Vegetables are the new gold. Whoever thought one would dream of roasted potato and carrot raita ? These are strange times. After we venture out to buy them, mask and gloves on, we (hopefully) return triumphant, our bags bulging with carrots, beans, and tomatoes. As there is a limit to how much we can stock up on vegetables, it is inevitable that grocery stores have a steady stream of customers every day, as people balance keeping their families fed and following social distancing rules. Fortunately, despite the panic buying, shelves are kept reasonably well-stocked thanks to our farmers, supplying freshly-harvested fruits and vegetables every day. They are among the heroes of this pandemic.
“Agriculture is not something we can stall temporarily. No matter what happens to the world, it has to go on,” says R Jaganathan, founder of Nallakeerai, which specialises in local, seasonal greens and networks with organic farmers across India. He says that he has farmers calling him every day, speaking dejectedly about produce facing the risk of going waste. But he prefers to look at the lockdown in a positive light. “There is an increase in demand for supplies and we are all sending a silent thank you to our farmers when we come home with fresh vegetables after our grocery runs,” he says.
The main challenge now is in getting these precious goods to the consumer before they wilt. “The issue that has to be looked into is logistics,” states Jaganathan. “Now is the ideal time for the Government to step in and link farmers directly with consumers.” He says an authorised farm-to-door delivery service will benefit farmers as well as customers. “These vehicles can travel to all our interior villages,” he says, adding that he is taking greens from his farm on his vehicle to customers in the city.
In Ooty, the Horticulture Department, is already taking first steps. Cloth bags packed with a variety of seasonal vegetables procured from the local Uzhavar Sandhai (farmer’s market) are being sold for ₹150 a bag, from trucks that traverse villages in Coonoor and Kotagiri. This kind of a system is the need of the hour. “We now have to give importance to local markets, where the farmer does not have to travel long distances to sell his produce. This will be a win-win situation for both the farmer and the buyer,” says Ananthoo, co-founder of Restore, a volunteer-run, non-profit chain of organic retail stores in Chennai.
Ananthoo says that at present, since they source organic fruits and vegetables from all over Tamil Nadu, they have zero supply. “Farmers are unable to transport produce and are running from pillar to post to get permission from local heads. And even if they get the necessary permission, they are unable to find vans/carriers as drivers want to stay safe or have gone back to their villages,” he adds. “This is also the harvesting season for crops such as paddy, but farmers can neither hire the harvesting machines nor are there any labourers available.”
In Pandeshwaram village near Chennai, however, the lockdown has resulted in reduced food miles. According to VM Parthasarathy, a Chennai farmer who grows paddy in the village, people are now buying local produce. For instance, a farmer who harvests melons there, simply packs them in a truck and rides around the village, and is sold out within hours. “Earlier, the melons would have changed two middlemen’s hands, be taken to Koyambedu, and would finally arrive here and be sold at a much higher rate,” he explains. Now, what they grow, they sell to their neighbours.
Partha agrees that the large scale farmers, who have several acres of paddy or oil seeds waiting to be harvested in the coming weeks, are in deep trouble. “There will be loss of grains,” he sighs. “The Coronavirus situation has definitely complicated agriculture for the big farmers. Thankfully on our farm, we are not due for harvest in the next three weeks or so. But if the situation prevails, we will be in a sticky situation.”
Meanwhile in Pandeshwaram, locked-down locals simply have to step out of their homes to buy fresh-off-the-farm brinjal and ladies’ finger. “Farmers spread them on the roads every day after harvest,” he explains. This is probably the best thing that happened to people there: in pre-Corona times, this would not have been possible.