallaKeerai