The organic food movement has been gathering momentum in India over the past several years. Farmers’ markets emerged on the scene almost a decade ago with Kavita Mukhi’s weekly market in Bandra that attracts a posse of dedicated shoppers. Since then, markets have sprung up in several neighbourhoods from Nariman Point, Shivaji Park, and Juhu to Powai, Thane and Vashi. In September, Café Zoe launched a one-of-its-kind farmers’ market right inside their sprawling, light-filled space.
The restaurant partnered with Taru Naturals, which works with small-scale farmers across India to provide resources and clean tech to enable organic farming. We met Taru’s founder/CEO Ruchi Jain, who holds a Masters in Environment Change & Management from Oxford University, and is a passionate advocate of natural, organic farming.
“What we need is to have thousands of farmers’ markets. People need to see that organic can be affordable”, said Jain. Affordability has long been a pain point for the organic movement but the fresh fruits and vegetables at Café Zoe’s farmers’ market are surprisingly well priced and of high quality. We stocked up on tomatoes and cucumbers, both sweet and flavourful, while the pomegranates are the deepest red we have seen and positively bursting with juice. All vegetables and fruits sold at the market come from Anil Rayate’s farm in Niphad in Nashik district. While farmers around him concentrate on grapes (Nashik’s main cash crop), Rayate instead decided to go the organic route in 2009 with a mixed farm where he grows everything from leafy greens to onions, garlic, and other vegetables. He proudly showed us his certification from Participatory Guarantee System for India (PGS-India) a government body that certifies organic farming practices across India.
“I use traditional farming techniques like natural mulching, using jivamrut fertiliser (a fermented mixture of dung and urine of Indian Gir cows, jaggery, soil, and water), and natural fungicide made of fermented sugarcane juice, cow dung, yoghurt etc.”, explained Rayate.
What made Café Zoe venture into this area? “We are now six-and-a-half years old and it has always been our plan to support communities, not just be a restaurant. Luckily we have been blessed with a large space that enables us to do these things”, said Tarini Mohindar, co-founder of Café Zoe. Mohindar had been toying with the idea of a farmers’ market for a while and had even spoken to a few organisers. “But I didn’t want to do something that was massive, just create a space where you can go and stock up on your veggies for the week, and you don’t pay through your nose for it. You have a certificate that tells you it’s organic and there’s no middleman involved”, she explained. Mohindar met Jain at a pottery workshop organised at Café Zoe (conducted by Jain’s sister), and was impressed with the work that Taru Organics did at the grassroots level. The restaurant has held two farmer’s markets since mid-September and the response has been encouraging. The Sunday brunch crowd has been leaving with bags filled with fresh produce as well as organic staples such as millets, dals, indie rice varieties like Indrayani, khapli wheat (emmer, an ancient wheat variety) atta, jaggery, turmeric, and more. Apart from partnering for the market, Café Zoe sources produce from Taru Naturals, which also supplies to a handful of Mumbai restaurants like Kala Ghoda Café, The Pantry, The Bombay Canteen, Olive, SodaBottleOpenerWala etc.
As restaurants increasingly make an effort to source organic, a growing tribe of entrepreneurs is stepping in to fulfil the demand. One such is Zama Organics founded by Shriya Naheta. She graduated three years ago and returned to Mumbai from Los Angeles only to find that high-quality, organic produce was hard to come by at reasonable prices. “What really inspired me to start Zama were the travels I went on after I was back. I went on a few trips to Uttarakhand and happened to visit farms in Pune and Nashik as well” said Naheta. She started working directly with farmers to source organic produce locally, and currently works with three collectives – one small-time farmer in Pune and a group of farmers each in Nashik and Uttarakhand. “One of my main sources is in Uttarakhand in a remote and inaccessible location above Nainital; they are so particular about crop rotation, and the time they sow the seeds or harvest the produce. They have really great irrigation from spring waters from the Himalayas, amazing air quality, and they have always grown organically. Everything they need for farming is grown in the farm itself; whatever vegetables get spoiled are inevitably converted into compost to be used back in the farming process”, explained Naheta. Zama Organics supplies to restaurants like Masque, Suzette, Sequel, Rolling Pin, Quattro etc.
Naheta also launched value-added products like honeys, jams, chutneys, and pickles, which were recently showcased at a four-course dinner at Masque. “We want to really educate people on the concept of sustainability and gradually but surely create a shift, where people look at the benefits of eating sustainably grown and wholesome food”, she said.
Jain agrees; “Restaurants are the harbingers of food innovation in India. So if restaurants like Café Zoe make a statement with such markets that support small-scale organic farmers, we can get the message across”, she said. Rayate had the last word; “Now, everyone knows the ill effects of chemicals used in farming. Natural farming is the only solution if we have to sustain this for our future generations” he said.
Fresh produce and staples from Taru Naturals (tarunaturals.com) and Zama Organics (zamaorganics.com) can be ordered online with delivery available across Mumbai. The next Farmers’ Market at Café Zoe will be held on Sunday, November 25 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.