Reaping success

J. Chandrasekar cultivates and sells mushrooms. He is seen at his stall in Anna Nagar Uzhavar Sandhai. Photo: M. Moorthy  

With green grocers in the city morphing into one-stop shops for things as diverse as dosa batter, milk packets and bread, visiting the Uzhavar Sandhai (Farmers’ Market) is one way to recall the charm of buying your greens (and little else) directly from the grower.

There are 95 stalls in Anna Nagar’s Uzhavar Sandhai, and no doubt each of the 120-130 farmers who come here have their own stories to share. Two of them show us what it takes for them to make a mark with their devoted clientele.

Straight from Ooty

For six months now, discerning customers in Tiruchi have been enjoying greens like zucchini, broccoli, beetroot, leafy carrots, snow peas, leeks, baby potatoes and Chinese cabbage. The exotic vegetables from the Nilgiris district are sold within a day of their being harvested in the village of Ayyanoor-Ammanur, around 25 km from Ooty.

And rather than approach a big-ticket grocery franchise, the sellers, A. Elamaran and his brother Babuji, prefer to operate out of the more earthy surroundings of the Uzhavar Sandhai in Anna Nagar.

“I have studied catering and worked as a chef in hotels and cruise liners, specialising in Continental European cuisine, so I have some experience in cooking with these vegetables. I thought it would be a good idea to bring them to more home cooks in the city,” says Elamaran, who takes care of the Uzhavar Sandhai stall.

Babuji coordinates the procurement of the vegetables – around 50 kg of each seasonal variety on weekends and slightly less for weekdays – from a group of 32 farmers based in and around Ayyanoor-Ammanur. It takes around 8 hours by road for the harvested greens to reach Tiruchi.

“Since our vegetables are not chemically-treated, they have a short shelf life,” says Elamaran. “So we try and sell our entire stock the same day. We harvest small beds of carrots for our stall, and wash them by hand because of their leaves.” The medicinal value of vegetables also attracts customers to the stall, says Elamaran. “Leafy vegetables like celery are considered to be good for those trying to quit smoking. Many people read about these things and then want to try it out for themselves.”

Prices of the vegetables are fixed by the Uzhavar Sandhai administrative team in Tiruchi, in consultation with the Ooty market and the traders. “We are able to see a profit of around Rs. 12,000 to 15,000 per month, that we share with our supplying farms,” says Elamaran.

Mushrooming growth

Oyster, milky and pink mushrooms are the stars of the soup, biryani, spice powders and pickles made by J. Chandrasekar at his Uzhavar Sandhai stall.

“Mushroom cultivation needs minimum investment. All you need is a thatched shed, hay and raw material, and you are good to go,” says Chandrasekar, who has a mushroom farm at Tiruvermbur.

“Mushrooms are an excellent source of dietary fibre, and among the earliest known fungi used as food. At one point there was some fear about mushrooms being poisonous, but now, bio-technology has helped us to create safe and highly nutritious varieties,” he says.

Grown on cylindrical hay beds that have been interspersed with natural fertiliser and seed enclosed in a sturdy wrapper, each mushroom variety has its own harvest cycle.

“Oyster mushrooms take three weeks to mature. Milky mushroom takes 50 days. With four or five harvests, you can get at least 2 kg of mushrooms per bed,” says Chandrasekhar.

The hay for the beds is procured from the fields of organically grown Samba rice in Thanjavur. After a 6-hour soaking, the grass is dried. A mechanised chopper is then used to cut the grass down to 3 inch pieces. These are sterilised by being boiled thrice in hot water, and then allowed to dry naturally out in the open.

Mushrooms are also usable in other forms, such as pickle, and food powders. “But this is more labour-intensive. A kilo of oyster mushroom, for instance, once dried and ground, will yield only 100 grams of powder, because of its high water content,” says Chandrasekar, who markets his value-added products under the Sri Selvavinayaka Mushrooms Farm brand.

“I am glad to have taught farmers, self-help groups and students about mushroom cultivation,” says Chandrasekhar, who has been farming fungi since 2003. “It’s not just about making a profit, but also about sharing knowledge.”

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 8:45:42 PM |

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